Saturday, September 24, 2011

What Makes An Effective Leader?

I can't count the number of times I have heard, "OK, now what?" from people in my organizations—and from clients. It is human nature for people to want to know what's next when something they planned or expected goes wrong. It is also instinctive for most leaders to answer the question directly, with their best idea about what to do next, given their perception of the situation.

That may be precisely the wrong thing to do. A better response is, "We need to think about what happened and then get together and talk about it." Why? Because the odds are high that no matter how well-informed you might be as the leader of any organization, you don't know enough, and certainly not enough to make an important decision "just like that."

People in organizations usually filter information they pass on to the boss. They may not lie, they just "clean it up" and leave out some of the details. The problem is that the important stuff may be in those details, or in what was omitted. Subordinates figure it is their job to fix problems and not pass them up the line. Thus, they also feel they don't need to pass on all the ugly details either. They may also be afraid of the "kill the messenger" problem hurting them.

That means the best leader, even if he or she is the smartest person in the place, will be making brilliant decisions based on incomplete and flawed information. How do you think those decisions work out? Badly, that's how. Those are the decisions that make the folks down in the ranks shake their heads or roll their eyes to the ceiling and wonder, "How could they decide that?"

When your answer to "Now What?" is to think about it, and sit down and talk about it, the chances for getting good, useful information about what happened goes up a lot. If the "boss" can resist giving any impression of looking for who was at fault or who to blame, the quality of the information grows even better. Finally, if the leader actually seeks input and advice, or background information, before weighing in with ideas and action, the chances for a good, workable solution go up even more.

People usually have a pretty good idea of what went wrong, and why. They just are afraid to say so. Have a talk about it in a neutral location, over a table where there is no evidence of rank, and facts flow much more freely.

Effective leaders often have to be "servant leaders." They have to be coaches and cheerleaders and collaborative problem solvers even more of the time. Very seldom do leaders need to be stern taskmasters, and/or dictators. Get the people involved; get them to share, and share the problem with them. Collaborate on a solution, using as much of their input as possible. Only when a direction is emerging (or a tough decision must be made) should the boss/leader step up and say, "Ok, here's what we need to do." And then if delegation of work, action, etc., is required, do that too; clearly, with expected results and time frames.

Leaders are in their positions because when tough decisions must be made, he or she needs to step up and make them—and then follow through until changes are implemented.  And if the leader has gained good input and valid information—and incorporated his organization's thoughts and ideas into the action plan—the people will get behind it.

Now get out there and practice.

Thanks to John Mariotti / Open Forum / American Express Company


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