Friday, May 12, 2020

Don't Force It

Too many leaders today are not only impatient, they’re proud of it. They demand quick results, instant answers and staff who are constantly running to keep up with their demands. They don’t expect to have to take time to discover how things work, or research the ins and outs of a problem — they’re too important and busy for that. Instead they pay consultants to do most of their exploration for them, and subordinates to handle the detail and tell them what it means.

“But,” I can hear them complaining, “it’s not our job to do such things. We’re decision-makers. Strategic thinkers. We look at the options others present to us and decide which to take. That’s our role.”

And how will the decision be made? What will be the basis for choice, when all the insight and understanding and hands-on feel for the problem are found only in those underlings and consultants? Suppose the leader is given just two or three options (not too many, because that leaves too much complexity and takes too much time), each accompanied by simplified, pre-digested “evidence.” Now where does the decision lie?

Leaders are faced with many complex decisions. That’s what they’re paid for. The problem lies in the way many expect these decisions to be simplified down to “pick one from three” before they reach their desks. Today’s management cliché proclaims the good subordinate never brings questions or problems, only answers — and the simpler and easier the better.

Like monarchs of old, leaders who operate like that are forced to rely on their “advisors,” since they’re so out of touch with reality. They no longer have much power to think for themselves. “Good” kings always managed to stay in charge; always spent time listening and asking questions and maintaining their independence of thought. It was the “bad,” lazy and arrogant ones who dismissed detail as below their dignity, and so fell into the hands of unscrupulous advisors and courtiers. Nothing much has changed, though few CEOs today wear crowns.

Dangerous Ground

Where do these instant answers come from? When you surrender to the emotion of impatience and the urge to “get it done,” what are you left with? There are few reliable sources for immediate answers to any problems. You can blindly do whatever worked in the past — that’s a favorite. You can copy what someone else did that seemed to work — another classic. Or you could look for an “expert” who claims to know the answer and follow his or her prescription.

What all these approaches have in common is this: none of them expect you to spend any time or effort to understand the specific problem and consider how it arose and what it might be telling you. Yet that’s the one course of action most likely to produce an effective result.

Impatience isn’t just about instant gratification — though that would be foolish enough. It’s about saving the time and effort it takes to think for yourself. Leaders have convinced themselves their time can more usefully be spent on other things: attending endless meetings, watching dreadful PowerPoint presentations, fussing about budgets and listening to planning scenarios that have more in common with astrology than real science. Anything except thinking, exploring and tacking the really tough questions themselves.

The Effects of Impatience

Given all the effort put into ways to lessen the load on leaders and give them time to “think strategically,” you would imagine they’d all be spending their time like contemplative monks: sitting in their serene offices meditating on the meaning of the organization and its path through a clearly-marked future. They aren’t because the way they’ve been taught to operate doesn’t work. All this eagerness to save time and effort nearly always produces exactly the opposite: more mistakes, re-working, re-organizations, re-planning and attempts to rescue the organization from all the errors made through haste and inattention. By trying to force their way through in double-quick time, managers magnify errors and increase delays. Their approach fails so badly they’re usually amongst the most over-burdened and stressed people in the whole organization.

Surrendering to impatience and forcing the pace is nearly always a poor option. It means running ahead of your understanding; trying to make things happen to your timetable, not at the speed that’s natural. Those who do it act as if they can control the universe, so sure are they of their ability to command people and events to comply with their will. Even the most ruthless and powerful dictators fail at that game. There’s a natural pace to the world you upset at your peril. Wise people have always known when to act and when to wait. It’s a major part of their wisdom. And fools have always rushed headlong into greater folly, whatever wiser people have said to them.

You can’t make good decisions without being involved in at least some of the nitty-gritty of what you’re deciding. You can’t evaluate options independently, if all your information comes from those lobbying for their chosen options. If you have to rely on others to do your thinking for you, you can’t be a creative force. How can you lead others unless you can prove you understand the situation better than they do — and that you’ve thought of the questions they missed?

Leaders don’t need to know all the answers. They don’t have to be magicians who wave a magic wand and solve every problem in a flash. They don’t have to be able to command time and force everyone else to bend to their whims. But they do have to be the kind of people others look up to and respect for their personal insights and wisdom. You can’t buy that from any firm of consultants, however high their fees.

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Just like many of your articles, this is a very insightful post, but perhaps giving the (false ?) impression to miss an important aspect of leadership, (real) delegation / empowerment.

I fully agree that board meetings with predigested two or thee options in a short powerpoint, where the "decision maker" hasn't spent time to understand the topic is ridiculous.

On the other hand, leaders sometimes trust their subordinates to make decisions, without organizing masquerade of decision boards.

Thanks for this helpful comment.

I'm not against true delegation — quite the reverse. What bothers me is when the actual decision is "taken" by executives, on the basis of inadequate, over-simplified data. If they don't have time to do the job properly, they SHOULD delegate it to people who have.
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