Pop quiz: There are three ways people get ahead in organizations. Which one best describes you?

  1. Some people are really good at taking care of or fixing things – very steady, very reliable. They often have been rewarded, even promoted for this. We call them “Reliable Problem-solvers.”
  2. The second group, my favorite, are the folks who can see how people relate to each other – like a network. Because we can see the connections we can access them to get things done. Now the cynics call us “suck-ups” but we think of it as a skill called “political savvy.”
  3. The third group are people who have developed a reputation for “disappointing their own people at a rate they can absorb.”

I often use this pop quiz to set the scene of a Leadership Workshop. The irony is the vast majority of participants, often senior managers, in my session raise their hand to the first category, a shy smattering of hands go up for the second category and almost no one sees themselves in the third. My challenge as a workshop leader is to move people from the first two categories to the third – usually in a day or two, despite the decades it has taken to make them the executives they are now.
The last category is often hard for people to comprehend. Most of us are focused on the overseeing, care-taking rule making parts of “being in charge.” In fact, those are important functions to help assure order, direction and operational efficiency but they are not Leadership.  Because they have a calming effect on people (which is their intent) they also reinforce patterns of the past and present. People look up to those in charge to ensure Tuesday feels like Monday did. The problem is, the world around the organization continues to change – new issues, competitors, rules, problems – and yesterday’s approach only partially addresses those dynamics. So the people in charge have to “disappoint” the people in their charge – not in a capricious or arbitrary way – but with discipline, pace and attention to the experience of the “people with the problem.” They can’t assure them it will be familiar and/or comfortable. They can’t promise safety or even the feeling of competence so important to us all.
The irony is most workshop participants expect the same of me – keep us safe – make us better – don’t make us uncomfortable if you please. Sorry, learning and growth are inherently uncomfortable. So I intend to keep disappointing people at a rate they can absorb. My business model depends on it. What does it mean to your role and organization?