Many times in organizational life, people look up to those in charge to decide what to do and how it ought to be done. Often times these expectations are about three key ideas – – making sure we’ll be okay, telling us where we are headed and establishing order – determining how we need to get along with each other. While these are indispensable needs humans share, they are all aligned with keeping things pretty much as they are. If things “as they are” isn’t viable or sustainable, these services actually can confound progress and productivity. This creates a problem for those looking up to the “leaders.”

It also creates a problem for the “leaders.” The very things that created the “power of being in charge” are now impeding their willingness and ability to lead the changes required. This dynamic intensifies as one rise in the hierarchy. The intensity is driven by both higher stakes and the fact that as you get to reach the top of the hierarchy you bear the burden of responsibility – whether that assessment is warranted by your performance and tenure or not.

This opening provocative statement was coined by my good friend and colleague – Marty Linsky. It strikes at the heart of this idea that being in charge and leadership are inextricably linked. Experience demonstrates quite a different reality. There are lots of examples from our own lives of the people we are counting on to “lead us”- instead let us down – or worse, spend an inordinate amount of time preserving their authority – keeping themselves in charge.

There is an additional problem with being in charge – it’s hard for the person in charge to tell what is actually happening. One of the power dynamics at work and the result of collusion between the leaders and the followers is the filtering of information available to the person(s) in charge. Whether the person in charge says “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions,” or the people below the person in charge try to figure out what the boss “wants to hear,” instead of figuring out what she “needs to hear” – the fix is in. The boss doesn’t get the whole picture, unproductive patterns persists and problems remain unaddressed.

So Marty’s saying “the higher you sit in the organization, the harder it is to exercise leadership” is much more than a provocation – it’s very often true. Here are a couple  of question for your consideration:

  1. If you are in charge:
    • What about your current operating model are you protecting? And what parts are challenging?
    • How would you know if you were not getting the whole story?
    • Who in your inner circle can you count on to tell you what you need to hear?
  2. If you work for someone who is the person in charge:
    • What parts of your operating the model does your boss protect and which ones are up for improvement? (Generally 80-90% working, 10-20% targeted for improvement – is a good starting point.)
    • What are you not telling the boss? (Because she’s not ready to hear it, or another rationale that you have used?)

We invite both parties to compare notes. We pass no judgment on anyone’s intentions. However, if there is collusion, everyone could benefit from breaking out of the pattern.

Let us know if you discover something useful from the conversation. We wish you well.