When leaders succeed, unfortunately

At times, our own experience and media reports suggest to many of us that leaders fail. My view is somewhat different. It is that people in a position of power will always provide a lead for others to follow. In too many cases the lead they provide is, at best, unfortunate.

Leaders influence people in conscious, deliberate ways and in unconscious, unintended ways. Conscious leadership can be measured for evidence of its intended consequences and adjustments may be made to alter the effect. However, leadership born of unconscious influences on followers often has troublesome, unintended consequences.

For example, a leader focused on the mastery of detail of their areas of accountability will be able to provide good counsel on the details of the business, utilising their experience to the advantage of their more inexperienced subordinates. Interactions between the experienced leader and the subordinate will be of a deliberate coaching type. The leader will seek to have the subordinate learn from the leader’s experience and deliver a better result than would be possible based on the subordinate’s experience alone.

For more experienced subordinates, this type of interaction is seen as micro managing. The usual consequence of micro management is to lower confidence, morale and productivity. Subordinates either second guess what it is that their boss wants or worse, stop thinking all together, leaving it to their boss to decide, because they know that the boss always will make the final decision.

In my experience in Shell, I recall several instances where subordinates not only stopped thinking but copied the boss’s style of micromanagement. In one example, the cloning went so far as to copy his fashion sense. Within six months of the new boss taking over, three men had copied him by taking up the wearing of coloured braces instead of belts!

At the time, looking on from a different part of the business, it was funny. In hindsight, the business function suffered from a lack of diversity of thought, making short sighted decisions detrimental to the business that had severe long term financial implications.

Many people in positions of influence believe that it is what they say and when they say it that provides leadership. Whilst this is true in part, how people say things or what they do not say provides as much a lead to most people than what is actually said. Even more importantly, it is what they do and how they do it that provides the lead for others to follow.

A clear example of where this often goes wrong is when organisations develop, usually with the help of a consultant I feel I should add, a series of values for the organisation. The values will include, amongst others, the usual suspects of integrity, teamwork, trust and accountability. By making the values high profile and visible by placing them in presentations, on plaques on walls and in corporate documents, leaders are committing not only their organisation but themselves to the values.

Unfortunately for those leaders, the definitions of the values exist in the mind of those doing the observing. Hence, they not only need to behave in a way that demonstrates the values, they have to do it in a manner that meets the definitions of others. A simple example where this can go wrong is in the area of confidentiality. What needs to remain confidential in the mind of one person is demonstrating a lack of trust in the mind of another.

When behaviours are observed to be at odds with the espoused values, they are not only considered to be wrong in themselves but also to be at odds with the standard values of trust and integrity. Once a leader loses trust, they are on the way to losing their ability to lead. It is much better to lead by example, demonstrating the values, rather than to write them down and place them on the wall.

The law of unintended consequences is an economic theory of social change. It applies not only at the macro level of government policy but also at the micro level of leadership and management processes. Leaders need to understand that what they do, what they say and how they say it and even what they don’t say are being observed by their subordinates and impacting on the subordinate’s behaviour.

Communicating a vision poorly or not driving towards a stated vision creates confusion and an initiative overload as individuals strive to drive towards their version of the vision. Micromanagement and autocratic behaviour limits innovation and acceptance of accountability. Espousing one set of values and demonstrating behaviour consistent with other values creates mistrust and low morale.

Whether leaders like it or not, their lead will be followed even though they are not aware and even if it is unfortunate that it is.

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