Friday, July 18, 2008

Leadership: Want It Bad, or Non-existent?

(News-Herald, July 17) “Well, it couldn’t get any worse.”

How many times have folks in a workplace uttered those immortal words as some dysfunctional boss headed out the door for greener pastures? And how many times have they learned that it’s a mistake to underestimate just how low the bar can be set.

Sometimes it’s hard to make a comparison—is the new boss really worse than the old boss? There are just so many different ways to be a dysfunctional leader.

For instance. Is it worse to provide bad leadership or no leadership at all? This is a tough choice, because each has its particular weaknesses.

Bad leadership generally involves forcing people to get behind something that is either stupid or wrong or both. Bad leadership does its best to squash anyone who has a different idea. For bad leaders, the problem is never that they are making bad choices for the organization—the problem is that you won’t sit down and shut up and stop disagreeing with them.

Non-leadership, on the other hand, leaves plenty of room for a variety of voices. The best sort of vision or direction you can expect from non-leaders is the things that they hope won’t happen; a non-leader will be happy if, for instance, he’s not taking any phone calls from people who want to yell at him. Since there is no vision or direction from the top, everyone else is free to do whatever he feels like doing.

In quiet times, that can work reasonably well. The problems come in times of crisis. When the bus is headed toward a cliff, and the passengers realize that nobody is driving, the next thing you see will be a mad dash for the steering wheel. Driving from the passenger seat is hard to do; therefore, the people most likely to try are those who don’t really understand the situation. In this way, non-leadership can often lead directly to bad leadership.

Bad leadership has the advantage of being predictable. Given a certain problem, you know the boss is going to say something stupid, but you can usually predict what stupid thing he will say.

This makes it easier for the organization to adapt and compensate. Most organizations have people who function as institutional enablers; they work to buffer the organization from the consequences of one stupid management decision or another.

It’s a tough line to walk. On the one hand, if you always fix your boss’s idiot mistakes, he’ll never learn anything. On the other hand, it’s no fun to live with the consequences of his idiot mistakes.

Good team players also try to enable a non-leader, but it’s much more difficult. Every once in a while, a non leader will realize that he hasn’t actually decided anything in days (or weeks, or years) and so he strides out of the office (or fires off an e-mail) in which he Makes Decisions. Where and what and how and why are hard to predict.

This process can throw institutional enablers for a loop. Nine days out of ten, the non-leader is happy to let someone else carry the ball. But, often as the ball is almost in the end-zone, non-leader will run onto the field, yank the ball away and do—well, who knows. Run it in for the score, run into the stands, throw it at the concession stand—there’s no predicting anything other than he will expect a big round of applause after he does it (Look!! I made a Decision!!)

Bad leadership can cause major dysfunction, but non-leadership can be the result of it.

For instance, we haven’t had much in the way of political leadership in Venangoland over the past several decades. Mostly we’ve had non-leadership—don’t rock the boat, don’t disturb the status quo, don’t try anything noticeably new or different.

That may be because we just haven’t had many people emerge who have had the vision or the skills to be local political leaders. Or it may be because the electorate hereabouts, for the most part, tends to greet new kinds of vision with as much enthusiasm as someone finding a pack of rabid weasels in their dishwasher.

In a business organization or government agency, the blame for bad or non-leadership rests squarely on the people who do the hiring. But when it comes to politics, we all get what we demand (or are willing to settle for).

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