When Leadership Means Saying “I’m Part of the Problem”

a picture called leadership.jpgLeadership on the Line (Harvard Business School Publications). How can you lead your organization through a rocky time if you aren’t willing to admit that you might be part of the problem? We’ve all been there: the “leader” who says, in effect, “Get your act together! If it weren’t for you, we’d be doing much better.”

But the hardest thing to do for anyone, let alone someone in a highly visible position, is turn their prism inward and allow that they may be contributing to whatever mess the organization is in.

A good section from the article:

Asking people to leave behind something they have lived with for years or for generations practically invites them to get rid of you. Sometimes leaders are taken out simply because they do not appreciate the sacrifice they are asking from others. To them, the change does not seem like much of a sacrifice, so they have difficulty imagining that it seems that way to others. Yet the status quo may not look so terrible to those immersed in it, and may look pretty good when compared to a future that is unknown. Exercising leadership involves helping organizations and communities figure out what, and whom, they are willing to let go. Of all the values honored by the community, which of them can be sacrificed in the interest of progress?

Which calls to mind a rather telling example from the world of law firm management (this just happened again last week, but I’ll refrain from naming the parties): Two firms merge. Overly sensitive to any disruption it might cause to actually name one office as the “headquarters”, the combined firm instead insists that it has no home office. Just a lot of offices all over the place.


Can you imagine two computer companies merging, and admitting to the rest of the world that they really can’t resolve who’s in charge, so they’ll just let everybody continue under the naïve assumption that nothing has changed? Not only would chaos ensue, but the shareholders would revolt, competitors would grab the “merged” company’s customers by lunch, and there might be enough people left by day’s end to turn the lights out.

Memo to management: figure out who’s in charge. Let everybody else know. Acknowledge that there will be a sacrifice. And resolve to move on. Because if there isn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, there are far larger problems on the horizon then which city is listed first on the letterhead.

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