Help, I Need Somebody
What if I am wrong? What if the one thing that I am promoting, advocating, and even “betting the ranch” on might actually turn out to be completely wrong. Like a recurring nightmare where the foundational understanding and assumption doesn’t hold up and the whole plan or endeavor is doomed to failure. There is no shortage of historic blunders where leaders were blinded to this possibility and led their followers wholeheartedly into disaster.
And yet, leaders who start off meetings or even worse pre-launch motivational speeches with, “last night it occurred to me that our whole approach is quite possibly built around my flawed assumption” don’t tend to be remembered all that well either. Confidence and optimism are two of the most important qualities we look for in leaders we choose to follow. Unfortunately, we can confuse confidence and optimism with projecting infallibility and invulnerability. It often takes more confidence and optimism to admit your leadership shortcomings and the unpleasant reality it has produced.
In selecting leaders, most organizations want to see a track record of success and a few (but not too many) examples where candidates have learned the lessons that failure teaches so well. Leaders have to walk the line between approachability and a need for constant learning with a style that says, “follow my lead because I know how to win.” The difference is some leaders want to be seen as they know the right combination of ingredients that will work in every situation and other leaders want to be seen as they know how to discover needed formulas. This distinction changes our orientation towards the leader. In the former, the leader is more like a frequently asked questions resource where needed information can be accessed. In the latter, the leader is foremost a learning facilitator who can make it possible for us to search for the best solutions. This is often best modeled when leaders provide insights into their learning and decision making processes, especially when they change direction.
Peter Senge cites the example of Gandhi who after organizing a protest march decides to stop the march half way through. A decision that obviously concerned many of his fellow organizers since people had come from all over India to participate. Gandhi responded, “my commitment was to the truth as I see it in each moment, not to consistency. This is not the right thing to do now.” Senge notes this is a “tricky” story since Gandhi can be seen as exercising absolute authority but Gandhi had also earned the right to make that decision because of a leadership style of commitment and questioning.
The post project “autopsy” has grown in popularity as an organizational learning tool. It is often easier once the outcome is known to decide what to celebrate and what to criticize or perhaps more commonly who to praise and who to condemn. However, the process can also feel like a management review where leaders are more like judges rather than participants. Leaders who are seeking to serve their teams best create space throughout the project to ask hard questions and to share ownership of the answers. By asking questions of themselves and their teams they communicate they don’t have all the answers and it will require a team effort to find and implement the solution.
Creating a culture characterized by vulnerability and learning requires confident leaders who model trust in their followers. Leaders who fear looking vulnerable can never expect followers to engage in trial and error learning that is so critical for innovation to occur. Leaders and their teams who are seeking the “truth” in each moment are more likely to detect small problems before they become large and to discover the path to big solutions rather than create barriers that keep them hidden.