Leadership and the reality conundrum


9th April 2015

Leadership and the reality conundrum                     

Most of us know that before you can successfully change anything, you need to understand what, exactly, are the problems that need addressing. Nevertheless, it still seems such a challenge for senior leaders in many organisations to get to grips with the real issues that are blocking organisational performance.

Being willing and able to define the current reality for their organisations would seem to be a pre-requisite for any successful leader. In some recent work with senior leaders, however, it has been revealing to see how deeply they are caught in the problem to solution trap. They seem addicted to the knee-jerk responses that prevent any understanding of the true nature of what is going on and which frequently make things worse.

Why is it so difficult for senior leaders to acknowledge and define reality?

After all it is often obvious to others struggling with trying to make work an outdated business model or respond effectively to inappropriate priorities. When this myopic behaviour is ingrained in an organisation’s culture the consequences are that business threats are progressively ignored or played down, bad news is suppressed, poor performance is excused and, more importantly, actions to address issues are poorly thought through or just wrong.

The twin obsessions of speed and activity exert pressure on executives to be seen to be doing something. In our digital world with 24/7 availability, time to analyse and think is becoming increasingly under-valued and as a consequence under-utilised.

I have noticed four key reasons why executives and executive teams struggle in this area:

  • First, it takes a willingness to slow down and share perspectives in order to build awareness. This in itself is scary.
  • Second, it requires trusting relationships between leaders at the highest levels. These rarely exist.
  • Third, it requires an honesty that many leaders find uncomfortable when shortcomings or possible mistakes in judgment are being discussed. “I have not got to where I am today by being honest about mistakes”
  • Fourth, it requires the de-coupling of the “problem to solution” way of behaving that characterises so many action oriented organisations. Thinking is equated with inactivity and therefore dangerous.

Fundamental to overcoming these hang-ups are two things:

  • The need to build executive teams with the ability to trust each other and healthily resolve differences is one. This will build the platform to enable people to speak out and speak up and will give opportunities for leaders to feel safe in being open and honest.
  • The other is to get leaders to interrupt the “what is happening what shall we do” reflex with a more reflective and deeper line of questioning; “what is happening, why is it happening, what is the impact it is having and then and only then, how do we go about fixing it?”

Graham Stickland, March 2015

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