Some of my best leadership insights come not from the moments when I’m the leader, but from those when I’m being led. And I’m not talking about those fleeting inspirational hot-flashes that come when witnessing a moving speaker at a big conference. What’s more, when I’m being led well, I may not even notice… but when I’m being led astray, that’s when I really learn. I suppose living it is learning it, so long as you take time to stop and smell the dog poop.
And what “I now know for sure” (to co-opt Oprah Winfrey’s line) is that good leadership is sometimes about what NOT to do— a YinYang balance of push and restraint.
A while ago I was advising a large corporate transformational initiative that had been sputtering for several years. It had suffered the slings and arrows of internal politics, leadership upheaval, scope ambiguity, and steady turnover of team members. I joined shortly after a major “reboot” where the strategy and scope had been refined yet again to something manageable, and new program leadership installed. It was time to rock and roll… and unfortunately, it was doing neither.
Positioning myself inside the PMO, I was sandwiched between the program’s executive leadership and the “do-ers”—the people who would actually execute on the plan. The Program Director was enthusiastic and inspirational, with a grand vision of how this foundational phase of the program would set the stage for amazing capabilities in the future. He also could see the companion functions that would need to be built in other departments, new roles that would need to be developed, and restructuring that would have to occur. I would call this person a true Visionary. And that was the problem.
Of course, it’s important to understand the context for a projects, and to have a view of the ultimate goal. On the other hand, a team in execution mode needs to focus on the tasks at hand. This team was constantly bombarded and distracted by the desire of the Program Director to “eat the elephant” in one big swallow. They would just start to get traction in one area, and then would be pulled into discussions and debates about building other ancillary pieces before the foundation was even in place.
Pretty soon, team members started to passively resist any direction from this leader, and either go off on their own “skunkworks” efforts, or simply stop all activity. They desperately wanted to perform and deliver, but were being confronted with what seemed like an “Impossible Dream.”
Program Directors really are the Monkeys in the Middle between strategy and execution. It’s a delicate balance and quite often a tightrope walk to reach for a larger vision while keeping an execution team focused on completion. A project team needs to build momentum and focus on deliverables. At a certain point, the best thing a Program Director can do is back off and let the team do their thing. Especially for the Visionary types, restraint is essential, or else a team gets quickly overloaded and stops performing entirely. The Elephant must be served up in bite size chunks that are digestible. This is what I mean by good leadership being about what NOT to do:
Don’t distract the team with tangents, don’t disrupt momentum, and don’t overload with vision to the point that a team feels overwhelmed. Vision is about inspiration, but execution is about focus. Sometimes the best leadership tactic is to back off.
I welcome your comments and feedback on this subject!