The Importance of Clarity - pt II

Posted on 29th April, 2009

I’ve been quite struck by the number of people who have emailed me to say that they agree with this piece below, although as was rightly pointed out by more than one individual there is surely a limit as to how many bad decisions even the most clear and decisive leader can make before beginning to look, at best, foolish.

But many of the same correspondents also mentioned that even despite their agreement with the net effect of the Mayor’s words, Boris’ comments still jarred.

Why is this?

I think there are at least three reasons. Each is in its own right worthy of very detailed consideration and argument but I just set them out very briefly below.

First, the “inclusiveness” zeitgeist of the last couple of decades or so. Twenty odd years ago, people in organisations quite properly started to say “hang on a minute, this top-down, autocratic ‘you will do this when I tell you’ culture is no longer appropriate; as managers we should be more consultative and involve our people more”.

Spot on. You tend to get more productive organisations if everyone is allowed to contribute fully. The difficulty has been that many people in many organisations have misinterpreted that message, albeit with the very best of intentions. There has been the classic confusion of “leadership” on the one hand, and “management” on the other. Management – the day-to-day running of a team or organisation – lends itself well to hearing what others have to say about certain practical matters. Leadership, on the other hand – the expression and ownership of the overall vision or raison d’etre of that team or organisation – arguably much less so (although there are some quite obvious but limited exceptions to this).

Additionally, people are always confusing “consultation” – let’s hear what our people have to say and then make a decision which may or may not accord with their thinking – with “consensus” – let's our people what they think and then all make this decision together.  The problem with the latter is that it is virtually impossible to avoid the dashing of unnecessarily raised expectations: in anything other than the smallest of organisations, not everyone is going to agree. In promising people a say, and then riding roughshod over that, you end up poisoning the well of morale. Just as importantly, and in the context of this piece perhaps even more so, what you actually end up with is the polar opposite of a clear, effective decision - you get a muddy, confused mess with which no one is happy.

Secondly, we have to factor in the very human temptation to syndicate risk. I can’t speak for other areas (although I can see that in finance the syndication of risk helps to power the availibility of debt), but in leadership it stinks. “In referring this decision to a committee”, goes the thinking, “I can dissipate blame for a bad call if and when it arises”. For people who take such a view of the world, and there are many millions of them, clear, genuine decisions are distinctly uncomfortable. I see this a lot in my work with leaders in large, institutional organisations where risk has always been seen as an enemy. The issue is perhaps unsurprisingly multiplied in professional service partnerships, and in particular law firms where you have the added complexity of scores of "owner-leaders". The problem is that if you take this risk-averse view for too long, you end with the lowest common denominator or often no decision at all. Not a happy place for any leader with serious aspirations.

Thirdly and finally, there are the cultural aspects. Some cultures actively inhibit open, clear and direct decision-making. It is far too simplistic and jingoistic to attribute this purely to nationality, although that certainly has a part to play. In reality, things are substantially more subtle than that. Education, organisational culture, location, diversity, language: all go make up a sophisticated and complex picture of people’s ability to take and implement decisions.

Together, I think these factors go at least some way towards explaining why, certainly on this side of the pond, even though we kinda know that Boris is barking up the right tree, his comments alert us to something with which many people still feel more than a little uncomfortable.

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Comments (2)

Strange to hear something that might be correct from the mouth of our mayor of London...<br /><br />But past the cheap pot shots at Boris, I think that\'s one of the basic ways for a leader to remain in power and keep their popularity (until the disastrous consequences of their decision reveal themselves). What people really don\'t like is uncertainty about what will happen because they don\'t have an idea of what to do or anything to react to. Worse, it\'s not stable (and what people really desire is stability, that today be pretty much like tomorrow) and instead there is a huge amount of possibles that are too much to deal with.<br />