What To Do When Leadership Fails

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In business leadership is among the most important traits someone can have. But it doesn't always work out well. Here' what to do when leadership fails.

Leadership will always be one of the most salient qualities an individual or group may possess. We as a people tend to look to one central individual, community or system for guidance, assurance, structure and direction. The ability to lead and follow in a harmonious capacity creates synergies in work, relationships, and in all walks of life. Leaders are revered; a religious figure, a charismatic politician, a teacher, a parent, and of course, a business guru. Thought leadership today drives our innovation in technology and human capital advancement.

However, leaders are human, and humans err. We usually do not expect an expert to be wrong, but sometimes experts make mistakes. It may be an external error – lack of information. It may be an emotional error – pain avoidance of firing a long tenured employee. We are all human, and many times although we do not openly admit it, we walk blindly into situations, hoping for the best.

The worst could happen. A tried and true, tested leader who is unfamiliar with the terrain could lead his team through one project that results in numerous cost overruns totaling the GDP of a small nation. The question is: do the followers not realize that there is a serious problem afoot? Just suppose a highly reputed COO of a Fortune 500 company walks into a random Inception phase project meeting as the project director and announces that it will take US$1 million to implement an installation of QuickBooks in the tiny Accounting department; should the team be fine with this, put up and shut up? Should a team member openly question this judgment? Should everyone nod in agreement and then backtrack around the water cooler? Should everyone just quit? The most likely outcome of this scenario is one of acquiescence. As much as we presently encourage lateral leadership: leadership as guidance, leadership as collaboration, we have a rock solid history of deferring to expert leadership as the final and absolute decision.

One of my favorite poems is The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The poem revolves around praise for British Soldiers who with full knowledge of defeat during the Crimean War, still plunged ahead to their doom by unwaveringly following Lord Raglan:

“Some one had blunder’d: 

Theirs not to make reply, 

Theirs not to reason why, 

Theirs but to do and die”

In many military circumstances it is honorable to follow a strict hierarchical chain of command, even if it means one’s life is lost. When leadership is hierarchical in nature, kamikaze will always be appreciated and applauded. Questioning leadership in the wolf pack as an Omega will never be taken kindly to by authority, even if authority metes out faulty or dangerous directives. The ugly truth is, almost all our leadership structures are hierarchical in nature. Strong leadership still is equated with absolute authority. Yet, according to Sun Tzu’s Art of War “the goal of military strategy is to take things whole. In this way, soldiers are not killed and wealth is preserved…As a last resort, attack your enemy.”
Chain of command or not, focused authority or not, it is terrible leadership to not admit a mistake and correct the mistake before leading a team, a group, a community of people who have trust and faith in one’s final decisions.

What can we do in an archaic situation that rewards kamikaze-like obedience and punishes instinctive knowledge? It takes a huge amount of courage take a stand for something as small as casual Fridays to as astronomical as an anti-money laundering callout. My experience has always been to speak up and/or leave. However, such action may not be immediately possible, and even dangerous to one’s career, and even to one’s life. One’s humble opinion can be viewed as whistle blowing. It is necessary to be cautious, logical and clinical:

  1. Quietly decide which path to choose, courage or kamikaze. Weigh the pros and cons of both decisions. There is no judgment here: at the end of the day, decide which is more suited to the situation.
  2. Say nothing, document everything: written knowledge is twice the power. Document meetings; keep emails; record web conferences. Get signatures on all significant directives.
  3. If you can air your concerns with a very confidential third party: a spouse; a friend; a non-profit organization, do so.
  4. If there is a prolonged misguidance in leadership, results will begin to lag. At this point, it will be necessary to show the quantitative measurements as proof for reevaluation and change of direction.
  5. If there is no change in direction and results still continue to plummet, speak to internal counsel and/or an external attorney if necessary.
  6. Any next step after this point has complications. Is it possible to get transferred to another project with a different leader? Does one have to leave an institution or relationship altogether? In many instances it may be wise to pretend to follow blindly and silently make an escape plan.

I truly do not believe that anyone in a leadership position intentionally fails. However, the more lauded one is, the harder it becomes to admit mistakes. As much as we are now encouraging mistakes as a springboard for learning, mistakes in our society are costly and are punished accordingly. So, followers need to never let go of the human element that comes with looking to leadership for direction. And followers need to look within for that spark of leadership potential, that instinctive knowledge that overrides processes, and supports common sense in all situations. The Zen master must quietly learn as much from the disciple as is taught, although appearances may cleverly disguise as such.



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