Three Big Assumptions Leaders Should Question

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John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and speaker. He is the author of six books on leadership, including Lead By Example, 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results.

Corporate success rests on good leadership.

Or so we all believed. For at least a generation, we have praised corporate executives as examples of good management. To me, one of the most disturbing aspects of the current recession — aside from financial insecurity — is the failure of leadership, especially corporate leadership. So the question arises, what were senior executives thinking? How did they allow this to happen? And why were they so late to respond?

In May 2008, just as the recession was gaining steam, management strategist Gary Hamel convened a group of business leaders and scholars together to consider the future of management.

Hamel wrote up the group's 25 suggestions for new approaches to management in an article for the Harvard Business Review entitled "Moon Shots for Management." The analogy to the nation's great "stretch goal" of the 1960s sets the framework for thinking really big and acting even bigger. The Ideas offered by the group include re-thinking hierarchy, re-defining the purpose of work, leveraging imagination and humanizing the workplace. What better time than now, when so much of what we took for granted is no longer working, to begin anew?

And so I believe it is appropriate for those of us who teach and write about leadership to question our own assumptions, too. Here are three assumptions about how leaders manage that are coming under challenge.

It is important for organizations to set firm goals. People need to have direction so it is important to point them in the right direction. But such a single-minded focus on goals may end up damaging individuals and the organization says a study conducted by Maurice Schweitzer of Penn's Wharton School. Relentless pursuit of goals tempts managers to cross ethical boundaries and abandon "sound business practices." Unreached goals may then end up frustrating an organization rather than helping it to succeed.

Quick wins are essential to managers in transition. Executives in transition need to make an impact in their organization. While it's necessary to build strong relationships, striving for "quick wins" may do more harm than good, according to a study by Mark E. Van Buren and Todd Safferstone. Such wins may end up sabotaging the executive's ability to succeed in the longer term. As the authors write in the Harvard Business Review, "The relentless pursuit of a quick win is what ultimately prevents new leaders from benefiting from it. Knowing that they must rack up quick wins to prove themselves, new leaders often trip up during the quest for early results. In some cases, they manage to get the outcome they were seeking in a narrow sense, but the process isn't pretty, the fallout is toxic, and their ability to lead is compromised."

Senior leaders believe in their CEOs. Grousing within the ranks about the people in charge is nothing new. But what is somewhat surprising is that people at the top also have skepticism about their CEOs' capacity to lead. A study by Booz & Company stated that nearly half (46%) of all senior managers surveyed doubted the CEO's ability to navigate the current crisis. If senior leaders doubt the ability of the person most in charge, the company's future seems ominous.

Challenging assumptions is a good thing for leaders to do. It may be even more necessary in times such as ours when executives and companies we judged as solid performers have proven to be so deficient. And so a byproduct of this recession might be the formulation of new assumptions that govern our thinking and doing. And that's a good thing, something in an earlier age we might have called progress.

By Susan Jackson  |  April 10, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
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