Leadership Barometer 94 Two Organizational States

May 26, 2021

With exceptional leadership, it is nearly impossible for an organization to fail. Eventually the unit will rise to stardom.

The rationale is simple: outstanding leadership is rare and, when present, the sheer power unleashed by this person in the organization will allow it to easily out-flank competition by creating a sustainable competitive advantage.

Unfortunately, the converse is also true; an organization reporting to a poor leader is almost certain to fail. Only incredible luck or windfall can prevent it.

The reason is the damage unwittingly done by this person to the soul of the organization. The lack of clear direction and poor morale mean no amount of cheerleading or other management techniques can bring this organization out of the mire.

The stock exchange floor is littered with horror stories of how the actions of poor leaders have brought companies, and even whole industries, to their knees.

Most leaders are somewhere in between these extremes. Imagine if you could improve your own leadership skills, along with the skills of those around you. The result would be incredible forward momentum in your organization.

This change would reinforce the good leadership and allow the recruitment and training of other outstanding leaders. All of a sudden, you would find yourself working in a more successful and rewarding organization.

The highest calling for a leader is to help groups move from one state of affairs to a better one. To illustrate, imagine two extremes.

State A is an awful condition found in many institutions today. There is little trust and even a decent dialog is lacking. Workers are convinced Management is only there for personal gain. Management tries to convince workers they want to help the organization survive in the competitive jungle. They explain that draconian actions such as downsizing or wage freezes are honestly in the best long-term interest of everyone.

The workers do not buy this at all, and Management continues to self-destruct. Most attempts to make things better backfire, as the emotions of people spiral into further decline.

When things get desperate, Management calls in the consultants with an improvement program, and the whole situation becomes fodder for another chapter in the Dilbert series. State A is common in work environments, and those who benefit from it most are the cartoonists.

I witnessed a vivid example of State A when soliciting a United Way pledge at a small manufacturing firm. I was in the office of a VP and overheard a public address announcement by the CEO. “Starting today nobody is allowed to work over the lunch break.” I asked the VP what that was all about. He rolled his eyes and said, “Don’t ask – you really don’t want to know. It has to do with some people working extra and wanting us to pay for it.” Continuing with the solicitation, we heard the CEO back on the bullhorn a couple minutes later. “Anybody who has trouble understanding my last message can come and see me in my office. I’ll explain it to you.”

My blood ran cold. How could such an atmosphere exist in today’s culture? Needless to say, I got no United Way contribution and left as soon as possible. That organization is in the process of going out of business. They have little chance to survive without a change in leadership because they are too far down the slide of morale decline.

The degradation of State A increases over time. As rapport diminishes, attempts to set things right with quick fixes and new improvement programs only speed the downward momentum. It takes a complete catharsis to reverse the damage. That process can take years and usually involves changing the leadership and the entire environment. Often groups do not have the patience for this radical surgery, nor the courage to attempt it.

The real heartbreak of State A is its expense to the organization. Nothing works correctly, and much of the energy is spent on damage control. How can a business hope to be competitive in that state?

It is also expensive in human terms, as people stoop to unimaginable levels. Ordinarily honorable hardworking people intentionally harpoon a process because they cannot bear the hypocrisy they perceive in Management. In other situations, these people may be pillars of the community, church leaders, or loyal volunteers, but at work they undermine initiatives put forth by the current administration due to the atmosphere. The management process is perfectly designed to get the awful results being obtained. What a tragedy!

State B is stimulating to describe because it is more fun for everyone. It is that wonderful state where people are excited about their jobs. They respect their leaders and feel fully engaged in the success of the business as owners. They will sacrifice personal comfort, and even security, for the good of the entity.

In State B, you see people coming to work early and doing activities to help the venture in their time off. Any time there is a nasty assignment, there will be many volunteers to get it done. There is a state of joy and fun at work, as these energized people delight in beating the competition. Their focus is on the customer and competition, not each other or the administration.

Management is different in State B. They are mostly there in an advisory role, to support, reinforce, and mentor. Their most significant function is helping people get more of what they want through the success of the organization. They take on the teaching or coaching role as described by Wellins, Byham, and Wilson in “Empowered Teams”:

“At no time does the leader take on the problem personally. Instead by coaching individuals through the possible steps for handling the problem effectively, the leader offers help without taking responsibility for action. This is the soul of empowerment because it creates a sense of ownership.”

There is little need for the leader to discipline people in State B because most situations are resolved at the lowest level. Occasionally, a problem employee needs to be weeded out, but that has the full support of the others, since they are tired of carrying the troublemaker.

There is a sense of vision in these groups. They know where they are and where they are going. They set aggressive goals and often exceed them. They are also guided by a set of values that are more than a chart on the wall. Values have been instilled into the workforce through the actions (not words) of their leader.

It is a kind of family atmosphere, but the kind of family that really supports and loves each other. Yes, in a State B environment the word “love” is often heard – in fact, that is one of the hallmarks of State B. It is hard to find words to express how deeply these people care about each other and what they are doing together.

It was the same result Lou Holtz achieved several times as a collegiate football coach. He inherited six teams, all with losing records. Each of those teams went on to a bowl game by the second season at the latest. In his famous videotape on leadership, “Do Right,” Holtz says, “The team came back, not because of a coach. They came back because the attitude was there.” What he modestly fails to point out is that the attitude came from his philosophies and leadership. Without intervention of excellent leadership, the teams that experienced dramatic improvements under Lou Holtz would likely have gone on losing.

States A and B are two extremes. Most groups are somewhere in between. Unfortunately the average tends toward State A. If State A gets exponentially worse, State B is more linear, but it requires constant tending to avoid atrophy.

This is the highest calling of the leader – to keep a finger on the pulse of the environment, to make small corrective actions whenever changes occur, and to relentlessly move groups toward State B. If this is the leader’s prime focus, all other parameters of measurable success, profits, quality, morale, etc., will take care of themselves.

Fortunately, there is an automatic correction mechanism. It provides constant insight and a kind of servo control, a mechanism that works like the cruise control of a car, to keep things moving toward the ideal state. This automatic correction means you must have an ideal state: a vision. Any time you are moving off the path, away from the vision, the control takes over, moving things back toward the ideal state.

The preceding information was adapted from the book The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Robert Whipple is also the author of Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.