Ineffective Senior Leaders are Maddening…and Damaging

I love what I do.  Working with senior executive leaders who have complex challenges, demanding professional (and I am sure personal) lives and significant job responsibilities is fascinating, inspiring and enlivening for me.  However, there are times and situations in my work that I find maddening.  CEO and senior executive readers of this blog may find what I am going to say somewhat annoying and may assume that I am just a high-priced consultant spouting off a bunch of principles and platitudes who really doesn’t understand what they really go through. .  So be it, but at least hear me out and then make your own conclusions.  I do know leadership and can spot both effective and ineffective kinds.   

At a recent executive leadership program I conducted for a major global company, we invited the CEO to  participate in a dialogue with a cohort of some of the most senior leaders in the organization.  The intent of such a session was to provide an opportunity and forum for  a more intimate conversation and idea exchange with the CEO around various topics and issues. The session was conducted over an extended lunch with everyone sitting around a large table.  As he did not want to come “unprepared”, he had asked for questions ahead of time which we complied with.  His historical approach has been to react to questions quite formally versus expressing his unscripted point of view about the vision and strategy of the company.  That is fine except this is his pervasive approach to situations like this and thus those around him rarely know what he thinks about the focus, direction, issues and challenges of the company.  So with 20 of his top leaders at the table this was a prime opportunity!  

After lunch dishes were cleared we commenced with the Q&A session.  As question after question was asked by the participants he gave his answers, having already thought about what his reply would be.  It was hardly a dialogue as there was no challenging his comments as they were tightly packaged in his logic and reason.  The participants were afraid to explore and open up different viewpoints as to do so might be a “career limiting” move.  Many of the questions were meant to understand   reasoning and strategy behind various decisions made, and also seek answers to questions around the future direction of the company. The agitation of the CEO was palpable at the nature of the questions as was the rising frustration of the senior executives sitting around the table with his answers plus the lack of openness to further explore the topics.  At one point the CEO challenged them.  “You are all leaders of your units.  Take a vision for what you are doing and make a proposal (for new initiatives or actions)”.  Interesting choice of words.  What did he really say? Be a leader and take charge (yes – good as is) but I, the CEO, will still need to approve your proposal.  Seems to me the brake and accelerator were on at the same time. Physics tells me that doesn’t create much momentum.  Interestingly enough, this is a company that could really benefit from more entrepreneurialism, empowerment and speed of action.  When the CEO left and we talked about what happened, the group was very frustrated verging on rebellion.  They had seen this before. Thousands of people ultimately report to those gathered and the CEO blew a rare opportunity to inspire, engage and unleash the leadership of his most senior executives.  Needless to say, I was also frustrated, but  for a different reason. I had just witnessed the disastrous  impact of poor leadership at a critical moment of truth.  This exchange is now part of the executive memory of those gathered, and a story to be amplified in the organization.  Their deflation was very evident.

I have a great deal of respect for anyone with a demanding job in a major company and particularly if it is publicly traded and perhaps under increasing performance pressure as this company is.  However, there is never an excuse for poor leadership.  Wasn’t this the time to unleash the smart, engaged, and competent team of people he had around him?  Wasn’t this the time to have them turn their energy to the issues at hand quickly and intelligently, instead of making proposals that have to navigate a decision-making bureaucracy?  Wasn’t this the time to empower versus control?  You be the judge.

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