It used to be that we often heard the lament, “If only government could be more like business...” Those days are over—and how.
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But if recent events in Washington are in any way indicative, government doesn’t yet have a lock on the kind of effective leadership characteristic of business management at its best. Consider just these few key examples: The US department of the treasury bemoaned the complexity of the problem it was supposed to be solving; the vice-president announced that every government plan has a 30% chance of failure; and the president tried to negotiate a course between lambasting the past like a candidate on the campaign trail and heralding the future like an elected leader with a vision.
Politics as usual? Absolutely. How to build confidence and motivate people? Not exactly. In fact, these actions point to three principles on how not to succeed in business—if that’s the aim.
First, business leaders gain nothing by showing uncertainty and indecision.
Look, every leader grapples with a monster of a challenge at some point or another. And every leader in this predicament feels unsure about which direction to take and overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation. That’s only normal.
What’s not normal—or what shouldn’t be in business situations—is his taking those feelings public. A leader’s job is to steer and inspire. That’s why, when a difficulty arises, the first thing you need to do is to gather your trusted advisers and wrestle the challenge to the ground. Probe it. Debate it. Work it over from every angle and, after you’ve gone as far as you can with the available information, formulate the best plan for moving the business forward.
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Then—and only then —should you speak out, because then and only then will you have the ability to communicate as a leader must. You need to be able to send the message: “Here’s what we’re going to do and why. Here’s what’s in it for you, and here’s what we’re going to look like when we get to the other side.”
Such an approach doesn’t conceal anything, by the way. Your people know perfectly well how complicated the situation is; they don’t need or want you to tell them. They need and want you to do your job by finding the solution, explaining it and energizing everyone to work towards its success.
Second, business leaders undermine the possibility of success when they talk about the risk of failure.
There was a stunning moment in CBS anchorwoman Katie Couric’s recent interview with Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the pilot who landed US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River. Asked whether he was at any point afraid of not making it, Sullenberger simply replied, “No, I was sure I could do it.”
Obviously, given all his years of experience, Sullenberger knew that a water landing was tremendously risky. And yet he showed the best kind of leadership by assuming a can-do mindset. Business leaders too know that any strategy they adopt may fail. But why go there? If you harp on the chances that things won’t work out, you’ll only be practising self-defensive, dysfunctional management.
Such equivocation enervates everyone. Your team members won’t give it their all if they sense that you’re prepared to say, “Well, I told you it might not work out.” They know they can’t win unless the leader believes they can.
Finally, business leaders cannot indulge bureaucratic data dumpers.
Part of a leader’s job, of course, is to act as a sounding board for his direct reports. But if you want to build your managers’ leadership skills, make sure they don’t bring you stacks of PowerPoint slides describing their problems in bone-crushing detail.
Demand that they sort through the data with their teams and bring you their decisions, with the rationales for them stated in unambiguous terms.
The reason for this is simple: If you’ve got a manager working for you who is paralysed by information, options and obstacles, you can be sure that his people are confused and demoralized, and nothing good is happening on his watch. The only way to break that cycle is by not tolerating leaders in your organization who obfuscate their choices with data in order to avoid taking action.
Our purpose in outlining these principles is not to haul out the well-worn line, “If only government were more like business.”
Rather, with the new business-is-out mentality taking hold, our message is for leaders who might be thinking about taking their cues from government. Given recent events, we can only advise you to vote no.
©2009/BY NYT SYNDICATE
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Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.