How to Help Leaders Find the Courage to "Do the right thing"

The classic "excuse" for the short term orientation of leadership is that the big boss, the shareholders, wall street, venture capitalists, or who ever - needs to see short term results. There is only one way for a leader to find the courage to do the right thing - even if it is costly in the short term.

Courage is built from two parts.   Part one is having a plan - a clear strategic mission,  supported by meaningfully unique innovations designed to accomplish the mission.   AND - here's the second pa part - they can only REALLY BELIEVE IN THE PLAN if they are CLOSE TO THE WORK.   It's only if they have seen, felt, experienced the WOW of the strategic mission and the innovation that they can have real courage.     Courage is not built from providing comments to Power Point presentations or reviewing report from the front line in your office.

Courage to stand for what is right comes from feeling the customer/employee pain and experiencing the WOW of the new way.

In the best of worlds - the Leader  gets her/his hands dirty - investing 30 minutes a week as part of team meetings as a Management Coach, understanding the tradeoffs, the frustrations, the excitement.  When Leadership does this they develop a depth of courage, of commitment, that makes it possible to do what's right for the long term even if it hurts in the short term.

Obviously, the CEO can't and shouldn't be a part of every project.  However, the reverse is also true - they can't and shouldn't be a part of NO PROJECTS.  The decision on where to invest their precious time is based on what is VERY, VERY IMPORTANT for the organization.

NOTE: Sadly, the root cause of many frustrations with leadership is that they don't actually know what is VERY, VERY IMPORTANT.  Rather than leading - they are simply reacting to the market and proposals sent to them.  This is why the fastest growing part of Innovation Engineering is conducting Strategy Activation (Blue Card) sessions to help the leadership of departments, divisions of companies identify what is VERY IMPORTANT.

Bill Conway, the former CEO of Nashua Corporation, the first company to embrace the system thinking of Dr. Deming was very firm in the need for leadership getting close to the work.  He told me, that  one of the big problems with most companies is that the leadership has become separated from the real work of the company.  They don’t fully understand the reality of the challenges that workers face.  He advocates leaders spending time on the front lines learning the work. To quote Bill directly, “The bosses need to get close to the work.  The work of Sales. The work of Manufacturing.  The work of R&D.  They need to fully understand the causes of the worker’s challenges.” 

Over the years, I have found that getting leadership close to the work was a powerful way to educate them.   When I worked at Procter & Gamble my team would go to extraordinary lengths to create front line experiences.

I also do this in my charitable work.   With the College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts of Canada - I jolted their board of directors by offering a donation for every board Member who would take one Bagpipe, Drumming and Dance class.   The impact was incredible.  The teaching became real.  The board had real depth of understanding of the heart and soul of the organization.

Conversely, years later I tried the same thing with a school in Cincinnati and most of the board members refused to participate - they matched my donation rather than spending time in the classroom.  After two attempts, I moved on.

I'll end this blog post with Success Principle #1 that Bill Conway taught me.  This is an excerpt from my notes from the meeting.

Success Principle #1:  Working on the Right Things

Bill explained that the first role of leadership is to make sure everyone is working on the right things.   I explained that many companies are currently focused on cutting costs because their offerings were perceived by customers as commodities.   Bill’s response was clear and direct, “Then they are not working on the right things.  They have to stop working on reducing cost and start working on innovation.” 

I explained that it was hard to convince them of this.  His response was clear, firm and direct “then they’re stupid.”   

Hearing an 84 year old man say “then they’re stupid” in a loud and firm voice was a bit shocking - even if it was a true statement. I gently challenged him on his directness. He then went on to explain that Dr. Deming was very impatient and sorrowful.  Sorrowful that he was unable to save every company.  Sorrowful that he could not get through to every leader.   Impatient to get to those who he could convert as companies in the early 80’s were dying very fast.  Bill explained that they would explain the importance of focusing on quality/ continuous improvement twice and if the leader didn’t get it - and I quote Bill directly “then to Hell with them.”  Many CEO’s felt insulted by his and Dr. Deming’s directness (or rudely honest words) however, given their absolute conviction they moved on, without regrets, to those who were willing to learn and apply. 

TASK FOR TODAY - Get Up, Get Out and see, feel and experience the work of your employees, see the job from their perspective.  Don't be an "undercover boss" be a proactive, listening, caring boss who is willing to get his/her hands dirty.

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