It was a sad photo in today’s morning daily.
The once proud former senior naval officer was walking away from court, his face stoney, his wife holding her hand up to shield the media’s glare, their son by alongside, his eyes down. The former head of one of our city’s transport authorities had been given a non-custodial sentence for “racking up $273,000 in personal expenses for things such as jewellery, holidays, alcohol, groceries and private school fees”.
He used his corporate credit card because “I was living beyond my means”, his wife had been unwell, coupled with finally being settled after life of dislocation in the military. In his mind the efficient solution was to misuse his employer’s (the state government) credit card. “I really had no choice” (Really?). For a range of unjustifiable reasons, he was unable to look ‘the present’ in the eye six years ago, and now ‘the future’ is not one that he had envisaged for this period of life.
Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, identified the qualities of the Level 5 Leader, who builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will and is able to look realistically at ‘the present’ and continually refine the path to greatness with the brutal facts of reality.
Confront the brutal facts.
Leaders at all levels and in all spheres of life are responsible to create the culture where truth, however unpalatable, can have a voice. The SWAT analysis scans the present, identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, usually at the beginning of the planning process, but this alone doesn’t make plain-speaking a culture.
Collins also argues that the purpose of leadership is not to motivate people, if they are the right people around the big opportunity they will be motivated. He writes, The key is not to de-motivate them. One of the primary ways to de-motivate people is the ignore the brutal facts of reality.
Being honest and open in a highly respectful and relational context can help create the optimal platform for progress.
Here are the four basic practices (ref: Collins) for a team that build a culture of truth and openness:
Lead with questions, not answers
Engage in dialogue and debate, not coercion
Conduct autopsies, without blame
Build red flag mechanisms that turn information into information that cannot be ignored
What does it mean in the reality of our everyday working life for you and your team:
- Make time for real conversations about your team’s work – permission for honesty is healthy within a culture where relationships matter
- Measure progress – and be honest about the information, avoid glossing over the facts and trends and living in one-day-some-day-land
- Be solutions focussed – Finding someone to blame may give self-satisfaction (that it wasn’t your fault), but it doesn’t help
- Know the questions to ask, and ask them – there is a real temptation to think, if I don’t ask, I won’t know. This is an avoidance and self-preservation tactic.
- Take action – when you know, you are responsible to do.
- Care more about the people and the vision than your own career path and aspirations – if you can’t do this, you probably need to go somewhere else.
We can only imagine the difference in the circumstances for the ex-Naval officer if he had addressed the facts/data in front of him, spoken up, however difficult it may be, managed the tense relational context, looked for (legal) solutions and then taken action. In writing this I am also reflecting on a painful situation we faced and the need to make difficult decisions. It wasn’t easy, in some ways it still isn’t, but it was worth it.