Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Murky at the Top

The theory is this: as you move up in an organization, your vantage point grows - and you see more. You get more input. It gets more complicated and inconsistent and just.. voluminous. The theory goes that you have to be able to handle increasing volumes of divergent information over time.

Secondly, as you move up in the organization, you also are asked to take a leadership role - which, at a minimum, seems to require the occasional decision. Presumably, based on your increasingly vast array of information.

So, the task of senior leadership requires:

a) the ability to parse and organize and make sense of huge amounts of information

b) the ability to congeal this thinking into a point-of-view of the world. This needs to be rigid enough to be the foundation of action - but flexible enough to incorporate new information (within a certain range - not everything has to rock your world view)

c) the ability to communicate this point of view - and the resulting behavior/strategy it implies. Communication is harder than we think. And, given the volumes of information, it is very easy to either explain things in detail that is impossible to consume - or float above the data enough to be vacuous. Or just be a horrid presenter or writer.

d) the ability to make decisions based on this view of the world. This is a kicker - since your strategy is only as good as the decisions you make. And, saying "no" and pushing back is a hell of a lot easier than acquiescing. The trick, too, is that anyone with half a brain and access to this much information could easily rationalize almost any decision. The harder part is making these decisions internally consistent, sensible, and, perhaps most importantly, forward-moving. Treading water doesn't help anyone.  But, truth be told, most folks fail to make any decision, ballsy or otherwise.

I propose that this set of skills is basically impossible to find. It is a rare person that can handle all of this - and survive the corporate meat grinder that even gives them the opportunity to show it off. And I'm not so sure that the corporate meat grinder doesn't explicitly filter out these skills - depending on how it works.

I have a theory that the true trick to managing this has something to do with filtering information with a good cabinet of supporters. You accept the premise that you WILL be pandered to, and that information WILL be concealed from you - but you help drive what is escalated. Emergency on the web site? Trust the team. Board meeting next week? Get involved. Most leaders seem to skim through their 1000 emails a day to find the eye-catching escalations and react to them - rather than delegating, trusting, and prioritizing their data feeds. But, this implies that they fail at point A, above... and thus, there's no hope for B-D.

All this explains why we don't have great leaders.

We have a big leadership culture in america. We also have a big fame culture, a big diva culture, a big hero culture. We like our larger-than-life creatures, corporate or hollywood, and like to ascribe to them messianic qualities and tell tales of their decisive and inspiring behavior. But, the truth is, we don't have a lot of great leaders. They aren't being pumped out of b-schools or military academies or sports programs. Or, they are being rejected by the very institutions that need them.

1 comment:

Rob S. said...

Wow, nicely put. You're right that this is true of a lot of leadership situations, but in spheres like politics, where people can't even agree on the basic collection and validity of data, it's liable to be even worse--as is the information overload, since it's coming from the whole country instead of a single corporation.

I feel like there's a more visceral dimension to "information" as well--knowing that a process is sub-optimal is different from watching its dysfunction unfold before your own eyes, and that degree of remove sometimes prevents people from connecting dots that they might otherwise have.