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Managing Change; Balking at the Leadership Challenge
By Kevin Dwyer

Editor's note: No situation begs for effective leadership than does the context of leading organizational change or dealing with crisis. Many leaders however, stumble in this important situation where there is indeed crisis and opportunity provided the leader works appropriately.

Leaders, it is said, have the responsibility to "do the right things" and managers have the responsibility to "do things right". In doing the right things leaders make decisions. My observation is that too many people in leadership positions are balking at the challenge of making tough decisions.

When contemplating decisions to be made, good leaders will, with an understanding of the urgency of a decision, ensure that they have the relevant facts to make a decision.

The aspect of time is important in decision making. When confronted with what appears to be a crazed gunman about to shoot in his direction, a police officer will be well advised to shoot first and ask questions later. When an organisation is contemplating a change in strategy and tactics from a leading market position because they want to "future proof" themselves, getting all the facts before making a decision is good advice.

What I describe as balking at the leadership decision is when leaders are slow to recognise, or unwilling to recognise, the urgency of their situation, or when they do, making unsound tactical choices which delay decision making. The granddaddy of them all though is when the situation is urgent, the facts are known and yet still the leader balks at the decision.

There are many reasons, both good and bad for this observed behaviour.

One reason which often raises its head is emotion. Bringing emotion into decision making muddies the water for all taking part as stakeholders in discussing options and makes it difficult to be rational about making decisions.

It is not that leaders should not feel things. They should and certainly must when communicating their decisions. But they must not think with their emotions.

For example, a business which needs to slash fixed costs to survive will not be well served by nice, emotional managers whose version of doing the right thing is to always "look after" everybody. A decision may need to be made to replace nice, likeable people with sharp decisive people who are good communicators as managers.

We should feel for the people we have decided to replace and think about the positive impact the change will make on the likelihood of the organisation surviving and continuing to employ people and support their families.

Another reason is CMB (covering my backside). Typical actions of someone suffering CMB include sending the decision to a committee, delegating without authority, passing the buck to another authority and declining responsibility altogether.

Committees are inappropriate for making tough decisions. By their very nature they entrench shared accountability and accountability cannot be shared. Even if they vote, the accountability for individuals can be deflected to the "majority".

Getting information from a committee through consultation can be a good move. The difficult decisions must, however, rest with the leader who carries the authority.

Delegating without power is a classic CMB. Delegating difficult decisions to the director to make even though they do not have the authority to make it is as good as killing the decision making process as sending it to a committee.

Changing the perspective of the decision to make it seem like it lies in the realms of another function's remit is another good CMB tactic. "This is not really an operational decision. It is a financial decision". Whew, got out of that one!

The all time classic is just to decline responsibility all together. Allow the status quo to remain. Wait for the "right" decision to magically appear. Whatever is intended by this tactic, decisions will be made. They will be made by others inside and outside of the organisation.

The result is confusion with the organisation proceeding in different directions, reducing productivity and effectiveness. However, the leader can feel as if none of it was their doing as they did nothing.

The majority of times I have observed this behaviour and for me personally, the most frustrating, however, has been with leaders having second thoughts.

The leader has defined the problem well, collected data, not opinions, and had the data analysed to build information about what may happen under different scenarios. They may well have constituted a committee of experts to think about the options under each scenario.

Heaven forbid, they may even have had a risk assessment completed on the elements of each option creating a risk treatment strategy and plan for each option.

They have analysed the cost benefit of the preferred options in both the long term and short term. They have compared the information about the options with the organisation's time-based goal and capability.

Then they have second thoughts. They send the decision away and revert to one of the CMB tactics because they are afraid of failure.

They balk the leadership challenge. They fail to lead and the next tough decision should be about their tenure.

Kevin Dwyer is a Director of Change Factory. Change Factory helps organisations who do do not like their business outcomes to get better outcomes by changing people's behaviour. Businesses we help have greater clarity of purpose and ability to achieve their desired business outcomes. To learn more visit or email [email protected]

©2006 Change Factory

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