Most leaders believe they are discerning, even savvy, and hard to fool. After all, how did they get to be a leader if they weren’t intelligent and insightful? Successful leaders may well be bright, courageous and decisive, but they are also human and fallible, something they can forget at significant risk.
Most people who have worked in an organization, large or small, have a story to tell about a misguided decision that was costly and ineffective. One reason is terrible advice, often well disguised. Why is it so hard to see lousy advice, and why is it so hard to change course once bad advice is accepted?
A leading cause of error is the sometimes-unbearable weight of not knowing. One leader, Gary, often said, “Do something even if it’s wrong. I can fix a bad decision, but not inaction.” Gary’s career, successful for 20 years, came to a screeching halt after he spent millions on consulting to reduce costs, only to have them climb to new heights two years later. He was so intolerant of ambiguity and indecision that he accepted an intervention destined to fail because it didn’t get at the cause.
Great leaders know that uncertainty and confidence are not mutually exclusive. They have learned to hold “the facts” lightly and can change their minds when new information comes to light. Great leaders are less susceptible to fads, bandwagons and shiny new objects, even if they are curious enough to experiment with ideas from time to time. However, as willing as a good leader may be to test a new hypothesis, they are equally capable of killing it if its fundamentals prove invalid.
What can we learn from great leaders about avoiding harmful and sometimes costly advice?
First, focus on outcomes, not inputs or methodology. Most fads have in common that they are inputs that sound good but do not have the power to create the desired results. On the other hand, some popular activities are based on a solid idea diluted by constraints of time, money, and too little involvement of leaders. For example, strategy retreats can have value for learning, focus, and establishing actions and accountabilities that may take months to achieve. However, these become worthless exercises when the agenda and context are determined by default.
In my more than two decades of consulting, I have observed companies spend millions of dollars on famous speakers who entertain and tell a personal story but engender little way of achieving needed outcomes. For example, after one such meeting, Bill, an executive in a $6 billion company, said, “We spent a million dollars and got a pep rally.” These things happen when leaders, usually unwittingly, use the wrong objectives and criteria for success. As a result, they end up with events that may be fun but lead to little insight, few decisions, and unclear accountability for decisions that do get made.
Second, clarify what people need to do differently and why it matters. Suppose a decision will have a strategic or systemic impact, or intervention is meant to affect either of these. In that case, leaders cannot push the decision too far down, even if they think it’s unworthy of their attention. An experienced leader can ask good questions and keep the organization’s objectives at the center of discussion, avoiding the trap of the latest fun fad that leads to no discernable value, not to mention a loss of credibility.
Third, beware of silver bullets. Decisions about how to “turn the ship” are leadership decisions. Whether an organization needs to turn 20 degrees north or 60 degrees east makes no difference because changing course always requires systemic thinking and actions to match.
Great leaders are discerning but not infallible. They are distinct from leaders who are less successful by every measure because they rely on their judgment and realize they have, can, and will make mistakes. Great leaders focus on outcomes, articulate what behaviors fit the goals, and view bromides and shiny objects with reasonable suspicion. Rather than succumb to the notion that they are heroic, great leaders rely on principles, not techniques, to make good decisions.