Revealing inabilities

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Tough Issues Make for Tougher Leaders:

Three issues that executives of the Detroit 3 should have considered before asking Congress for a bridge loan.

How we will spend taxpayers’ money.

What changes we will make to our business model to ensure that the loans will be repaid.

Why the domestic industry is important to the health and welfare of our nation.

So many CEOs speak only in the specialized jargon of MBAspeak. One of the things that made Iacocca a good CEO. He could speak pretty plainly.

So how can an executive avoid appearing like a deer caught in the headlights? The answer is straightforward: create a culture of questioning. Here are some suggestions.

Set the tone. The reason that senior leaders sometimes appear to be so out of touch is because well, they are. Too many of them are cocooned in bubbles that insulate them from the real world. Remember years ago when George H.W. Bush running for president in 1988 was awed by a checkout scanner? Well, Mr. Bush had an excuse; he was a sitting Vice President surrounded by Secret Service for the previous seven years. Too many CEOs impose a similar level of insulation (more for comfort than security) and as a result lose touch with the reality their customers and their competitors are experiencing. Genuine leaders regularly meet with their employees, customers, and key stakeholders and make certain to have open and honest conversations with each.

They have no easy path that provides them to links outside the bubble. Even kings had a jester to remind them they were mortal. Not so many CEOs. As I’ve discussed before, a good use of Web 2.0 tools, such as wikis and blogs can provide such a path, not only for CEOs but for everyone at the organizations.

Ask to be challenged. In tough times, execution needs to be done with urgency. Yet only a foolish executive would allow his initiatives to go unquestioned. But how often have we seen companies pursue courses of action that seem so wrong from the outside yet appear so right from the inside? It is because no one inside the company is allowed to ask hard questions that challenge the status quo.

Few leaders really want to be challenged on their initiatives. That is really hard for someone to do when their position relies on the CEO’s perception. But some of the best ideas came out of a simple question: “Why are we doing this?” Because you can bet that if you are not asking these questions, your competitors are.

Map consequences. Pursuing a course of action requires a consideration of consequences. To a degree, companies do “war game” outcomes but typically within a given set of parameters. Too few executives are expected to ask the “game changing” questions that will alter the playing field. Not only do those questions need to be asked; their solutions need to be mapped to the nth degree so that alternatives can be considered and planned for.

The problem here is that most of the executives on a team are in the same bubble. There is not enough of a diversity of viewpoint for them to really map consequences well.

And the response of a group to some of these consequences is to ignore them. An example is how the military responded to the innovative approach Paul Van Riper brought to the Millennium Challenge 02 wargames. He challenged the US forces with a plan that was devastating in its consequences (i.e. he sunk the American fleet).

The response was to ignore his challenge and to change the rules of the war games. Not a very useful response to innovative challenges but one seen all too often with manny leaders.

We will see during these hard times, which leaders seek out the path of General Paul Van Riper and which seek the path of the Detroit automakers.

It seems pretty obvious which is more successful during time of chaos such as these.

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