Congress is terrible. It has been embarrassing watching the fiscal cliff debacle unfold. Unfortunately, that kind of brinksmanship is emblematic of our wonderful elected officials. The question for you as a leader is do you run your organization like a leader or like a congressman?
Leaders tackle problems in front of them and focus on the long-term good of the organization. Sometimes tackling those problems can be costly both professionally and personally. Unfortunately, more often than not, our elected officials (and this applies beyond Congress to virtually any and all elected positions) have a tendency to kick the can down the road and leave the problem to be solved another day. Witness the fiscal cliff as a perfect example. It was the equivalent of a short-term bandage that left the larger issues of entitlements, tax reform, and economic growth untouched. That doesn’t solve the issue – it simply protects their own interests of having the right things to say the next time they’re up for reelection.
I recognize I’m making some broad-based claims here and some of you will point out the one or two officials who are trying to solve the long term problems but the fact remains that the behavior at a larger level is troubling.
The thing you need to ask yourself as a leader of your organization is are you solving the root causes of the issues you face (which is difficult to do and could sometimes cost you a raise, a promotion, or even your job) or are you simply putting in place short-term fixes that are easier to implement?
So if you’re more interested in leading than running for elected office (and keeping your nice cushy job), consider the following:
What’s the Problem NOW?
Understand the cause, not the symptom. It’s easy to fix symptoms. They’re usually smaller issues that can be handled with little effort and “the people” (your organization) will deem these changes as progress and a solution because they’re manifestations of the broader issue. And if symptoms disappear, then the problem is gone, right? Wrong.
Dig in and find that root cause. What’s leading to all those nasty symptoms? The more clearly you can define the core issue at hand, the higher the likelihood you’ll actually solve it. Use basic rood-cause analysis tools like the five why’s (ask “why” something is happening five times. With each answer to “why” you’ll get one step closer to the root cause). Your job as a leader is to drive to this root cause analysis.
Scope the Problem and the Solution
Do the analysis to figure out how big the problem really is and what it will take (time, money, energy, effort) to solve that core issue. Also run the numbers to see what it will cost to continue treating symptoms as well as how much larger the root problem will get over the “treatment period.” You might be surprised to find it will cost you exponentially more to make the small symptom-solving changes but the core problem continues to grow to gargantuan levels (e.g., social security). Once you’re armed with these numbers it’s a lot easier to make your case for solving the root problem today versus dealing with it down the road after you’ve spent a bunch of time and money alleviating symptoms.
Sell the Idea and Solution
Now that you have all those compelling numbers and a good understanding of what the core issue is, you have to lead the organization to take the big plunge and solve the problem. I never said this would be easy. Your task is to help people understand why doing the right thing now is much more prudent than waiting for later. Sure, you may be long gone from the organization by the time the big problem becomes a huge one but you have a responsibility to the organization and to those who follow you to leave things better than when you found them.
Set Aside Your Agenda
It’s hard to argue for change especially when it will be unpopular. It can put promotions and advancement at risk and cause a whole bunch of people to dislike you along the way. You have a choice to make here – you can either be popular now and get blamed later for not doing anything or you can do what’s right for the organization and let the chips fall where they may. I’ve seen many instances of both. In situations where “leaders” only handled the symptoms, they were popular in the short term but their careers eventually flamed out and they were vilified by the organization for not making the difficult choices. I’ve also seen real leaders tackle issues that made them wildly unpopular in the short term (and in some cases put their careers at that organization at risk) but in the long term people recognized their courage and foresight. Those leaders end up being the ones who are selected for the bigger and better jobs down the road because that quality is rare and special.
So don’t lead like a congressman. Go dig into those big issues facing your organization and start tackling them now before they get so out of control your organization goes under. Leadership isn’t a popularity contest. It’s about making the tough choices today so your organization is better tomorrow.
- If you want to be a better leader than your elected officials, grab a copy of my book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership or download the audiobook version at Audible.com. It will help you be a more courageous leader than the members of the 112th Congress were.