I've visited dozens of companies in 2010 and keep hearing the same message: the person at the top is clueless and unwilling to change. As a result, employees spend absurd amounts of time managing around him (it's usually a him). It's not just the Emperor Has No Clothes. It's that the Emperor Has No Clothes and Looks Funny Naked. But if you had the courage to have these conversations with the man in charge, you could transform the lackluster leader into a great one, and boost the company's bottom line in the process.
7 Things We All Wish We Could Tell the Boss
1. You're nothing like Lincoln, Churchill or Clinton.
Nothing is funnier, or more tragic, than a mediocre leader who thinks he's Lincoln, or Churchill or Clinton. And nothing is a greater waste of time than when an "idiot boss" (thanks, Scott Adams) tries to fine-tune his style by reading about the Greats.
A much better use of time would be for someone with credibility to sit down with the CEO and say, "You're like none of those people, but if you work really hard, you could become a great leader in your own right."
The great leaders are all originals. Although many were amateur historians (or in Churchill's case, professional), they didn't become the people they were by copying behaviors from people in the past. They became great by finding a way to serve people in their time, and in the process, became leaders.
You : Because you, the CEO, drown us in initiatives, metrics, and plans, and so we don't have any time.
Him: Why isn't the organization more successful?
You: Because the strategy you want us to pursue is inept, compared to what we could do if you got out of the way.
Him: Why isn't the company a great place to work?
You: Because you're creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
The single question I'm asked more than any other is: "Can we use the principles of Tribal Leadership when the top person doesn't get it but thinks he does?" The short-term answer is to create a pocket of tribal greatness, and let the results show that a new way of leading makes everyone win. The long-term answer is that the person at the top needs to get it, or get out.
3. You put a new thing on my 'to do' list. What are you taking off?
I often repeat a story from the darkest days of the U.S. automotive industry, when a major subcontractor to the Big Three held its managers accountable for well over 100 metrics. That story used to make people laugh. Over the last few years, the reaction has turned into, "so what do we do about that?"
Drucker was a fan of the idea of "purposeful abandonment"—determining which activities will be stopped. My friend David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, likes to say that a person's success can be measured by looking at how long their "stop doing list" is. The same holds for companies. Most people, and most companies, don't have a "stop doing list" at all.
CEOs should know that their followers measure them, in large part, by how many metrics and initiatives they purposefully abandon. In most cases, that's zero.
4. If the employees don't understand the strategy, it's your fault.
Often in executive seminars I'll go through the "must have" list for corporate competence, and then ask people which item on the list they are most concerned about. (One of the better lists is Jay Galbraith's STAR model.) Almost always, number one is "strategy," as in "do we have one?" and "ask 100 people and you'll get 100 answers of what our strategy is." I also hear, "the CEO thinks our strategy is the tag line from our ads."
A strategy, by the way, is "the creation of a unique and valuable proposition" to the market, according to Michael Porter. If employees can't say what that the unique value proposition is, the CEO has failed.
In most cases, the CEO would retort, "we have a strategy, they just aren't listening to what it is."
What's the problem here?
It's not about how the strategy is communicated, it's about the listening that creates the strategy in first place. Anne Mulcahy tells the story of what happened when she assumed the role of president and COO of Xerox. It came down to listening to everyone: employees, customers, and suppliers. She didn't check her brain at the door and merely combine what they said into the strategy. She checked it against everything she knew about the markets, and she also listened to advice from experts. The result from that long process was a strategy that was clear, concise, and that made people around Xerox say, "yes, that's right!" If your company doesn't have that kind of a strategy, the blame rests at the top.
Many CEOs try to send the message "you and I have a special relationship" by bad-mouthing other executives. The result? The message people hear is "I'll throw anyone under the bus. The minute you're out of favor, I'll do the same to you."
Great leaders throw themselves under the bus by taking responsibility for any failure in the company. When the company succeeds, it's due to others.
6. Your staff will regard your tenure as the bad old days.
Most large companies remember a time when they had boundless energy and felt the potential of greatness knocking at the door. That was before the bullies, brats, and bureaucrats took over.
Most CEOs talk a lot about problems that they've solved. But the reality is that the overall vibrancy and vitality of the company is collapsing. People hunger for a leader who will really do things the right way. And until you learn that, you're just another person steering the ship into the sand.
I should add that most CEOs are good people, wanting the best for their companies. So why does the Emperor Have No Clothes and Look Funny Naked? It's due to a variety of factors, including that organizations, by their design, limit or stop upward feedback. Most CEOs become increasingly isolated and cut off from the real issues and so their decisions become increasingly out of touch. Another reason is "CEO shuffle"—hiring from outside the company, based on competency and not shared values, so that the new person comes in with an agenda to change everything. Most successful CEOs in our study were home-grown and promoted from within.
View all articles by Dave Logan on CBS MoneyWatch »
Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.