Many of the Executive Coaching clients I’ve worked with seem to be unaware of the “Shadow” they cast as a Leader. It’s a shadow that reflects what a leader pays attention to, how they respond to crisis, deal with a disagreement, treat those around them, and behave in general. It all feeds into the cultural fabric of the organization.
As I’ve observed, if a leader treats every unexpected problem or unanticipated roadblock as a major crisis, so will employees. If a leader takes the view that every problem could have been avoided and therefore when something goes wrong, heads will roll, the resulting behavior will be one of blame and finger-pointing. If a leader views mistakes as a natural part of learning, exploring, and experimenting, the result is an attitude that supports risk taking and innovation.
Not too long ago I worked with the head of an engineering organization who reported to the CEO of a medium sized software company. As a part of assessing his leadership style I interviewed a cross section of his direct reports, peers and a sample of primary customers. One of the most significant behaviors that surfaced was his inability to filter negative messages. For example, if the CEO met with him to talk about his concern with delivery dates or a process interruption, he would immediately call a meeting of his responsible staff members and chew them out under the guise of finding out what was happening to cause the problems. He had no idea that his behavior was being modeled by most of his direct reports and the managers that work for them throughout the organization. Being able to filter emotional messages before acting is a fundamental leadership responsibility.
Beyond actions, leaders shape the culture through the stories that they tell and the stories that are told about them. The stories that leaders tell help to inform employees about what leadership considers important.
One story that I’ve retold many times has to do with a new regional VP of Sales who had just relocated back to the U.S. as an expat. He walked into a regional sales review meeting where each manager was expected to present their forecast, where they were and why. After hearing one presentation and the beginning of a second where the managers’ complained about their products and lamented the lack of technology and product capability of their competitors, he stopped the meeting. He then got up and moved to the front of the room with what seemed to be a scene from Patton’s Army. He then said, “I didn’t come here to listen to excuses about why you can’t sell because you believe the competition has better products, technology or whatever.” What I do expect to hear is how your commitment and strategy to sell our company’s products is producing results. After that, I’m open to discussing what we can all do to improve. For those of you who may not have heard or understood what I just said, “we all get paid to sell the products and services of this company and it requires everyone’s commitment to be successful. You have a choice to make, which I expect to see at the reschedule date of this meeting.” That story became part of the folklore that helped shape the future culture of that company.
A critical element of the leadership shadow is the “Say-Do” factor. It has to do with having the courage of your convictions. If you say you are going to do something, but act differently when it’s not politically correct or represents a risk to you or your position, you put your credibility at risk as a leader and create doubts about what the company stands for. A recent situation that exemplifies the “Say-Do” factor is when Bill Belichick, the head coach of the New England Patriots didn’t allow one of his star players, Wes Welker to start in the critical playoff game against the New York Jets because of comments he made during a news conference regarding the Jets coach. Whether you agree or not, it takes courage to maintain a high Say-Do factor. And, when you consider Belichick’s overall performance as a leader and the consistent results the Patriots have achieved as an organization and business, perhaps it makes sense to examine the Leadership Shadow you cast….
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“We can’t solve the problems of today using the same thinking we used to create them”
– A. Einstein