Asking the Right Question

Why do many executives tend to be managers rather than leaders?  Recently I was with 44 executives from a Fortune 100 company.  We were considering the topic of leading change.  In relation to the topic, I asked them to anonymously submit their most authentic question, that is, a question they care about but do not know how to answer.  They took the challenge seriously.
I sorted their questions into the following six categories.  I think the six categories reveal the dark side of organizational life, and they help explain why executives tend to be managers rather than leaders.  Please look for insights as you read.
Personal Doubt

  • What if I am not sure I am the right person to lead the change?
  • How do I lead strategic change when my orientation and my role are anchored in control?
  • How do I help my team believe that the impossible is possible?
  • How do I inspire my team to strive for continuous improvement?
  • How do I get people with no sense of ownership to believe they can make change?
  • How can I inspire creativity in people with a relaxed, maintenance mindset?
  • How do I motivate my team to provide innovative services when morale is low, bonus payouts are declining, and attrition is increasing?
  • How do I inspire folks to swim through troubled waters, moving back and forth between collaboration and competition?
  • How do I urge multinational teams to change their orientation to new technology when they have done things the same way for many years?
  • How can I become like a monk and unselfishly help others?

Ethical Conflict

  • What if I am not sure I want to invest in the change?
  • How do I inspire others to make a change when I am not authentically committed?
  • How do I institute change when I genuinely think the change is not good for the team?
  • How do I realign my team’s goals and execution when my team’s original charter may get shot down during reorganization?
  • How do I live every day and make decisions based on what I truly believe instead of what I think I am supposed to believe and do?

Temporal Stress

  • How do I make change when I have only enough time for the next customer crisis?
  • How can I maintain work-life balance?
  • How do I balance being a senior leader and having time for my family before there is a detrimental effect on both?
  • How do I teach my wife and two children to plan?

Horizontal Distrust

  • How do I get peers who want to dominate and defeat to change their behavior to collaborate and cooperate?
  • How do I inspire my team and peers to collaborate without being blocked by the question “What is in it for me?’
  • How do I ensure transparency across the business in the face of so many competing and short‑term pressures coming at me from others?
  • How can I learn to excel in this competitive world?

Vertical Misalignment

  • How can I change the culture when I am not on top of the pyramid?
  • How do I create when I am not given control?
  • Do I have the courage and skill to influence my management to implement the organizational changes I believe necessary?
  • How do I remain motivated when top level executives do not want the change?
  • Can I change the culture under my present leadership or is it just better to go somewhere else?
  • How do I lead change when I am not empowered to do so and I am led by someone who does not like to be challenged?
  • How can I lead change across our business when my direct boss is neither self-aware, nor organizationally aware?
  • How can I work for a manager who does not understand the impact of the changes that are affecting our department?
  • How do I impact my organization when my manager is stuck in an old mindset and only changes if someone above directs it?
  • How do I implement change when my senior leadership doesn’t understand, appreciate, or even realize the value and necessity for doing so?
  • How do I save a business unit that because of selfish decisions by our top executives and a lack of leadership is going to suffer layoffs, missed targets, a disengaged salesforce, and another reorganization?
  • How do I get my team to think long term when the management above me thinks only short term (we step over $100 bills to pick up $1 bills)?

Cultural Expectations

  • How do I promote collaboration in a company that does not value it?
  • Do I believe that the executive level is really committed to create a culture of innovation and collaboration?
  • How do I respond to the need to move faster in a risk-aversive culture?
  • How do I lead this change when competing tasks and initiatives are pulling the culture?
  • How do I make a change the company does not believe in?
  • In an organization that is generally stuck, how do I create energy and enthusiasm to stay and make a difference or have the courage to risk finding another role?
  • How do I remain passionate when surrounded by mediocrity?
  • How can I help drive excellence, passion, and curiosity in expectations of mediocrity?
  • Can I have a big enough impact on improving the culture on a large scale to keep me working for this company?

What do we learn?  Cultures function to preserve what is.  We can use the normal curve to understand this.  At the center of the normal curve is the mean or the point of central tendency.  For an organization, the center of the curve represents conventional patterns of behavior.
screen shot 2019-01-07 at 4.30.04 pm
The arrows are the social forces that hold behavior in equilibrium.  If a manager feels personal self-doubt, is asked to make changes that are ethically offensive, is swamped in time demands, experiences distrusting and conflictual peer relationships, has a boss who disempowers, or experiences the culture as oriented to mediocrity rather than excellence, the manager is not likely to lead change and create social excellence.
These constraints are not discussable.  We do not admit they exist.  We attempt to launch change while ignoring them.  Yet these forces for convention never go away.
We began by asking why so many executives are not leaders.  It is the wrong question.  The right question is, given the above forces, why do some people become leaders?
The above forces naturally emerge in all organizations.  In the rare circumstance when a leader creates social excellence it is in the face of these pressures.  A positive deviant who violates conventional assumptions creates excellence.  With leaders who bring about social excellence, the future determines the present.  They hold an aspiration so desirable that it creates courage to move from safe, incremental change to deep change.  The movement from convention to excellence is an individual and collective learning journey.  Higher purpose rather than external rewards tend to drive it.  By focusing on true leaders, we may learn how to help managers grow.

  • Are the six categories realistic?
  • Which of the six are currently operating in your unit?
  • Given the six categories, what might you learn from people who have become leaders?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


2 comments on “Asking the Right Question

  1. Wonderful article. The diversity of responses is as fascinating as the common threads between them: where many focus on individuals (self, family, particular colleagues) many are scoped to broader teams or organizations; some examine immediate challenges while some reflect questions that will likely be asked, in some capacity or another, forever. Even insofar as they cluster into the six categories you present, not a single most-authentic-question overlaps cookie-cutter-style with another. It’s an interesting tendency away from the pull of conventions or “means”. These executives are presented with 44 distinct challenges, for they are finding ways to navigate positive change in 44 unique ways.

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