Don't Kick the Issue Upstairs!



A couple weeks ago in the RFL about Jesus, Clinton, and Wagoner, I made a mistake which I’d like to kick myself for repeatedly making. In that RFL I used language that runs totally against my most fundamental leadership belief: I wrote about “leaders,” when really what I meant was “people in positions of authority.” Those two are not the same.* One of my strongest held beliefs about leadership is that you can lead from anywhere, with or without formal authority, and the best organizations are those that cultivate everyday leadership – every day people, who lead every day. And here is a critical point for everyday leaders in these sometimes frightening and turbulent times:

Lead in the charge to end wasting energy on internal “stuff.” Instead, exercise leadership in directing energy out – to better serving clients, customers, vendors, taxpayers, children, or whoever your constituents are. When organizations are under tremendous pressure to improve quality, cut costs, and just stay alive, it is completely natural that such pressure will be turned inside. Under such universal pressure, budget competitions arise, smoldering personality issues erupt, and egos get massively in the way. The back office squabbles with the front; the field with headquarters, sales with production, or the upper school with the lower school. The usual tendency is to look to what we’d normally call “the leaders” to resolve the conflicts. Sometimes direction is truly needed “from above,” but often everyday leaders have the capacity to gain resolution to those internal issues. In so doing they strengthen collaboration and confidence internally. They also free up the authority figure to do the things only he or she can do outside – working with key customers, accessing capital, or building external partnerships. For example, in the state government or at GM, the last thing the chief executive needs to be doing is refereeing internal squabbles.

So, you might look around at your simmering sibling squabbles and see whether you can’t lead: Work with your peers (the “they” in the frequent “we-they” differences). The core principles are simple. First, recognize that most of the grueling choices – and the pressure they create – are no one’s fault. And fault-seeking is generally a major dead end. Instead, fix your attitude on the future. Then execute on the core leadership skills (popularized by Stephen Covey): Seek first to understand. With bosses, we know to understand them first; they naturally get that prerogative. But with peers, seeking first to understand is not presumed. Maybe that’s why it’s so powerful. Then comes the corollary principle: Seek win-win. After you’ve understood their needs, share yours, but then continually stand for a win for both parties. Lastly, seek clarity. Clarity is efficiency. And today, there’s so little room for inefficiency.

Tough times invite you as an everyday leader to step to the fore, and

Lead with your best self,


* I must credit my mentor and friend Ron Heifetz who introduced “the distinction between leadership and authority” as the first of the critical distinctions in his course at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. I never looked at leadership the same after that very first lecture in his course back in 1985.

Audio File:  Don’t Kick the Issue Upstairs!