Saturday, September 25, 2010

Plug-n-Play Leadership: The Wrong Answer

I heard the following words the other day as I was receiving feedback on my recent nomination package.

"You are too narrow. Our paradigm is that senior leaders almost need to be plug-n-play--able to perform anywhere based upon their experience."


That, friends, is everything that is wrong with the current generation of leaders in America. To avoid having to take responsibility for their actions and to follow through to completion the implementation of their strategies, senior leaders are moved on a regular two-year schedule and never develop the full understanding of the organization they are leading.

I saw and felt it when I was an officer in the Air Force and now as a government "bureaucrat" I see the same thing.

Plug-n-play leadership is both wasteful and inefficient. It reduces leadership to concepts and strategies which can be applied impartially across the board rather than adapted to the strengths and weaknesses of the specific team or organization. It makes senior leaders effectively senior managers.

I work in a small organization that has a huge impact. Why? Because our leadership is more than just a decision-making manager down the hall. Leadership is intimate with the mission and understands, no, had a really deep appreciation of how the mission needs to be accomplished and how to take care of the people who are principally responsible for the getting the job done.

Do we get it right all of the time? No--no one does. But then we do not get enamored with the latest "fad" leadership term or style either. Everything can be carefully considered to ensure the burden on the mission staff is minimized and that they have the tools and encouragement to do their jobs.

I believe, because I have seen it in action, that mission savvy leaders have a disproportionately high positive impact on the organization when they use their skills properly. Plug-n-play leaders are quickly reduced to managers and depend upon others to do the real leading in the organization until they get the smarts to successfully represent and lead the organization.

What is the difference you ask between leaders and managers?

In its simplest form the difference is that leaders lead people and managers manage things. It is a lot tougher to lead than to manage.

Experienced in the organization leaders are a stabilizing force that helps the organization retain its focus in the face of turbulence.

Look at successful small businesses--the owners are the leaders. they are personally invested in the success of the organization.

Likewise, should it not also be true that when leaders are personally invested in their organization they are more effective?

Ineffective leaders need to be moved/removed--but effective leaders should be retained to ensure strength in the organization.

There is no such thing as plug-n-play leadership. Maybe plug-n-play management, but leaders can never be plug and play. There are emotions and investment to consider in effectively leading an organization.

A successful leader should be successful anywhere, it is not the number of diverse assignments that makes success but the character and capabilities of the person--but why risk organizational success in one area to fix another? And why risk the success of the larger organization just to move leaders around so they can have the illusion of plug-n-play?

Fundamentally, it may be a conspiracy theory at work--the CEO may be afraid that the next tier of leaders are more capable and are therefore a threat so by constantly moving them to preclude expertise in any one area, the threat is diminished.

So--the bottom line--plug-n-play leadership is a myth. It develops a generation of leaders that have not had to accept the responsibility for their action and who know a very little about a lot and can be considered dangerous.

Deeper understanding of the relationship is better.

Just because a leader has depth does not mean that they cannot perform anywhere. That is a myth. Effective leadership is transferable, but good leaders are personally invested in their organizations.

And I will never be seen as a viable candidate for senior executive because I'm too deep (or was that narrow?)

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