Question A leader can be brought down by a single follower’s actions. How can a leader reduce the risk?

Answer We dream great dreams and set goals so huge we need organizations to achieve them. Where people organize, leaders emerge. We want to be those leaders.

Leaders become the focus of an organization’s results. When things go right, leaders get the credit, glory, and money. Jack Welch receives the praise, but his accomplishments took 305,000 employees twenty years to produce.

When things go wrong, leaders can take the fall. The Middle East peace process is regularly derailed by disgruntled people largely acting alone, and it sets back the efforts—and eventually credibility—of the leaders by decades.

Good decisions minimize risk

One way to decrease downside risk is by helping your people make good decisions about what and what not to do. Sales programs teach that decisions are made with emotion. Logic is only used to justify the decision. So you’ll have to work with the emotions of your organization. (By the way, this is why I believe the current compliance fad won’t stem unethical business behavior. Compliance is about setting up and following rules. Rules are left-brain, logical thinking. Without addressing the underlying emotional drives, the pressure to win by any means possible will eventually resurface.)

People take emotional cues by watching their leaders. They don’t listen to speeches. They don’t read laminated wallet-cards espousing values. They learn how to act by watching you, especially when you’re off-balance and your guard is down.

So first off, give your own values a good spring cleaning. The last few years have shown us business leaders who have acted immorally, unethically, and sometimes illegally to succeed in business. If you set a bad example, people will follow, you’ll get into trouble, and frankly, you’ll deserve it.

Do you charge occasional personal expenses to the business? Do you develop a blind spot when your company violates a little regulation here or there? “After all,” you’ll say at your arraignment, “it’s no big deal. Everyone does it.” Beware! Your organization will be watching and magnifying the values you demonstrate. So clean up your act now. You don’t want John Grisham turning your story into a best-selling novel.

You want your company infused with clear, consistent values that people can use to make decisions. Johnson & Johnson’s credo clearly spells out J&J’s values: customer well-being, employee well-being, community well-being, and shareholder well-being. In that order. It’s so clear that every employee can use the credo to know when to act, and when to stop. Given the credo, J&J’s famous Tylenol recall makes complete sense.

Propagate values via stories

People learn values through stories. The way a story’s hero behaves tells listeners what values are Good. The Evil Villain demonstrates Bad Values.

Businesses develop myths that illustrate their values. Nordstrom’s devotion to their customer return policy shines in the story of an employee giving a customer a refund for returning tires, even though Nordstrom’s is a clothing store. A FedEx employee made good on the overnight promise by renting a helicopter in a storm to deliver a single package on time. These are the legends that convey the important values.

Telling stories isn’t enough. Watch for people who embody good, values-based decisions and give them public recognition. Celebrate not only their results, but the values they’ve shown while getting the results.

On the other side, come down quick and hard when someone knowingly crosses the line. If it’s bad, it’s a firing offense. And don’t reward the right outcome when it’s reached by doing the wrong thing. If a salesperson makes quota by lying to customers, don’t say, “Shame shame” and still pay their bonus. That’s a mixed message, and a mixed message sends no message. Your salesperson—and everyone else—will notice the bonus and ignore the shame. Only pay them for the sales they brought in ethically. If they quit, celebrate; that’s one unethical salesperson who won’t be landing you in jail. If they shape up, celebrate; you’ve made a difference. Either way, you’ve sent a powerful message that doing things right is important.

Discuss decisions to surface values

Of course, you’d rather just hire good people to begin with, people who act with integrity once they’re on board. You can’t just ask someone in a job interview what their values are and expect an accurate answer. Most people don’t know their values. But decisions are where values kick into action. So ask candidates open-ended questions about past decisions (recent past behavior predicts future behavior fairly well). Their answers will imply values. If they don’t have relevant past experience, hypothetical questions are next-best. “There’s a regulation that is keeping you from doing your job. Everyone knows the regulation is there for historical reasons only, breaking it won’t hurt anyone, and it will result in great profits for the firm. What do you do? How do you justify your decision to your manager?”

These are process questions; they ask for reflection on how things get done. Encourage regular process discussions. They get people used to thinking about what’s OK and what’s not. If business is fast-paced or requires big risks, openly questioning how business is happening make it more likely to bring outside-the-bounds schemes to light early.

Ignoring process and focusing solely on outcomes is dangerous. It’s one way to encourage deliberate tomfoolery. In reports of Enron’s collapse, Jeff Skilling never told employees to act unethically. He simply demanded extreme results and made it clear any behavior was acceptable to produce them. In the recent Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the alleged command to “soften up” prisoners for interrogation turned into torture. A simple process comment could have avoided the scandals: “By the way, here’s a copy of the Geneva Convention. Stay within these bounds.”

Your goal is to get people feeling accountable for their own actions and making value-aligned judgments. Trader Nick Leeson brought down Barings Bank through ongoing fraud. In his book, he’s amazed that his bosses didn’t stop him. Yes, their oversight was shoddy. But their preparation was even worse. Those bosses never cultivated Leeson’s feeling of personal accountability for his actions. Even after serving prison time and writing his book, he was still looking to them to be his conscience.

You grow personal accountability by treating people as adults. Discuss their decisions frankly. Make them understand you’re counting on their good judgment. Give them authority, but only when you’re confident they can use it responsibly. If things go wrong, hold them accountable for recovery and learning from the mistakes. And beware of micro-management! Telling people every detail of how things must get done lets them run on automatic, rather than take responsibility for making the right choices.

If you haven’t the luxury of being sure of people before handing them the reins, try surprise “decision audits” from time to time. Drop by a project, ask about recent decisions, and discuss how those decisions were made. Don’t micro-manage, but simply take in information to understand how values are playing out. Have your managers hold similar audits, and as long as they’re taken seriously, you’ll build a culture that expresses your values.

Ultimately, that’s the best you can do. A leader will always be responsible for the sins of the followers. Alas, that’s the nature of the job. We can tell people the rules, but we minimize our risk through values as well as rules. By modeling clear values, discussing them, and incorporating them into the way decisions get made, we can make it much more likely our organization will do the right things.

© 2004 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

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Minimizing the Risks of Leadership

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