This weekend, much of the federal government shut down after the failure of the Senate to agree on a bipartisan budget plan that would keep the government operating. As of Sunday, the finger-pointing and blame game began in earnest, with members of both parties holding their opponents responsible for an undesirable outcome that affects millions of Americans who depend on government services for everything from food inspection to medical care.
Beyond an example of partisan bickering and name-calling that’s best reserved for an elementary school playground, what we’re witnessing is a breakdown in the quality of leadership and communication required for solving complex issues and achieving important goals. The ability to engage in difficult conversations and have the result lead to greater understanding and consensus-building is essential, whether you’re leading a country or a company.
The consequences of poor leadership and communication in an organization parallel that of a nation in shutdown. And, if you’ve ever witnessed a company spiraling into failure, you never forget the signs. If you want to prevent a shutdown in your own organization, here are some leadership principles to establish:
Operate with a shared vision
Strong leaders articulate a clear and consistent vision of what the organization values, where the organization is headed, and why that matters, so employees have tangible concepts to which they can anchor. As a leader, your most essential role is to be “chief explainer in charge,” which means you devote significant effort to getting others to embrace your vision so the organization can operate with a unified mindset. This eliminates the vacuum created by a lack of direction. Such a vacuum causes employees to craft their own version of the truth and frantically search for evidence (however small or unsubstantiated) to support their suppositions. Best of all, clear communication prevents the brewing of a primordial soup from which rumors are made. When that happens, a difficult-to-silence “dark web” dialogue seeps into the bloodstream of your corporate culture that can take years to reverse.
Be clear about expectations
Sharing your leadership vision is one thing, but helping everyone understand their role and what they are accountable for delivering is what shepherds visions into reality. Equally important is clarity around how responsibilities intersect, so that employees are positioned to support the collective team in accomplishing goals and discouraged from jockeying to promote individual agendas.
Engage the right people
For your organization to function at peak performance, the old adage by Jim Collins, author of "Good to Great," is still true, “You need the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” But, as a leader, there’s another important factor to consider. Do you have people on the bus who will tell you the truth, and do you invite their input? Living in an echo chamber might seem comfortable because all of your brilliant ideas appear validated, but it’s certainly not the way to innovate, nor does it allow you to capitalize on the opportunities that best support your vision.
Be timely about addressing management issues
Allowing important issues to fester is the pariah of successful leadership. Whether it’s a complex business decision, stalled negotiations about a budget deal or an employee performance problem that needs resolution, addressing issues before they devolve prevents greater disruption from taking hold in your organization. Bad problems rarely resolve themselves; they simply worsen over time.
Never underestimate the power of transparency
Among the most critical leadership principles for sustaining a healthy organization is transparency about how decisions are made. The hallmark of a company in decline is a growth in and reliance on behind-closed-doors deal-making. When the light of day is shone on those inner sanctum conversations, the disconnects between what you have said you want and believe, versus what you’re actually willing to agree to, become apparent to everyone. It’s the fastest way to erode trust in your leadership among employees, customers and the community. When employees don’t trust you, you’re not leading anybody anywhere. When trust in the promise of your brand is lost, so is your business.
As the drama plays out in Washington over the coming hours and days, there is much that you can learn about how not to lead. Watch carefully. Take notes. But remember, there are approaches in play that won’t work in your organization. Unlike the government, you cannot furlough employees if you want your business to survive.
Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.
When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or her blog.