Being the outsider, the opposition, the one with the better idea is always easy. The good idea fairy. The one with the great sound bite, the novel approach, the wisdom that can only come from not being the one in charge. We have seen it all too often in business, the team member who just always knows the right answer…always. The sports team where the owner, the players, the fans – they all know better than the current coach. And of course, in politics, entertainment, and just in life in general.
Muslim Brotherhood, GOP or Nancy Pelosi. Ask any of them – it is easy to declare how incompetent and misguided the current leadership is; how terribly wrong things have gone. However, when the pendulum swings, which it always does, the reality of how hard it is sets in…leading is much harder than it looks.
Being the font of “good ideas” and a “better course” are easy roles to take on, and roles in which you will always look good and be loved. Quite literally you can say whatever it is people want to hear. But be warned – someday circumstances will change; the opposition becomes the leader. It is then that everything gets much harder.
Fodder, the stuff of bloggers and reporters, and thanks to BP and Afghanistan, we are awash in material. It would be easy to pile-on with some witty observations thanks to the multitude of missteps flowing from the Gulf and Afghanistan. However, BP CEO Tony Hayward and General Stanley McChrystal also offer a reminder that leadership is not just viewed from inside the organization.
Both men are very accomplished leaders – they have achieved great success within their respected organizations. Though it is easy to bash someone when they stumble, there is no denying that both men possess a track record of superior performance. One does not become a CEO or 4 Star General by accident. The above said, both have stumbled recently; quite publically and quite badly. There is no need to rehash the missteps – most are well-known to even the casual observer. Let’s just leave it with the fact that both have not exactly made savvy public relations moves of late.
It is a phrase most have heard somewhere along the way – “would you want to see it on the front page of the New York Times”. Maybe it is a little melodramatic, and it does seem so quaint, a newspaper reference, but the message is applicable to anyone in leadership. There is more to being a leader than just taking care of your team. There are stakeholders inside the organization, superiors, external customers, shareholders, and there is the greater community. There is an exterior component to leadership and how you are viewed as a leader.
Taking care of your people, hitting the number, and following through on the deliverables are all important, but so is how you do it and how it is viewed from the outside. It is easy to forget sometimes – especially when the pressure is on. One has to wonder if Tony Hayward or General McChrystal would have acted differently if they would have considered the exterior view of leadership.
When do you speak up and when do you toe the company line? One of those life questions and a dilemma no one wants to face, but an all too likely scenario everyone, leaders, managers, and individual contributors alike, have or will encounter. Sometimes it will be little things – not too public and not too dramatic. Right and wrong are easy to discern and the course of action is clear. The repercussions are minimal. And sometime it just might be a huge, public, multi million dollar, life changing issue. The potential repercussions massive, a truly defining moment in life. How you answer that question will speak volumes about you, your character, and the company for which you work.
General Stanley McChrystal came to one of those moments, and he made his decision. He went public and went outside the chain of command by speaking out about the course of the war in Afghanistan. He put it all out there – his professional reputation, his livelihood, the respect and confidence of his peers, superiors and subordinates. He violated two fundamental principles of the military and government – he violated the chain of command AND he questioned the civilian leadership – you just do not do those things. We are watching play out in a very public setting the realities of making one of those major life decisions. None of us will ever know all that went into his decision, but rest assured we will all see the repercussions of his action.
Was he right in going outside the chain of command? Not my place to judge. What I do find myself wondering is “what if”. What if a senior military officer would have stepped forward at some point during Vietnam? What if no one ever spoke out about the tobacco industry? What if there was no Whistle Blower protection laws? What if someone who worked for Madoff asked a question, any question? What if…
When is speaking out the right course, the ethical course? When must you toe the company line? Does your “first hand” knowledge trump the decisions of your leadership, or is it just your ego talking? Are you speaking out or are you complaining? Is there a greater good that you are not seeing at your level? Does your senior leadership have better strategic vision than you? Is silence the right course? Is speaking out worth the personal cost? Heavy questions. Questions every leader must reconcile in their mind. We all have or will face these sorts of moments. Some will be quiet, relatively easy, painless decisions. Some might be painful, public and costly. Watch and learn from the experience of General McChrystal. No one knows what will happen, but I can assure you it will be interesting.