“I’m sending you a book I think you’ll like,” I said. “Don’t get hung up on the guy’s politics — just read the book.”
And with that, I Amazoned off to one of my CIO buddies Donald Rumsfeld’s autobiography, “Known and Unknown.” In addition to being a fascinating look inside American politics during the latter half of the 20th Century, the book is a must-read for those interested in the art of leadership. And lest you think I’m talking about leadership of the military variety because of Rumsfeld’s stints at the Department of Defense, I’m thinking here of corporate or organizational leadership in general — just the kind you’re grappling with every day.
As you may have gathered, I read and listen to lots of books. Some of them are more than a thousand pages, but I seem to only absorb few concepts from each — the takeaways. When it comes to Rumsfeld’s work, the main takeaway was around the kind of give and take leaders must have with their teams.
As anyone who remembers his news conferences will appreciate, Rumsfeld was an intimidating figure. He’s highly intelligent, quick on his feet and always prepared. Not surprisingly, he’s essentially intolerant of anyone who’s not. When it came to news conferences, Rumsfeld probably didn’t care much if his manner cowed reporters into holding back tough questions; in fact, he probably liked it. But when it came to dealing with those who reported to him — both in the military and in his successful business career — he would absolutely not tolerate it.
It turned out that a sure-fire way to elicit his ire was by robotically agreeing with him or, even worse, voicing concerns after the fact.
“I need those reporting to me to offer their best advice and opinions,” he wrote. “I demand it, and if they won’t do it, they are not doing their jobs.”
Rumsfeld was fully aware he had the presence and demeanor to intimidate even the steeliest of generals, so he had to combat that dynamic by communicating exactly what he expected.
Of course, unsubstantiated criticism was not what Rumsfeld was after. While he was open to dissent, it had better be fully baked, supported with facts and, if against the current proposal, offering alternatives.
Ask yourself: have you developed open and robust lines of communication with those who report to you? Do they know you are not only open to appropriately delivered dissent, but demand it?
“Of course,” you protest, “I want people to disagree with me and they know it.”
Are you sure? Are they giving you feedback, on occasion, that is contrary to a proposal you’re championing? If you’re uncertain, here’s the telltale sign. Do not stage, but wait until the following scenario unfolds, as it surely will. State your opinion on a matter and note who expresses agreement. Then, when you change your mind, note if those who approved of going left are equally enthusiastic about going right. With those folks, it’s time to deliver a thoughtful presentation on exactly the kind of communications you need to be successful.
Lest you think I’m talking about corporate kumbaya, taking deliberations to the opposite extreme is even worse, resulting in the paralysis by analysis syndrome. Here’s how it should work in a nutshell, and it’s not that complex: Present an issue to your team members, asking them to analyze the situation and be ready to discuss. Do some thinking on it yourself. Then, have a meeting and let everyone express their ideas. Really listen to what’s being said and ask questions to ensure you’re grasping the proposals. Then go off to a mountain somewhere (so to speak) and, for God’s sake, make a decision.
Yes — it’s yet another case of the Goldilocks principle. Good decision-making happens when the level of discussion isn’t too little or too much, but just right. Leave your folks out of the debate and they’ll eventually leave you; let the team debate everything to death and the team will die. Get the feedback recipe just right and you’ll be well on your way to crafting a well-oiled and efficient decision-making machine.