Leadership is pretty simple when a business is running well; you can enjoy the exercise of power without being overly troubled by the responsibilities that accompany power. But the true test of a leader is how you behave in darker times, when it takes real guts to stand up and confront the issues instead of just letting them slide.
What do you do when you realise that a CEO is out of control, or clients are being cheated, or the finances are being massaged to mask questionable practices, or you realise that your firm is discriminating against minorities?
When businesses start going wrong, senior managers are usually aware of the root causes – and it is remarkable how many are reluctant to address the issues head-on. Typically, they tend to blame the organisation’s ‘culture’, or shrug and say “that’s just the way this company works…”.
Does this wash? Of course not. An organisation is not a living thing with its own unique personality; an organisation is just a large number of people working to a common purpose, all of whom take their cue from… their leaders. The ‘culture’ of a business is created by the things that leaders say and, more revealingly, do – which then guide everybody else in the organisation as to how they should speak and behave.
Leaders can’t blame the ‘culture’, because they are the culture. And when a leader says “that’s just the way this company works…”, the words left unspoken are “…and I’m not prepared to do anything about it”.
Nor can this be blamed solely on the person at the very top. Yes, the CEO might be a tyrant, but no CEO can run an organisation without the active assistance of the leadership team. If you report to the CEO and feel you can’t tell her an uncomfortable truth, then you shouldn’t be on the leadership team; you are allowing dysfunctionality to spread down through the entire organisation. By choosing inaction, you are actively perpetuating damage.
You are also, in many ways, failing yourself. Working in an organisation where you know things are going wrong – and also know that you’re not going to make any attempt to improve the situation – is likely to make you miserable, regardless of how much cash you’re being paid. If you want to take pride in your career and feel satisfied as you head home that you’ve done a good day’s work, you need to do something.
That doesn’t necessarily mean an all-out shouting match with your superiors, presumably followed by you being frog-marched off the premises by security. It might involve talking privately to your own leaders about the situation, trying to get them to accept that things need to change, even if only incrementally and over time. It might be sounding out your peers to see if they share your concerns, and together work out ways of at least protecting your reports from the worst of the damage. Better to be part of a conspiracy to improve than to remain in a conspiracy of silence.
Or you might decide to stand up in full sight and start pushing back. Politely contradict your CEO if you think he’s dead wrong about something; if your reasoning is strong, you may win allies, or indeed even persuade the old goat to change his mind. Air your concerns in meetings; the worst that can happen is that you end up being fired, in which case you can just go get another job in a properly-run company.
Above all, you need to be honest with yourself about what your own position is. So you might, for example, think to yourself: “In two years’ time, I can make it as head of this division, and that’s my opportunity to start running things better.” You might decide that the time to tackle the rot is when the CEO retires in a few months’ time. If your honest position is that you’re simply too afraid to do anything, then you should probably look for a position elsewhere.
However, don’t kid yourself about the fundamentals of leadership: leaders really earn their corn when things are going wrong, not when they’re moving along swimmingly. If you reflect on your reasons for quitting, you might reasonably consider doing something other than taking another leadership job. Because good leaders take responsibility for the welfare of their teams, they don’t hide behind their desks and just ‘survive’.