A topic of leadership that has challenged and exhilarated me in recent days is that of keeping the work where it needs to be. As a recovering, “I know best how this should be done” guy – I find this issue extremely relevant for my growing edge. I was sure that I was going to blog about this soon but today I read the following excerpt from the 2002 Harvard Business Review. As I read it I thought – why would you write your own article when this one says it so much better than what you could? So…in an effort to keep the work where it needs to be…and giving full credit to Heifetz and Linsky…I offer you the following…
A Survival Guide for Leaders: Place the work where it belongs.
Because major change requires people across an entire organization to adapt, you as a leader need to resist the reflex reaction of providing people with the answers. Instead, force yourself to transfer, as (President) Roosevelt did, much of the work and problem solving to others. If you don’t, real and sustainable change won’t occur. In addition, it’s risky on a personal level to continue to hold on to the work that should be done by others.
As a successful executive, you have gained credibility and authority by demonstrating your capacity to solve other people’s problems. This ability can be a virtue, until you find yourself faced with a situation in which you cannot deliver solutions. When this happens, all of your habits, pride, and sense of competence get thrown out of kilter because you must mobilize the work of others rather than find the way yourself. By trying to solve an adaptive challenge for people, at best you will reconfigure it as a technical problem and create some short-term relief. But the issue will not have gone away.
In the 1994 National Basketball Association Eastern Conference semifinals, the Chicago Bulls lost to the New York Knicks in the first two games of the best-of-seven series. Chicago was out to prove that it was more than just a one-man team that it could win without Michael Jordan, who had retired at the end of the previous season.
In the third game, the score was tied at 102 with less than two seconds left. Chicago had the ball and a time-out to plan a final shot. Coach Phil Jackson called for Scottie Pippen, the Bulls’ star since Jordan had retired, to make the inbound pass to Toni Kukoc for the final shot. As play was about to resume, Jackson noticed Pippen sitting at the far end of the bench. Jackson asked him whether he was in or out. “I’m out,” said Pippen, miffed that he was not tapped to take the final shot. With only four players on the floor, Jackson quickly called another time-out and substituted an excellent passer, the reserve Pete Myers, for Pippen. Myers tossed a perfect pass to Kukoc, who spun around and sank a miraculous shot to win the game.
The Bulls made their way back to the locker room, their euphoria deflated by Pippen’s extraordinary act of insubordination. Jackson recalls that as he entered a silent room, he was uncertain about what to do. Should he punish Pippen? Make him apologize? Pretend the whole thing never happened? All eyes were on him. The coach looked around, meeting the gaze of each player, and said, “What happened has hurt us. Now you have to work this out.”
Jackson knew that if he took action to resolve the immediate crisis, he would have made Pippen’s behavior a matter between coach and player. But he understood that a deeper issue was at the heart of the incident: Who were the Chicago Bulls without Michael Jordan? It wasn’t about who was going to succeed Jordan, because no one was; it was about whether the players could jell as a team where no one person dominated and every player was willing to do whatever it took to help. The issue rested with the players, not him, and only they could resolve it. It did not matter what they decided at that moment; what mattered was that they, not Jackson, did the deciding. What followed was a discussion led by an emotional Bill Cartwright, a team veteran. According to Jackson, the conversation brought the team closer together. The Bulls took the series to a seventh game before succumbing to the Knicks.
Jackson gave the work of addressing both the Pippen and the Jordan issues back to the team for another reason: If he had taken ownership of the problem, he would have become the issue, at least for the moment. In his case, his position as coach probably wouldn’t have been threatened. But in other situations, taking responsibility for resolving a conflict within the organization poses risks. You are likely to find yourself resented by the faction that you decide against and held responsible by nearly everyone for the turmoil your decision generates. In the eyes of many, the only way to neutralize the threat is to get rid of you.
Despite that risk, most executives can’t resist the temptation to solve fundamental organizational problems by themselves. People expect you to get right in there and fix things, to take a stand and resolve the problem. After all, that is what top managers are paid to do. When you fulfill those expectations, people will call you admirable and courageous—even a “leader”—and that is flattering. But challenging your employees’ expectations requires greater courage and leadership.
Taken from: A Survival Guide for Leaders, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Harvard Business Review, June 2002. https://hbr.org/2002/06/a-survival-guide-for-leaders/ar/1