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Leadership Realities

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My journey to save leaders from themselves and eventually from their organizations

The privilege of being a trusted advisor for business and for the individuals that run those businesses is great fun but can be very challenging. The fun part is when you get the honor of being a contributor to something that works and changes lives and businesses in a positive way. The challenging part is the very human condition and its complicated nature. The privilege of leadership attracts all kinds and, unfortunately, those privileged do not always play well. Luckily, the prior experiences far outnumber the latter, but the questions I get from aspiring and intact leaders of organizations fall much more into the challenge realm. We all know that leadership is truly a privilege and much more than simply a job. People's lives and livelihoods depend on leaders and it is a responsibility to be taken very seriously.

Everyone seems to have a problem child or two intent on making the business journey difficult. Most of these complicated and mostly smart people are not trying to be difficult and are not intent on being problem children. While it is much more fun to write about success and the positives, it seems that these difficult people are here to stay and the questions never end. To this end, I am going to take the journey of sharing stories and my experiences with these people I can't seem to avoid. On our journey you will learn that some make it and some don't. All these stories are real and taken from experiences I have had with clients. They will be of people who I have met, worked with and what we have discovered together. Some of these people made it and still reside in leadership spots and some didn't make it. The names, genders and vocations of these leaders will be disguised to protect them from public exposure. They deserve my protection. Each in their own way tried, sometimes succeeding and other times not, but always with good intent and a belief in doing what is right. As you read, you will start to have your own cast of characters to compare to because these are not unique challenges. They are simply challenges faced by many of the leaders we all know. As you read, place your own face to the person I am describing and add your ideas to mine. I will be listening.

Phillip Rigorous and the pendulum swing:

In the beginning when I first met Phil a long time ago, he was fresh from military service. Phil had been successful in military life which is no small feat in my personal recollection. Advancing from pay grade to pay grade, having greater responsibility, and proudly providing leadership for other non-officer enlisted people. Before he knew it, twenty years had passed and the family he loved so much wanted a more permanent life. Phil knew success and had no doubt that he would be equally successful in civilian life and so off he went.

Ready for the journey - Few were more prepared or ready made for the trip to civilian life, just as the posters in the recruiting office told Phil. He learned a trade, practiced that trade and led others in the successful completion of their mission. Construction was his specialty in uniform and his natural fit was to get to work for a large civilian contractor. Entering into a strong employment market meant that Phil found a job quickly and using his significant life skills advanced to gang leader and rapidly to supervisor.

The early days - Early in the journey from military to civilian life Phil picked up on the obvious differences between the two lives he had seen. One had enlisted people who had an obligation to play by a set of rules several hundred years old to maintain discipline and structure. These people had been trained and grounded in the rules and disciplines and these rules became a common language. In the military world it seemed that the construction skills were secondary to these fundamental and very personal disciplines or codes of conduct. The civilian world had few rules of structure and the disciplines only applied to the work and quality. Within reason, people dressed, groomed, spoke and interacted as they pleased. Getting the work done was all that mattered. In the beginning and wanting only to fit in, this was fine with Phil. He understood, like all military people are taught, how to fit in. The only time he experienced a problem was when he was placed under significant stress. Each time that happened Phil started to become more aware of the differences and having been trained in a much more disciplined way he, slowly at first, and then more rapidly became insistent on behavior and appearance that looked more like his own. One by one, people started to back away. What had been his style was now being imposed as the standard for others. They didn't like it.

The day it came to a head - As a supervisor you always have to do the "tough stuff" and the day his lead person, Rachel, showed up smelling of alcohol and wearing the same cloths from the previous day, Phil felt it was his duty to exact the proper discipline upon Rachel. Placing his hand on her shoulder he said, "It is hard enough to get men to follow orders, how do you expect them to follow a woman who is drunk and has obviously spent the night carousing." Because that wasn't a good enough start he finished up the conversation by patting Rachel on the knee and letting her know that he could imagine how hard it must be for her to lead men and that he was there for her if she chose to change her ways. Rachel promptly marched to the human resources office to lodge a complaint. What I didn't share is that this was not Rachel's first dust up. Over the previous couple of years, she had been involved in a variety of missteps that you might not expect. Language that was inappropriate was her trade mark and off color jokes were also high on her list of behaviors that landed her in front of her previous supervisor.

Meeting up with a guy like me - Let me begin by saying that people pay a lot for a guy like me to get involved. That is not to brag but a cautionary note to those very thoughtful people who pay me. Every time we enter a situation like this it is incumbent upon me to let the organization know that if possible these things are better handled inside. Once I get involved, the equation changes from corrective behavior to spending money for a professional to "fix" something that is perceived as broken. The day I got a call from Phil's supervisor she was beside herself with frustration. She had counseled Phil repeatedly for small things that she instinctively felt were biases she could glean from his discussions with her. She could feel his preference for working with men, his distaste for others seemingly undisciplined approaches and lifestyle. She had noticed and alerted Phil that his colleagues (other supervisors) were not supporting him anymore and that his instincts were failing him. In essence Phil was becoming too big a distraction. This time, HR was involved and the world that Phil had built upon since leaving the military was in jeopardy. As a last chance she told Phil that he should come over to talk with me.

Now, in a perfect world, Phil simply comes in, draws the critical conclusion that he is the problem and admits he has been a dub. Next and after some reconnoitering, we head into some background inquiry regarding how his beliefs are getting in the way of his success. This is followed, by some small changes we jointly design to adjust his beliefs and make the beginning steps to recover. We follow up after some time with rebuilding the bridges of past relationships and before you know it, presto, Phil has miraculously become the Phil everyone wants to work for.

Just so you know, it never works like that. We always wrestle with what the other person did that precipitated the event and eventually we get into why Phil is not the problem. My job is to remind as I listen patiently that almost no one ends up sitting in my office completely innocent. I poke, prod, explore, excite, irritate and challenge until the ownership for their own job is established or not. Many times this takes several rounds and it is not unusual for a guy like Phil to stomp out and announce that it is time for a job change.

This time Phil didn't stomp out but it was obvious to me that he was hunkered in and pride was in the way, preventing him from owning his behavior. He went through his list of personal accomplishments as if this couldn't happen to a guy like him. In his way Phil was right. If he had stayed in the military, continued to do the things he had done, he probably would have been fine but he didn't and wasn't. Those were my parting words as he left my office after that first meeting.

What does it take to change - Next month I will share the rest of the story but I can give you a little hint. In order to change, something has to change your mind that is bigger than your pride, which can be significant. Next month, I will continue to share Phil's journey with you.

Leadership Realities - Common misconceptions, bad ideas and the ruthless rules of success.

In months to come I plan to write a series of articles focused on these Leadership Realties

  • I gotta be me
  • Personality traps
  • How I look shouldn't matter
  • The flavor of the month trap
  • Avoiding tough talk is kindness
  • I don't have a bias
  • Action based answers
  • They are wrong and I am right
  • We have to go outside for the right people
  • Competitions' byproduct
  • Where is your balance between heart and mind
  • Women, minorities and the leadership myth

Thanks for reading and stay tuned.

5 (3)


Ralph Twombly
Priority Learning

In the 20 years since starting Priority Learning, Ralph has facilitated countless learning experiences and has conducted training for thousands of managers and leaders. With over 30 years of leadership development and organizational development background and work, Ralph continues to build relationships with client companies all over the U.S.



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