The Three Gifts of Bad Leadership

“All I want for Christmas is a new job!” my friend exclaimed as I sat down next to her at the coffee shop. She had called me 30 minutes ago, asking to see me before she had a complete mental breakdown.

“What has your boss done this time?” I asked.

“She yelled at me again in a staff meeting! I asked about her priorities for the next fiscal year, and she bit my head off! I just wanted to know what we are doing in the next few months. For the last year, we just seem to be drifting around. It’s so frustrating!”

“How did the rest of the team react?” I asked before taking a drink of coffee. I knew the answer before she began to talk.

“They just sat there trying not to look at me. Just blank expressions on their faces.” She slumped in her seat. “What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s giving you the three gifts of bad leadership,” I said. “Just in time for the holiday season.”

“What does that mean?”

“All bad leaders give out the same three gifts. When you receive all three gifts, you know it’s time to leave. Or, unless the leader takes the gifts back.”

I took another drink and continued. “The first gift is distrust. Distrust is a gift bag full of glass shards. If trust is the lifeblood of an organization, the distrust gift gives you a thousand cuts that slowly bleeds the trust out of teams and organizations.”

“No one trusts anyone in my office! My boss and teammates throw me under the bus so much, they’ve installed a bus stop in my office!” She laughed at her own joke. “What’s the next gift?” asked my friend.

“Psychological danger. You’ve heard about psychological safety, which is closely related to trust. If you have a psychologically safe office, people are willing to try new things and develop while knowing that your team and your boss have your back.”

“That’s not my office,” my friend sighed. “My boss even has a coffee cup that says, ‘Failure is not an option.’ Oh, she says she loves innovation. But, at the first mistake, she will shut you down!”

I shook my head. “Hence the second gift of psychological danger. Psychological danger is a closed gift bag that shakes and growls at you as you come closer to it. People are in constant fear of attack from that gift.”

I then pulled out an envelope from my backpack and wrote on the front before sealing it and handing it to my friend.

“It says Vision.’ What’s this about?” she asked.

“Open it.”

“There’s nothing in here.”

“Exactly! A lack of vision is the third gift. Despite all of the training and advice given to new leaders, bad leaders consistently ignore the necessity of having a vision. Or their vision is just a bunch of clichés that sound profound.”

“Like, ‘failure is not an option,’” offered my friend.

“Right! A good vision is inspirational and paints a picture of the future of the organization. People know where they are going and how to get there. When your boss reacted so violently to your question about her vision, she was giving you the third gift because she has no vision to give you. You said the emperor has no clothes. And, in a climate of distrust and psychological danger, she didn’t want to appear naked in front of her team.”

My friend sat up straight in her chair. “What should I do?”

“Usually, I suggest seeing what you can do to send the gifts back. Maybe have a frank talk with your boss if you think she can grow. But, given that this has been a while and it appears that your boss isn’t going to improve, I suggest getting out before the three gifts damage you.”

“OK! I will start my job search today. But, how do I avoid winding up with another boss who gives out the same three gifts?’

The Google has numerous articles on spotting bad bosses during interviews,” I said. “When they ask you if you have any questions during the interview, ask what their vision is for the organization. If they don’t have a clear vision that can be easily communicated, I would have serious concerns about taking a job there. That’s my first sign that the other gifts of bad leadership may soon follow.”

“Thank you! This has been great!” She smiled. “How did you discover these three gifts?”

“Observing bad leaders in action. Bad leaders act in a variety of ways. Still, they always seem to have the same effects on their people and organizations. Just remember that if you move into a leadership position, don’t re-gift these three gifts to your people.”

A Proposal for a New Organizational Model

I developed a new organizational model after several years of reflection and study, starting with my MBA work in 2001. My Ph.D. work especially inspired me in developing a new model of public leadership and, later, on my study of the lean startup movement.

The new organization is designed to be agile in every aspect of the work products, leadership, and workforce. The organization is also transparent and designed for maximum information flow. Finally, the mission, vision, and strategy are baked into all that the organization does and drives the organization forward. Here is a diagram of the new organizational model.

Look at the upper box with the five chief officers. A common theme in organizational studies is the danger of silos and fiefdoms. There are also problems with forming a senior leadership team that works together for the good of the entire organization. Therefore, in the new organization, only five chief officers form the senior leadership team.

  • The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) – chairs the senior leadership team and keeps the organization aligned with the mission and vision by keeping the strategy engine working effectively.
  • The Chief Alliance Officer (CAO) – combines the traditional functions of the chief human resources officer and chief information officer. Responsible for managing the organizational talent and the organizational APIs platform.
  • The Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) – responsible for managing the knowledge and learning the workflow of the organization. It also oversees the training and development of the organization’s talent.
  • The Chief Brand Officer (CBO) – responsible for overseeing the organization’s brand: internally and externally. It helps the CEO manage the public-facing side of the organization’s mission and vision.
  • The Chief P4 Officer (CPO) – Oversees the portfolios, programs, projects, and processes of the organization’s Business Engine.

In the middle of the model is the “Business Engine.” The Business Engine is where the organization does the work. Instead of a factory floor with fixed production lines, the Business Engine is a maker space with both a physical presence and a virtual presence. Work is performed by a network of project teams loosely organized into portfolios and programs. There are few fixed processes, and these processes will be heavily automated using artificial technology systems using blockchain technologies and deep-learning algorithms. The teams will use agile project management, human-centered design, and adaptive case management to manage the work.

Surrounding the Business Engine are four critical components. The most crucial component is the “Talent” box with the four types of employees. These types are based on the Alliance model of employer-employee agreements. At the bottom is the Organizational APIs Platform, in which the core APIs that run the business infrastructure is available for the talent and teams to build their personalized tools and apps. Surrounding the Business Engine on both sides are open data streams that provide the performance metrics of the organization and allows for easy knowledge-sharing and collaboration in the organization. Embedded in the Business Engine are strategy information radiators (Ambient Strategy). The strategy information radiators provide regularly updated information on how well the organization is fulfilling the mission, vision, and strategic goals.

Pulling the organization forward is the “Strategy Engine.” On top of the Strategy Engine is the “Mission and Vision” alignment compass, which helps align all the organization’s activities toward the mission, vision, and strategic goals. What powers the planning process for the Strategy Engine are the twin concepts of organizational agility and organizational health.

There is a lot of this model borrowed and a lot that is new. I don’t believe there is an organization that follows this model, but many organizations could benefit from adopting parts of the model. I look forward to expanding upon the parts of the new organizational model. I welcome your comments, criticisms, and suggestions.

The Zen of Cultural Change

It is time to move from creating a more open government to sustaining open government. Yes, there is a lot more work to do in making agencies on all levels of government are releasing their data and becoming transparent. Governments have successfully picked the low-hanging fruit of opening up their datasets. It’s now time to change the culture of government, so openness, transparency, and collaboration are embodied in everything the government does. Ten years from now (if not sooner), government employees shouldn’t even have to wonder if they are open, transparent, and collaborative because the culture of the agency ensures that they are.

Culture is a natural byproduct of humans as social beings. We develop culture so we can get along, survive, and achieve goals. It is only natural we develop cultures at work because a large part of our waking hours is spent at work or thinking about work. A single person cannot have a culture; it takes interactions between each other to create a culture. But what exactly is culture?

There are many academic definitions for culture, but for our purposes, I prefer this simple definition: the way we do things around here. “We” come together in a defined group (e.g., IBM, HUD, Star Trek fans) and in a defined boundary such as a department, office, or online community (“around here”). We develop methods, practices, policies, etc. (“way”) that govern the actions (“do”) members of the culture take in response to “things” (issues, events, etc.) that we face as a culture. Essentially, organizational culture is how we collectively solve the problems we face every day in our work and life.

Thus, the resistance to changing the organizational culture. Problem-solving is hard and takes a lot of resources and effort. Humans are incredible at problem-solving, but they are also good at optimizing. We don’t like having to solve the same problems repeatedly, so we create things like writing, forms, email, databases, etc. These things embody the solutions we have created so that the next time the same problem shows up, we can solve it without having to think about it. We only give up our solutions when a demonstrably better solution comes along. And it better be a good solution if it has a chance of displacing the current solution.

Neon sign that says change.

Cultural change is not only possible, but it is necessary. Groups change, new events confront the group, and new problems face our culture. The reason why many intentional cultural efforts fail is that they don’t recognize the paradoxes of cultural change. This is what I can the Zen of culture because we blend many paradoxical ideas to develop culture. Here are three paradoxes that make cultural change difficult for those who do not first seek to understand the culture:

The culture is not the culture. There is no one culture but many cultures that people belong to. You may have an overall agency culture, but you also belong to the subculture of your department, the subculture of Redskins fans, the subculture of people who eat out for lunch, and so on. Some of these subcultures are easily changed, while others are ingrained in you. And how these subcultures interact to cause the resistance to change. For example, IT folks are often most open to new technologies while the law department would rather stay with the software, they have been using for the last 20 years because they have built many of their processes around how the software works.

We seek the novel and the safety of the familiar. Imagine a playground in an open field without fences. The children will often huddle together in the middle of the playground and are reluctant to wander out in the field. Now, put a fence around the playground. Then the children will often hang around the fence and are more willing to venture out in the open field. The setting of boundaries makes us adventurous. We have the safety of the fence we can run to between our adventures. Culture equals safety.

Culture remains the same by changing. Thanks to the Internet, many ancient religions are now being practiced today. Many Amish businesses use a personal computer in their business dealings with the outside world. Numerous monasteries sustain themselves by creating websites for clients. Cultural groups will often use new technologies or practices to maintain the current culture and its core beliefs. Championing change can be frustrating for a change agent when they see their innovation being used to defeat the intent of the change.