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It Rolls Which Way? A Crucial Leadership Philosophy

During my career in higher education, I was often subject to the pull of gravity…when something went wrong, it suddenly became the problem of someone who was lower on the totem poll…crap rolled downhill.

I’m sure there were cases in which team members were simply not performing well, but even in such cases leadership cannot be excused from taking responsibility. In fact, I tend to think that leadership decisions or indecision are the source of many organizational problems because leadership sets the tone for the organization, determines the scope of work in which everyone will be engaged, allocates resources, and enforces the explicit (and implicit) values of the organization.

While I’ve written in other posts that it is possible to ask too much of leaders either by expecting leadership to resolve each and every anxiety within the organization (“Wet, Yet Unimpressed”) or by wrongly assuming that our leaders can solve problems without our ongoing participation (“Not Just Leadership”), leaders do wield a great deal of influence and responsibility within an organization.

Leadership is responsible for such matters as:

Creating a clear understanding about where the organization is going and how it will get there

Mobilizing members of the organization to agree on the organization’s core issues and to work together to solve problems

Ensuring that there aren’t individuals who make life difficult for high-performing team members because they don’t communicate well (or truthfully), turn in work that always needs to be fixed, or create drama instead of being productive

Allocating appropriate resources of all sorts (human, economic, political, technological, etc.) to those within the organization whose job it is to move departments and other business units forward

A leader’s role makes them ultimately responsible for the organization as a whole. While it does not absolve those who answer to others in an organization from performing their duties well, there is only so much of a leader’s responsibility that can be delegated to those who report to her or him within the organization. Inevitably, when leaders can’t or won’t fulfill their roles, they create tensions and confusion within the organizations they lead.

For instance…

Imagine you have a co-worker who seems to get by with everything. Forget policy, forget how it impacts others in the organization, forget collegiality and morale. This co-worker is either explicitly given permission to do what they want or takes it on themselves to act in whatever manner they would like and is never held accountable. Obviously your co-worker is responsible for his or her own behavior…but in an organizational context, it is the leader’s job to hold people accountable, so if you have a problem with your co-worker, you also have a problem (perhaps a bigger one) with the leader who is allowing the behavior.

Imagine you work in an organization that has fallen on tough times financially. Despite knowing which departments are creating major cash deficits, your leadership decides to keep those departments in tact. In doing so, they de facto deny resources to departments capable of more sustainable growth and require them to support departments with deficit budgets. It’s easy to be frustrated at those in the fiscally challenged department…but it’s really leadership’s call.

Imagine that you have an over-promoted co-worker…someone who has been given a position but does not have the skill level to really perform well. You end up picking up the slack or being asked to hold projects together despite leadership’s awareness of this individuals inadequacies. Again, it’s easy to blame the person who was over-promoted…but it’s really a leadership decision that is creating the problems.

Im sure there are many other examples. The point, however, is that leadership has a great deal of responsibility. Unfortunately, leaders do not always accept that responsibility (even though they have accepted their position).

The lesson in my mind is twofold: (1) if you are a leader, make it clear that you believe crap rolls uphill…that it’s your responsibility to make sure the organization is on mission and functioning well and (2) if you are following a leader, don’t solve his or her problems…don’t put yourself in the position of doing the leader’s job without the leader’s authority, access, position, or pay.

There are some organizational “truths” that are acknowledged, but never really actualized…people give lip service to the concept, but won’t implement the reality. “Crap rolls uphill” is one of those organizational “truths.” Organizations work best when people take responsibility for performing their role in the organization with excellence. It isn’t that there are not times when offering a helping hand to a colleague or another department isn’t warranted. There are times when you will find it appropriate to work outside of your role for a time…just not all the time. Falling into a pattern in which you are doing your role plus someone else’s because leadership can’t or won’t make a call is what needs to be avoided.

Part of your role in any organization is to maintain strong boundaries…to do your part and not the parts of others. So next time you feel the urge to do what your leader should really be doing…defy the laws of gravity and make crap roll uphill.

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