Leadership Mishaps - Not Just Child's Play

 Summer time is in full swing at our house, and I’ve enjoyed the extra time with my kids. Some of my favorite moments so far include roasting marshmallows over a campfire with family, throwing the football at the park with my son and other children who were drawn in at the very sight of a football, and helping my kids to build (separate) forts in the backyard. There is something about observing the behavior of children that provides a glimpse into the selfish, raw, and unadulterated aspect of the human state. It can seem, at times, that they are missing an empathy chip, especially when it comes to their siblings. They are not always bound by the confines of what they should do, or not do, how it will affect others, or how it will make others feel; they have much to learn.

Recently, my kids spent hours developing separate clubs in the backyard. My daughter’s club, for girls only, was under the trampoline.  My son’s club was inside a playset, and it also utilized a small log cabin that is usually enjoyed by both kids. I was fascinated by the detail with which they developed their pretend organizations. Curiously, to be a member of my son’s club, you had to be a boy or at least 6 years old.  Little sister is five, so there. His club even had three membership levels, which included different benefits, respectively. Having served in many organizations, this was all too familiar. The lowest level of membership allowed you to hang out in the clubhouse and go down the slide, but the highest level included the use of toys in a wagon, and, wait for it …the “club bike.”  The club bike? It was leaning up against a tree next to the clubhouse, just waiting to be used by someone at this elite level. This reminded me of a law office I worked at years ago, that had a shared Cadillac Escalade for an elite group of partners. I was never afforded the opportunity to ride in it, because I was just a law student at the time, but the idea of it was glorious. Surely, one day I would graduate to this level of luxury.  It was always parked there, just shining, and mysterious.  My son is eight years old, so the club bike made me laugh. Clever, really. But, one feature of his club that especially caught my attention, was this sign that read, “Club house: Secret meetings going on,” on the door.  “How interesting,” I thought, “at such a young age we feel special when we feel like we are a part of something exclusive, and have access to something that others do not. This sign was intended for his five-year-old sister.  She would have been really upset, if she could read.  But that was the point of his sign. And it was also the purpose of the exclusive list of members that my daughter scribbled onto paper and taped onto the trampoline, excluding her brother.

In organizations, we can see that even with years of education and experience, grown-ups remain tempted by these same tendencies. Unfortunately, occasionally we observe big kids in the workplace, still wielding their power, because they can. Isolation, unnecessary closed meetings, and gatekeeping are three examples of common behaviors that leaders participate in, consciously or unconsciously.  But, when you’re grown up, and you see these behaviors in organizations, it isn’t sweet. It doesn’t make you smile; it makes you cringe. These actions breed mistrust, and evoke emotions not so different from the ones you felt when you were cut out of a friend’s clubhouse when you were eight.

Isolation – We’ve all seen it, the person who comes around to get elected for a leadership position, only to disappear after winning. This person reappears close to the time for re-election. This is not unique to the United States, or any other country. It’s human behavior that transcends borders. I distinctively remember listening to a political aspirant in the Kingdom of Bhutan, complain to me about people being elected into positions of political power, only to then remain behind the walls of beautiful, new government buildings, in the young democracy.  I was admiring the building when the woman said, “Many leaders go in, never to be seen again, until the next election.”  Yep, I was not surprised, even in a country known for the happiness index, no less!  Then and there she vowed she would never become like all of the rest.  This was admirable. I hope she stands by this word. But, would she eventually be seduced by the lure of power? Anything is possible. Did the last person elected say the same thing at one time?  Maybe. I don’t know. All I know is that, clearly, any of us can fall prey to an unhealthy sense of self-importance.  We must stay grounded in our faith and intentionally live humbly, respecting others in our words and actions. Before entering a leadership role, we should commit, as my Bhutanese friend did, to have continuing and consistent relationship with the people we lead – in her case, potential constituents. But then we have to hold ourselves accountable to it! Really do it! When you do, it will cause people to trust you more, and it will allow you to make better decisions, because you will have diverse perspective.  Leaders should strive to take in information from a broad range of sources and people, so not to be blind to the realities.  Isolation is not good for you, your team, or your organization.  When leaders isolate themselves, people fill in the gap with negative assumptions about what it means and what you are doing.  People typically feel resentful and de-motivated. You’d think that since there is no one there, there would be no issue, but instead, it becomes a distracting void. It feels like an injustice to employees or volunteers.  Whisper campaigns begin. This all means that the organization is less productive, because this is time when people could be working on tasks related to the mission.

Unnecessary closed meetings – You’ve seen the sign, “Closed meeting in progress….” “Hmmmm….,” you think. What could they be talking about in there?  It can’t be good. What are they hiding? The very sight of a sign indicating that a meeting is closed, can spur immediate negative assumptions.  There are good and just reasons for closed meetings, such as executive sessions to discuss discipline issues, legal matters, or confidential matters.  However, the use of closed meetings should be limited. When the door is shut, it can irrationally feel like an injustice, even if it is not. I once was in an organization that had a longstanding tradition of holding their board meetings open for all members. A new president suggested at her first meeting that we close all of our board meetings.  Apparently, it increased her stress level to have observers at the meetings.  But what would this have communicated?  What would non-board members have thought? Thankfully we were able to talk her out of that non-sense.  But, I’m sure there are numerous organizations where such ideas get implemented. As a rule of thumb, organizations should strive to be as transparent as possible.  People appreciate being entrusted with information, and therefore trust you more as a leader. When people feel welcome to attend meetings, they feel valued by you and the organization.  I’ve been in an executive session before, and remember seeing the shadows of the people gathering outside of the doorway through the crack in the door.  As the size of the group grew, their voices grew louder.  It was a legitimate action, but this did not prevent the effect that it had on the people outside of the door. Their body language said it all when they were dismissed for a while. Along with grumblings, there were eyes rolling, and heads shaking in disapproval. I was so pleased when this sensitive issue was resolved, so that we could open those doors. Every minute the door was shut felt like trust was slipping away.  

Gatekeeping – “Information is ____________________.” You can say this in any room, and you’ll hear a chorus of voices say, “Power!” In fact, I said this again at a conference today, and heard a resounding response. This is a well-known cliché for a reason. When you are in a position of power and have information that is helpful, you can feel very important, worthy, and valuable. This explains “gatekeeping,” which is when someone withholds information from others.  There can be good and appropriate reasons for this, of course, but you and I both know this is not what I’m talking about.  I was once in an organization where I saw a member of a committee deliberately not pass on information during a leadership transition, because he had created the resource.  His words were, “It’s mine.” These words always remind me of t-shirt I bought for my son when he was a toddler that said, “Toddler Rules:  If I like it, it’s mine. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine. If I can take it from you, it’s mine. If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine…..” (Google it. These rules are everywhere!)

Really, though? Whatever happened to creating resources for an organization and then passing it on for the betterment of the organization, so that the next person doesn’t have to re-create it? If you truly care about the mission of an organization, you should capture the information that you make and use, track what you learned, and pass on this information to the next person.  This makes your organization more effective and efficient.  As leaders, we should ask ourselves what information that we have that we are able to share, and that is helpful to others, and then share it! This is how we can help people to see the broader perspective.  This is empowering. People love to understand how they fit into the bigger picture.

My son’s simple little clubhouse sign stimulated and inspired my thinking on this topic. It has served as a reminder of how we must fight our own temptations to withdraw from people, exclude people, or withhold information from others.

Instead, we should do the following:

-          Forge and nurture informal relationships with people in your organization to break down status barriers.

-          Be seen. Show up. Do not isolate yourself. Be consistent. Make sure that the people in your organization feel like they know you, and that you’re not just some phantom leader.

-          Get information from a diverse group of people (even those that disagree with you), so that your perspective is broader and your decisions are better.

-          Use closed meetings sparingly. 

-          Be as transparent as possible. It builds trust and keeps leaders accountable.

-          Be inclusive.

-          Share helpful information with others when it’s the right thing to do.

-          When you sign up for a role in an organization, and you make resources, recognize that you are creating tools for the organization (unless you have some kind of contractual agreement about intellectual property ownership), so that it is easier to part with them when your tenure comes to an end.

So, what did I do when I saw the sign on my son’s clubhouse door? I took a picture, of course, to save it for later blog post.  It was so adorable and base at the same time.  Did I mention that the club didn’t have any actual members?  Sister wasn’t permitted, and no one could come over to play that day, so once it was established, it was quite anti-climactic.  My son really thought that the prospect of having a secret meeting was exciting though. So, he waived the rules and told me that he’d make an exception for me. I was delighted to play along and to be the only person allowed.  And in classic form, what did I do? I entered the clubhouse, happy to be admitted into this special, exclusive, little club. Typical….

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