Leaders at the top aren’t heroes or action figures. They’re human, and they struggle with the choices they face just like the rest of us. As such, sometimes they follow the courage of their convictions, and sometimes they don’t.
Nowhere is this more evident than when leaders struggle with fate-determining choices about the future of a business, defining commitments that require them to take a stand. These are the decisions that boldly declare, “This is who we are, and this is what we do,” internally and externally. Making these decisions creates clarity; avoiding them generates confusion.
Every leader must face these decisions head-on to align employees around a singular purpose. In doing this, the most distracting and destructive issues resolve themselves, and companies can get on with business.
If we could pull back the veil to see how leaders actually make big choices — and what their impact on the business is — first, we might discover that most companies, large and small, are confused about who and what they are. Beneath the marketing slogans and management talk, they are torn between competing ideas about how to define the enterprise and its aims. Do we serve this client or that one? Do we fulfill this mission or another? Are we one firm or many?
This type of identity crisis has material consequences. It can deeply erode the financial, organizational and market performance of an enterprise. More surreptitiously, these contradictions generate much of the dysfunctional behavior that drives people crazy. So-called people problems — persistent turf wars, absurdly constructed organizational charts, breakdowns in communication, priority overload, chronic problems and even personal battles — are often symptoms of confusion wrought by an identity crisis.
At the heart of a crisis are leaders who lack the nerve to make decisions. It’s not that executives make the wrong decision based on bad analysis or intelligence; more often, they don’t choose at all. In some cases, leaders intentionally dodge the big questions about the business. In others, the failure is an implicit “looking away” or an “artful compromise” across competing strategic ideas about what a business should be. Beneath it all, leaders duck their responsibility because they avoid the trade-offs, risks and losses that naturally accompany decisions of great magnitude.
Leaders are conflicted about what the company should be. People at the top do what a lot of us do — they compromise, muddle through or kick the can down the road and hope it gets better on its own.
Most leaders do a good job of avoiding choice before embracing it. Eventually, whether through internal prodding, bad morale or poor performance, many come to the critical realization that making big, identity-defining decisions is really their primary responsibility as a leader. The gains to be had by choosing are great for exactly the same reason that choice is so frightening — loss and gain go hand in hand.
Aren’t questions about purpose and identity relegated to the C-suite, while strategy is normally not the domain that learning professionals inhabit? The simple answer is no; it’s often the people person at the top of a business who sees an identity crisis for what it is. Moreover, these issues are fundamentally about learning and leadership of the deepest kind. There is no place a CLO can make a bigger difference in the company than by helping his or her top team learn and lead more effectively.
For example, consider leadership development programs. Ostensibly, the objective of these programs is training. Yet savvy CLOs use these programs to create dialogue between senior leaders and the top team that forces big issues out into the open. The truth is that many top teams don’t know how their own unresolved differences about strategy impact the daily life of the organization. These discussions prod the top team into conversations they would never have by themselves.
Ultimately, the clarity conversation leads to more leadership development than training ever could.