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Making The Hard Choice: A Profile in Courage

Sometimes it’s not about a perfect leader. Someone who excels at inspiration, has a grand vision, challenges everyone to do great things and all those other wonderful traits we all want in our leaders. Sometimes it just comes down to doing what is right and difficult even when you don’t know if or how it will work out. Sometimes it’s just about seeing the problem and having the courage to jump into the deep end and hoping for the best.

Dahlia is one of those leaders. She is the CEO of a mid-sized nonprofit with a mission to effect legislation and policies pertaining to early childhood education. She is passionate about the work and has successfully influenced state and federal laws and funding. When it comes to running the organization, she is a thoughtful and solid leader but no one would say she sets their world on fire. She is well aware of her shortcomings and has worked hard to develop new skills.

Over time, Dahlia has changed the roles and members on her leadership team to amp up the management of the organization and supervision of the talent. She hired me to help develop the newly configured team so they could function more collaboratively and effectively. Without going into all the gory details, let’s just say Dahlia had pulled together a group of smart and well intentioned people who struggled to play well together. I facilitated a series of team discussions to break down defenses and barriers to join in more collective thinking and actions. It was slow and challenging. The team became impatient with my insistence that we keep peeling away the layers to get to more respectful and trusting encounters. They wanted to solve problems and move on.

In my private discussions with Dahlia, she began to surface her increased awareness of dysfunctional team dynamics and her role in them. I coached her to take risks to be more self revealing and open in hopes the others would follow. And they did, up to a point. It was clear there were two team members who preferred to function in their silos and wanted these sessions to end.

An unexpected catalyst left Dahlia with a tough decision. A vital member of the team suddenly left the organization. This person had a very important function and was the most collaborative of anyone on the team. He shared with Dahlia that one factor in his decision was the lack of cooperation from these two team members. He simply had enough. This confirmed Dahlia’s assessment; until these two people had a change of heart no amount of team discussions were going to improve the situation.

We discussed how to proceed. Private one on ones, a team come-to-Jesus meeting, fire one or both of them, some combination of all of them. There were many larger, organizational considerations: filling key functional gaps, destabilizing the staff, derailing projects, creating more departures, making the team’s dysfunction more apparent to all. We talked and talked, testing out each option.

I must admit that in my head I knew the right thing to do. But I thought it was too risky so I kept offering safer options. In the midst of one of these conversations Dahlia simply said, “I think what needs to happen is to bring this to the team for resolution. If we still can’t come together for the good of the agency after all the work we have done, then I will need to make some very serious changes.” Dahlia chose the risky, and right, option. This was a team problem and the team needed to get its act together.

Dahlia was never clearer or more forthright when she began the next meeting. “We have been working for months to let go of our individual agendas and act as a united leadership team to serve the organization. We have failed as a team. Alan’s departure is our evidence. Unless we can collaborate effectively we will fail the whole organization. I fear we already have. We are going to roll up our sleeves, say the hard stuff that has not yet surfaced, figure out how we are going to proceed without Alan and sort out what we are going to tell the staff. Anyone who is not up to the task, can leave now. Anyone who does not step up to do the right thing will be asked to leave.”

Long story short: one person got the message and was able to shape up and the other person was removed. The leadership team turned a corner and accelerated the path to well coordinated collaboration. The conversations were difficult at first but eventually everyone experienced the benefits of saying the hard things, abiding by a set of new and more functional norms and not feeling so isolated from each other. The staff was anxious at first with all the leadership changes but came to experience the new energy and support of the leaders. It took five months from the moment of Alan’s departure for all the changes to settle in and for the organization to stabilize.

For Dahlia, life got much easier. She had a functional leadership team that she trusted to co-manage the organization and staff. She kept taking risks to try new leadership behaviors because she was less uncomfortable and had a big win under her belt. She worried less about losing other key talent. She even got to a place where she was grateful that the crisis had kicked her in the pants.

As for me, I learned a good lesson too. Don’t underestimate the courage of a reserved, decent leader. With so many other bolder leaders I never hesitate to push them to put themselves and their teams on the line for the greater good. I had acknowledged loads of growth in Dahlia but wasn’t sure she was ready to call the team out and address all the defenses and bad behavior. I will remember this with the next Dahlia I meet.

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