Leading Up the Chain-of-Command

“But all my friends’ parents let them,” my fifteen year old whined, an angry, yet mournfully pitiful scowl hiding her normally radiant smile.

“I’m sorry, but no,” I calmly, yet firmly responded.

It’s a scene that plays out frequently in our house, each of my teenage daughters repeatedly insistent that I am the world’s strictest, and most unreasonable father.  The thing is, I know that’s not true.  Even if it was, however, I try to base my parenting decisions on rational, evidence-based logic.  And in doing so, I’m comfortable in my need to sometimes (or frequently) tell them “no.”

It’s really not too different in organizations.  Leaders are constantly asked to make decisions, and often, these decisions may not be the most popular with employees.  At times, leaders must lay down the law, buck the popularity polls, and make the best decisions for the organization, even if those decisions may be painful or met with resistance.  It sucks, but it’s part of the responsibility one accepts when stepping into a leadership role.

Strong leaders, even if they occasionally struggle with this, intuitively understand this principle, I’ve found.  Yet, in only the best organizations do leaders stand firm on decision-making principles equally up and down the hierarchy.  After all, it’s relatively easy to exert authority to those reporting to you, but to uphold those same principles when facing up at the executive throne can be nerve-wracking.  Organizational stress can make leaders even more hesitant to resist the temptation to become mere “yes men” to top company officers.

Three key practices can help leaders develop and maintain a balance between respectful pushback and suicidal stubbornness.

1)   Set expectations. From your earliest interactions with your boss (regardless of whether she is the CEO or a middle manager), discuss your belief in having  responsibility to push back on them at times.  Most executives appreciate subordinates willing to help them see alternative perspectives and solutions to business challenges.

2)   Practice small.  Like most habits, pushing back takes both repetition and resolve.  By starting with providing constructive feedback to the smallest of issues, one can begin developing the intestinal fortitude necessary to sustain this leadership principle when critical decision making is faced.

3)   Demonstrate consistency.  If executives come to expect their inner circle of subordinates will demonstrate courage consistently, their likelihood of becoming defensive when faced with push-back is usually diminished.

Clearly, standing one’s ground is a leadership trait that serves the organization when manifest both up and down the chain-of-command.  As long as it does not represent blind stubbornness, such leadership strength can prove a vital and lasting source of institutional trust, transparency, and adaptability.  Nearly all organizations value just such a leadership culture.

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