Moving the authority – whether you’re the #2 or the #rebel

Hannah, my great TA and I are in the middle of reading eight cases a week of “leadership breakdowns.” The fact-patterns are diverse but a handful of themes continually recur. These student cases are strikingly similar to “real life” adult cases, including breakdowns I have personally wrestled with as a manager, and many more breakdowns I have seen in my role as a business coach and consultant.

This week brought to mind something so obvious that it applies even in seemingly opposite circumstances: How do you get the boss or big wigs to see a problem or opportunity  — whether you are the “#2 guy” or you’re someone off on the periphery?

Let me portray the double-mistake we so often make, then put it in affirmative or prescriptive terms.  So, we schedule a meeting with the boss/target. We prepare.  We come in selling, telling, moved with passion about what we see.  We meet with interest, perhaps, but often our passion is not met and matched. Instead, we often hear the challenges, problems, difficulties with moving on what we see.  If we’re lucky, we’re told to develop the idea more, maybe address some of the drawbacks.  We leave — somewhat discouraged, or really discouraged. We weigh whether our chances of success are good enough to put in more time, effort, and to take further risks.  After this calculus, we often just let it go.  Not infrequently, we tell our spouse, friends, whoever will listen that the big guy(s) “just don’t get it.”

Embedded in this rendition are two fundamental mistakes and therefore prescriptions.  Perspective is what these two points have in common.  First, we seldom appreciate the multiplicity of forces the authority must deal with.  In a business, for example, a CEO is pressed in upon by legal, accounting, a board chair (and often a wary wing of the board), the media, investors, engineers, the CFO, HR and sometimes unions or civil service rules. Not to mention their key allies within and without the team.  Pardon me, but I laugh inside at 90% of the criticism of Obama (and 85% of the criticism of Bush before him; yes, I’m a bit biased), because the criticisms so grossly underestimate the scale and scope of the pressures that must be accounted for.  If you want to imagine what the boss should do, and you want to be successful, than do your best to imagine ahead of time what forces are impinging on the boss.

Second, people almost never fully appreciate the driving values of the boss/authority.  For instance, I’m as you’d guess a big-picture person, highly relational, appreciative of gray areas, long-term focused, etc. That’s nice. But I have to get distance from these really important things I value if I want to influence her or him whose different than I. Often she may be bottom-line focused (and that matters), or she’s much more concrete than I am. Maybe she’s focused on quick wins and momentum.  But I guess, if this point makes any sense at all, I should just stop and ask you:  Can you honestly say that you know what your boss (or other targets you want to influence) value? I don’t necessarily mean their spoken values — “faith, hope and love,” or “integrity, excellence and customer service,” though these may matter.  But I mean what they continually return to in the decisions they make?  Imagine if someone was trying to move you and didn’t know what your core concerns were!  Wouldn’t that seem ridiculous?!

If you want to move the boss, then factor in both of these dimensions of their experience: the pressures that impinge on them and the values that arise from within them. If you want to:

Lead with your best self!




  • John Agno said it so well quoting Shaw that I hesitate to comment… But here goes. One of the important steps in preparing is “knowing the audience” – and someone who has to approve an idea or request is certainly the audience. As you said, knowing how the request fits with other demands and knowing how the request fits with the real driving values.

    Add to that how the request gets presented – does the person reviewing it like to start by knowing details and practical outcomes or the big picture strategy and vision, does she/he want to hear and talk it through or read something and then respond.

  • Dan – a question not related to this particular article: Are these written without using apostrophes or does it have something to do with a software glitch? ie: “We’re” comes out as “were.” Interesting observation in the reiteration above, the apostrophes are included but they’re not in the original . . . hmmm. Thanks.

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