Leaders need to act, not just criticize

ManagementSpeak: Times are tough and we all have to pitch in.

Translation: I have a 4 p.m. tee time, but you’d better work late.

I keep hearing loud, angry people complain that our problems are the result of people refusing to take personal responsibility. Which is to say, they’re all someone else’s fault.

Many of those I’ve heard spouting this complaint most publicly are in leadership roles in their organizations, and they weren’t speaking self-referentially, but when leaders say something is someone else’s fault, they take less than personal responsibility. This brings us to Steven Spielberg and Roger Ebert, though neither is loud and angry, and neither gripes about others’ failure to take personal responsibility.

Too often, company leaders think of themselves as Roger Ebert, finding safety in the reviewer’s role. They sit in judgment of employees’ ideas and proposals, creating a sort of movie viewing booth where they screen and rate business proposals. If the proposer is allowed to present in person, the session resembles an interrogation – envision a circle of shadowed reviewers surrounding the presenter, who sits under a hot, bright spotlight. Or else, the entire evaluation focuses on the proposal document, which is to say on the presentation of the concept, not the concept itself.

The critic’s role is risk-free, and achieving career success by avoiding personal responsibility often works. It’s hard to go wrong preventing bad ideas from getting through.

The problem is, you can’t go right either. It might be riskier, but it’s also far more rewarding and enjoyable to help good ideas to succeed. But to do that, you have to become Steven Spielberg instead of Roger Ebert – a producer, which means an active collaborator in achieving success.

Leaders aren’t supposed to have all the good ideas themselves. Far from it, they seek out great ideas, and then help develop both the ideas and the people who brought them forward. This means evaluating suggested courses of action is an important dimension of a leader’s responsibility. The difference is that the critic’s job finishes with the evaluation, while the leader’s role begins there.

Understand, I like Roger Ebert. He writes well and enjoys movies that are filmed in colour, don’t have subtitles, and have car chases and explosions, along with the other kind. In other words, he performs a useful service and performs it well.

The entertainment industry could, however, get along without him and his brethren entirely. If your goal is to be a leader and not just to have a leader’s title, remember: Roger Ebert is optional. It’s Steven Spielberg and his fellow moviemakers who lead their industry.

Lewis is a Minneapolis-based consultant with Perot Systems.