When leaders don't lead

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

Leadership is one of the qualities that is hard to define until you don’t have it. When those in leadership positions do the right things, the organization and its members achieve results that look routine and expected. It looks like what it is supposed to, so few people notice.

It’s when leaders don’t lead that unexpected and undesired results arise — circumstances that require some close inspection and pose the challenge of what to do about them.

My own experience with the academic debate on the subject began during my undergraduate days at Virginia Tech. I was in my junior year and the department chairman, Paul Torgersen, was teaching the course. The text was “The Functions of the Executive” by Chester Barnard. It was written in the late 1930s when Barnard was president of New Jersey Bell. Torgersen was engaging, challenging and sometimes quirky. Even in the Stone Age, which was when I went to college, the text he used was held together by a large rubber band. He has taught the course for more than 40 years and has had to replace some of the rubber bands, but the principles of leadership remain.

Barnard’s premise in his text and in his life is that leaders lead only with the implied permission of those being led. Bad results — such as hangings, beheadings and burnings at the stake — happen when that principle is violated for too long. It is the violation of this premise in government that has me concerned.

Although leaders must deal with a number of stakeholder groups, there are two groups in particular that are most likely to judge them: their ultimate clients and their employees.

Employees and their development are key measures of what leaders achieve and the legacy they leave. For employees to succeed, they need leaders who are as good as or better than they are. Trouble starts when so-called leaders believe the employees are there to serve them and not the other way around. Entitled leaders, who see employees as leverage for getting more than their fair share, limit their organization’s growth, performance and development.

Many of our so-called leaders in the IT space are not performing true leadership functions. We often hear them say in their opening statements, when they give speeches or testify before Congress, that they are not technologists. They say this as though it is a badge of honor.

That sentiment, expressed so easily, sends the message to those in the organization that IT competence is neither required nor valued.

Let’s compare this to other professions. How would you feel if you were lying on an operating table and the white-coated man standing over you said, “I am not proficient in surgery or medicine, but I will be doing your appendectomy”? Or what if a man comes to your office and says, “I am your new chief financial officer, but I know nothing about finance”?

I don’t know what others demand, but I believe my leaders should be technically competent. At the least, they should understand what IT does and its value even if they couldn’t design a circuit. We have heard years of complaints from our community about not being taken seriously and how we need more “exposure” by having a place at the senior leaders’ table. I would like to remind us all that people can die of exposure.

When we step into a leadership position, we need to lead. It takes sacrifice, dedication, passion and attention to the example we set. Be careful what you ask for. Beheadings are no fun. Torgersen taught me that.

About the Author

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

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Reader comments

Thu, Jul 12, 2012 Jerry Lavey Retired Federal Executive

Nice work, Bob. You nailed it. Unfortunately, as an earlier commenter noted: those who need to take this advice to heart won't read it. They think they know how to lead already. Which leads me to comment that knowing what we don't know is as important, if not more so, than knowing what we know. Best, Jerry

Thu, Jun 21, 2012

Part of the problem for leadership in the Fed is that there are so many regulations and other paperwork we have to follow to supposedly make sure everything is done right that we end up with mico-management by rules. This tends to distract some in leadership positions into thinking that all the leading they need to do is see that the rules are followed on paper. As a result, we often get little real leadership.

Wed, Jun 20, 2012 Jim

Well said my friend. Unfortunately those who need this advice either won't read it or heed it. In spite of that keep at it.

Wed, Jun 20, 2012 Cowboy Joe

(removing hat) Well said, "earth" - well said.

Tue, Jun 19, 2012 earth

Where the people want to go, those that want to be leaders will follow. Otherwise one of three outcomes occur: tyranny (do it or be fired), abandonment ( “or be fired” leads to many resumes being edited at work) or torches and pitchforks (unfortunately businesses typically lack an internal Darwin Award that would prevent things like Enron and CFO’s getting bonuses while driving the company over a cliff).

The best leaders evoke the best part of people to get them to do the right thing. Managers are rarely leaders, they are “team players” selected by other “team players” to promote “the local agenda” which may or may not align with business goals. Leadership, competence, experience count only as adjuncts to team playing for the managers agenda and can get in the way when the managers agenda isn’t in others best interest. This is what you are sensing.

If you want to be great among mankind, be its servant. Western societies have an inversion of morality. The most necessary jobs, trash collection, farming, teaching, get paid the least. The highest paid are the skimmers and otherwise useless, upper management, sports players, actors, politicians at heart that contribute only non-essentials. It’s referred to as selling your soul at the crossroads for fleeting gain.

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