Caveats for Leaders: Pay attention, listen including gossip!

19 Sep

In my positions in higher education I have always had access to the head folks, the chancellors, the presidents, the provosts. In some few cases I have found them to be thoughtful, innovative and intelligent people. In far too many cases they seem to have gotten their jobs by a combination of luck, not pissing anyone off and favoritism, nepotism or their ability to suck up.

Not surprisingly those who get their jobs using those tactics value those tactics in others. If it was good enough for me it should be good enough for anyone. In my humble opinion one of the reasons America seems to be having severe difficulties in a variety of ways these days is the dearth of effective, courageous, honest leadership.

” Leaders” are so busy trying to keep their jobs that their primary motivation and vision seems to be to not say anything that could upset anyone.  Any mother can tell you that this is a zero sum game. If you have three children, or even two, possibly even one, trying to never say anything that upsets them while trying to accomplish something is not going to work. Although employees at a university are not necessarily children ( some could definitely pass as children) they do need leadership and they need oversight.

Leaders are supposed to lead. That means they think, they gather information, they consult with other people, they examine systems and make recommendations for change or improvement and they above all listen!!! Pay attention to what you learn and use it to forge a position and go ahead, full speed ahead, with transparency and disdain for naysayers. You already considered their arguments before you made your decision. Leading by consensus is not leading, it is chairing a committee.

I had the chance to speak with the chancellor at one of my institutions a few years back. He wanted some advice and came to my office, which scared the crap out of my assistant. I guess she thought he had come to fire me. Anyway, at the time my boss, who was at the time not a direct report of his, but was part of his cabinet, had fallen in love and was coming to work, if we were lucky, once a week. Sometimes he disappeared for longer. People on campus were asking me where he was and I was having to make decisions and keep the office going without any real authority to do so.

Chatting with the chancellor I mentioned that perhaps some people needed a bit more oversight, trying to give him a hint about what was going on in my office and other places on campus where some directors and other administrators were out of control. His response to me was ” We hire good people and let them do their jobs, we cannot micromanage.” I could not rat out my boss because that, for some reason, would have reflected badly on me , but what I really wanted to do was jump up and yell: “Making sure people come to work is not micromanaging! Neither is making sure they deposit cash from the sales of tee shirts into university accounts rather than stashing it in their pockets! Listen up! Crap is going on you have no idea about and if I tell you about it I am the one who will get into trouble for going over my bosses head! Pay attention to what I am trying to tell you! All kinds of illegal, unethical, underhanded, wrong, twisted, nasty things are going on here that you either do not know or do not want to know! Wake up!”

I didn’t say any of that of course, it was not my place. Who am I to tell the uber boss what he should be doing. Well, perhaps I should have. Perhaps it would have been enough to wake him up to the fact that human beings are fragile things, open to temptation, even temptations he has no worries about  and could not relate to.  If you are going to be a good boss you have to not just be friendly, caring and nurturing. You have to be informed. You have to impose a little fear. People have to be afraid to let you down, afraid not to do what they are supposed to do in fear of reprisals of some kind.

I am not saying run an oppressive administration, but people need vision, guidance, benchmarks and evaluation and most of all they need to know someone is paying attention. Allowing people to establish their own fiefdoms where they can do anything they damn well please is not good for the person, not good for the organization and not good for society. It is demoralizing to watch people get away with offenses that virtually everyone on campus knows they are getting away with, and it leads to more unethical behavior. If nobody in your unit is actually taking their vacation days, just reporting they were at work every day even when they were gone for 10 days that month you begin to feel like a moron for documenting your time off.

We are by nature creatures that like to acquire things and advantages. If I can come to work when I want to, stay home when i want to, then what measures are in place to make me come to work? One of my colleagues at this particular university used to get ” sick” virtually every Friday or Monday. Nobody questioned it. Another colleague used to fly around the country giving talks, never thinking of taking a day off from her day job at this university. In essence they were allowed to work when and if they felt like it without any kind of consequences.  How long do you think an office can work like that and maintain any shred of ethics?

If your employees are not a bit worried about whether or not you are happy with them, or even worse, if they are not a bit worried about you finding out what they actually are doing, you have a problem. And, it will come back to bite you in the butt. Everyone is not going to do what they are supposed to be doing without some monitoring of their behavior. There are those stalwarts, I like to think of myself as one, who show up, do their job, do not cut corners and just shake their head at their colleagues. Unfortunately, when duplicity is required to advance in so many circumstances they do not usually end up being the boss.

Pay attention to what people are doing. Ask questions, get out of your office, mingle and listen to what people are saying. Some are wrong and their information is flawed, but do some homework, find out who you can trust to know what is actually happening. Keep your finger on the pulse to see what is going on. So many people are worried about being called a gossip that they do not understand the value of knowing what is going on, or what people think is going on. So called gossip is another way to gather information, which, of course, you have to triangulate with your own research to make certain it is true or unfounded.

Whenever something is going wrong in any organization some people who are not doing wrong know about it. Creating an environment where they are not afraid to tell it is crucial. Tattle-tales have a bad reputation. Speaking on behalf of Tattle-tales everywhere, if you do not do anything wrong you do not have anything to worry about! And if you talk to me I can tell you things that you need to know! 🙂

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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized


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