What happens when leaders are not empowered to make critical decisions? My analysis of the issue was prompted by me being witness to, in fact, participating and being challenged with this very problem. In this particular scenario, our leaders are struggling with the paradigm of doing more with less, but not really being empowered to make decisions based on risk-variables and live with the outcomes. How can you really develop leaders without giving them the power to make impactful decisions? How can you expect your leaders to grow, if you don’t allow them to fail? One thing is certain, if things don’t change, you may never see greatness.
Large bureaucratic organizations suffer from the lack of empowerment issue daily, but it’s a slow bleed with the veneer of assuredness. In an effort to diminish individual decision-making, they cover themselves in a blanket of bureaucratic steps and processes meant to ensure a suitable outcome. Large enterprises limit the ability of its decision-makers in hopes of keeping everything within a tightly controlled circle of allowances. When this is the norm are you really developing leaders and getting added value or settling for mediocrity? When this happens, you may be assured they won’t fail, but they will also never succeed in surprisingly spectacular fashions.
There is a comfort that comes from having the guard rails up. But, you can’t turnaround and expect your leaders to wow you with innovative solutions and productivity that goes through the roof. If you want your teams to be “just average,” you embed decision- making in formalized processes. With clear left and right lateral limits you really can’t muck anything up. The description of failure then becomes what it looks like to travel outside of the prescribed lanes or limits. In fact, failure becomes almost unrecognizable and a function of soft metrics which really don’t mean anything.
I have spent a fair amount of time writing about learning leadership through failure, as I believe it is an essential component of development. If you never give your leaders the ability to fail, they will never grow, in which case you should not expect wild levels of success. Without this growth through decision and failure, you wrongly bestow upon them qualifications and experience which they do not have, simply because they sat in a chair for a prescribed amount of time. How many times have you seen someone claiming credit because nothing “bad” happened on their watch? You give them credit for merely sitting in the position and keeping the ship on course during calm waters. These are not the truly desirable qualifications of command. Keeping the ship upright, steady and on course at a nominal speed in a confined area of operations shows us nothing of the what they are capable of in a volatile state.
Where does accountability come in all of this? I have written before on the subject of accountability (Accountability – The Missing Link). By my account it remains the critical link in true leadership development. When exercised, it can become a crucial teaching point. When avoided, it builds apathy in the organization throughout the executive leadership, middle management and line employees. The path to true leadership development has accountability interwoven in every ounce of its fabric, but by keeping the guard rails up you are sure to never see failure and will never have to exercise true accountability. Without it, there is no growth and without growth mediocrity thrives.