Thursday, May 8, 2008

Leadership ‘Surprises’ and the Mahogany Prison

Many years ago, in a seminar I attended at Georgetown University, I heard Robert Townsend use the phrase ‘mahogany prison.’ He used the phrase to describe those bosses, in any profession or industry who, having reached some certain level of upper management, allow themselves to become trapped, imprisoned in the executive suite. They are always busy, they work long hours, they rush from meeting to meeting, and if they do leave the executive suite, stepping from the paneled rooms with the river view to quietly walk on thick oriental rugs past the executive secretaries and step out of their ‘prison,’ it is only to rush to another 'mahogany prison' for meetings and the like.

There will be those who say that they are simply doing their jobs, that they have work to do, paperwork to move, etc. The answer to that is simply this: if they want to lead, they have to understand their organization, they have to communicate with their organization and they have to be known by their organization. They can NOT do that from the mahogany prison.

One more point, and it is critical to understand this one point: those who do this, who get trapped in the ‘mahogany prison,’ allow it to happen.

Who is in a mahogany prison? Every manager, every CEO who considers his responsibilities starting with what report he needs to edit, what brief he needs to finish preparing, what numbers he needs to check, what meetings he needs to attend is already trapped. Those tasks should not be and are not the number one priority of any leader. I recently read an article about a Navy Admiral who took ‘an unscheduled visit’ to the piers where his ships were and was shocked at the conditions of the ships and the responses (or lack thereof) of the sailors manning those ships.

This is so off kilter it is hard to know where to begin. These are his ships: the admiral should be intimately familiar with each and every one of them. He should be visiting them frequently. Why would he ever schedule visits to his ships? I understand the issues of protocol for senior officers visiting ships. That is a very poor excuse. How does this admiral expect to understand the real condition of his ships, and his officers and sailors, if he doesn’t meet them regularly? How does he expect them to understand what he expects of them if they don’t meet with him regularly?

Every time that the CEO, the admiral, the VP, or the general shows up at the plant, the ship or whatever, a number of things happen: he sees the real thing, not the paper report. True, when people learn that he is likely to drop by there will be an effort to ‘polish the brass’ and put on a good show for the boss, but after a while that will become to hard. Furthermore, the guys who continue to polish the brass no matter how many times you show up are probably hiding something, just as the plant foreman who always shows up when you do is almost certainly a lousy leader and doesn’t trust his people.

Frequent visits will also allow the boss to ‘meet the troops,’ the people who do the real work, no matter what kind of organization you are in. He or she can meet with them, here there concerns, here their thoughts on new ideas, listen to how the folks who have the best feel for the day to day might provide innovation to the organization. These ideas can then be taken back to the boardroom and incorporated into your future.

Every time the CEO walks onto the work floor it is a chance to Communicate, to pass the word ‘from the horses mouth,’ just what is happening and – most important – Why. It is a chance to provide unvarnished answers and to motivate the real engine of your organization. And don’t doubt that your presence will be noted. The fact that the CEO stopped and talked to the guys in the Tool and Die Shop for 45 minutes, had a cup of coffee and talked about the new expansion will be shared with everyone on the production floor. Leadership requires that the vision be communicated and the people in the organization be turned into a motivated team. A motivated team doesn’t happen by mistake or luck or by paperwork. A motivated team requires effort and communication to provide understanding to the team. This in turn will lead to increased initiative and creative juices, all of which will benefit the team, the unit or production facility and the organization as a whole.

On the other hand, when leaders remains removed from the bulk of the organization, from the ‘job floor’ or the work crew or the crew of the ship, his or her leadership becomes diluted, the message becomes garbled, and the team loses its cohesion, at least in its relation to the organization as a whole. Eventually, the crew will view the leader within and ‘us vs. him’ relationship. In the end, leadership will exist in the mind of the leader alone. I was aware of one Navy organization recently – a 4-star command staff – where the leadership was so removed from their own staff that one junior officer remarked that in his 42 months on the job he never met either the number one or number two guy, and he never tried to avoid them: they simply weren’t interested in their own people. (No one should think that this was because they were never in the staff building: the number of visits to the piers located just a few miles away was few and far between).

So called ‘Leaders’ who don’t know their organization, who aren’t known by their organization and who end up trapped in their ‘mahogany prison’ fighting the papers wars will always be ‘surprised’ and unpleasantly shocked by the conditions of their organization. The reason is simple: they aren’t really leaders. There are cures, but the best and most effective is for the organization to purge itself of such people and try someone new. On the other hand, before you become an inmate in the mahogany prison, develop the habit of walking through your firm, meet the people, feel the pulse of the organization, communicate your vision, mold the team. You may find that it is not only the best way to understand your organization and all its strengths and weaknesses; it’s also a lot of fun.


At May 29, 2008 at 9:33 AM , Blogger HansHidle said...

Leadership is fragile

Bottom line up front: I have served under Pete O’Brien on two separate occasions and consider him to be an outstanding leader, personal friend, and mentor. However, he knows that I will call him on whatever I believe is not correct. In this case, I too believe that leadership is an issue neglected by too many CEO’s and Commanders and write to highlight his call for leaders to step up to the plate.
In twenty years of Naval service first as a junior and later senior enlisted Naval Aircrewman, and then as a junior officer before retirement, and now as a defense contractor, I have seen leaders come and go and their impact on the organization becoming less and less. Why, because big Navy now (or for that matter most organizations) sees leadership tours as just another check in the box for so called “leaders” to move upwards and onwards towards stars and bigger paychecks, instead of investing time and effort into developing true leaders that make a difference and in the end wonders why current crop of leaders turned out to be such failures. Then how does a leader make a difference? Actually, by caring about your subordinates and getting out and ensuring what you want actually happen, happens. Okay, so increase the length of a tour, tell them to care about the people, and kick a bunch of people to the curb as they won’t get their check in the box. Is that all it takes? Again, no, it’s only part of the solution.
We must understand that genuine leaders are truly rare birds and we must take care of these “transformational” individuals, as leadership can be very fragile. Leadership is so fragile that must be constantly nurtured to ensure you are connecting with those who work for you. It takes just one screw up to wipe away all those “atta boys” built up under your leadership tenure, which will leave you with an almost un-bridgeable leadership divide to regain the organizations trust.
The most inspiring leadership I have witnessed (in retrospect, as I didn’t see at that time) was on my first sea tour under then Commander Persson. Commander Mike Persson was a know nonsense kind of guy. Tactically, as far as I was concerned, he was the best I have ever seen. He could fly, navigate, deploy the sonar dome in the water transitioning into a hover, launch a torpedo in an over the shoulder shot, direct other pilots in the flight, and smoke a cigarette all while sitting on 4,000 lbs of aviation gasoline without thinking twice about it. We were all in awe of him. But, did that make him a leader. No, not really, that made him just a great pilot. What made him a leader were his skills outside the cockpit.
We worked very hard under him, but he always ensured that everyone knew what he wanted and consequences for failing to live up to those standards. The reward was a three day weekend every weekend while back on the beach (we had duty one weekend a month). As a young man just out of training, a three day weekend where you can drive to Daytona Beach, Pensacola Beach, Atlanta, or New Orleans every weekend to party was reward for working hard the four days a week. For the married guys, the motivation was an extra day to spend at home with their families. Because he set a high but visible bar and expected us to reach it, morale was sky high.
Did we work some weekends? Yes, there were cases when due to operational requirements, we had to work or fly on Friday’s. To limit the number of those instances and allow the CO to talk to people ahead of time, the maintenance department had to inform him by close of business on Tuesday if they needed to work on Friday (there better be a good reason why we were working). Needless to say, we never worked Fridays. Except for the one Thursday when maintenance let it be know that we were working on Friday and nobody was to let the “MAN” know. We showed up as told and found that many were working on maintenance issues not taken care of earlier in the week, but there was no urgency attached to the work and none of the officers were there to show the flag. Did the CO find out? Of course he did. He knew everything going on in his place. I suspect someone called him, but I can not verify that fact even years later. After sending everyone home, he asked the watch to call a certain maintenance officer and tell him he had exactly 15 minutes to be in his office. What was said between them remains a secret as all counseling’s should remain; however, it never happened again. Lesson learned: if you are going to do anything unpopular, it decision better come from the top with a reason why that it is necessary. This is of course just one of hundreds of examples of leadership provided by a commander I initially disliked but have in years since then grown to respect as my understanding of his lessons have grown.
How great was his leadership? It only took six months for our next Commanding Officer to destroy everything we had worked to achieve during Commander Persson’s three year tour as executive and commanding officer. Why, because in the new leaders mind we didn’t get all of it done on those four days, and therefore we needed to start working five days a week. Gone were all incentives together with the motivation for working so hard. As a matter of fact we were soon working five ten hour days and accomplishing less, and we also went from being the number one rated squadron where everyone wanted to serve to a mediocre place just hobbling along in an instance. Great leadership is personal, all too fleeting, and must be nurtured to survive.


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