Monday, April 30, 2012

Leadership at DHS?

I remember when I was a kid my mother telling me, after I had done something stupid – again - that ‘We’ll treat you like an adult when you start acting like one.’  After I grew up – and was an adult – and had done something stupid, the message changed to ‘Well, you’ll just have to take your lumps like a man.’

Unfortunately, the leaders at the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service aren’t as smart as my Mom.  Just the other day it was announced that the Secret Service will now have ‘chaperones’ for agents working various assignments that might lead to further incidents such as what happened in Cartagena, Colombia.

It is readily admitted that many organizations respond similarly to such problems: get the ‘nannies’ out, treat everyone like a child, micro-manage everything.  The problem is that this will work for a short period, and then everything will start to unravel, the situation may well get worse, and you will need ever more micro-managing.  What happened in Cartagena can be reduced to one thing: lack of proper leadership.  But leadership is not ‘being a chaperone.’  Leadership is about establishing goals, giving guidance, motivating people to perform while setting standards and holding people to those standards.  It has been my experience, both as leader for 30 years, and as an observer of leaders for more than 30 years, that people will act precisely how you insist they act.  As one of my boss’s of many years ago often told us: ‘be careful what you ask for from your guys, because it is exactly what you will get.’

In the end, Mom (and the Good Book, and a whole bunch of other folks as well) was right: when you are a child you are treated like a child, when you are an adult you need to be treated like an adult.  Treating adults like children usually gets exactly what you didn’t want: childish behavior.  It is the opposite of good leadership.

If you have some sort of discipline problem with your people, treating them like children will not solve the problem: they aren’t children.  You need to lead.  You need to make it clear what precisely are their roles and functions and duties, you need to establish clear standards of behavior and levels of performance, you need to motivate them and show them the benefits of working to achieve your standards, and you need to hold people accountable when they don’t.  If you haven’t already made crystal clear everyone’s roles and functions and duties, if you haven’t made clear standards and levels of performance, if you haven’t spent the time to motivate and inspire them, and if you have routinely failed to hold people accountable, then you are to blame – not your people. 

Publishing your standards and making everyone read them once a year during your ethics training is NOT enough.  Leadership and motivation and setting standards are full time jobs, every hour of every day.  I predict that when we eventually see the result of the investigation into the Secret Service incident in Cartagena we will find that discipline had grown slack for months, that leadership was sloppy and that inspections had become cursory.  The Secret Service is under a great deal of pressure at all times, and that requires that leaders – at all levels – remain focused.  While most of us will never operate in an organization that requires such effort, the lesson is nonetheless instructive: leadership is a full-time job and the performance of your people is going to be a direct result of your leadership efforts.  Mothering and micro-managing may be a comfortable response to a discipline or performance problem, but they won’t fix the problem; that requires leadership.


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