For most leaders, decision-making involves the dualities of increasing productivity but retaining quality; satisfying ecology but maintaining profitability; reducing service costs but insuring customer satisfaction. Leaders serve many constituencies: senior staffs, employees, stockholders, board members, customers.
Leaders are often unaware of their personal limits and the limits of their jobs: the job is often soul-consuming; martyrdom is a frequent refuge; and super-human responses still fall short.
In the past, leaders were encouraged to live with the demands of their jobs, reduce excesses through delegation, appreciate the achievements—the rush, respect, even admiration of those they valued. But such consolation didn’t last.
Why? It was a sane approach. It blended knowledge of both the nature of the job with that of the client. But the fears persisted: not being equal to the challenges; surrounded by untrustworthy and even back-stabbing associates; and an array of external forces and factors making success problematic. The net result was frequent and urgent callbacks in which CEOs spent all the time venting. The inevitable question then came: “Am I crazy? What’s wrong with me?”
Once I answered: “The job is crazy, and so are you. It is a mirror match. No divorce is possible. You have a tiger by the tail. Neither one of you will let go, and it will never change its stripes. Your paranoia goes with the job and with who you are. We have to bring it to the surface and accept paranoia as a norm. Then we need to find ways of making that paranoia work for you—making it protective, purposeful, and proactive.”
The executive was thoughtful. Then he said: “Clearly, I am not comfortable thinking of myself or my job in terms of paranoia. So, what’s the next step?”
I told him: “First, make a list of daunting tasks, people out to get you, and those cheering you on to failure.” As a result, this leader went from accepting to embracing the limitations of the job, from believing that there was nothing wrong with him to recognizing his paranoia.
I coach protective, purposeful, and proactive paranoia for leaders. Coaching should be situational: “If you had to deal with this situation how would you handle it?” Although coaching should focus on solutions, these should come from the mentee. But here the client was puzzled.
Three situations surfaced: threats, quandaries, and discontinuities.
I asked the CEO to make a list of threats, including: who is out to get me, who wants my job, who is undermining me or my plans, what factions are forming, what is the rumor mill saying about me, what is my standing with the rank and file, stockholders, and board members? Along with a to-do list, paranoia creates a to-worry-about list.
Heeding paranoia and making it serve protective ends, the CEO finds he has to make some changes. The first one is changing style and schedule of appointments. Meetings now need to be supplemented by information-gathering. Breaks become occasions for surprise visits. Early arrival can be coupled with buying breakfast for managers never known before. Lunches are devoted to disarming threats and spiking the guns of those who may be out to get you. Evening engagements involve inviting senior staff members and spouses for dinner or to attend a show or concert together. It’s sage advice: “Keep your enemies dose.”
The second major change is a reexamination of the CEO’s sources of information. Who tells the emperor that he has no clothes? What has been his relationship with his senior staff? Has he surrounded himself with “yes men”? Does he require constant approval with little or no dissent? Does he shoot the messenger? In short, has he inspired and developed ” followship”? Has he created a team that will protect him?
By operating from a base of paranoia, threats can be accepted as a norm not a personal leadership failing. The CEO needs to have an early warning system. Internal intelligence gathering should match the external monitoring of market and competition. Indeed, the first may feed into the second. Learning about internal capacity may directly affect market performance. Worrying about threats may save his job and his company.
One benefit of valuing paranoia is relieving the CEO of the burden of having to be all knowing, all powerful, all successful, and indispensable. The CEO can’t be the only problem solver. The coach suggests the compilation of another list: what at work drives you crazy? What frustrates or compromises what you believe should be done? This paranoia requires a more reflective exchange. These are not direct threats as much as powerful enigmas that cause sleepless nights and undermine companies. And so the coach and the CEO seek to identify and unravel Gordian knots.
Although many will surface, the most difficult is how to persuade people to change behaviors or to alter basic attitudes and belief systems. The coach might ask the CEO: How often have you changed or resisted change? What helped or hindered you? What have you learned that can be applied? A second approach requires reconfiguring structures and roles so that change is welcomed not required, invited not coerced. In short, change the outside as a way of changing the inside.
To stimulate such thinking, the coach may introduce distributed leadership, including a leadership component in every employee’s job. Or, rotate leadership among team members. Or, shift the focus from changing people to changing environments that change people. The fear or paranoia of failure compels such actions because they facilitate thinking out of the box, and reduce attribution of failure to executive limitations. As with threats, paranoic inadequacy can be turned upon itself for insight, quandaries can become transparent enigmas; and the challenge of internal change can be converted to the challenge of external structures.
Increasingly, nothing remains constant and familiar. Twists and turns, breaks and new directions, shrinking of old markets, seeking new ones—these are the daily fluctuations leaders face.
Given such regular dislocations, the desire to hold on reinforces the resistance to change. The future then abandons the organization. Whep the coach and the CEO address the future, what surfaces is the stuff of which nightmares are made: assumptions, planning, and coherence.
- Assumptions that good times will continue, that growth is assured, and that market share will remain secure make for happy days. But when discontinuity becomes a norm, assumptions analysis has to become the data of decision making.
- Forecasts and strategic planning fail to serve as an early warning system, suffering from a reliance on assumptions. If the CEO asked all employees to invent the future, that would make everyone a strategic planner who would forecast how their jobs might change and what to do to prepare.
- Coherence. The key is for the leader to find and articulate new common ground. It may be a combination of some previous beliefs that still have binding power with some new sources of coherence that await us in the future. Together these give commonality of purpose and flexibility to face discontinuity. Having graduated from the College of Paranoia, you are ready to lead others out of the wilderness of threats, quandaries, and discontinuities.