Just in Case Leadership?


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Herman "Just in Case" Conway (not his real name, but close) was the manager of an organization for which I worked very early in my career. It was an organization wherein senior management (i.e. Herman's bosses) was maniacal about rules, regulations and discipline. A place for everything, everything in its place, processes followed to a T. A place where strict adherence to work instructions made or broke success. Though the services provided were far and away different from a coatings operation, the keys to world-class performance were much the same. Our adherence to predefined processes paid off—the organization was viewed by the rest of the industry as the best in the world at what we did.

In that organization, Herman's bosses would show up at his facility on a regular basis, and almost never pre-announced. All of a sudden a "Supervisor" would appear, so it seemed, out of nowhere and begin canvassing the facility for anything that looked out of order. If everything wasn't just right, the Supervisor's dissatisfaction would be communicated to Herman, and his shortcomings were documented in his bi-weekly written review.

Such was the impetus for Herman's management style and the "Just in Case" moniker. You see, as he went about communicating his expectations to his direct reports, Herman would preface every directive with the phrase, "Just in case a supervisor shows up..." and he would then add the expectation. For example, "Just in case a supervisor shows up, let's make sure everything is organized," or "Just in case a supervisor shows up, I don't want any horseplay." There were plenty more, but you get the idea.

While Herman ran a pretty tight ship, very few of us had much respect for him as a leader—though back then I didn't completely understand why. What I didn't realize at the time was that by constantly abdicating his authority to his boss, Herman simultaneously abdicated the respect he should otherwise have garnered from his subordinates. Put another way, Herman was an O.K. manager, but he was most certainly not a leader.

Herman's fatal leadership flaw made itself apparent to me the following year when I was transferred to another location, and reported to a different superior. This leader I'll call Terry (again not his real name) addressed our team during orientation. In his remarks, he made it clear that we would do the right things because they were the right things to do. He also explained that we wouldn't hear him blame his expectations on his boss.

Terry made it clear that he believed in the organization, believed in its mission, believed in its processes, and since the organization, mission and processes were "the right things to do" we were expected to conduct ourselves accordingly. If we didn't do so, we would have Terry (not his supervisor) to answer to.

The contrast between Herman and Terry could not have been more clear. Herman the Manager hid behind his boss in setting the expectations for the team. Terry established himself as a Leader. The buck stopped with Terry and he expected us to perform at world-class levels because it was the right thing to do, not out of fear that we might get him in trouble. Terry earned our respect, and Herman did not.

The Herman and Terry contrast manifests itself time and time again. In fact, it made itself apparent some time ago when I assumed the chief executive role in a manufacturing organization, replacing another individual who held the position prior to me. Upon returning from my first Board of Directors meeting I was stunned at the number of members of my team who inquired about the meeting. "What does the Board want us to do?" "Is the Board upset about anything?" "What are we going to change as a result of the Board meeting?" I pondered for a short while the question of why my team would be so obsessed about one little monthly board meeting.

It didn't take me long to see the problem for what it was. The individual whom I had replaced in the chief executive role was a "Herman." It turns out, when he made changes, he made them "because the board wants us to." Every time he communicated dissatisfaction to his team he delivered the message that "the board is disappointed that..." The unintended result was an organization that looked past its supposed leader for direction and leadership from a board many of them had never even met.

My answer to those inquiring about the goings-on at the board meeting was that they shouldn't make any difference—the Board was there to hold us accountable to our commitments and to provide guidance when appropriate. Instead of worrying about what the board thought, I explained, we would run our business on the basis of what was right for the business and in pursuit of excellence; never "Just in Case" the board might be watching.

The result was an organization that strove for and achieved excellence and world-class performance. Now doesn't that sound a little more exciting that just making sure nobody gets in trouble? And by the way, when an organization achieves world-class performance any worries about what the boss thinks generally take care of themselves.

I've carried the Herman and Terry lesson in leadership with me for the 20-plus years since I learned it. World-class organizations achieve excellence for the sake of excellence. World-class leaders set expectations for their teams on the basis of what is right. Period.