I’ve been fascinated by leadership for my whole life. The characteristics of leaders… how they react in different situations, especially when challenged… how they handle direction from others… how they frame their own contradictions of themselves… these are all interesting. They also tell me much about the direction of the organization, it’s potential for success, and the degree to which I want to associate with it.
Here is one of my favorite ways to find out the degree to which a leader has thought about their decisions or goals: I ask, “What will be the effect if this doesn’t happen?”
If the leader can articulate how a failure will affect the organization’s ability to accomplish important (let’s say strategic) goals, then I am confident the leader understands the decision and its implications for what it does.
Here’s an example of how I use this question. In a job interview, I will often ask, “So, if this position cannot be filled, what will be the effect on students, teachers, and staff?” (Remember my field is educational technology.)
1, When I hear, “Oh, that is not going to happen, we are deeply committed to this,” I proceed with caution. This answer conveys three messages: “We don’t think this is a role directly affecting the work of the organization,” or “we think it is important, but we don’t know how, so it will be given secondary consideration.” As a highly skilled educational technologist, I don’t want my skills to be secondary. I also don’t want to be associated with a school in which technology is not understood to be central part of the mission-critical operations.
2. “We are looking for someone to take on the work that we don’t want to do.” Implicit in this is that you will be expected to have a “magic wand” that fixes everything as we want it fixed immediately. Included in this is the message that “we don’t want to think about this anymore.” Implicit, also, is that I am going to have to clean up a mess made by someone else.
3. “This will stay in the budget.” I understand that last point. Many are motivated by job security, but we also know that other factors related to job satisfaction are more important in many situations. I also assume if you project this priority on me then it is your primary motivation (sure I know this may not be true, but psychology suggests I have reason to make this assumption).
We have a good idea how leadership works. Define goals, build commitment to the goal, and provide a pathway to meeting that goal. If leaders are unable to articulate how a position in the organization or a strategy being developed (or any other use of resources) contributes to the goal, then one should question it.
If alignment between decisions and strategic goals cannot be clearly articulated by the leader, then it is likely to be mismanaged and incompletely integrated. I am always left wondering also, how many other decisions have been made in this way.