When I was in the Army I learned that military life was long stretches of boredom interspersed with moments of trouble, tension and even terror. Interestingly enough, leadership follows a similar pattern. On most days leadership involves doing what is necessary to keep the ship floating and running properly. Decisions are usually straightforward and are often made by staff. Support and encouragement of staff are leadership’s major contribution. Those times require a steady, calm hand at the helm. Sprinkled throughout that calmness, there are moments that challenge and test leaders, their character, ethics and judgment. Sometimes those issues are situations that leaders wish they never had to face. This is a time of great risk for this is the time the leaders are tempted to be clever.
The Difference Between Cleverness And Creativity
Cleverness and creativity are two very different items but the distinction is often subtle to leaders in the midst of a crisis. Creativity is essential in today’s fast paced environment. Leaders are called upon to create and sustain creative environments, to find solutions where none existed before, and even to blaze new paths. Creativity addresses defined needs. Therefore leaders challenge people to think outside the box to create new ways to achieve unmet expectations. This is the core of innovation. Creativity, therefore, is an important and critical skill for all leaders to unleash.
Cleverness is different. Cleverness is focused on building rationalizations that allow leaders to avoid situations they prefer not to address. It persuades leaders that they are doing right when in fact they are doing the opposite. Cleverness causes leaders to avoid standard and consistent solutions to a particular situation and instead find ways around the required action. Cleverness permits leaders to justify a course of action that sounds good (and even wise). It has an aspect of credibility even though the very foundation on which the decision is built is faulty. That is the sinister side of cleverness: it often disguises itself as creativity.
Sometimes leaders are clever and they skate through a situation – no harm no foul. There is little fall-out except that people on the sideline (usually staff) observe and are often confused as to why leaders behaved the way they did. They wonder why the leader acted in this manner when other situations were handled differently. When this occurs, there may be no catastrophic consequences but tiny fissures are created in the foundation of leadership credibility. If that behavior continues to occur, it takes a toll over time.
In other instances everything is on the line because the issue is significant, public and visible. All eyes are on leadership and how the issue will be decided. Sometimes, leaders look at the situation and foresee the direction it is headed and they do not like the course of action that lies in front of them. The problem is that the issue is visible and cannot be skirted so leaders begin to look for a way out – a clever way to manage the situation and avoid doing what the situation calls for.
Two Instances of Leadership Cleverness
Over the past decade we have watched powerful leaders impale themselves on the spear of cleverness.
One example was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts. Roberts became the deciding vote on the legality of ObamaCare. The court was split and his vote would determine if the law stood or not. Roberts did not want to be seen as an obstructionist. He did not want to be known as the Justice who denied health care for millions of citizens or who thwarted the actions of the first minority President. That was not a legacy he desired. Yet, the law had been structured illegally and the executive branch of the federal government had clearly imposed a tax on the American people, outside of the executive branch’s constitutionally granted authority. Everyone knew this action was illegal but Roberts did not want to address the issue. As a result, he ruled the opposite way. He argued that if the American people did not like the act they should vote different people into office. It was not his battle but the citizens of the US. A clever argument that allowed him to avoid the situation but it was not right.
Think what might have happened if Roberts had followed the rule of law by applying it to this situation. The issue of Obamacare would not have been one of the critical litmus tests of the 2016 election. Perhaps that entire election would have been different. Clever decisions have consequences.
The second issue involved James Comey, the Director of the FBI. Comey had a reputation as a straight arrow. He was known as a man of impeccable character and ethics who curried no favor with any party. Then, through no fault of his own, he was faced with the Hillarygate investigation. Had the Secretary of State, who was running for President, acted illegally in failing to secure and protect classified information? Everyone can understand why Comey did not want to address this situation. He did not want to be known as the man who possibly thwarted the first woman president from holding that office. Furthermore, he knew that even if he ruled against Clinton, the Department of Justice would probably not uphold his decision. (None of us can imagine the pressure he was under inside the federal bureaucracy). Comey, however, could not escape the responsibility to decide. “A decision not to make a decision is a decision”. Inaction was not an option – he had to cross the Rubicon.
The nation watched as Comey deliberated, his superiors in the federal government watched and his employees watched very carefully. When Comey laid out the facts in the case, his logic clearly led to one conclusion. A recommendation should be made to present the case to a grand jury. But cleverness prevailed. Intent (a criterion not found anywhere in the federal law pertaining to this issue and never applied to anyone else who was accused of failing to protect classified documents) was introduced into the equation. Clinton was exonerated and the implications were swift and astounding. The reputation of the FBI was tarnished. Comey’s personal reputation was tarnished. Later when he reopened the case closer to the election and then closed it a second time his reputation as a leader and decision maker was tarnished even further. This was a good and honorable man who was was seduced by cleverness and he paid a heavy price to his reputation.
Imagine if Comey’s decision had been to recommend the case go to a grand jury. The issue may have been resolved and Clinton could have run for President unimpeded or, if she had been charged, a new Democratic candidate probably would have taken her place. Again the whole face of the 2016 election would have been different.
The Consequences of Cleverness
The sad truth is cleverness produces consequences that have a way of impaling leaders on their own petard. Clever decisions are a snare, which trap leaders in their own inconsistency and lack of logic. Cleverness always has short-term consequences but clever decisions also set dangerous precedents that can become troublesome standards against which leaders’ future behavior is judged.
Almost always the major victim of cleverness is the leader’s credibility and reputation. As Robert Frost alluded to in “The Road Not Taken”, leaders will never know what might have happened if a different decision had been made. They will know,however, the confusion and disappointment they create. One thing for sure, neither Roberts’ or Comey’s reputations were enhanced by their cleverness. This is almost universally true of leaders who are snared in the cleverness snare.
The Justifications For Cleverness
Leaders who face these difficult and “lose-lose” situations may be offered clever alternatives by others. The justification may be tweaked to fit the situation so that there is an element of truth (fairness?) built-in thus making the clever solution palatable. Clever decisions are appealing because there is an element of truth in them.
Sometimes leaders talk themselves into believing the clever action they are proposing is right and proper. The more they think about it, the more acceptable the action becomes. Leaders become convinced by their own logic. They may even practice the explanation in front of a mirror and get the words exactly right to explain their rationale but in their heart there is a gnawing realization that this action is not what they should do. Interestingly enough the explanation that sounded so good in front of the mirror often rings hollow when presented publicly.
Unfortunately leaders do not get to pick and choose the issues they face. They must play the hand they are dealt. Some issues the leader faces are troublesome and on the face are no-win situations. Other situations can cause the leader to rue the day he or she moved into that position. Whether it is giving benefits or favors to favorite employees over others who are more deserving or addressing a thorny issue that senior leadership delegates downward so they don’t have to deal with it, leaders at some point will find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. As Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here” and the leader must act.
In these situations, how does a leader discern the right thing to do? Several considerations guide the leader’s thinking process.
1. Define clearly the issue to be decided.
How the decision is framed is critical. Leaders can sometimes feel pressure from others to frame an issue so that leaders solve the wrong problem. (Many know how to play the system to divert leaders attention away from the core issue). Leaders ensure they are addressing the appropriate issue by focusing on the proper decision statement. If that focus begins to slip, clever decisions will result and appear acceptable. Leaders are wise to always keep the main thing the main thing.
2. Gather facts objectively.
This goes without saying. Unfortunately when a clever decision is being considered prior to gathering the facts, data gathering becomes less than objective.
3. Take personalities out of the situation.
In these situations leaders can be tempted to allow the position and power of others to alter their decisions. It may be powerful or persuasive superiors, customers or friends. It may be people who will benefit (0r be harmed) by the decision. Clever leaders will come to realize they have sold their soul to the devil when they make decisions based on personalities, not facts.
4. Take the leader’s reputation and possible future standing out of the situation.
Leaders often receive input on the decisions and in most cases this input is welcome. There are times, however, when what others advocate for improper alternatives. What these parties want leaders to do may be implied or explicit. Preferred solutions may come as suggestions or threats.
Most leaders are smart enough to realize that while it may be unspoken, they will not be considered team players if they go against their superior’s wishes. Future rewards may be granted or withheld based on the leader’s willingness to go along with the preferred direction. Leaders must clearly see and evaluate the risks of making a decision. They must prepare for those risks after the decision is made, should they occur. Ethical leaders cannot allow others, even superiors, to force them into clever decisions by threatening them with the risk if leaders make a different decision.
5. Stay Under the Umbrella of Protection.
Leaders operate under an umbrella of protection. This umbrella is composed of laws, policies and procedures that define the ball field within which leaders operate. No leader has unbridled authority and this framework provides the leaders with a definition of their authority and obligation to act. Leaders should consider what their authority and obligations are; what appropriate alternatives exist; what actions have been taken in the past; and, how those apply to the decision being made. When leaders are asked to step outside the umbrella of protection, they can rightfully assume there will be risk (personal and organizational if they acquiesce to that request.
6. Talk to trusted others.
As scripture says, “In the multitude of counselors there is wisdom.” (Proverbs 11:14) These kinds of situations require deep conversations with wise people who are not directly involved in the situation. Those who will speak honestly, openly and directly. These are people who will confront leaders with the objective facts and what is right.
It should be noted that it is too late to find these kinds of people once leaders are embroiled in a situation. This network must be developed in advance of the crisis. When leaders find this kind of trusted advisor, this person is worth their weight in gold. Their advice should be weighted heavily over others who advocate for a specific course of action.
7. Be wary of suggestions that advocates decisions that would otherwise be unacceptable.
When alternatives are proposed that do not align with the thinking in step 5 and 6 above, leaders should be wary.
These alternatives may come from well-meaning people who want to protect the leader. They fear the consequences of taking the appropriate action so they advocate cleverness.
These kinds of rationalization may also come from others who want leaders to act in a certain way. With the best of intentions (or not), they suggest compromise.
One can often tell when people are proposing clever alternatives by the fact that the proposed action has never been taken or even would have been considered in any prior situation but the action suddenly applies to this one.
8. Make the decision that the leader feels is right, consistent and ethical without regard to person or position.
This is where character, judgment and courage intersect.
Most leaders understand there are situations in which they cannot do the right thing and receive universal acclaim. But leaders have to live with themselves. This is the tipping point where leadership is tested. This is where leaders demonstrate if they truly believe and have convictions about stated ethical underpinnings or if they simply prefer those ethical standards as long as they are convenient and expedient. One rule of thumb: if there are misgivings over a contemplated action, don’t make it. Take time to think further.
One further note: when leaders make a clever decision rather than do what is right, they sear their conscience. It will be easier to rationalize the next clever decision and the next. Suddenly leaders find they are living on the slippery slope of expediency.
9. Be prepared to live with consequences.
As the Roberts and Comey situations illustrate, there are certain situations in which whatever decision is made will create critics and enemies. Whether it is the disdain of one political party or the other or the reported multiple resignation letters from staff who disagree with the decision, leaders can not please everyone.
Acclaim and praise are powerful encouragement for leaders to be clever but so is the avoidance of pain. In either case these personal consequences must only be considered after a decision is made, never before.
It is hard to face the ire of critics when leaders do not comply with their desires. It is equally hard to live with the disappointment of friends. There are always consequences. For ethical leaders the worst pain, however, is living with the knowledge that they chose cleverness over right – that they opted for expediency over right.
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