Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

Okay, we're tricky, but if you look around, it is amazing what we can learn to do and not to do from the decisions and behaviors of others. Remarkably, on the same flight mentioned above, we also saw exactly what NOT to do. Yes, in the same 65 minute flight we witnessed both the victory and defeat of a leadership orientation.

About 10 rows back from us, a passenger did what many passengers do—he listened to music. Unlike other passengers, however, he decided to do it without headphones. To make matters worse, this passenger seemed to be both hearing impaired and ALSO a Britney Spears fan. When we say loud, we are sure that the pilots could hear it from the cockpit.

Here's where the leadership lessons begin. First, and to our utter and total amazement, the passengers to his left or right did nothing. They didn't intervene. A bunch of hands went up to hit the flight attendant button. Here’s how the flight attendant, who through the entire flight tried to juggle handing out drinks in short order and picking up trash on a deadline, responded via intercom announcing, "This is a reminder that all movies and music must be enjoyed using headphones." This didn’t dissuade our Britney Spears fan who was waist deep in her greatest hits. Sadly, the flight attendant made this announcement at least four more times. It never worked, and amazingly, if not laughable, he kept trying the same tactic. Nobody slept. You couldn’t possibly read. What we got was 65 minutes of Britney’s best.

This was a problem. Make no mistake, it's a crippling problem that most organizations face. The problem is managing by exception rather than dealing with the bad actor. In this case, we had one person that was violating procedures and impinging on the privacy of others. Rather than dealing with that one person, the flight attendant tried to send out a blanket statement. That doesn't work, it wasn't needed, and it's incredibly inefficient. 149 passengers didn't need to hear the message—only 1 did. We all suffered, because the flight attendants and other passengers lacked the moral courage to simply say, "Would you mind turning that down or putting on your earphones?"

Often, regulators will come in and find some violation of a given standard. Sometimes, it can even be an egregious violation of the standard. However, in our experience, it is often the work of a few—not the masses. Rather than dealing with the subpar performance or the behavioral problems of a few, some feel compelled to publish new procedures and enact new policies that make everyone suffer. Put differently, we manage by exception. Instead of holding the few accountable that need to be, we put restraints and hardship on everyone. From the flight example above and from our own years of experience, the most significant contributing factor here is the lack of moral courage to confront the one or two bad actors. It is much easier to just issue a department or organization-wide decree. Again just like the example above, we know that it never works. The bad actors don’t listen to rules or decrees or policies. If they did, they wouldn’t be playing Britney Spears at 100 decibels in the first place.

So, in this month's Leadership In Action piece, we urge you not to give in to the Dilbert notion of managing by exception and penalizing all for the behavior of a few. Next time a regulator comes in and delivers some bad news ask yourself, "Am I going to overreact and punish the whole, or am I going to be responsible and courageous and deal with the problems of a few?"

To learn more about the dangers of managing and leading by exception and to improve your own leadership decision-making, pick up the phone and call Robin Bichy at 703.999.5676.