The Opposite of Courage is Conformity

“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.” ~Rollo May

Almost every definition of courage recognizes that courage is not the absence of fear.  Without over-emphasizing or being over-dramatic, we all have fears.  Some of them are deeply personal and private- self doubt, failure, change, acceptance, self worth, control, etc.  These private fears derive from our own experiences and insecurities and we inevitably take them to work with us.  These fears might be either exacerbated or soothed by our workplace environment and interactions.  t, in any case, they are always present and we act in response to them in one way or another.

Rather than responding to fears, the challenge as a leader is to act courageously and to foster courage in others.

               Act.  Courage is action in spite of fear.   Fear paralyzes.  Fear prevents thinking and reasoning.  Fear stifles our voice.  Fear is embodied in the silent, empty-eyed and frozen appearance of the proverbial “deer in the headlights.”  Just as fear and inaction seal the fate of the deer as a car barrels towards its unwitting target; fear, inaction, and conformity seal the fate of individuals and organizations (although not as suddenly or dramatically.)

               Risk making a mistake.  Inaction because of the fear of making a mistake is the greatest single cause of mediocrity in the work place.  The drive for perfection, when it delays or prevents action out of fear of erring or misjudging, robs a person or team of success rather than ensuring it.  When we fail to act in order to avoid embarrassment and the judgment of others if we make a mistake, we reveal fear and weakness.  We are saying that we prefer to be passive and mediocre rather than risk success.

Courage recognizes that mistakes and mis-steps are not failures; they represent the opportunity to learn and grow for ourselves and others. Michael Eisner, Disney CEO, is reported to have said “To punish failure is yet another way to encourage mediocrity.”  When we recognize that mistakes are an essential part of achieving success and withhold harsh judgments, we empower ourselves and others.

Privilege Principle over Expediency. In the public sector administrators and managers operate by a different set of incentives and motivations than our counterparts in the private sector.  Rather than being motivated and incentivized by profits, losses and bonuses, public administrators and elected officials are often motivated by pleasing others and by not causing any waves.  Elected officials place great value on the views and desires of their constituents which they weigh heavily when setting policy and making decisions.  Administrators tend to be risk averse and generally seek to please as many people as possible- the public, peers, and subordinates.

Perhaps more often than we think, pleasing others and doing the right thing come in conflict, creating a situation in which a choice must be made between expediency (pleasing others) and principle (doing the right thing). Expediency considers each decision in a vacuum with the criterion being the optimal outcome for that specific situation. The criteria for decisions based on expediency are expressed in terms of “Who will benefit?”; “Who will get hurt?”; “Who will be angry?”; “Who will know?”; “How will this affect me?”, etc.  The aggregation of decisions based upon expediency result in inequities, inconsistencies, inefficiency, unpredictability, and chaos while maximizing the benefit to the decision maker personally.

On the other hand, decisions based upon principle place self interest in a subordinate position to “doing the right thing.” “Doing the right thing” is another way of describing decisions that treat everyone equally; that enforce or apply rules, policies, ordinances, and laws rather than ignore them. Doing the right thing is consistent over time and across similar cases.  Doing the right thing does not always win friends or bring personal rewards.  It takes courage to make decisions on principle over expediency when the two are in conflict.  It takes a certain courage to even acknowledge that the two are often in conflict.

Have the Courage to Let Go. There is a paradox that the more an administrator wants to touch everything, the more limited and less effective the administrator becomes.  There are things that are so important to us, things that are so threatening, and things that are such a source of insecurity that we will not yield control even over them even when clinging to them is counter-productive.  For example, when we are jealous of our power and authority we insist on being the final word on everything under our control in order to protect our egos and reputations.  We fail to see that this insistence on control actually limits us and increases the probability of some kind of damage to our reputation and standing.

How is that the case? First, it is an inefficient use of an administrator’s time.  The administrator can easily become overwhelmed by minutiae and delay important actions and decisions.  Insisting on having everything one’s way cuts off the introduction of new ideas and approaches from subordinates.  Such control communicates a lack of trust in the judgment and abilities of others and leads to discouragement and the stifling of initiative in the organization.  At best, this level of control maintains the status quo.  At worst it produces untimely and less than optimal decisions.  It leads to staff morale issues and turnover.

Expressing this paradox in terms of its positive rather than negative outcomes, consider the results of giving up some of the things we cling to:

  • More authority and control given to subordinates increases the span of control of the administrator.
  • More trust in the judgment of subordinates increases the timeliness, quality and quantity of decisions.
  • More credit for success given to others reflects more credibility upon the administrator.
  • Fewer secrets and proactive, top-down sharing of information results in more timely, accurate and complete information being reported to the administrator.
  • Greater transparency in decision making leads to greater confidence and trust in the administrator.
  • More kindness and consideration expressed and demonstrated for others leads to more respect being shown to the administrator.

Reward Courage in Others. Our society is quick and willing to recognize and reward heroism but workplace courage is personal and exhibited without fanfare.  It is seldom heroic and it is often non-conforming in character.  Our culture and bureaucratic environment values and rewards conformity and it is uncomfortable with and often punishes non-conformity.  As administrators, one of our obligations as courageous leaders is to foster an environment where the exercise of personal courage by members of our organization is positively recognized and rewarded.  This might mean having the courage oneself to intervene and re-characterize the organization’s view of the behavior from disruptive and “boat rocking” to admirable and positive.

The value and need for courageous words, ideas, and actions in the workplace has been unrecognized and undervalued. It appears certain to me than courage begets courage.  As leaders, we can foster courage in our organizations by developing and exhibiting greater personal courage to act, to risk, to be principled, to “let go” and to reward courage in others.  We can encourage and inspire others to be courageous.  We can choose courage to be great or we can choose mediocrity, conformity and expediency.

Stay Tuned

(Author’s Note: A version of this article was written and published to an audience of public administrators almost exactly four years ago while ramping up for the 2012 Presidential Election. The observations that triggered the article were drawn primarily from the field of election administration but are also representative of conditions in the public sector generally. As election administrators gear up for another, and potentially raucous, presidential election, the moral and practical value of courageous leadership is even more important.)

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Thinking Like Its 1999

imageEach January election officials from across the country as well as many others from government and industry gather in what is called the “Joint Election Official Legislative Committee.” As the name implies, the focus is legislation and developments at the federal level that impact election practices at the local level. Of all the professional meetings held throughout the year by the election profession, this is the most substantive and useful. The networking which occurs among officials from across the country and with others with election related interests is one of the great benefits of the meetings. Despite differing structures, laws, terminologies and sensitivities, the issues and challenges faced by election officials are very similar if not identical.

Typically the topics discussed are voting systems, money and resources, technology, postal regulations, civil rights enforcement, census as well as any proposed legislation. During the first session, attendees are asked what issues are of particular interests for discussion during the multi-day conference. In this morning’s meeting, the issues were not solely the typical reiteration of the usual topics but no clear theme emerged until, Alysoun McLaughlin, the Deputy Director of Elections in Montgomery County, MD, articulated one.
She proposed that we discuss internal processes for effectively managing technology and election processes instead of merely its acquisition. That theme was picked up and added to as others cited her recent piece which was reposted by Doug Chapin and spoke to the need of using language and terminology that is meaningful for those observing the elections process.

This theme echoes much of what I have been proposing in this blog- there is a need for the profession to focus on management skills and professional practices -themes which appeal to some but not to many in the profession. Technical subjects- voting machines, pollworkers, lawsuits, budgets, registration- dominate our discussions while “soft” subjects- leadership, management, performance management, staff development, etc are seldom addressed.

What is the discussion to address the issues Alysoun has raised? Individual voices calling for the introduction of “soft” practices such as Lean quality management practices and administrative reforms are like voices in the wilderness. How can the profession embrace a culture of continuous improvement? How can we leave behind the critical issues of 1999 and more effectively address the issues of 2013?

I am increasingly beginning to believe that those of us who have been in the profession for years and the institutions we have created (and lead) are not best situated or equipped to address 21st century election administration issues. It is promising to see the post-boomer generation move into leadership roles, create new institutions and ask the questions that haven’t been asked nearly enough.

Stay tuned.

“Managership” or Leadership– The State of Election Administration

Public property keep outA review of the literature on public administration from any university textbook, academic anthology or assigned reading list does not reveal a treatment of leadership in a practical or theoretical context.  Organizational theory and decision-making models and management approaches are the bread and butter of the study of public administration.  Ironically, leadership texts are not found in public administration or political science literature; rather, they are found on business reading lists and in business publications. 

When leadership is addressed in the literature, it is treated as a heroic, charismatic personal attribute – a noun.  A person has it or does not, which largely explains why study and research in leadership has been ignored.  I have a different understanding of leadership- as a verb.  Leadership acts on “what might be” instead of limiting itself to “what was.”  Leadership is forward looking- it seeks solutions to tomorrow’s challenges instead of solving yesterday’s problems.  Leadership maximizes and optimizes its existing resources instead of seeking more.  Leadership sees constraints and setbacks as temporary and transient and seeks success in spite of them.  Leadership does not seek silver-bullet solutions nor does it place all its hopes in technology at the expense of processes.  Leadership looks outward and seeks answers from the knowledge and experience of others.  Leadership lifts, values and develops the people surrounding the leader.  Leadership recognizes its stewardship as a system instead of a collection of singular components and, as a result, can see the relationships contained within the whole.   Leadership calculates both long-term and short-term risk and return and has the courage to act decisively.  Leadership seeks excellence and rejects that which is merely adequate.

“Managership” is inward-looking, centered on the present moment and is satisfied with doing what has already been safely and successfully done by themselves or others.  “Managership” muddles through projects and operations seeking outcomes that suffice, or in other words, that which is “good enough for government work.”   “Managership” seeks solutions in increased or new resources- more people, more money and more technology.  “Managership” deals with issues and makes decisions as they occur- chronology is its prioritizing and organizing principle.  “Managership” analyzes and deliberates on single issues as discrete decisions.  “Managership” sees people as tools and expendable commodities to be consumed in the course of business.  “Managership” settles for local efficiencies at the expense of the efficiency and effectiveness of the whole system.  “Managership” celebrates and adopts “best practices” because someone else has already taken the risk of innovating.

The decentralized and sometimes politicized nature of election administration in the US make it difficult to recruit and prepare administrators who are more than bureaucrats, caretakers and guardians of the status quo.  To be sure, the field would be much improved with a more universal application of the principles of “managership” which comprise the core of the best training currently available to election administrators.   While an improvement, “managership” promises only limited benefits.

Leadership, as I am defining it, , is manifest by those fortunate enough to have been mentored and developed by those who are leaders and also by those who bring experience outside of public administration to election administration.  Leadership calls for a more consistent and proactive development of the next generation of leaders.  As a profession, it is incumbent on those who claim leadership to combine their collective knowledge and wisdom to move away from “managership” and to train and prepare tomorrow’s (and today’s) leaders in election administration. 

Who is in?

 

Reflections of a Prodigal Election Administrator

prodigal sonAfter nearly two months back in California and back in the society of Election Officials, I have made many observations about the art and profession of administering elections.  Most of these observations are not new but I am seeing them anew and from a slightly different perspective of a scholar and a returning “prodigal”.  I know that after a few more months, I will probably re-assimilate and will lose the perspectives I presently enjoy.

I am always struck and am somewhat in awe of the dedication and hard work of election staffs which are repeatedly demonstrated and which have become central features of a powerful professional culture.  The ability, and even the willingness, to do more of the impossible with even less is the hallmark of dedicated election officials.  Hard work, long hours and working weekends never discourage election officials; in fact, they are a badge of honor of sorts.  As a result of the enormity of the work, the intense public scrutiny and the under-appreciation of their efforts, election officials celebrate their underdog status.  It is understandable if, during this celebration of their resilience and ability to perform the impossible, a sense of fatalism, victimhood and martyrdom creep into the way the business of elections is conceived, planned and conducted.

As an election consultant and itinerant election official, I have spent time with nearly 60 county level election offices and have repeatedly observed that complexity, redundancy, bureaucracy and degrees of difficulty are relished and typify election administration.  Suggestions which reduce the level of difficulty of the work an office performs are often perceived as shortcuts which promote laziness and lack the proper work ethic.  Proposals to simplify and streamline election operations are seen as dangerous and irresponsible. Those who are captured by the predominant professional culture find safety and security in complexity and obfuscation.  Needless to say, those making such suggestions and proposals are sometimes looked upon with suspicion and mistrust for their willingness to deconstruct bureaucratic rules and to interpret statutes permissively.

The danger of the culture of the profession is, if there is any, the propensity to be content with merely working hard at the expense of working smart.  The danger is committing time and resources to activities for which there is no purpose other than to be busy.  The rigid commitment to the “means” without a clear understanding of the ”ends” to be achieved can lead, perversely, to opposite and negative outcomes.  When all rules, processes and operations are granted equal importance and status (i.e. got to do it all, everything is top priority), critical operations and processes are compromised . When everything is “top priority”, everything is also, by definition, the “last priority.”

Sports coaches demand 110% effort of their players and athletes claim to give a 110% level of performance despite the logical fallacy and physical impossibility represented by the expression.  The culture of the election profession seems to cling to similar and equally faulty maxims such as, “If some is good,  then more is better” and “Problems are best solved by throwing resources at them.”   In practice, these maxims (and the 110% effort cliché) are played out by substituting effort, overtime and long hours for planning and effective management.  Besides the added monetary costs this approach represents, it introduces increased human costs: fatigue, exhaustion and reduced alertness and stamina.  These human costs inevitably take a toll on accuracy and efficiency- error rates go up and productivity goes down.  This results, predictably, in more overtime and longer hours…ad infinitum.  While, the toll on physical and mental health is difficult to measure,  election officials incredibly take pride in adapting to and enduring sustained periods of stress.  Bodies and minds succumb eventually which explains why so many election officials routinely become sick and finally need to take time off immediately after an election.

This prodigal thinks that metrics of success and accomplishment in the culture of the elections profession need to change from enduring endless and thankless toil, from successfully coping with mind-numbing complexity (or at least waiting until after the election to breakdown), from  illusion of the effectiveness of multi-tasking while delusional from fatigue, and from juggling as a priority setting strategy.  Success and accomplishments should be measured instead by the absence of crises, the notable reduction of stress and the freedom to enjoy friends, family and college football on Saturday afternoons in October and November.

Stay tuned.

Adaptation and the “Shrek Effect” in Elections

Shrek

As is usually the case, the period of calm that follows a Presidential election is more an illusion than a reality.  This year, the peace is probably more illusory than most off-years:

    • Legislatures are in session passing laws to fix last year’s problems, real and perceived.  This is the time-honored ritual of closing the barn door after the horses have escaped.
    • The President is forming a new commission to study and propose new election reforms and has pledged to fix the problem of voters waiting in line to vote on Election day.
    • The President has also proposed increasing the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour (Brian Newby explains why this is an election issue).
    • The Post Office, a long-time partner with election administrators, is reducing service and forcing administrators to examine its impact on postmark and ballot receipt requirements.
    • Administrators, both state and local, have received their “report card” in the form of the recently published PEW Election Performance Index and are in the process of deciding how to or if they should respond to this and future studies.

The reflection and discussion that these activities bring to the profession are essential and are part of a healthy post-action, post-election review that characterizes effective management practices.  Unfortunately, much of the value of these exercises escapes our grasp.  Over the period of nearly 20 years in elections I have observed a pattern among administrators, legislatures, scholars and activists that accumulates “best” practices, new policies, laws, regulations, studies and reforms and overlays them onto their existing counterparts every year.

This practice is like a dripping faucet that keeps accreting minerals onto surfaces that eventually become lime and scale deposits which constrict and shut off the flow of water (at worst) or deface and mar the visible appearance of the sink (at best).   While this is an apt visual metaphor, I prefer to call this the “Shrek Effect.”

In the original Shrek movie while the talking Donkey and Shrek, the Ogre, were getting to know each other, the Ogre claimed a complex personality and character.  Donkey, in a flash of understanding, exclaimed “like a parfait!!  You have multiple layers!!”  Shrek agreed, but not willing to accept such a sweet comparison, said “…more like an onion.  I have layers like an onion.”

The “Shrek Effect” is illustrated by problem-solving processes which fail to diagnose the real issues creating the problem.  “Shrek Effect” solutions attack the visible symptoms of issues while leaving the root causes invisible and undisturbed.  The “Shrek Effect” demands immediate and urgent action in the form of visible technical solutions– “If we only did this…”

“Shrek Effect-ed” management relies on borrowing solutions from others– solutions which make some anonymous and dubious claim to being “best practices.”  The result of the “Shrek Effect-ed” processes is the continued layering of the parfait (policy on top of policy).  The result is new layers on the onion (new laws on top of unrepealled old laws).  The result is the relentless mineral accretion of the drip, drip, drip of the faucet (new reforms reforming prior reforms).

The alternative to the “Shrek Effect” is an adaptive approach which conceives of election laws and administration as a system.  It is a problem solving approach which insists on taking the time to diagnose the real problem(s) and which is willing to resist the temptation to act for the sake of action.

It is an approach which critically identifies and considers assumptions underlying both the existing practices and the proposed solutions.  It is an approach that develops and assesses multiple solutions before committing to a course of action.  It is an approach that is willing to get rid of unneeded clutter and noise –to perform housekeeping on the existing inventory of policies, practices and canons of law.  It is an iterative approach which is constantly evaluating effects and outcomes and which makes adjustments on an on-going basis.

Adaptive leadership and management techniques are proven to be effective but they are not part of our public/election administration education, training and culture.   Adaptive leadership and management requires more patience, more self-reflection, and more courage than the muddling style of so many administrators and scholars.

As the profession participates, navigates, and deliberates in the forums and venues of 2013, situations will arise in which administrators, scholars and politicians can mitigate the “Shrek Effect” and foster adaptive solutions.  To do otherwise invokes the plot of another well-known movie- Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day.”

Note: For more information regarding Adaptive Leadership, see The Practice of Adaptive Leadership and the Kansas Leadership Center.

Stay Tuned.