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.)

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.

Management by the Lowest Common Denominator

lcdManagement by the Lowest Common Denominator (LCD) is a prevalent although inefficient management style in the public sector and one which characterizes the field of election administration. This style of leadership is based on a negative view of people and human nature and is intended to hedge against this nature.  In the field of elections, this is idea is expressed in such terms as:  voters are dumb, poll workers always screw up, temp workers are lazy, observers always cause problems and so on.

Management by LCD explicitly recognizes that mistakes will be made and some individuals can’t be counted on to do what they are asked.  It is true in most organizations that errors are made, misunderstandings occur, some things which should happen don’t get done, and some things that shouldn’t happen occur anyway.  Because these types of things could occur, management by LCD acts as if they must happen.  Because some people will make mistakes or not understand simple instructions, everyone is treated as if they are screw ups and dummies.  This is the idea of the Lowest Common Denominator in action.

In response, rules, policies, decisions, and procedures are developed in anticipation of the actions of the LCD.  This response inevitably leads to repetitive, overly prescriptive and micro-management tactics.  Management by LCD attempts to anticipate every situation and contingency and to prescribe, in advance, a standard solution since others cannot be trusted to problem solve or use their own judgment to handle situations.  Because someone might do it wrong (or differently than the manager), no one is permitted to anything other than follow instructions.  Management by LCD spends endless amounts of time contemplating unlikely “what ifs…” and exceptions at the expense of formulating efficient procedures to handle routine situations.  Ironically, despite all the time and effort to anticipate mistakes and prevent exceptions, mistakes and exceptions are never eliminated.

Management by LCD does not focus on how to best serve the 99% of the customer base efficiently and effectively; rather, it dedicates the majority of its energy and resources to anticipating and resolving potential problems of the 1%.  Of course not all possibilities can be predicted and anticipated in advance since humans are so adept at creatively making errors and misunderstandings.  The fact that exceptions are never eliminated reinforces the need for practitioners of management by LCD to manage in this fashion.  In a viciously circular logic, the inability to prevent exceptions drives management by LCD to expend increasing resources to resolve potential, future problems of a tiny minority at the expense of serving the vast majority.

Not only is management by LCD highly inefficient in delivering services and costly in fiscal terms, it is expensive in human terms as it is demoralizing and punitive to those who work in organizations who practice management by LCD.  Management by LCD prevents capitalizing on the strengths, knowledge and initiative of team members, further contributing to the ineffectiveness of the organization.

Those who have a tendency to manage by the lowest common denominator should take a step back and question their assumptions and ask themselves “Do I give a lot of thought about what people might do wrong or do I do I count on people doing what’s right?”; “Do I try to compensate for possible failures or do I try to facilitate successes?”; “Do I think people are dumb or do I think I need to do a better job communicating expectations?”  “Do I plan for failure or do I plan for success?”  If the responses to these questions point to a style of management by LCD, there are tremendous operational efficiencies, fiscal savings and human successes to be claimed by abandoning “lowest common denominator” thinking.

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?