A Senior Leader’s Job is NOT…

by Brian Brittain on May 1, 2023


…to solve the organization’s problems, only to formulate them correctly.

I stole this phrasing from a book on critiquing Russian short story writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by George Saunders.  “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, only formulate them correctly.”  Saunders went on to say, “the artist (writer) makes us feel the problem fully, without denying any part of it.”

A leader’s job, as artist, is to make the organization feel its problems fully, without denying any aspect that is inconsistent with the goal.  How does she do that?  By clearly and honestly enabling the true articulation of the gap between current reality and desired future.  I am not even sure whether the gap between where we are and where we need to be needs to be seen as a problem.  Maybe, just a creative tension between now and then that wants to be resolved, like any gap between what we have and what we desire, in our life.  The tension motivates the action to resolve it.  The leader doesn’t directly motivate however sets the scene and creates the conditions for collective motivation and right behaviour.

I weigh 20 pounds more than what is optimal for me.  I bought a weigh scale so I could formulate the gap correctly, and not deny it any longer.  I feel the creative tension between my current weight and what it should be.  The “problem” has been clearly formulated (not denied) and I now see the gap (correct formulation) in my minds eye as I reach for the fridge door or think about turning into the parking lot of Sonya’s donuts on the way to see my chiropractor.

I have a client who has publicly stated a profitability goal on its major projects by 2025.  It is a stretch.  For a couple of years it had told itself that the current profitability was actually better than it was and is.    It took a new CFO coming in to make it clear that the current average profitability was 2-3 percentage points less than stated when all is considered.  The senior team had been denying a part of the problem.  They had been carrying a fantasy about current reality.  Denial of current reality is one way to reduce the tension.

Before my weigh scale purchase, I was only 10 pounds overweight in my mind, not 20.  😊

The new CFO is not a popular guy for not colluding in the denial.  The gap has widened, and the tension has increased, and the commitment to taking action to close the gap and reduce the tension has been raised.

The CEO has not solved the profitability problem.  What she has done, through hiring a new CFO, and modelling her own candidness and vulnerability, she has set the conditions for all to see the issue as it really is.  She has also made it safe for everyone to admit the truth of the gap between where the organization is and where it must get too.  The psychological safety comes from her, the CEO, going public with the correct formulation of the problem and creating the conditions for candid conversations within the various teams for the team to do its part in managing the gap.

Today, the organization’s people know exactly what the problem is, and have been given permission, no, actual accountability, to talk openly about the gap, and how to best manage it through giving their best advice.

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