By Kevin Meyer
Yesterday I told you how ten years ago on September 10th was one of the most difficult – and transformative – days of my life. Yes, the day before September 11th – what a week that was. And I vividly remember driving into work the next day, trying to figure out how I was going to respond to the press, and to the friends and coworkers I had just laid off the day before, when I heard the news from New York.
9/11 transformed all of us. The world changed. Perhaps in different ways, perhaps in ways we don't like. Perhaps in ways it had to change.
In the days and years afterwards I remember the range of emotions, but I especially remember the range and latitude of discussions. The anger that many felt, the remorse of others, how some people created wild conspiracy theories, how some became more focused on assigning blame to the President or religions oror past actions no matter how obtuse or irrelevant in thinking.
But a concept that has stuck with me because it applies to organizational leadership in addition to geopolitical politics is how to deal with negative influences.
In politics we had Al Qaeda as the disruptive or negative influence on our modernizing world. The response to that influence ranged from those who believed in full all-out military action to eliminate the scourge to those who believed talking could resolve all differences. Nuke 'em or sing kumbaya.
Both extremes don't work.
In organizations we also have negative influences. People who stand in the way of progress, overtly or behind the scenes. Those that disagree, oppose out of ignorance, or openly subvert new ideas. And we have managers whose reponse ranges from immediately firing them and anyone remotely associated with them to those who simply put up with them – and hope that someday, somehow, they'll change their ways.
Again, both extremes don't work.
The temptation by many is to immediately cut off the gangrenous limb. That often seems very leaderly and action-oriented. But sometimes there really is an underlying process problem or misunderstanding. Perhaps the person doesn't understand the "why" behind a new program or understand how he's affecting the group. Clarifying the situation and expectations can change the behavior. But not always.
The lazy way out is to do nothing, to talk forever, to put up with and tolerate the behavior and hope it eventually goes away. Diplomacy and never-ending ineffective sanctions to go back to the geopolitical analogy. If it's a true cancer it grows and spreads, and prevents and even discourages growth by others.
The reality is that the truth and answer, as with most situations, is in the middle. Don't take immediate action to remove the person – or nefarious organization or even country. First try to understand their perspective and issues and see if a common understanding can be developed. But this can't go on forever as it will damage the common good and forward progress. At some point a difficult decision needs to be made that change will not occur and the person – or organization – must be removed. It's not fun, sometimes it doesn't even seem humane. But it must be done.
Understanding and operating in that middle ground, standing firm against the two extremes, but knowing when action must finally be taken and taking it, is leadership.