Leading Under Conflicting Incentives

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October 12, 2015

I got back last night from Atlanta, having worked with my colleague, Lynn McCann, and 26 leaders at Coca Cola’s world headquarters. In the break area they have a Coca Cola Freestyle dispensing machine that can mix around 1,100 combinations of drinks! That’s an example of creativity taken through to innovation. But that’s not the subject of this post. This observation is around making choices as a leader.

One of our participants raised the challenge of leading in situations when the organization may be pressured to behave in one way, but the vision of leadership is in another direction. I don’t think I’m sharing anything out of school here; we’ve all faced the need to make choices that might be more tactical than strategic, more immediate and relevant that longer-term and, perhaps idealistic.

Just as one definition of politics is the process of making choices with scarce resources, one aspect of executing leadership involves making choices that advance the mission, vision or values organization. What becomes more important, from the perspective of priorities, can be muddling at times.

How do leaders know what to say yes to, and what to say no to? Michael Porter says the essence of strategy is knowing what not to do. That’s wise counsel for the leader as well, but it doesn’t tell the leader how to do it. So I’ll tell you how right here.

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi had inscribed in its forecourt the aphorism: Know Thyself. So leader, do you know yourself? What do you stand for, what’s important to you, what are your values as a person and as a professional? If you’ve never sat down and explored this (I mean to put it in writing and even having a conversation about it) then I’d be willing to bet you’re not clear enough about the kind of leader you actually ARE. When times get tough, what are your default behaviors?

Try out this test: On a sheet of paper, write out the 10 most important professional values you hold to be important. This is you as a professional.

Now, strike through the least important 5 items, leaving your top 5 values.

Now strike through two more. Now two more. What’s left?

What are you thinking? Are you actually behaving consistent with your values as a leader? And don’t give me stories about how your environment doesn’t let you act this way. Nonsense. Leaders lead from wherever they are. Your span of influence is so much greater than your span of control. So how well are you influencing? Are you influencing your boss? I hope so, because that has to be a large aspect of why you’re paid to lead.

What you say yes and no to are a matter of integrity – your sound and moral principles about what it means to be a professional, to be a leader. Are your foundational principles sound enough to withstand the battering dished out by organization life? If not, you probably need some development. Perhaps gaining clarity, perhaps developing backbone (in the leadership business we call that managerial courage – and don’t be misled: Managerial courage is a Top Five leadership competency that people say they need to develop).

So – do the exercise, put in the effort, find a thought partner, and keep up the good work.

A side note – You can also use this exercise looking at “the most important things in your life.” It’s highly revealing and can be a great tool to discuss with your spouse or children (imagine what the most important thing to your 12 year old is?). When you do this, make “family” one item – so you don’t find yourself ranking your spouse and children – though sometimes I might have wanted to!


BE BETTER NOW – A Leadership Call to Action – Take a moment right now to put your thoughts into action

  1. What is ONE ASPECT of your professional life that might benefit from more or different attention in this subject area (enhancing the impact you make on others)?
  1. What is ONE THING you could do TODAY that would move you more deliberately in this direction? The Behavior or action I could take (verb); I will…
  1. HOW will you ensure you are developing – WITH WHOM can you share this goal or add to your brain trust to hold yourself accountable?
  1. MAKE a 10 minute calendar appointment right now to check in with yourself on this topic next week (better yet – for each following week). Keep it practical – write brief notes on two questions only:
  • What clear steps did I take last week for my own development?
  • What will I focus on executing next week?

Need some thought partner time? – Call/email at 336.918.8415 chris.evans@nullchristopherevans.org

Practical – Relevant – Immediately Useful