DRINKING THE KOOL-AIDPosted: June 10, 2015
For those of you in leadership positions there’s probably a moment you can pinpoint; it’s the moment when you “drank the Kool-aid” or “jumped on the bus” or any one of a dozen idioms that mean you got with the program. It’s part of leadership. Even those of you with the most sympatico boards have likely faced a time when you realized you were not going to get what you wanted. When the board’s decision is antithetical to yours, what do you do?
Before we answer that, we should break down our title phrase. Its origins aren’t exactly warm or fuzzy, and like many business idioms, it probably should be banished from the workplace vocabulary. Although today it refers to individuals who embrace an ideology without question, it originated in the 1978 mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, when members of the Peoples Temple died after drinking a drug-laced grape drink. Thirty seven years later it’s identified more often with workplace behavior than with a utopian experiment gone totally wrong. But history aside, there are moments in all workplaces, especially in museums and non-profits, where a board of trustees exerts its authority, where leaders are faced with two paths: one is the path as director, chief curator, or team leader they chose. The board stands on the other.
I started thinking about this idea after listening to an interview on NPR with Admiral William McRaven, chancellor for the University of Texas System. Texas has just passed a law that permits individuals to carry concealed handguns on college campuses. McRaven is new to academia. In his former life he was part of Navy Special Operations and oversaw the raid that killed Bin Laden. He opposes the new law, but here’s what he had to say about upholding the state legislature’s decision: “My time in the military has always taught me that, you know, you argue a point up until a decision is made. And the state legislature has made a decision–and presuming that the governor signs the bill–and it will go into effect. And then my job as chancellor is to make sure that we continue to make the campuses as safe as possible, and we’re going to do that.” You can listen to the entire interview here.
What interested me about the Admiral’s reaction was that he is comfortable arguing fiercely for his point of view, but that once a decision is made, he seems to suggest you enter a new reality, one where you support the decision in the best way possible. That means bringing your team on board, while harnessing their creativity and energy for the board’s (or the leadership’s) decision, not your decision. I understand how that works for the military, but I wonder how it plays in museum land. First, how many of us feel comfortable arguing our point of view? Sometimes workplaces create cultures where arguing isn’t something people do. Some staffs don’t know how to argue and keep it about the project, the decision or the mission. It gets personal way too fast and people shy away from arguing or worse, they don’t, and that’s its own special problem. Second, I wondered how often museum leadership is transparent enough so directors share what’s happened, meaning “I made our case. The board made its decision. It did not go our way.” And last, I wonder how long leadership can remain comfortable when you and the board find yourselves on different paths?
Like most aspects of leadership, decision making demands self-awareness and transparency. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but what might be surprising is it’s not that decisions need to be consensus based. They don’t. But the process of reaching a decision still needs to be open and inclusive. Julia Tang Peters argues this in her book Pivot Points and backs it up with research. One of the leaders she interviewed called it MBWA or managing by wandering around. By connecting with his team, often in doorway conversations, this leader created a culture where his employees were comfortable speaking frankly or perhaps arguing about company decisions. They didn’t just feel included in change, they were included. But the boss was still the decider.
What’s your experience with carrying out decisions that weren’t quite what you had in mind? And how transparent is your decision making? Share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.