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Nothing Doing

July 2, 2009

In a previous post, I discussed the value of doing nothing despite the urge to say or do something.  The urgency of not doing something, of drawing the line as it were, also deserves careful consideration.

Any leader worth her salt has demonstrated the ability to get things done.  As such, it should come as no surprise that leaders often find themselves in situations where others expect something of them.  These expectations take many forms, varying in their urgency and appropriateness from innocuous to inconvenient to unethical.

What makes a request reasonable?  How do you determine when to get involved?

First, avoid the temptation to see requests as a form of flattery. We all want to feel needed, and we all enjoy work that plays to our strengths.  But many requests are ways of pigeon-holing a leader, marginalizing their influence, avoiding work, or shifting blame.  Effective leaders develop others.  Take the opportunity to pass along your skills rather than fulfilling every request yourself.

Second, avoid requests to solve someone else’s problem. Most leaders have enough of their own problems to deal with, and don’t need anybody else’s no matter how interesting or important they might seem.  If you don’t already own it, don’t take it on.  Instead, help those who do own it find the courage or locate the competence to tackle it themselves.

Third, avoid requests that clearly lie outside your area of expertise. Even if you already have responsibility or accountability for the problem, effective leaders know their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses by building teams that possess the capabilities they lack.  Don’t let your fear of failure entice you into making matters worse.

Fourth, and finally, avoid requests that require you to pick winners or take sides. Real problems, the one’s worthy of a leader’s attention, rarely have a single best solution.  If a perfectly satisfactory solution brings more people to the table than an ideal one does, work to build consensus or encourage people to compromise and go with the second-best option.

Ethical leadership involves decisiveness, but this often means knowing when not to become involved and how to avoid making matters worse.  Deciding when and how to decide is often the most difficult part of the process.

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