Mechanisms and Neutral Leadership




A new CEO brought his coach with him to his new job. A good thing, too—the first week involved a steep learning curve and the inevitable prospect of mine fields. But all was managed or postponed except for one unexpected, immediate and major problem.

The new CEO met twice with his executive team and they were at each other’s throats. Not content to be openly and publically hostile, they each requested a separate and private audience to plead their martyrdom, to pledge undying loyalty, and to indict and warn about their counterparts.

The CEO called the Chairman of the Board, who confirmed that the executive team had been a thorn in his side as well and of the previous CEO, but he also said the team was brilliant. Whatever could be done to replace discord with harmony would be a feather in his new cap and would certainly impress the Board. But if not, then his suggestion was: "Fire the lot!"

The CEO and the coach huddled. The CEO began by offering an explanation for the behavior of the team and how it should be handled.

The coach concurred: "Before you go ahead, there is another critical issue here which we should discuss. It resembles the doctor who says to the nurse, ‘You give the injection. I do not want the kid to associate pain with me.’"

The CEO nodded and waited. The coach continued: "You know how obsessed I am with finding leadership-teaching moments. Well, this is one of them." He paused and then continued: "The issue here is to find an intermediary, such as the nurse in my example, or better still— a mechanism which can do the job and preclude you from appearing as the villain of the piece. After all, you still have to work with this executive team. Leaders who value such mechanisms last and even flourish. That is what we need here."

The CEO brightened: "Is what 3M did when they gave everyone time off to work on their own innovative project what you would call a mechanism?"

"Exactly," responded the coach. "The mechanism is a neutral catalyst that enables an important process to happen without itself being consumed. Ideally, leaders need to find ways to be neutral. Yes, it would be nice to take the credit, but the risk of failure is greater. Better to lead with an invisible hand than to have to perform miracles."

Two days later, the CEO called a meeting of his executive team. A guest from HR tests and measurements was there. "We all are going to be assessed—including me—as to our leadership style, and our colleague here will score and feed back the results quickly."

The puzzled looks were quickly replaced by a determination to emerge superior. The tests were scored and the results announced. The CEO commented: "It is not surprising. You are all in the same quadrant—including your CEO. In fact, we all even occupy the same cell and bear the same four letter descriptors."

The CEO pressed home: "You are all a bunch of chiefs. But I am the Chief of Chiefs. If you want to stay here and be productive; and let me help you become CEOs elsewhere, you first you have to work this out between you."
Which is exactly what they did.

Two years later, two vice-presidents with their egos chastened moved on to become CEOs in their own right. Lest they forget the lesson of neutral mechanisms, each was given a framed copy of their assessment results as a parting gift.

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