Pivotal Hubris Moments – Architecting, Detecting, or Preventing Your Demise

The following article was written for Gemba Academy by Mohamed Saleh, PhD

Do you ever look back at an event and think, “Oh, there are so many things that I would have done differently? If only I would have known what I know now while it was happening. If only someone would have told me. I know exactly what to do NOW — now that it’s over?”

There’s a reason they say hindsight is 20/20, and if you come to know the signs to look for, you may just improve your “eyesight.” I’ve learned the hard way about those leadership signs and red flags to look for. Here’s my story.

Know the signs

As an early executive, I observed inspirational leaders around me like Kent S., Lucile J., Stew M., Donna H. and Gary H. practicing intent-based leadership. This transformational leadership type required giving in abundance. I cannot recall times where I ever felt taken advantage of or not appreciated in the workplace. They would invest in me and course correct in subtle yet powerful ways. I felt self-aware of my opportunities, coachable, and invited more feedback as I followed in their footsteps. I gained the courage to take on harder challenges, and even though I was never comfortable, the uncomfortable became comfortable.

Replicating that, I would stretch my team members outside their comfort zone while maintaining a trusting relationship. It was a win-win scenario where they wouldn’t fail. I learned not to try and figure out how to get the most out of my team members but rather how to give them the most that I could. I replicated practices such as having a compelling cause and seeing the vision rather than a burning platform that may ignite fear from my mentors. I learned to influence without power, to understand individual needs, and to unite teams to a common cause. No one could understand how we obtained such a magnitude of success. However, in all my success, I was protected by a forcefield around me of individuals that had my back.

People joined our team because it was successful. Staff were reinvigorated by the cause and the winning atmosphere that we created. Our attrition matched our growth, and our cost structures were one of the lowest. Over time, and from business to business, I replicated investing in people while maintaining and building social, political, navigational, and supportive channels to create the needed force fields. That is, until one day, we were not the winning team!

When the rules of the game change

I stepped back from this situation to see how I contributed to it and to better understand the big picture. I needed clarity on the new problem we were trying to solve. Now, for those that know me, I thrive on challenges; however, it was a new problem with many new players, and I underestimated the cavalry I needed. The bubble had popped, and a number of shiny and even sparkly factors emerged and shifted the attention. The organizational support we had weakened and caused me to think, “Were we just a shiny thing? Was this what Bob Emiliani would call ‘Fake Lean?’”

I stayed curious and focused on weaving together the shiny objects to make it productive and to help redirect the organization. My team and I both became paralyzed from the constant subjection to turf wars from outside consultants all with different methodologies and outcomes. We began to spread thin to hold down the fort. We directed combat, prepared for random flanks and guerrilla warfare, and took our eyes off the needed development. Through grit and perseverance, we lasted a few years. Until one day, I didn’t know what I was fighting for anymore. Was it for the numbers, executive acceptance of my peers and bosses, or to prove that lean works?

When one of my dearest friends resigned from my team, I didn’t even try to convince him to stay. Instead, I was happy for him. I  promoted a facilitator who post-promotion was bullied, ridiculed, and scrutinized. She went a year without even getting a single recognition from one of her peers who used to be her boss. Morale went down, fear spread, efforts became marginalized, and so did my ability to lead. That’s not how the team functioned before, and I learned a few valuable lessons.

Imagine playing a chess game that you have been winning awards for each year yet, this year they make changes without telling you.  There are new pieces, a new board, new rules, and no one to tell you the game. I became so immersed in understanding this new game that aspects of the environment started to rub off. I found my power index gap significant and tolerance to mistakes evaporating.

Learning from mistakes

Now, we all know leaders who have a command and control mindset. You might currently be reporting to one, or perhaps you are that leader. I have seen time and time again in C-Suites where the executive would say “because I said so” or “my house, my rules.” What’s even more concerning is not just that the fear and psychological damage this brought, but its limited efficiency and encouragement of toxic behaviors that spread and replicated. It created ambiguity, undermined wisdom, and focused on trying to fix the people.

What a problem to solve for—exciting right?! I recently read Turn the Ship Around by L. David Marquet and Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal.  I also attended a Flow System workshop by Sensei Nigel Thurlow, John Turner, and Brian “Ponch” Rivera. This brought a deeper level of awareness to my situation and highlighted lessons for us all. My empowerment model was solely based on my people. I had the competent business team and the clarity for the cause. I had a mindset to empower decision-making authority and was fearless in my approach. So, could I have done anything differently? YES, I could have seen the signs.

Reflection:

  • Principles require aid:

Leaders and practitioners alike, stand for your principles, protect your bubble, and pull the Andon early or risk psychological damage within your team. If the system doesn’t stop, pull again, call for reinforcements early and have the courage to go straight to the source. Be courageous and say the things that no one else is willing to say. Build leadership that addresses the elephant in the room and never avoid it. Foster dialogue and make conflict constructive before you find yourself in a place of destructive conflict, ritual dissent, and warfare.

  • Escape the hubris outbreak:

Staying may contaminate you and create cognitive bias and perspectives. Excessive pride can bring down the mightiest heroes, infect the best intentioned, and cause suffering upon the innocent. Sensei DeLuzio-san would tell me, “Mohamed, the fish stinks from the head, know when it stinks and walk away.”

  • Fitness starts at the top:

Organizational transformations are hard and require a lot of training and practice. If you, as a leader, aren’t coming to the gym, then it will be a window dressing. Leaders can’t help design with you if they don’t understand the principles. Next, you’ll find training being shortened and then often cut in places. Be intentional about doing what’s right. Seek outside help aligned with your intentional mission. If the top doesn’t see the value in themselves getting trained and are delegating, then know these signs. It’s on you what comes next.

  • Play the infinite game:

Revitalize yourself, relentlessly maintain a student of industry belief and humble inquiry practice. In the book Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse highlights the need to play with boundaries, with purpose of continuing to play rather than win. He expands that players in an infinite game are playful, leverage teams’ strengths and have a mindset of eternal birth rather than eternal life. Be rigorous on what not to do. Leveraging the Shingo, Baldrige and holistic models to help instill an infinite mindset, so the game doesn’t change on you. Seek to keep getting that unbiased perspective, seek the cause not the task. Live for your eulogy and the people you serve not your resume!

  • Watch for ditches:

In the book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins highlights the significant ditches and signs proceeding the fall. He emphasizes that a fall is to be seen when a series of silver bullets, chronic hierarchical layering and restructuring with an initial upswing of efforts pointing to this new savior. This savior is expected to remove panic and revolutionizing fanfare. Avoiding PR, buzzwords, and tag lines and not marginalizing previous leader followers is a good start. Avoid creating busy work or subjecting certifications that add no value but rather create psychological damage and deteriorate team confidence and past success. Watch your step, level out the hierarchy and avoid adding layers and distractions that inhibit value and flow at all costs.

  • No substitute for dirty gloves:

Hands-free management doesn’t work. Leaders should constantly seek feedback on all the decisions they make. If psychological safety is violated and your people are afraid, address that first and foremost.

  • Reduce blind spots:

Be aware of jealousy and manage it carefully. At the end of the day, there is no bad student, just a bad teacher. Be aware of your blind spot, and don’t judge the strength of the relationship with the length of the relationship. Not everyone riding with you may be riding for you. Trusting teams avoid many of these challenges. Your ears can serve your eyes. Practice the art of listening to better see. Don’t render your opinion, until all have spoken. Work hard to manage team size, cross-team communication, and share among, between and across teams. Leverage unique potential strengths. Keep your coaching sessions at all cost.

  • Mindset first:

Design your system off of the right mindset principle of empowering decision-making authority at the lowest possible level. Pair this with a lifetime philosophy of learning and foster an environment of psychological ownership.

2 Comments

  1. James La Trobe-Bateman

    June 21, 2020 - 1:26 pm
    Reply

    Love your posts, Mohamed! I suspect you are being a little hard on yourself. Are you sure that when you say ‘the rules have changed’, this is really the case? You work in the US culture which has a very short attention span at work. As a change agent, when you are no longer producing improvements at a rate that justifies your salary, then the hire and fire culture demands that you be let go. I often wonder if this is why life for so many lean/6 sigma practitioners in the US is never like in Toyota, Japan.

  2. Tom Gormley

    June 24, 2020 - 4:08 pm
    Reply

    Great read, Mohamed. I enjoyed it thoroughly and related to all of it to different degrees. I’ve experienced what happens as James described in his comment above, as the culture of US industry brings the hammer down on initiatives or transformations that have hit a bump or stall in results. Such decisions are shooting from the hip rather than investing energy to understand and address the root causes of of the stall. Learning stops. Many of your points will help me as I go forward to play for the long term, to stay in the game for the cause rather than the win. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *