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“Have we lost our passion for service?  When did people become complacent?  We’re misfiring on the fundamentals . . . we must reinstate the passion for service.”

— Comment by a senior vice-president, in a Fortune 100 executive directors’ meeting announcing the new fiscal year initiatives.

This is one of my all-time favorite executive comments by an actual leader in an actual organization.

We need to unpack this comment to discover its, well, impotence.

He starts out solid.  Have we lost our passion for service? This is an interesting inquiry.  We don’t know who “we” is at this point; but since he is a senior executive speaking to other senior executives, it is not a stretch to conclude that he is actually indicting himself and challenging his leader peers.  If so, it is an impressive example of executive accountability.  And surely it is plausible that a team of senior leaders might indeed “lose their passion for service” as they become successful…

But then a quick pivot from “we” to “people:” When did people become complacent?  Whoa!  People?  Who is he talking about?  Now we call into question that he’s talking about the execs in the room; that may have been plausible with the pronoun “we” but not with the otherness of “people” …  So, reluctantly, we must now walk back from the executive accountability thinking; it is likely now that the “we” in the first phrase was more of an “our company” slant…

There is another aspect of the shift from “we” to “people” that is more troublesome.  If he is talking about himself and the people in the room, we might believe that the characterization of “complacency” is an observation, or in other words, observable fact.  He might have himself experienced a complacency, and he might have seen a complacency in his peers in the daily course of executive interactions.  But when he attributes the complacency to the more nondescript “people”, we suspect it is more an inference than an observation.

This is important.  If it is an inference, how does he know it is true?  How does he know that people are complacent?  Is he going to cite any data that makes it clear that not only have service levels declined, but that that decline can be attributed to people’s complacency?  A few facts will be helpful.

But he doesn’t cite any facts next; instead, he moves to his diagnosis — We’re misfiring on the fundamentals.  (Did you notice he reverted back to “we?”  Hmmm …)

And, as you would expect of a senior executive, he then articulates a corrective course of action:  … we must reinstate the passion for service.

I wish I could consult with this executive —

  • How did you come to believe this?
  • What are you seeing that suggests that people are complacent?
  • What do you think caused the complacency?
  • Did your internal in-process metrics and scorecards and dashboards pick up on this?  If not, why not do you think?  If so, what action was taken?  If none, why not do you think?
  • How will you reinstate the passion?
  • Certainly you don’t believe that some 100,000 people woke up one morning without their usual “passion for service” and decided that day and days forward to be “complacent?”

Okay, you’re right, that last one probably is an example of right, but not helpful… 🙂

This is a classic demonstration of the predisposition of leaders to attribute problems to people.  Really, though, it is a “hard on the people, soft on the problem” approach, because it has no ability to affect any real change.  It is yet another example of no leverage.   It has no chance whatsoever of seeding growth, improvement, performance.

Now I don’t really want to make this about leader bashing (I would be convicted, if charged, given past offenses).  What it is about, or what I’d like to make it about, is leader — and organizational — effectiveness.

A leader’s power and  considerable influence lies in their ability to marshall the right resources to really see, examine, and intervene on the system. Looking for systemic influences — looking at the dynamics of the system — is going hard at the problem; not at the people.

Large scale, organizational wide slippage in a metric like service is not caused by people.  The answer is always in the system; something’s awry in the dynamic interdependence of strategy, structure, policy, process, culture.

If “people” have “lost their passion for service” and are “complacent” and are “misfiring on the fundamentals” rest assured it is the system that is causing it.

This leader may very well be successful in reinstating a passion for service.  But we all know that passion is not enough.  Despite the passion, they will not be able to perform.

Dead on arousal.

But there is good news!  This condition is treatable; even preventable!

That particular little blue pill is called systems thinking.

This prescription is written only when there is a burning desire to get hard on the problem.