Not In Front of Me!

Legendary bank robber John Dillinger was reputedly asked why he robbed banks. His answer, at least according to the aforementioned legend, was, “Because that’s where the money is.”

When you think about it, Dillinger did have a point: it would be silly to go to all that effort and risk if there was no money there! However, Dillinger did not rob just every bank: he was actually somewhat picky. In particular, Dillinger did not rob banks that the police were actually watching. That’s not to say that he was never rudely interrupted as he went about his business, but, as a general rule, John Dillinger did try to avoid committing his crimes in front of the police.

Somehow, though, the police had no trouble figuring out that he was involved.

Recently, several employees at a particular technology company came to the CEO with concerns about the inappropriate behavior of a certain manager. After listening carefully to their concerns, the CEO then told them that they were obviously mistaken: he had never seen the behavior, so clearly it could never have happened.

We can but imagine just how much John Dillinger would have appreciated having this man in charge of the police!

“Sir, John Dillinger just robbed the bank.”

“Nonsense! I didn’t see it, so it couldn’t have happened.”

While this would have been great for Dillinger, perhaps it would not have been so great for everyone else. As a form of leadership, well, it might be considered a bit thin.

One of the less attractive parts of leadership is dealing with unpleasant situations and badly behaved employees. This often means dealing with a situation that is not well defined: some people are unhappy, and someone else is claiming that nothing at all is going on. As a leader, it’s often easier to just shrug and decide that it’s not your problem; as long as it doesn’t happen in front of you, then you can just ignore it. That, however, is not leadership.

As the leader, you are the model for how people in your department or your company will behave. What you do sets the tone: show people that it’s okay to ignore problems that you don’t want to deal with, and they’ll quickly learn to do the same: unhappy customer? Didn’t happen in front of me. Product defect? Didn’t happen in front of me.

The “didn’t happen in front of me’s” can be quite contagious. They’re easy to use and they make the difficulty go away, or at least become someone else’s problem.

So what can you do about it? After all, it can be difficult to figure out just what is really going on.

Start by asking questions. Not just any questions but particularly difficult questions, at least for a leader: genuine ones. It can be challenging to acknowledge how much we don’t know about a particular situation and ask the sorts of questions that show our ignorance. However, when we put our preconceptions aside and start asking about what people are actually experiencing, it’s amazing how much we can learn. MIT social psychologist Edgar Schein describes this process as humble inquiry. It involves taking the time to speak with people and enable them to become comfortable with you, and it involves being honestly curious about what they are doing even when it doesn’t matter. Building those connections is what enables information to flow upstream to you.

One of the most important lessons of leadership is that most things don’t happen in front of you. And, most leaders are very unhappy when they suddenly realize that things are happening in the company that they didn’t know about. Unpleasant situations are much easier to deal with when you’ve established the groundwork and shown genuine curiosity and interest. The question is not whether or not it’s happening in front of you, but what you are doing to make sure you’ll find out about it when it does happen. If you’re nervous, just remember, odds are extremely good that it won’t involve John Dillinger.

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