Warren Bennis on Leadership – The Unconscious Conspiracy

Some organizational cultures pass the buck upwards. Some to avoid making decisions and taking risk, others because those at the top have a need to be involved in the details. Taken to extreme, operational decisions arrive at the executive table, overwhelming the agenda with tactical challenges that belong elsewhere, ultimately taking top leadership’s focus off the external environment and items of strategic consequence. The unconscious conspiracy occurs when ‘everyone’ allows this to happen, avoiding making the hard decisions and taking the risks inherent in action-taking, slowing things down and maintaining the status quo.

Warren Bennis had very personal experience with the Unconscious Conspiracy during his short tenure as president of the University of Cincinnati. A successful professor and Dean, he found himself in the top job, being consulted on and asked to rule on myriad items and challenges that needed to be owned elsewhere. “Should we hold graduation inside or on the quad, given the weather patterns,” he was asked to decide. Overwhelmed with minutia, he couldn’t see the bigger picture and ultimately was unsuccessful in the role. In deconstructing the situation, he owns his part – that by continuing to allow these decisions to arrive at his door, he was colluding with others by taking on their work rather than pushing it back down to the appropriate level. In hindsight it seems simple. These issues ARE great import to the institution – you don’t want to upset graduates and their families and your invited dignitaries by making a bad decision, true. Yet that decision belongs not on the president’s desk, but somewhere else. For him to pick it up is unconsciously conspire with others rather than pushing it back to the appropriate place.

Part of making the executive shift in leadership includes – ensuring that decisions are made at the right levels. Ask yourself: How well are you doing this? Are you doing only the work that you must do? Are you pushing the rest down and engaging it with a light touch?   Are you building capacity below you do take on more and more strategic work? If you were to do more of this, what would you do?

bob devlin
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