The Can-Do Attitude

“No problem… we’ll do it!” Isn’t that what you want to hear from your colleagues and subordinates? If so, I’m sorry to inform you that you’ve fallen into a common and pernicious trap. To quote Peter Senge from his book The Fifth Discipline:

“A person who questions publicly whether the organization can achieve what it has set out to do is quickly labeled as “not on board” and seen as a problem. Yet, this ‘can do’ optimism is a thin veneer over a fundamentally reactive view [which will] eventually drive out real vision.”

“Can do” attitudes may get you through the quarter, but it takes real vision to get you through the decade. Here’s a cautionary tale:

Fifteen years ago I was in a senior management role at a software development company where “can do” was the only acceptable response to just about anything. As the new guy on the block, I saw the chorus of “can do’s” as a growing problem, so I arranged a one on one meeting with the CEO to alert him. In the meeting, I told him I thought we (the management) were playing a dangerous shell game because the “do” part wasn’t happening and couldn’t possibly happen with existing resources. I appealed to him to loosen up the constraints he had personally imposed, so his leadership team could adapt to this critical threat.

The result: I was fired, and the company went out of business in six months. And on the strength of this “experience” in senior management, the CEO and all my senior leadership colleagues went into senior leadership positions in other companies (go figure). I, on the other hand, retreated to lick my wounds.

I have learned since then that reflexive resistance is going to be the typical response of any leader to observations (like mine) that they’ve led their company into a corner. I’m amazed at how naive I was. Today, when I have to deliver that same message, I call upon fifteen more years’ experience, so the scene is less dramatic and the outcome more productive.

The lesson of my story is obvious, but I doubt you are putting it into practice in your company. Because… face it… you don’t like admitting your errors, and others don’t like admitting theirs. We avoid conversations that seem to be taking us in that direction, and the more profound the error, the more strategic our defenses. This ever-shrinking circle of wagons may protect our egos, but it threatens our companies and our careers (the CEO’s story notwithstanding).

Fortunately, it’s possible to get that circle expanding again, and the remedy begins with these two simple directives:

  • Leaders must encourage and reward challenge
  • Leaders must hire and retain outspoken employees

Though simply stated, for most organizations these directives represent a profound change that will take place over a period of years if it can occur at all. As a change leader, you’ll need a guide through the sometimes rough terrain. Of course I hope you’ll call me. But if you’re not ready for that, I highly recommend Senge’s book!