From single point of accountability to single point of dependency: the flexibility constraint in leadership

“I have not permitted myself, gentlemen, to conclude that I am the best man in the country; but…it is not best to swap horses when crossing a stream.”

– Abraham Lincoln

One assumption in the standard leadership model is that a leader provides a single point of accountability. In theory, that means there is “one neck to squeeze” if the area is underperforming. This simplifies – seemingly – what senior leaders need to know to diagnose and address problems. First question, who is underperforming? Second question, do they know their job is on the line?*

In practice, we often know too little to deliver, but too much be held accountable. Long before we arrive at what it takes to deliver results in a role, we arrive at what it takes to deliver excuses. Immersed in the day-to-day, we quickly become fluent in the unique challenges of our situation. This local knowledge comes from directing traffic at the intersection of the customers, market, team, process, product, etc. Each of these acts as a filter that makes the situation more and more unique. You may know insurance, but you don’t know claims. You may know claims, but you don’t know flood insurance claims. You may know flood insurance claims, but you don’t know the new system we’re rolling out to address the top challenges with the old one. You may know that system, but you don’t know Glenda, our chief expert, and her vacation calendar. And so forth. Every team is unique, like a snowflake.

We wear local knowledge as plates of armor to protect us in monthly or quarterly performance reviews. That is, most managers know enough to take responsibility for good results, and enough to shift responsibility for bad results on to the perfect storm of headwinds they were up against.* Sometimes the headwinds (e.g. unanticipated moves by consumers or competitors, a lack of cooperation by a key function or external partner, lack of availability of key people, etc.) really are to blame. Sometimes they’re not. Even if we – like Lincoln – have the confidence to allow that we are not the best man for the role, it is best to not swap horses when crossing a stream. The rub is that we are almost always mid-stream. The flexibility constraint consists of the high cost of losing or moving knowledgeable managers mid-stream, whether they are effective or no.

The higher the cost of losing or moving managers, the more they become single points of dependency rather than single points of accountability. One the one hand, this means that most of us can deliver mostly mediocre results most of the time without threat of removal. On the other hand, an exceptional manager who can overcome other challenges becomes “indispensable,” managing what few can, and creating a risk that the performance and health of their team will not outlast their tenure.

The real cost of inflexibility is not the dampening of accountability, but the dampening of the development and redeployment of leadership. The best managers cannot be promoted or moved to other opportunities, because it would be too disruptive for the business. Mediocre managers may not be ready to rise, but we would still be quite costly to replace. So everybody stays put. Which limits their learning, and the learning of everyone similarly staying put in roles below them. Until better outside options come along.

How would you know whether the flexibility constraint is limiting your team or organization?

First, at the team level. Suppose you’ve been in the role a year or more. A year is more than enough time to get the lay of the land, get to know the team, diagnose challenges, design countermeasures and test them in a targeted way.

How easily can you step away for a 2-week vacation? If so, could you get away with checking email every other day? Could you turn off your phone altogether?

Have you already identified and prepared a successor? If you were needed in another part of the organization, or if your family needed you to pull out and make a change, could you go tomorrow? Could you go without impacting the performance and health of the team? If not, why not?

Second, at an organizational level. How do you create opportunities for rising talent? How do you know who is ready to be pulled out without disrupting their team? How often does rising talent leave your organization for outside opportunities?

The ability to create and flexibly redeploy leadership is what allows great organizations to improve existing operations, sustain or adapt those improvements, and grow to serve new markets.  The flexibility constraint – a high cost of moving effective leaders – makes it harder to hold leaders accountable in the short term. But it also makes it harder to create and redeploy leaders in the long term.

More to come.

* Of course, the incentive for performance is rarely all or nothing. Performance is typically tied to pay. Removing a person is often seen as the “last resort.” Regardless, one use of hierarchy is to provide a signal wrapped up in an incentive. The signal is where the problem is happening; the incentive is for the leader(s) in that area to solve it. If they can.

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