What Do I Do When the Boss Doesn’t Get It?

In several of our recent Level Five leadership presentations, seminars, workshops, and discussions, we’ve been asked: “What do I do when the Boss doesn’t get it?” The sense of frustration in this question is palpable, and because we’ve been there we know the feelings are genuine and deep seated. No one wants to be in an environment where the person in charge does not share the values-based leadership goals of the rest of the team. Establishing and sustaining a culture of excellence seems impossible if the CEO won’t accept the need to embrace integrity as an absolute – and then “walk the talk.”

This is a huge problem in many companies and organizations – maybe in yours – and there are no easy answers. So, many leaders, managers, and team members in these companies just tolerate the circumstances and lower their standards. They give up. Mediocrity becomes the norm, and the culture steadily deteriorates until the company fails. It becomes a “death spiral.” It may take months or years for the inevitable to occur…but it most surely will.

However, as one of our mentors once told us, “It’s hard to roll up your sleeves while you’re wringing your hands.” How true. You have to confront reality if you want to change this scenario, and that means making a commitment not to give up. Hand wringing won’t work. Rolling up your sleeves will.

OK, let’s say you’ve looked in the mirror, and made the commitment to change the future. Here are some steps that should help:

  1. Make sure your leadership house is in order. Go through your “Big 6” Leadership Principles ™” card and make sure you’re on track with your personal leadership philosophy. Be sure you are personally “walking the talk” with your company’s values, 24/7. Then, discuss your concerns with a few of your peers. See if they share your views (and chances are they will).
  2. Share your concerns with the Boss. The best situation is when you have survey results (such a satisfaction or climate survey) or customer feedback which reinforces the fact that this is widespread concern. Use a setting with a team of 2 of your peers who are willing to take some risk with you. One on one is much more difficult, but do that if you have to. Level Five leaders have both courage and humility.
  3. Provide the Boss with recommendations to help fix the problem (we would not suggest you propose he or she resign as one of them, unless there are significant legal outcomes or lives at stake). Suggest a Key Result Area be chartered to address the gap in culture or values. Offer to take the lead of the cross functional team. Consider bringing in experts to train the company’s leaders, to include the Boss. Focus on loyalty to the company as the driving factor behind this discussion.
  4. Research other companies who successfully changed their cultures for the better. They are out there. Share these experiences with the Boss and your teammates.
  5. Along the way, provide your team the leadership they deserve. Ground your leadership philosophy on values, lead from the front, and at all times, set the example. Trust and empower your teammates. The success of your team will not go unnoticed by the rest of the company. Set the bar high.
  6. Be prepared for this to take a while. Most people don’t enjoy being exposed to their weaknesses. In the Army, we experienced some real shock to our egos during After Action Reviews (AAR) after missions at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, when our shortcomings as commanders were highlighted by our Soldiers. But we got through it, and we became better leaders through those sometimes painful AARs. The welfare and readiness of the unit were far more important than our egos. The same holds true today.

Finally, be prepared to walk away if things don’t show signs of changing for the better. Far better to live in a culture of excellence, working with A-players who act like owners, than suffer through a leaderless culture of mediocrity where everyone just works for a paycheck. You’ll be much happier, personally and professionally, and become a far better leader.