Leading by listening first

Revisonism is the art of waiting until everyone who knows better is dead, then interpreting events through your own ideological filter.

"Those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat the 11th grade."

-- James Loewen

Revisonism is the art of waiting until everyone who knows better is dead, then interpreting events through your own ideological filter.

Consider the following response to a recent column (see Crisis management). "Though [Franklin D Roosevelt] often erroneously gets credit for 'putting people back to work' [after Pearl Harbour], his successful efforts to expand the federal government past its constitutional boundaries is his real legacy. He should be acknowledged as a father of illegitimate government and the resulting federal fiscal bloat."

It's bad revisionism because not everyone who knows better is dead yet.

What bothers me isn't that my respondent challenged my assessment. If everyone agreed with me, I'd be bored stiff. What bothers me is how often people assume the worst about those who had to deal with a daunting situation without first learning the facts.

FDR simply provides a convenient example: many people today criticise his establishment of social security. I wonder how many of these critics have the slightest knowledge of why he did so and why he made it a pay-as-we-go system instead of using a deferred annuity model. If you know the history and think you could have done better, I'd be interested in your solution to the problem. I know I don't have one.

But, you may be grumbling, this isn't a column about public policy -- it's about effectively leading IT. What does criticising FDR have to do with that? Lots.

Someone who knows nothing about why FDR created social security as he did but is certain his unsavoury purpose was an unconstitutional power grab, will assume the worst about colleagues or direct reports whose solution to a business problem doesn't line up with his or her preconceived notions. One of the many bad habits of highly ineffective leaders is a preference for ignorant criticism over informed discussion.

So ask yourself this: when an employee or taskforce reports back to you, do you assume incompetence if "your gut" doesn't like their recommendations? Does the word "didja" -- as in, "Didja think about this? Didja think about that?" -- form a significant part of these conversations? It's a danger sign. "Didja" provokes defensiveness.

So whenever you're evaluating a solution, whether it's to establish a federal retirement system or to upgrade to a new server platform, just ask, "Tell us the process you went through, what you're recommending, and why." It's the logical sequence: Understand first, then criticise the results.

Or maybe you'll find you don't have to.

Send any comments to Lewis, who heads IS Survivor Training, which organises "Leading High-Performance IT". Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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