Leading Can Be Messy

| | Personal Leadership

manonmessywireMy boss had been furious with me. Fortunately I was scheduled to be at another location for the rest of the week.  I had some thinking to do and this gave me the time and space I needed.

The question on my mind:  by speaking up had I done the right thing or the wrong thing?

It seemed like the right thing at the time, but there was a significant cost.  Would my boss ever trust me again?  Until then he had given me a lot of responsibility and empowered me to do my job very independently.  If I even still had a job, I wondered if this would change the trust and freedom I had previously enjoyed.

I pondered what I could have done differently.  I thought about what I needed to say and/or do to make things right with my boss. The truth for me is that I was not sorry that I spoke up as I truly believed we were going to make a bad decision had I not.  It would have been very easy to be righteous about that given the CIO and others had applauded what I did as courageous and necessary.

Yet I wasn’t feeling very righteous because I had also damaged a relationship, one that was still relatively new and that I depended on.

It was now Monday morning and I was ready to face my boss and whatever the consequences might be.

Despite his intense anger and my initial fear, I was not going to be fired.  Although it was made clear I had a lot to learn and some repairing to do in our relationship.

But did I do the right thing or the wrong thing?

In my last article I asked the question of my readers in this way:  did I commit and act of insubordination or an act of leadership?

The comments on that article here, as well as the conversations it initiated in other channels, helped me to further distill what there was to learn.  While most thought it was an act of leadership, the role of culture in the interpretation was emphasized.  Here is my answer.

Even in hindsight I can honestly say I do not believe it was insubordination.  As J.M. Stuart pointed out intent matters.  My intent was to make a difference.  My boss did not like what I did (or where and when I chose to speak up), but the fact that he did not question my motives made the difference between being scolded and being fired.  That I acted in a way that ran counter to the culture was more an indication of my lack of awareness, and perhaps even professional maturity, than insubordination.

William Powell called it an act of “benevolent rebellion” stating “A “boss” may feel threatened, but a leader will welcome difficult questions.”

Yet was it actually an act of leadership?

I believe it was for one simple reason: because I chose to speak up for the purpose of making a difference for the organization that employed me in service of doing the job I was hired to do.  I could have chosen to follow along and do nothing.  In my worldview, leading is that simple.

Despite my lack of awareness of my bosses expectations or the cultural rules I was unwittingly violating, by speaking up in that moment I prevented the rubber stamping of a decision based on a proposal that did not make a sound business case.  The decision was ultimately made to not move forward because the business case did not support the purchase.

This is perhaps proof that you can make a difference when that is what you are committed to doing, even when you make mistakes, do it badly, or upset someone in the process.

Leadership can be messy, but don’t let that stop you.  The only way to truly learn to lead is by taking one, often messy, action at a time.

P.S.  If you want to know more about the story this post is based on read Leadership or Insubordination?

P.P.S. Your comments and conversations made it clear there was a lot more to learn from this “case study” about leading effectively.  Stay tuned…there is more to come!

Image credit: alphaspirit / 123RF Stock Photo


Enter A Comment

Jon Mertz   |   02 October 2013   |   Reply


Yes, leadership is messy, especially when personal leadership principles get crossways with what is happening within an organization. In those messy times, it may separate the real leaders from the ones just faking it. Thinking through this experience also shows a great self-awareness, which is always a great trait for leaders to have.



Susan Mazza   |   03 October 2013   |   Reply

So true Jon. It is in those moments that we also might realize that the organization may not be a good fit for us.

Even though this happened 25 years ago I am finding I can still learn from it, especially when I put it out there to my community and they share their insight and wisdom. Thank you for sharing yours!

bill   |   03 October 2013   |   Reply

I may be at a disadvantage because I did not see your previous post or the comments, but is it possible you could have simply handled the delivery of your message better? Was this your first opportunity to discuss your views on the situation with your boss? When he is in front of Senior Management presenting this for final approval? As a manager and Leader I try to discipline and critique my team members one on one and in private when possible. I would expect the same respect from them unless it is unavoidable.

Susan Mazza   |   03 October 2013   |   Reply

Great question Bill. Basically I asked an honest and valid question. There was no opportunity to ask it earlier and a decision was about to be made. I am pretty clear the issue was not in the delivery (although keep in mind this was about 25 years ago!)

I think my mistake was that I was not awake enough to my bosses expectations so I stepped on a bit of a landmine.

At that time I had recently come from a collaborative culture. If I was invited to a meeting and had a question or concern I was expected to ask it. So that is what I did here. In this case though my boss had invited me only so he had another person on his side in the room. You could say we both got surprised.

Sharon Gilmour-Glover   |   04 October 2013   |   Reply

Hi Susan,

Thanks for sharing this story. Leading is very messy. Change, especially transformational change, is messy. Life is messy sometimes. But the only way forward is to take action and then learn from the consequences, both comfortable and uncomforable.

I agree with the comment regarding “intent”. The way I read the situation, you were acting from your understanding of the business’ foundation and strategy. That’s what makes all the difference.

It’s also why it’s so important to spend the time building a foundation of values, purpose vision and strategy. It’s critical that everyone is clear about those elements, aligned with and working from them.

Thanks for sharing your story,

Susan Mazza   |   07 October 2013   |   Reply

Yes, Sharon, in the absence of alignment on the key elements you point out of values, purpose, vision and strategy, expectations tend to rule vs. shared commitments making everything far more messy than it needs to be.