Anyone can take action at any time. Worse, people often act out of a need to do something, anything. This is just reflexive action, something done without much thought. Reflexive action is done out of frustration. It is done without a solution behind it.
In a real crisis or emergency, we all act reflexively, sometimes doing the very first thing that comes into our head, perhaps even the very thing we should not do.
Every organization finds itself facing some challenges along the way. Their response will tell you if there is real leadership at the helm.
Roger Smith was chairman and CEO of General Motors Corporation from 1981 to 1990, and is widely known as the main subject of Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary film “Roger & Me.” I’ve never seen the film, so I don’t speak from that perspective. However, under Smith’s leadership, GM’s share of the U.S. market fell from 46 percent to 35 percent, and the company was close to bankruptcy during the early 1990s recession. Of course, Smith inherited many of the problems he faced. The company had failed to keep up with technology and responded poorly to several issues.
Smith decided that GM needed to transform itself to be competitive, proposing some initiatives that were radical for the company and the industry. He consolidated divisions, formed what could have been strategic joint ventures with Japanese and Korean automakers, launched the Saturn division, invested heavily in technological automation and robotics, and attempted to change the company’s culture. With good reason, Smith had a real sense of urgency, but he failed to address the fundamental problem of a company that was not really responding to what the customers wanted and needed. Of course, there is more to the story than I can discuss here, but the great convulsion of initiatives was never well thought out nor well executed.
How badly were some of the proposed solutions implemented? In one case, in one of the automated factories robots were painting each other instead of painting the cars. Other robots were welding doors shut. The development of these new factories had been so fast that they did not have time to work all the bugs out before they started trying to build cars there.
The company lost hundreds of experienced executives and engineers as the situation grew worse and worse.
As a leadership example, however, Smith’s actions were empty actions. None of those came with real solutions attached to them. There was a real sense across GM that the building was on fire, but there was no real sense of how to get everyone out of the building. The board wanted action. The shareholders wanted action. And Smith gave them action. Smith just didn’t see the solution.
While we want and expect action from our leaders, we really want solutions. That is the hard part of leadership, crafting a solution. But, it is a necessary element of leadership.
I learned, from my wife, one principal’s approach to addressing problems. Her principal told her, “I don’t mind you bringing me problems, but I expect you to come with a solution for me to consider. Don’t just being me problems.” It’s easy to point to problems. We all do that. We don’t all come up with solutions.
Anyone can take action. No real thought is required. But solutions demand hard thought and work. It takes longer to understand the problem and come to a solution, but that is the only way to get to real solutions. What we really need is solutions leaders, not just action leaders.