There is a saying that in organizations, shit flows downstream. This is the inevitable truth that there are unexpected, disruptive, and unpleasant things to deal with in an organization. How a leader handles these cases can determine whether they help move the team forward.
There is another saying: the shit has hit the fan. It is an image that grotesquely illustrates that things have gone from bad to worse. A few people could have easily handled what was now sprayed on everyone. Leaders that act as fans exacerbate an unpleasant situation. They create an overreaction that gets more people involved and disrupted. A pattern amongst the fans I have worked with is that they tend to be emotional. And they are reacting rather than responding. And everyone around them ends up dealing with it.
When something goes on, the fan shares the blame far and wide. Everyone involved becomes blamed. Often, the fan does this to protect themselves, but no one comes out looking good in most of these cases.
While this may seem like a bad approach, the fan creates chaos, which is sometimes a good thing. Chaos disrupts stale patterns, allows for creativity, and can help with innovation. But you must use chaos must carefully. Chaos creates stress and cannot be kept up for long. Being a thoughtful fan means knowing when it is the right time to stir things up and evoke creativity to help the team.
Jeff Bezos is famous for forwarding customer complaints to members of his executive team with an email that said simply, “?”. This is his way of asking a leader to look into the issue. These emails inevitably cascade down in the organization. (At one point, while partnering with Amazon, they copied me on one such thread). I have seen many leaders since taking on this tactic. They act as a routing mechanism to have the “right” individual look into the issue. Unfortunately, the context is often lost. When Jeff Bezos emails, people treat it as urgent, even when more important issues are to face. Like a funnel, these leaders don’t prevent the shit from flowing downstream, but they concentrate it and dump it on specific people.
The advantage of a funnel is that they make sure that the right people are aware of the issues. Leaders who act as great funnels can get the right people involved with the right context and act as a bit of a filter.
I was interviewing a leadership candidate recently that mentioned a piece of advice on leadership that stuck out to him. “You should be a shit umbrella.” This has become a common term in technology management as there seems to be a strong need to protect engineers from churn. At one company, there was a senior executive we used to refer to as the “Eye of Sauron.” This was a brilliant and detail-oriented technology leader, and when he turned his focus on your project, you could be sure that he would discover edge cases and issues that no one else had found and he would reach out directly to the engineer responsible. This was not a bad thing, but it could be disruptive. The best leaders could provide shade for the team from the eye so that they could focus on what was most important.
When people play the role of the umbrella, they also protect the team and members from blame when things go wrong. The umbrella takes responsibility for any failures and owns the mistakes publicly. Although in private, they are likely to support the team in learning from whatever went wrong.
The umbrella can also cast a shadow, and the downside of the umbrella is that it can keep people in the dark. Expectations can be unclear, and the team and individuals cannot address any issues that they don’t know about.
What role will you play?
As in all of leadership, what approach to take is always situational. Sometimes, being an umbrella will help the team the most. At other times, you may need to funnel issues to the right person, and on a rare occasion, you may need to mix things up as a fan. We have roles we feel most comfortable with, and knowing which we bias towards can help us see when another role might be more appropriate. Think about your leadership. Which of these roles do you most often play? When could a different role be beneficial?