Avoiding the Rigor Mortis of Leadership

It is a sure sign of dead leadership when the leader becomes inflexible, unresponsive to input, stuck in rigid positions and is exacting as to how things are to be done.

Do you remember the scene in Washington, D. C. on a cold January day in 2009, when Barack Obama stepped spritely to the podium to address a mass of 1,800,000 cheering, emotional and expectant citizens to take the oath as the first African-American president of the United States? At that moment Obama rose to the very pinnacle of his power as a leader.

Since then, like air leaking from a wounded hot-air balloon, Obama’s power to soar has dissipated and his ability to lead effectively has Barack Obamaplummeted to all-time lows. Now, after less than six years, President Obama’s leadership power is approaching full rigor mortis and the only question is whether he has enough power to get anything done.

Even though they are on a much grander scale, the challenges to preserve presidential power are no different than those every leader, on any level, must deal with. It is unlikely that any but a few of those who faithfully read this blog (such as Joe Biden, Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton) will ever face the same type of leadership challenges that have beset Barak Obama. But, even so, we can all learn from his experience in a way that will enable us to successfully face up to the task of retaining effective leadership power; no matter what may be our position of leadership. After all, a leader without power is not a leader.

It is a fact of life that everyone loves a leader until, that is, they actually begin to lead. To paraphrase Lincoln: You can lead all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot lead all the people all the time. Once a leader begins to use the power of their position to make changes or bring about new actions, if they are not careful, their power will begin to dissipate, because not all will agree with all their decisions. And that bottom line is this:

If the only approach to leadership is to use the power of the position to get things done, then that leadership will soon begin to show signs of “leadership rigor mortis.”

Decisions will begin to lack transparency, become narrow in scope, inflexible, non-responsive to input and rigid. This in turn leads to a loss of power and ultimately the death of leadership.

What leaders – at all levels – have to appreciate is that if they want to retain power, they must do even more to keep it than they did to attain it. This means they have to constantly strive to preserve the “freshness of power” as it was when they first acquired it. We all witnessed the emotion, excitement, optimism and hope of millions as Barak Obama was sworn in that day in 2009. Successful leaders recognize it is not possible to maintain power at such a pure level. After all they do have to lead. But they can focus on doing things with that idea in mind.

Preserving Power

There are a number of actions a leader can take to help preserve the freshness of power and prevent the onset of leadership rigor mortis. What many fail to understand is that one of the most effective ways for a leader to safeguard their power is to share power. When a leader apportions power among their followers, they broaden the base of their influence, which in turn, solidifies their power. Those who receive power from a leader will feel important, respected, trusted and valued. This will serve to motivate followers to work for the success of the leader, because that success could mean even more power will be shared.

The less a leader has to flex their power to get things done, the more power they will retain. The effective leader accomplishes this objective by first working to get the followers to “buy-in” to the specific goal of the leader and then allowing the followers to influence how the objective is achieved. To keep their power fresh, leaders should always be focused on what needs to be done, not how it is done. When a leader refrains from using their power to make all the decisions and instead empowers others to develop and implement the strategy and tactics of achieving an objective, the followers reach the point of believing (because it is true) that what is to be done is their own idea.

Employees Can be Leader and Followers  

When I was leading LifeUSA Insurance Company, I was convinced the company would have a competitive advantage if we could offer superior service to our independent agents. (When talking with agents in the field, poor service from other companies was their number one complaint.) Of course, every company could and did promise good service, but the key would be to deliver it; and most companies were failing to deliver.

It would have been easy to use my power as CEO to command the employees of LifeUSA to provide good service to the agent and then to tell them how to do it. Instead, I took the approach of trying to sell everyone in the company on the value to all stakeholders — including themselves – of providing top-flight service. Then, I challenged and empowered them to find the best way to convince the agent of our commitment to superior service, and to actually provide it.

Once the people of LifeUSA bought into the value to be gained by providing outstanding service to the agent (they were all also shareholders of the company) they set about finding a solution. The employees (owners) set up “Work Simplification Groups” that resulted in two great concepts: The “$100 48-hour Challenge” and the “Fast Team.”

The “48-hour challenge” promised the agent that once a properly completed application was received in the home office, a decision would be made and a policy issued within two days; or the agent would receive a check for $100. (Industry norm at the time was 6 to 8 WEEKS!) LifeUSA employees became so focused on meeting the “48-hour challenge” they would voluntarily take work home or come in on weekends to meet the goal. The idea of the “Fast Team” was to have a group of LifeUSA employees dedicated to being available to answer any agent questions, track down problems and resolve issues. (This also freed up others to do the actual work.) Not only was the “Fast Team” a way to demonstrate to the agent a commitment to service, but it also served as a great training ground to cross-train individuals in the ins and outs of the entire company.

These two efforts were not my ideas, but the ideas of those in the company, and came about because of a willingness to share power. Their efforts soon established LifeUSA as the preeminent provider of outstanding service in the insurance industry and were big contributors to the success of LifeUSA. It was a result that also increased the perception of my power and effectiveness as a leader.

One of the best ways to trigger leadership rigor mortis is to present followers with a fait accompli. Nothing drains the power of a leader faster than a situation where the decision, strategy and tactics are already decided and are imposed on the followers out of the blue. A leader should make it a point to never surprise followers by their decisions. A leader should understand that it takes more power to enlist the support of followers after a decision has been made, than it does to build that support before the decision is made.

One of the most consistent criticisms of President Obama’s leadership style that has brought on leadership rigor mortis is that he is not collaborative and inclusive; with both friends and enemies. It often appears that his approach is to use the power of his office to drive through what he wants to accomplish, rather than using his power to enlist the commitment of others to offer ideas and solutions and work for his objective.

At LifeUSA, when it was determined that a product, compensation system or some other process needed to be changed, and that chage would impact agents, the rule was to always solicit input and ideas from key leaders among the agent group. They were not given the power to make the decision, but they were empowered to provide input on the decision and offer suggestions as to the best way to make the necessary changes.

The benefits from this approach were numerous. Often times these field leaders were able to offer constructive suggestions and identify issues that we “experts” in the home office had not recognized. But the most important point was that when the final decision was announced, those who were most impacted were not surprised and taken off-guard. In fact, because they had been part of the process, these individuals took the lead in explaining and selling the changes to others in the field. From my perspective, this allowed me to achieve the objective, without having to expend a wad of power trying to force the change through. This approach in fact enhanced my power as a leader, because all of those involved knew they would be part of the process and share that power.

And the Moral of the Story …

Fame may be fleeting, but the power to lead effectively can be even more transitory—especially when power is the only basis of leadership. The solution to the challenge of retaining power and keeping it fresh is not found in power itself, but how power is used. To be enduring, power must be a tool of leadership, not a weapon of control.

When a person begins to believe that power is something that belongs to them, because they are in a position of leadership, they are marching down a dangerous path. And when that attitude causes the leader to focus on efforts such as a lack of transparency, inflexibility, rigidity and being non-responsiveness to input, all to keep that power corralled, they will soon find their power suffering from rigor mortis. When this happens, no matter what their title may be, they become powerless as leaders.

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