A good boss empowers you to succeed while an awful boss cruelly undermines your ability to lead. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger invokes the 1970s to argue that sometimes the only reforms a leader can implement are quiet and small-scale, right under the awful boss’s nose.
Last week, I talked about the ‘cavalry model’ for implementing change in a change-resistant corporate culture. The idea is to implement crucial reforms so quickly that your detractors don’t have time to react before your foundational changes are accepted as a fait accompli. I’m the first to admit that the ‘cavalry model’ is a high-risk gambit; you’re sure to make enemies in the process once people realize that you bypassed the usual process roadblocks. There’s likely to be blow-back and possibly bitter resentment.
I’ve lived this. The story I related about having only a year to implement key reforms in a distressed, ineffective organisation was true … but incomplete. The reason why I only had a year or so to prove my fitness to lead wasn’t only because I’d gotten the job through dumb luck. It was also because I’d spent the three years prior serving as the company’s ‘wet blanket’ in Public Relations. I wasn’t new to the organisation; just to its IT department. I knew that I wasn’t going to get a ‘honeymoon period.’
My point is, the ‘cavalry option’ was one of only two tactics available to me when I got the gig. I could either gamble my future on a blitzkrieg reform effort, or I could surrender to cursed fate and ride out my year waiting patiently for the inevitable pink slip. I didn’t have a realistic third option. So … take that story with a grain of salt.
Squaddie life is considerably different than normal corporate living. Also, military IT life is considerably different from other parts of the military. Not all stories translate directly.
Let’s back up: in established organisations, a new leader finds him- or herself picking up where their predecessor left off. The new leader usually has decades of company history to contend with. He or she inherits dozens of long-standing grudges, failed promises, poor investments, and legacy problem children. They might have admirable goals, but the sheer weight of institutional history means little until the department’s past is exorcized. Oftentimes, the new leader who takes over for a particularly bad leader is just there as a placeholder; the leader after them gets to make real change.
I’ve worked in outfits like that. It’s always been infuriating. I understand the logic behind it; the organisation was recently burned by a bad leader, and that leader’s legacy lingers in the corridors like microwaved fish. The ‘replacement’ in only there to (metaphorically) air out the old grievances. This can be especially vexing in company cultures where process changes, deviations from standards, and service modifications all require executive or senior stakeholder approval. As much as you’d like to get things fixed quickly, your hands are tied. The more you struggle to champion change, the tighter the bureaucratic bonds get.
So, what’s the poor reformer to do? Lock the office door and wait for career death? If the status quo is failing and you’re actively blocked from moving ahead, what else is there to do but give up? Well … much as I don’t care for it myself, there is another option. It’s aggravating, but it does help position a leader to take advantage of whatever opportunities pop up. I’m talking about applying a little 1970s style ‘maintenance.’
Ah, the seventies. The Age of Malaise. When everything was stained brown from car emissions, cigarette smoke, and the occasional city riot. Right after thhe Watergate scandal and right before the rise of Disco, an author named Robert Pirsig wrote a best-selling novel called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The title was unwieldly and so was the plot. His book wasn’t meant to be a traditional story; Pirsig used fiction as a place to explore classic philosophical and psychological concepts. The narrator mused constantly about the idea of ‘quality’ while the secondary characters as tools stood in as representatives for Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy.
Fun fact: the dichotomy refers to the contrast between prudent rationalism and passionate instinct in both literature and anthropology. Or, in squaddie terms, the conflict of attitudes between the muddy, pragmatic engineers on one end and the fussy, glory-obsessed fighter jocks on the other end.
Does that sound insufferably pretentious? It did to me when I was forced to read it in high school … and again at university. I couldn’t stand the book back them. As best I recall, there were two violently-opposed camps when it came to ZAMM: the traditional realists who liked their fiction to have a plot and at least one sympathetic character, and the mystics who liked their ‘fiction’ to be as layered, metaphorical, and affirming. 
That’s not to say that ZAMM is awful; it has its strengths and weaknesses, and it has some allegorical utility … even for business purposes. To be clear, I’m not advising you to read it.  I am suggesting that we can learn at least one useful idea from it.
Setting aside all of the book’s philosophical content, there’s one part of the story that applies to our leadership discussion. The characters are cycling cross-country. As they move start ascending, their normal-for-the-era not-computer-controlled engines begin to run inefficiently. The foil character that knows nothing about motorcycles ignores the problem until his breaks down. He then has to wait on an expert mechanic to fix it. The main character notices the problem and decides to apply his knowledge of engine mechanics to diagnose and fix it. He discovers the root cause, determines how to adapt the machine to its new environment, makes needed changes, and continues on his way.
I didn’t ‘get’ the meaning of the passage at the time, and I’m not too proud to admit that I had to use the Wikipedia synopsis because I couldn’t remember exactly how it went:
‘With this, the book details two types of personalities: those who are interested mostly in gestalts (romantic viewpoints, such as Zen, focused on being “In the moment”, and not on rational analysis), and those who seek to know the details, understand the inner workings, and master the mechanics (classic viewpoints with application of rational analysis, vis-à-vis motorcycle maintenance) and so on.’
That makes a lot of sense. No one’s repairing something this complex without having at least a basic understand of how all the parts work.
Setting the philosophy aside, again, let’s focus on the pragmatic part of the passage. Consider the two characters and their respective understanding of their ability to control their own fate. We can intuit some tactics from their opposing perspectives.
Let’s take as-read that most leaders tend to focus on pursuing their strategic objectives. This is Business School 101: young supervisors are often taught the aphorism that ‘managers’ focus on the maintaining status quo while ‘leaders’ focus on the intended destination. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. Heck, my beloved ‘cavalry model’ is all about rapidly opening up a path to the organisation’s desired end-state. However …
Surrendering in the face of insurmountable odds isn’t a leader’s only option. I appreciate that a culture of management obstructionism is one where that leader is almost certainly going to fail over the long term. Leaders are, after all, judged by our ability to pursue, to accomplish, and to sustain necessary change. When a leader is judged to be unable or unwilling to achieve change, the leader is damned as being useless.
That being said, long-term and major change aren’t the only changes that matter to an organisation. That’s where Pirsig’s argument comes in. Just because a leader can’t make strategic change doesn’t mean that they can’t enact meaningful change. Tactical change – that is, small actions taken to correct or to improve organisational functions – still provide the organisation with worthwhile benefit and demonstrate that the leader is capable of improving the organisation … within the limits of his or her remit.
That last part is crucial for our purposes: in organisations where upper management strangles innovation and suppresses reform, everyone holding power recognizes this fact. Even when suppression is not universal across the entire company – that is, only one division or department is suppressed by an angry boss – everyone that’s impacted by the affected sub-organisation likely knows what’s happening. They have empathy, if not genuine sympathy, for their downtrodden peer.
‘We know, mate. Everyone knows. Your boss is a complete *******.’
This is where Pirsig’s maintenance idea comes into play: when a leader finds him- or herself dropped into a no-win environment, one of the only tactics available to them is also one of the best. That is, study and master the ‘mechanics’ (or inner workings) of their team’s processes and functions. Learn everything about how work gets done. Then attempt to tweak internal operations to optimize service delivery, reduce waste, eliminate bottlenecks, and – in the spirit of Pirsig’s novel – improve ‘quality.’ Really.
All of those little changes directly benefit the work centre by noticeably improving its core functions. Seriously: people will notice. Those little changes demonstrate to the other leaders that their besieged peer is both eager to and capable of improving his or her function. They’ll remember what you’ve accomplished within the arbitrary limits imposed on you. Later on, when your key antagonists leave the company or can no longer stand in your way, you’ll have banked some much-needed empathy with the people who can help you transition (finally!) into pursuing your strategic reforms.
Is this a guaranteed path to success? No. Not at all. Being stuck in a no-win situation is usually a guaranteed career killer. Knowing that your boss(es) won’t allow you to take the actions needed to implement critical change is a strong indicator that you, personally, are neither welcome nor viable in your organisation. It doesn’t matter why. Sometimes, ejecting from the metaphorical wreckage to save yourself is all you can do.
On the other hand, it is sometimes possible to outlive an awful boss. If you can hang on long enough for your personal demon to move on (or to get nerfed via an internal political shift, etc.), then you might just get a second chance to make your mark on the company. Therefore, it behoves you to bide your time, keep your head down, and quietly do everything in your power to improve the moving parts that you can reach. Learn everything that you can about your operation, build trust and loyalty with your people, and get prepared to take advantage of your ‘breakout’ moment.
I can’t believe that reading Persig’s Zen turned out to be useful after all. I still don’t recommend reading it, but … better that than to suffer pointlessly for years under an abusive Bob. Better to make some small and meaningful progress than to just give up.
 Many of the kids I knew in this second group were, at the time, huge evangelists for Richard Bach’s 1970 bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull and its ‘power of positive thinking’ pseudo-religious vibe.
 Which is why I linked to its Wikipedia entry rather than to its Amazon sales page.
Title Allusions: Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974 book)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.