[October 25, 2014] While stationed in Iraq on a combat tour, one of my junior lieutenants kept a list of corny sayings on the wall in my office. Whenever anyone would use a cornball expression, he would jump up and scribble it immediately on the wall, while smiling as if he had just learned something spectacular. I had forgotten about it until I heard the U.S. President again describing the U.S. Congress as a “gridlocked Congress.” Kicking the can down the road means, of course, to delay a decision in the hope that a problem will go away or someone else will fix the problem.
Despite politics being somewhat different than other organizations – its purposeful design has built-in conflict – we can still learn from what is done there. Our smartest and brightest leaders are in Congress, yet when they defer decisions it sends a message that solutions are not always as easy as we are told during the political campaign. For example, nothing is being done about the financial solvency of the U.S. Social Security system. Current projections show its fund reserves will be exhausted in the year 2037.1 It’s a fact that without something being done, it will essentially fail and the date is coming. Other than talk, nothing is being done. This is just one example, yet Social Security is arguably one of the most important entitlement systems in the United States.
Unfortunately, deferring decisions is commonplace in dysfunctional and failing organizations. When the U.S. Congress cannot move forward on the issue of Social Security, then we can start to believe that solutions can be both difficult and common. When military units are dysfunctional, where key decisions are deferred, they can be combat ineffective – meaning they cannot go to war. I’ve seen plenty of these units led by poor commanders who fear accountability and only want to get along. They like the prestige of the position, but not the work and responsibility.
Holding leaders accountable for their performance is a start in the right direction in overcoming the kick the can down the road mentality. While there are many solutions that are effective, ultimately senior leaders must be personally involved and have the passion and will lead change in the organization. Even the best and brightest employees cannot overcome leaders who refuse to just muddle along.
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