The Strength of I Don’t Know

September 28th, 2010

I have recently been involved with a group that truly has tested my patience, along with every management and leadership skill I’ve ever developed, and more. I’ve dealt with a lot of personality types throughout my career and life, and worked with a lot of people; there are few I can’t figure out a way to deal with. We may not become best of friends, but I can work with just about anybody. Yet this group, at least the leader of the group, has truly tested me. It’s good to be tested now and again however, to keep these skills sharp.

All started well enough. We were both newly elected to the executive board of a nonprofit organization, he in a leadership role, me as next in line. The lightbulb should have gone off right away…I was the only newly elected official to show up to the final meeting of the previous board announcing the new leaders, and even more curious, when I got there, it was over…they had started early and all was said and done. The previous board was there and no one else. I asked if they needed anything, nope all set, you’re free to go. Hmmm, that was strange indeed, but I figured as the new person on the block, I had to learn the ropes.

Next we were asked to submit our plans for the upcoming year. Great, I’m big on organization. I also knew I had a lot on my plate so had to get as much done in advance as possible to keep everything on an even keel. I got mine done right away and submitted it…but I never heard anything back. Hmm, maybe they want them now but we don’t act on them for a while…they’re still auditing the books and such from last year to complete the transition, so that makes sense. Just give it time.

A month or so goes by and still I haven’t heard anything. Next we get notifications the leader is going to be traveling most of the summer so people should submit their plans right away and if anyone has stuff they need to do over the summer, they better meet with him before he leaves. We were given about a week’s notice. So I respond to the email and indicate I most definitely need to get things done over the summer, here is another copy of the plan I previously submitted, when can we get together? As an aside, I have never met this leader in person and here I am the “second in command,” he’s leaving for the summer, I’m not getting any response…I’m definitely having second thoughts, but trying to go with the flow.

Needless to say, the week comes and goes. I try to get in touch, no response. I’m on my own. No budget, no plan approval, stuck in sit and wait mode.

A month goes by and there is a brief return from travel before heading out again. I get a phone call. Excellent, we can finally meet, I still have time, all will be well…Not so fast! Hey one of the board positions went unfilled so we’re rolling that into your position. It adds twice as much work to what you’re doing, at the same exact time you’re doing it, but no big deal really. WARNING lights on flashing like crazy. I’m now quite frustrated…no meeting, no response to my plan even though I’ve said I MUST get things done early, and now you want me to do even more stuff when I’ve already taken this on without a committee or anything else. I attempt to diplomatically handle this situation…well I have a lot on my plate during this same time period; I take my commitments seriously and don’t take on anything I am not confident I can do a very good job with; if we can get a committee together, I can add that, but I cannot add it to my own shoulders. Reasonable and responsible, yes? The first lecture begins…there’s a lot to your position, if you’re so busy, you shouldn’t have taken it on, you’re probably in over your head, personal insults, and more (and I’ve never met this man in person)….

Wow, did that really just happen? What happened to let’s get a committee together, how can I help you, can we meet and discuss the year, let’s look at your plan. But he reeled me in, I got a little testy, I couldn’t believe the gall.  I caught myself and suggested we both look for committee members and I wouldn’t say yes or no until we talked next, let’s try to do that within a week or so. He thought I should bear the burden of the committee but I reminded him I am new to this group and have not developed those contacts yet; I would most certainly give it my best shot, but I needed some help.

Another week goes by, still no meeting, no word on my plan or anything else. I contact the few people I know who are at all related to this group and might be able to help me. Lo and behold, they agree, though reluctantly based on the reputation of the, shall we say “clickiness” of the group. Hmmm, more red flags. But I assure them it will be fine, we’ll make it good. Afterall, I’ve been in leadership positions for 20 years, I can work with (just about) anyone.

Next phone call…Hey I have a committee, I think we can take that on. Oh nevermind, I found someone else. What? Seriously? You couldn’t bother to tell me? And what about meeting, my plan, moving forward…oh, off again tomorrow for several more weeks, it will have to wait….to shorten a long story, we get within a couple weeks of deadline. I still can’t get my plan approved, then “word is spread” my committee is unorganized, doesn’t have our act together, doesn’t know what we are doing. All sorts of red tape is thrown out, approvals required, and so on. You’d think I’m dealing with the IRS or the SEC. I’ve run 8 digit companies and answered to investors and board meetings that are far more easier to deal with than this individual. Higher ups and officials are now cc’d on correspondence and it is not pretty. I pull together my most politically correct self and put together a complete outline of events…no fingerpointing, just dates, facts, unanswered questions, and ask for help to get to where we need to be within one week of time. Funny, the plan then gets approved, but there is never a mention of anything that came before. No acknowledgement, no nothing. The committee has two days to spare and we are going crazy to meet our deadlines. It means we have to jump through hoops and require our vendors to do the same, and we need special access and exceptions to get things done on time, which of course, is met with more disdain…but we get through it and have the most successful campaign in the history of the organization. Acknowledgement? Of course not!

A month or so goes by and for the most part, things are just moving along. We’re all minding our own business and doing what we need to do. The project is going well. My tasks are nearly coming to an end and it is time to acknowledge the achievements. Whoa…a whole new can of worms, lecture #3, more personal attacks, talking behind backs, special “emergency” meetings, secret ballots, you name it. And this is supposed to be a positive experience for the betterment of the professional members of this organization. Really? I can’t wait to get out but believe in follow through so am doing my utmost to shield others and finish my responsibilities.

Then I’m talking with a friend, in desperate need of some advice or at least an ear, and she says something…She’s worked with this leader before. She was very surprised when he was elected. Her experience in the past was that he was very unorganized and overburden with too many commitments so was very scattered. He had an abrupt manner and demeanor….

Suddenly it all made sense…I could see in the board meetings how he is trying so hard, always reading his notes on Roberts Rules of Order. He is very stressed about proper procedure and always afraid he’s going to do something wrong, so refuses to delegate. He is fighting for control…all to cover up the lack of organization, the lack of confidence, and the fear of failure. And to have “his assistant” very organized, comfortable with leadership and delegation, full of ideas, unflustered (mostly, though he got the better of me a few times I’m sorry to say)…the lightbulbs went off and I feel for him.

How much better to have said, “I’m not sure, but let me find out,” or “Hey I see these strengths in you that are a great complement to how I handle things.” That of course means he would have had to at least meet me and sit down with me, get to know me a little…(see Meet Me at the Station for more on this topic). How much respect and power you gain by not being afraid to say I don’t know. There are many things we each know and don’t know. The world goes round based on people all having different strengths and weaknesses. Finding ways to work together that work toward strengths and minimize weaknesses (and help to develop new skills) is what builds our communities. If we were all good at the same thing, a whole lot of that would get done and nothing else. And a lot of fighting would happen over that one thing, when there is so much else out there. I’m not sure why I didn’t see it myself. Perhaps it was unsure of myself in a new environment as well and I totally missed it. But I am very grateful for that little insight. I’m back on my feet. I know just what to do…I can call on all those leadership and management techniques to work to each person’s style; help him look good and be/feel more organized and in control; lead him to the ideas himself rather than share my ideas; ask his “advice” then present my plan so it seems that it came from him. Yes I can manage up and make it work…

…but how nice it would be if he could learn the strength of I don’t know.

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