Carpet-Bombing the Organization: Leaders Who Talk to Think

Sep 17, 2009

Some leaders – specifically, those with a Visionary style – use debate and discussion as a way to frame their thoughts and opinions. To find out what they really think about a problem or issue, they will often set up a straw man – usually a stance directly opposite to that with which they have been presented – then challenge others to push back with their thoughts and opinions. Eventually, out of this (often heated) discussion, the theory is, a ‘true’ and ‘tested’ consensus will emerge, honed and strengthened by the rigorous debate.All well and good – and if used properly, very powerful. At least, that’s how it starts out. Unfortunately, over time, the Visionary leader’s habit of ‘talking to think’ very often degenerates into a tic or identifying characteristic, and becomes less of a useful tool than an irritating source of confusion to others.

This happens if and when the leader loses sight of the most important part of ‘talking to think’: involving others in the talking part. Whether because they grow to like the sound of their own voice, or because they like to combine ‘talking to think’ with manipulating their team, or simply because they surround themselves with weak people, eventually, what were once vibrant discussions descend into monologs – rambling, self-contradictory, seemingly schizophrenic monologs at that.

This is bad enough in itself – who wants to hear their leader sound like King Lear on a bad night? – but it’s positively dangerous to the growth of the organization when it is left unchecked. Eventually, subconsciously aware that he or she has lost the interest of their immediate audience (their direct reports), the Visionary-leader-who-needs-to-talk-to-think begins to prowl the corridors, reaching down and across the org chart to find someone before whom they can muse. Corridor discussions, ad-hoc ‘chats’, ‘phone calls out of the blue, lengthy emails to surprised subordinates, hi-jacked meetings all play their part in helping scratch the itch of ‘talking to think’.

I needn’t write a paragraph explaining what happens next – you’ve either experienced first hand, or you can imagine, the havoc wreaked when the Visionary leader’s little time bombs of musings start to explode throughout the organization…

Boom!…He said what…?
Boom!…We’re doing that…?
Boom!…She can’t be serious…!
Boom!…That’s not what he said to me…
Boom!…That doesn’t make sense…
Boom!…That’s not what we decided last week…
Boom!…So that’s our policy now…?
Boom!…When did we agree to that…?

…you get the idea.

Let me be straight: these are not (necessarily) bad leaders – they just suffer from a ‘talking to think’ Tourette’s syndrome that can be cured. Here’s how:

1. Show them the collateral damage

Most visionary leaders think that everyone else is just as flexible, open-minded and capable of dealing with ambiguity and contradiction as they are. Hence, they don’t really understand the damage they cause when they spray the workplace with their carpet bombs.

Make a list of half a dozen specific instances where people have been worried or confused, or better yet made bad business decisions as a result of misinterpreting ‘talking to think’ as gospel (choose examples that aren’t going to kill anyone’s career). Have a quiet, unemotional, fact-based discussion with the bomber pilot – sorry, Visionary leader – and show them the real effect of their actions. Enlist the help of others to back up your case with their own examples. The goal should be to have a discussion that isn’t confrontational or causes anyone to get defensive.

2. Get them an outlet

Visionary leaders need to talk to think, so it’s unrealistic (and wrong) to expect them to stop. What you need to do is help them find a suitable forum for doing so. Encourage them to hire an executive coach (this is one of the very few genuinely good reasons for doing so), join an organization like Vistage,* or put together their own mastermind group.

3. Set internal boundaries

Just like it’s icky when Daddy dumps his criticisms about Mom on to the kids, your visionary leader needs to see the inappropriateness of over-sharing willy-nilly in the organization. Agree broad outlines of where, when and with who ‘talking to think’ can happen internally, and ask for permission to hold him or her accountable to those guidelines.

4. Restore healthy debate.

The biggest shame of the degeneration of ‘talking to think’ is the loss of healthy debate at a senior level in the organization. To restore this, set specific, agreed times aside for brainstorm / blue-sky / bull sessions – whatever you want to call them – involving your Visionary leader, in which you and your peers commit to full engagement, and your leader commits to avoiding anything that sounds like a monolog (these sessions can be part of your regular management meetings if you wish, but don’t let them take over the whole agenda).

* I’m not a member of Vistage, so I can’t personally recommend it – but a number of people I respect have said they found it a helpful forum.