Leadership: The Stuff That Rolls Downhill

Leadership: The Stuff That Rolls Downhill

Some anonymous soldier once observed that when bad things happen to the leadership, somthing bad inevitably happens to the soldiers in his command. The principle was immortalized in an expression about the stuff that rolls downhill.

For many people, the things that “roll downhill” are expected to be unpleasant, negative, or punishing. This is why mergers and acquisitions are so nerve-racking to most people. Experience has taught people that mergers and acquisitions are usually accompanied by layoffs, terminations, and a whole lot of procedural changes that are inherently punishing; they roll down the hill fast.

Enlightened leaders know that the most powerful things to send “downhill”  are positive consequences and feedback.

If we had a special X-ray machine that would show us how work really gets done in a company, we would see billions of little strings connecting the CEO to the president, to the vice-president and other vice-president. From there, the stings lead through reports down to the frontline workers. We would finally see these same strings connecting the  “get-it-done” workers to one another.

Both positive reinforcement and punishment are constantly passing up, down, and across this network of “feedback neurons” and they allow the organization to think, produce, and act. To illustrate, let me tell you about Tom.

Tom worked for a  large German manufacturing firm. One day, he received a phone call from corporate. Corporate leadership mandated that every manufacturing plant implement a continuous improvement system aimed at getting ideas from employees to improve efficiency. The CFO failed to implement this program and corporate leadership informed Tom that if he didn’t have it running in the coming weeks, he would be out of a job.

Tom eventually got the program in place but he was at a stand still when he could only turn in 31 suggestions to his supervisor. Only one of which actually got reviewed. Getting 31 ideas from Tom was punishing for his supervisor; now that “stuff” was rolling up hill. We suggested to take over the duties of coordinating this program and we helped him positively reinforce key behaviors in supervisors and employees. Tom achieved 1,382 suggestions and caused $4 million in savings in one year alone.

Unfortunately, Tom got a new manager who committed the cardinal sin of leadership, sending “bad stuff” downhill. The new boss killed Tom’s program and destroyed everything Tom worked so hard to build. What did he do that destroyed it so quickly?


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