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Books, Blogs, Ideas: Interview with Henry Cloud

Henry Cloud on organizational ADD, combating learned helplessness, and how to be “ridiculously in charge".

Human brains crave structure, says consultant and author Dr. Henry Cloud, who comes at the puzzle of great leadership from the point of view of a clinical psychologist (his previous occupation). A great leader knows how to create the type of organizational structure that allows for results. Cloud's insights into leadership are just as applicable to his Fortune 500 clients as they are to district superintendents.

Q | What are boundaries for leaders?
A | A boundary is a property line. It delineates where someone's property begins and ends. Significant implications follow from there: control, responsibility, ownership, limits, creation. You control what happens there, you set the limits, you decide what you want to create. In short, you "own" it. In a very real way, ownership is the essence of leadership. When you are "ridiculously in charge," then you own whatever happens in a company, school, et cetera.

Q | School leaders are constantly dealing with new reforms and mandates. How do they keep their eye on the ball?
A | Leaders usually have to lead within a context they do not totally control-they answer to a board, regulators, bosses. The key is to get out of the "victim" [mentality]. Even though you might not have control of the mandate, you can execute your own vision, which you still own. Get connected in your teams, and get into the mind-set that overcomes learned helplessness, defining what you do and do not have control of.

Q | How do district leaders remain "ridiculously in charge" when their hands are often tied on employee issues?
A | There is a lot you can do, especially in the culture you create. A culture is like an immune system. It operates through the laws of systems, just like a body. If a body has an infection, the immune system deals with it. Similarly, a group enforces its norms, either actively or passively. If you are building a culture where honest expectations are communicated and peer accountability is the norm, then the group will address poor performance and attitudes. When it truly becomes a high-performance culture, the nonperformers are exposed. They either get with the program or they decide they want to leave.

Q | What is organizational ADD and how do you fight it?
A | Organizations that have ADD are 1) all over the map in terms of people knowing what they need to attend to; 2) often derailed by distractions; and 3) failing to create a working memory of the flow of execution toward a specific goal. Leaders have to realize that they either create that ADD or they allow it. They must see their role as creating the attention, the inhibitory functions, and the working memory that humans need in order to get results.

Q | Talk about the importance of sharing best practices.
A | It's the only way to get the multiplying effect of all the talent. To be compartmentalized, without collaboration, would be like trying to walk in a straight line with your corpus callosum severed. Think what would happen if your right leg did not know that your left leg had just taken a step ... try running toward a goal!

Q | You talk about the "dead fish shoved in a drawer" scenario, where everyone knows there's a problem but it's never addressed. Does this apply to the debacle? Was it a failure of leadership?
A | Absolutely. Can you imagine if Google crashed and the leadership blamed it on Microsoft or Apple or the employees? Leadership is about ownership. Someone either created this mess or allowed it to happen on their watch. Part of executive functions is the ability to look to a goal deadline and assess where an organization is in meeting it. Apparently, no one was performing the executive functions.

Q | Leaders must set their own boundaries, but whom can they turn to for feedback?
A | They must seek it from above, laterally, and below, as well as outside the system. Ultimately, no matter how high they go, they have a boss: reality. We answer ultimately to reality. The people below have a reality that we are creating, as well as the ones above. 

Winter 2014

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