A Huge Misunderstanding

“Perception isn’t reality.
Reality is reality”

~Joe Girardi

Some leadership principles and practices are simple and straightforward. “Leading by example” is the perfect example. By the time anyone is promoted into a position of leadership, they know all about this most fundamental management practice, simply because as a follower, they understood perfectly, “actions speak more powerfully than words.”

The challenge for the leader in practicing leading by example is remembering to do exactly that all the time, particularly when the practice is inconvenient, and when the leader is convinced nobody will notice. But that’s exactly when followers have been known to pay the most attention.  As one perceptive follower once shared with all her peers in a safety leadership course, “My boss lives in the back of my neighborhood, and every morning he always speeds down the street to get to work early.”

A Moment of High Influence, indeed. Just not the kind of influence that leader wants to have.

Things like that begin to explain how those best at leadership separate themselves from the rest of their peers: they know how to “walk their talk”. Comes time for them to talk, because they have so much more credibility, they get listened to so much better. 

In a word, that’s influence.

As simple as it seems, there’s more to leading by example than first meets the eye. The best leaders have a knack for appreciating that. Still, that one’s easy in comparison to understanding how power really works in an industrial organization. In actual practice, organization power is nothing at all like what most leaders the world over think it is. 

It’s a misunderstanding capable of creating huge problems.

A Solemn Anniversary

Every time April 20 rolls around, I can’t help but pause and reflect on one such misunderstanding. Came up in conversation more than a decade ago.

On any given day, the typical leader has dozens of conversations, with followers, peers, bosses, suppliers, contractors, and customers.  Conversations can be face to face or on the phone, and take place the office, out on the job, in the break room, in the car, over lunch. This particular conversation happened in a conference room, between a contractor and customer, face-to-face. The customer was not the least bit happy, and made no secret of their dissatisfaction with the approach being taken by their contractor.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the territory.

In principle, a conversation is a two-way exchange of words between people, with words and actions considered two entirely different forms of leadership activity. But there are instances when a conversation tends to be decidedly one-sided, making it more of a lecture. And there are times when words are a form of action in that they represent a decision, such as, “I am stopping this job” or “You’re fired.” That means, in practice, you have pay close attention to the exact words to know whether what’s going on is a conversation, a lecture or a decision.

As seen by those on the receiving end of the words, that April 20 conversation sounded like a lecture, and looked like a decision. On the matter of power, it was clear to everyone in the room the customer held the upper hand. Including the customer. 

In the words of one eyewitness, the customer “was basically saying, ‘This is how it’s gonna be.’” 

As to the topic of the conversation, it was about following the plan – and the procedure. The customer was having none of that. Of course, the customer won the day: they are the customer, pay the bills, and the customer is always right, right?  Reservations and resentment notwithstanding, the contractor abided by the customer’s wishes.

You might be thinking things like that happen all the time. I’ll leave that judgement to you. This conversation took place on a drilling rig named Deepwater Horizon, less than twelve hours before the Macondo Well kicked, instantly killing eleven, and creating the worst oil spill in US history.

The question today is about the perception about power: the customer had it; the contractor did not. Right?

The Nature of Organization Power

Horsepower and voltage are examples of mechanical and electrical power. Both can be tested and measured. As for a leader, the organization chart would seem to be the means by which to measure their organization power. But that’s not exactly how organization power works in real life.

On the one hand, the familiar organization pyramid accurately describes the size and scope of a leader’s decision-making power. The CEO can authorize an expenditure running into the millions and approve a change effecting everyone in the company. A front-line supervisor might be able to approve an overtime meal and make an overtime decision affecting the crew. In that sense, the pyramid is an accurate depiction of the distribution of formal organization power.

But that says nothing about a leader’s ability to move the needle of influence over how followers act. If things were this simple, every single follower in every single outfit would do every single thing exactly the way their CEO wants them to. 

In real life, the form of power we know as influence operates by an entirely different set of rules. To fully and perfectly understand them all would require the ability to peer into the minds of followers, because followers decide how much they allow a leader to influence them – a lot, a little, or not at all.

Yes, there are things that every follower knows they have to do to stay in the good graces of their leader. But that’s hardly the stuff of influence. Take note that there are things no follower has to do under any circumstances no matter what they are told, like do a job they do not think is safe. Every follower has the power to say, “This is not safe, and I’m not gonna do it.” 

Every front-line supervisor has available a similar form of power: stop work authority, as it’s formally called.

That is power, in its purest form.

A Case Study

Circling back to that April 20 “conversation” of sorts – when the customer tells the contractor “Here is what you are going to do, whether you like it or not” – perception aside, who’s really got the power? It’s all so obvious: it is the contractor. It was their rig, their equipment, and their people assigned to do the work. This was their decision to make, not their customer’s.

Sure, the customer is free to try their best to get the contractor to do what they want them to. When that’s not right, any good contractor should first try to talk them out of doing that. Someone good at influencing might just pull that off; a genius at influencing might even leave the customer convinced it was their idea in the first place. 

That day the contractor on the receiving end of the conversation, Jimmy Wayne Harrell, was not that kind of influencer. Harrell reasoned, argued, and later cleared the room of all the bystanders to try to get to the right answer, one on one with his customer. When that failed, he left the meeting muttering about his dissatisfaction under his breath. He knew this was the wrong thing to do.

Fair to say, Harrell did his best to influence his customer. He did that because, in his perception, the customer had the power to decide, leaving him with influence, and little of that.

In reality, all Harrell had to do was to just say no. For him that April 20 conversation would have been just one of many that day, albeit an unpleasant one. Good people want to please their customers and their leaders. That is perfectly understandable. 

What’s also understandable about organization power is this: if someone doesn’t think they have any power, they will act as if they do not. Act that way, they give up all power. 

Which is exactly what Harrell did.

The End of a Sad Story

In the years since the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon, investigations have been commissioned, papers have been written, books have been published, plumbing the depths of the complexity of the causes. Which there were. But the simple truth is that had organization power been properly understood, there would have been no event.

I’ve never seen a bigger misunderstanding. 

Jimmy Wayne Harrell passed away in 2021. There’s a part of his obituary worth reflecting on, no doubt written by a close family member: 

“A quiet, unassuming man, he found himself at the center of one of the most tragic historical events of our time. On April 20, 2010, his world changed when the rig experienced a massive blowout and subsequent fire that led to the loss of 11 of his men and the rig. The explosion and loss of his employees and friends and the inferno that subsequently sunk the rig took a massive toll on his psyche. He was never the same. When he wasn’t battling heavy bouts of PTSD, he found comfort in his favorite past times: hunting and fishing and simply being outdoors. He also had a talent for whittling and carving walking sticks, but he never seemed to be able to rekindle his love for that afterwards.”

Harrell’s lesson about organization power was one that left scars, physical and mental. I hope he’s now in a better place. 

Paul Balmert
April 2023

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