Beware the Stealth Mandate

Executives are set up to fail when they are given one leadership mandate while others in the organization operate under a different, conflicting set of directives.

The famous comedian Milton Berle had a standard opening routine. After being introduced, he would walk to the front of the stage while everyone cheered. Berle would then bow and extend the palm of his right hand toward the audience to ask people to quiet down. At the same time, he would raise his left hand and repeatedly extend and curl his fingers to beckon everyone to cheer louder. The audience loved it. Indeed, the use of two simple hand gestures to convey conflicting messages can be the foundation for great humor, but an executive who is given one leadership mandate while others are operating under a different, conflicting set of directives would hardly be amused. Unfortunately, that’s what happens at many organizations.

Generally speaking, leadership mandates fall into one of three major categories: continuity, good to great and turnaround. Continuity means business as usual: carrying on policies, procedures and strategies. A typical example is the interim CEO, selected to maintain the status quo until a permanent CEO is found. Good to great refers to Jim Collins’ bestselling book of the same name. A good-to-great mandate is essentially this: We’ve been doing fine, but we can — and need to — do even better. Turnaround means dramatic changes are necessary: No business process, job or strategy is sacred.

A single clear mandate is the goal, but that doesn’t always happen in the workplace. Here’s a classic example. A company looks for a CEO to execute a good-to-great mandate. But after that person is hired, the founder of the firm remains on the board as chairman and major shareholder. As it turns out, the founder is willing to accept only marginal changes in strategy and operations, and because the board doesn’t want to upset him, it blocks many of the CEO’s proposals. In other words, although the CEO was given an explicit good-to-great mandate, the board is operating under a stealth mandate of continuity. After a year of frustration, the CEO is fired and the board begins another search for a new leader to execute the purported good-to-great mandate, all while the stealth mandate that doomed the last CEO remains in play.

Stealth mandates can exist for a number of reasons. Sometimes, as in the previous example, organizational politics are a huge factor.