inside/out: "Or What?" Leadership

"Isn't it against the law to do that?"

"Possibly. But I want to anyway."

"Suppose you get caught?"

"Are they going to put me out of business? Or what?"

"Well, no, but you may have to change what you're doing."

"Or what?"

"I dunno. It just doesn't seem right."

"Well, I'll ask forgiveness later rather than permission now. Then maybe they'll let it stand even if it is wrong."

There surely is a lot of this going around right now. It's the crux of the Microsoft case. It's a Clintonesque approach to business ethics. It's the way more and more business leaders operate. Decisions are made based not on what is the right way to conduct business activities, but what way gains the greatest return after accounting for risk. Even if the action is unfair to another.

Under what circumstances can an "Or what?" style make sense? Few come to mind. Yet there is a defiantly persistent effort by many to conduct their business affairs with an "Or what?" attitude. Take illegal software copies for instance. This is so commonplace that employees are often unaware that making a copy of someone's licensed software is illegal and that it is a "theft" from the company that invested in creating and producing the software. And often managers look the other way.

How about ignoring the Year 2000 problem? If you don't think that's going on, check out some small companies. Most know they should be reviewing their software and hardware systems, but have decided the "Or what" consequences are less severe than the up front investment to identify and fix problems. Will such an intentional oversight escape undiscovered? Probably. Maybe if the system is non-mission critical and the company can function on a paper system without impacting its customers or employees, it is a reasonable risk to take.

Regardless of company size, though, an "Or what?" leadership style can backfire. Sure, if a busy executive finds a few too many problems on the desk Monday morning there is a real temptation to ignore the consequences of failing to handle each one. Simply consigning some to the trash hoping the "Or what?" of not handling them will be a mild rebuke at worst, may be a satisfactory way to handle the issue. But what if it is a personnel problem?

People issues are often the ones we least like to handle. Ignoring them is all too often the way managers act. It's pretty easy to rationalize a decision to sidestep people problems because they sometimes seem to go away. Managers convince themselves that the "Or what?" is simply that the employee with the problem will solve it by himself. And of course that is usually what happens. The trouble is the solution may not be in the company's favor. And you find out your "Or what?" is a resignation letter.

The "Or what?" leadership style is essentially a reactive one: do not address an issue, obtain concurrence for a decision, or ask for permission to act until forced to. As the sneaker slogan goes, "Just do it." Then when the matter blows up, react appropriately. "Or what?" strategies are prevalent in people management because dealing fairly with another human being seems a lot harder than confronting an inanimate thing like the law or company policy.

The electronic isolation overtaking the world further diminishes interpersonal skills. Despite the smiley faces and cute doodads in e-mail, it is still one-way communication seriously deficient in its ability to convey nuance and hidden meaning. It rarely carries feelings accurately, especially if poorly crafted. Today many people lack the writing skills to clearly say what they mean.

With e-mail we assume the "Or what?" is inconsequential. So we blast out dozens of missives daily with little thought to long range implications or short term impressions. But in the case of Bill Gates and the Microsoft antitrust suit, for example, it has reared up and struck back. Maybe he didn't mean what his e-mail words said, but without a face-to-face exchange, body language and voice inflection are no longer parts of the overall idea exchange. The "Or what?" then becomes much more significant.

Why not toss the "Or what?" approach out with the rest of our 20th century mistakes and adopt a firm but fair, tough but considerate leadership style. It's still possible to be successfully competitive...plenty of leaders do the right things the right way and still win big.

After 18 years in marketing and sales at IBM, Bob Diefenbacher founded Denbrook Systems Associates, an IT consulting firm based in Malvern, Pa.