Broken Windows of Leadership

Broken Windows of Leadership
By   Karen March 21, 2016

The organization was showing all the signs of distress: under-performance, dangerous trends, the staff at each other’s throats. As a consultant, I was sent along with a colleague to offer technical assistance to help identify the problems and solve them, quickly and on the fly. On the day we arrived, we entered through the front door to the main office and reception area, the same door that customers and major stakeholders and investors enter.
It was a sunny day in May. On the stoop of the entrance sat two dead poinsettia flowers. The Christmas foil wrap was faded from the sun and the plants were long dead. My Sherlock Holmesian powers of deduction told me that it was all together likely that on a cold day in mid January, someone stuck these Christmas flowers outside to get them out of the office, rather than toss them in the dumpster twenty five yards away on other side of the parking lot. And every day, for nearly five months, the staff walked past them to go to work, as did customers, investors and stakeholders. I realize after thirty years in the Navy, I have a certain sensibility to the appearance of the “quarterdeck’, the receiving area of a ship, which I have carried over to civilian life. You sure can tell a lot about a place by the first impression walking in the door. Merry Christmas.
The reception desk and receiving area was next. The desk of the administrative assistant of the director was the first workspace that a visitor encountered. She greeted us professionally and hospitably. And I can only surmise she was quite a sentimentalist. Every inch of her work space, both horizontal and vertical, was covered in what could be charitably called tacky clutter. Dozens of snap-shot photos, both framed and unframed, kids art work, plastic souvenir thingies, little touristy tchochtkes, assorted printed jokes and quotes, plus a few more prosperous plants in mismatched pots and a couple of ornamental calendars for the past three years. It was a regular yard sale/archeological site that must have taken years in the making. The “windows were broken”.
Broken Windows is a criminological theory that suggests that when environments decay in smaller ways, it signals the break down of order in larger ways. In simplistic terms, fix the broken windows in an environment as a first step to fighting more serious crime. Rudy Giuliani famously used this theory as a basis for his crime fighting efforts in New York City in the 1980s, by cleaning up graffiti on the subway. While the theory has some detractors, mostly those who argue about overreach rather than disagreement, I am convinced it has merit in all organizations. The top dog needs to be looking for broken windows.
In this case, the director was eager for assistance, but absolutely clueless about the state of the broken windows. The windows had been so broken for so long, they were no longer noticeable. The larger problems were so overwhelming that they overshadowed what might seemed to be of much lesser importance, like dead plants on the door step or a reception area that was a scene from Hoarders. Why sweat the small stuff when there were serious issues to be addressed? Urgent attention was needed to address the failure to comply with guidance and procedures, the atrocious staff infighting and morale so low it could barely be measured. And there was no time to stand down and retool.
We suggested that a quick win might be an effort to clean up the obvious broken windows…and were greeted with resistance. This leader seemed much more willing to admit that there were BIG serious problems and therefore needed BIG serious answers provided by an outside consultant, rather than take ownership of small, immediate solutions. Insisting the staff maintain professional looking work spaces might have been a positive first step to requiring they do their jobs effectively. And yes, there might have been some resistance from those folks who do not think that “their” work space décor is anybody’s business and upkeep is someone else’s job. What a perfect opportunity for the leader to do what leaders are supposed to do, rather than cave to popularity or avoid the obvious mess.
In reflection, our ultimate effectiveness as outsiders helping this organization was a matter of debate. The leader was fired not long after, but the lessons remain. If you walk past something everyday, you might not recognize how shabby it has become without attention and maintenance, and that applies to organizations, relationships, cities and more. Ask any realtor how poorly we can “see” our own home when we put it up for sale. The small stuff matters and provides the windows to the quality of the leaders inside.

Checking the gauges,
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