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“Bring Me a Rock”: The Perils and Promise of Ambiguity in Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Skip Powers
January 26, 2024

It is great to return to this Column at PA times! This month, I want to step up on a common soapbox that many can relate to. In the diverse tapestry of leadership styles I have encountered as a government steward, author, lecturer, and faculty member, one frequently recurring and plaguing pattern that has emerged is the “Bring me a Rock” directive. Such an approach, rooted in vague commands only to be dissected later based on latent expectations, has far-reaching implications for morale, confidence and efficiency. Too often, I (nay, everyone) have witnessed leaders who, when presented with a “wrong rock,” either miss an invaluable coaching moment or inadvertently erode an employee’s confidence. Drawing from real-life scenarios, this piece sheds light on the nuances of this leadership style and offers strategies for its positive navigation.

Decoding the “Bring Me a Rock” Leadership Conundrum

The “Bring me a Rock” paradigm thrives on ambiguity. This style can perplex team members, whether driven by a wish to kindle creativity, an aversion to clear directives or simple oversight. I (nay, everyone) has likely witnessed firsthand the confusion such directives cause as employees scramble to decipher the unspoken, often leading to outcomes misaligned with concealed leadership desires.

Confronting the “Wrong Rock”: A Leadership Litmus Test

The moment a leader deems the delivered “rock” as unsuitable, they are faced with a decision:

  • Seizing the Coaching Opportunity: In one memorable instance, a leader used the “wrong rock” moment to elucidate the vision, turning a potential conflict into a growth-centric dialogue! How refreshing, as this kind of leadership nurtures innovation and growth!
  • The Slippery Slope of Eroding Confidence: On the flip side, we have all seen the devastating aftermath of leaders criticizing sans guidance. Such an approach can sow seeds of doubt, making employees reticent about taking initiative or seizing opportunities to lead with noble intent!

The Ripple Effects on Organizations

  • Productivity: The chaos of constantly interpreting ambiguous directions can be draining, leading to redundant efforts and wasted resources, as witnessed repeatedly in several government projects.
  • Morale: Recounting an instance from a lecture series, I spoke with employees who felt perpetually “on edge,” anticipating critique due to unclear expectations, thereby diminishing their drive. Low morale leads to higher turnover and lower retention!
  • Innovation: The most poignant example is from an office where brilliant minds felt shackled, fearing the repercussions of interpreting vague directives, thus curtailing their innovative spirit. See previous: low morale leads to higher turnover and lower retention!

Charting a Constructive Path Amidst Ambiguity

Gleaning from myriad interactions and observations, here are my recommendations for leaders:

  • Advocate for Clear Communication: Leaders should dispel ambiguities from the onset. Clarity not only streamlines efforts but also sets a definitive course.
  • Encourage Candid Conversations: Transparent and authentic communication, born from authenticity and free from hyperbolic charged “my way or no way” and where learning moments can occur, will clear up misunderstandings and break down barriers. 
  • Embrace Coaching Over Critiquing: Leaders should view discrepancies as teachable moments, emphasizing guidance over reprimand.
  • Empower Proactivity: Encouraging employees to take charge, make decisions and voice their interpretations will foster a confident, forward-thinking work ethos. Try it!

In summary, the “Bring me a Rock” style, though appearing benign, has undercurrents that can reshape organizational landscapes. My myriad experiences underscore the importance for leaders to be aware of the implications of their directives. When “wrong rock” moments are converted into coaching opportunities, organizations bolster confidence and chart a trajectory toward unparalleled growth and cohesion. The result: higher morale, lower turnover! 

Are you listening Madam “…..fake it ‘til you make it?”  What rock can I bring to you?

Author: Dr. Bill “Skip” Powers is a distinguished author, lecturer, Air Force Veteran, and Senior Advisor with a 30-year tenure in the federal government. His expertise spans many critical domains, including emergency management, cybersecurity, ethics, organizational development, human capital leadership, continuity planning, resiliency strategies, and grants management. You may contact him at [email protected].

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