Management Information

Demise of the Lone Ranger Manager: A Lesson in Management Communication Style

When executives see themselves as solely responsible for the overall success of their enterprise, subordinates can hardly be blamed for acting according to predictions.

Let's look at a familiar scene in classical American - if I may use the word - mythology.

Panic and terror have brought all normal activity to a standstill in some pioneering settlement in the Wild West. A bunch of bad guys have been scaring the pants off the innocent, helpless and disorganized townsfolk.

Then an imposing masked figure rides up on a white horse. He arrives just in the nick of time.

With the right blend of courage and cunning, he vanquishes the bad guys by being just a little quicker, smarter and tougher than they are. Then, satisfied that everything is under control, he stoically rides off into the sunset.

The Lone Ranger has saved the day again.

But as the adrenaline levels of the grateful townsfolk gradually return to normal and they prepare to resume their mundane tasks, they may or may not realize that they are now no wiser or better prepared to deal with the next big problem.

When faced again with a major crisis, they'll just have to hope for a return of the thundering hoofbeats, signaling another last-minute rescue by the daring hero.

In their book Managing for Excellence, David Bradford and Allan Cohen write that they often begin their workshops for managers with an illuminating exercise that simulates a top-management team.

Bob Young, CEO of a manufacturing company, is faced with a problem. More and more customers have been complaining about defective gaskets, a crucial component in the company's key product. A worried Bob has called a special meeting of the operations committee.

The four other members of the committee are apparently aware of the source of the problem - a change in suppliers and inspection procedures. But the strong feelings - positive and negative - they have about each other and about Bob Young, prevent them from talking openly about the subject.

The workshop leaders ask the participants to plan how they, as Bob Young, could run the meeting so that "the problem gets solved while building a stronger team". Participants then take turns to assume the role of the CEO.

As each simulated meeting gets under way, Bob Young's subordinates - the personnel on the operations committee - go on the defensive and start sniping at each other. When he sees this happening, says Bradford and Young, the "Bob Young" in command almost invariably begins a heroic attempt to solve the problem single- handedly.

In the most frequent maneuver, Bob Young takes over the meeting and starts playing a detective-like version of the Lone Ranger. He cross-examines each person in turn about what he knew, what she had done, and what he saw as the problem. By his tone, posture and questions, the aspiring CEO conveys the message: "I am going to get to the bottom of this!."

But as Bob Young proceeds with his solo-rescue mission, those playing the four subordinates instinctively get even cagier and more snide with one another. They either try to push the blame off on each other or cover up, so they will not be exposed in front of each other.

Even the odd "Bob Young" who is so good at playing Lone Ranger that he manages to extract all the facts, is hard pressed to build any team cooperation to solve the problem. Once he finally grasps the sequence of events that led to defective parts slipping through, he is stuck with trying to find a solution that can be implemented by estranged and embarrassed subordinates.

Bradford and Cohen surmise that the classic showdown of the old-fashioned Western movie - in which everything depends on the hero's nerves of steel, complete command of the situation, agility, and guts - still dominates the fantasies of present-day managers. After all, they grew up on cowboys and Indians, war movies and tough, individualistic male heroes - and even many women who have made it into middle management tend to think in these heroic terms.

It hardly occurs to these people that their image of the Western frontier of old may not be historically accurate.

Presumably, the taming of the West demanded a highly developed collaborative spirit. Mutual assistance and team work, rather than flamboyant individualism, must have been the hallmarks of the pioneering communities. The picture is hardly one of a helpless society.

But when a leader views others as helpless (like the townspeople), or evil (like the bad guys), his prophecies may indeed be self-fulfilling.

If a manager sees himself as solely responsible for the overall success of his enterprise, subordinates will retreat to their narrow piece of turf. When people a little lower down in the hierarchy are treated as weak and as unable to cope, they shrug their shoulders, gradually lose motivation and act in accordance with the predictions.

This, in turn, only "proves" to the boss that more "help" is necessary. Those treated as untrustworthy or incompetent also begin to behave accordingly, since they are excluded from everything, anyway.

In all these cases, upward communication grinds slowly and inexorably to a halt.

So what can we do about it?

Well, let's go back to the case of the defective gaskets, and see how another Bob Young, with a rather different management orientation,handles the meeting with his subordinates of the operations committee. After outlining the problem, he tells his people:

"You are the guys who best know the situation; you know what caused it, and you know what the best solution looks like. Therefore, I want us in this meeting to come up with the best answer."

Now, no matter what objections his people might have had to Bob's previous style, at least they had learned to live with (and around) it. Before jumping in and accepting his new statement, they test the waters very carefully:

"I don't know, Bob. You know the operations inside and out. What do you think the best solution is?"

Bob replies:

"This is the kind of issue we need to tackle together, because then we'll be sure not only of getting this problem solved, but we'll be able to prevent similar dilemmas in the future."

A long silence follows. The subordinates hope they can outlast the CEO and force him to take over. When this strategy doesn't seem to be working, the head of production glances over to the quality control manager and turns back to Bob:

"Bob you are busy getting us major contracts. We don't have to take up valuable meeting time going around and around on this issue. Roy and I will meet and come up with the solution, and I'll let you know tomorrow."

Bob is not quite satisfied with this. He knows that, despite its appearance of a willingness to assume responsibility, it is actually an attempt to hide dirty linen from him.

He knows that the problem is far more than a technical one; after all, the complaints about the defective product isn't news to any of them. It is also a managerial problem, for the matter should have been resolved by now. He therefore responds:

"Don, I'm sure you and Roy could come up with something, but I also want all of us to improve our collective ability to solve problems. To do that, we need to work on it together, since everyone's involved."

Eventually, the group manages to uncondition itself from the defensive approach and settles down in problem- solving mode. One member proposes a good solution, another points out logistic difficulties in implementing it, and they work out ways to get round these difficulties. Problem solved.

But today, the little group has achieved far more than a specific solution to a specific problem.And the manager remains a manager; he has merely adapted to the needs of the times.

Azriel Winnett is creator of - Your Communication Skills Portal. This popular website helps you improve your communication and relationship skills in your business or professional life, in the family unit and on the social scene. New free articles and tutorials added almost daily.

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