Bureaucracy is the minefield that every leader must learn to navigate if success is to be achieved. It is the classic love-hate relationship. On one hand, bureaucracy is likely to be the bane of any leader’s existence. At the same time, a leader is largely dependent on the effectiveness of the bureaucracy to carry out his/her agenda.
In most work environments – particularly those in the government sector, where I spent most of my professional life – the bureaucracy is well entrenched and typically resistant to any change. Bureaucrats are secure in knowing that they know best what is in the best interest of the organization. To most bureaucrats, the leader is nothing more than an interloper, appearing briefly on stage and then moving on. The constant in the equation is the bureaucrat.
Giving the bureaucracy a sense of involvement in the development and execution of the leader’s agenda is another obvious necessity. Maintaining clear lines of communication is a prerequisite. The old adage that a leader must constantly look back to see if anyone is following certainly makes sense.
Despite the best laid plans, however, a leader must recognize that at times, he or she will be forced to make decisions against the will of entrenched bureaucrats. Picking fights must be done with great care and selectivity and only when necessary.
My favorite is an incident that occurred during the early days of my chancellorship at the University of Tennessee at Martin. As the seasons changed from spring to summer, it was time to shift from heating the campus buildings to cooling them. The responsibility for this task resided with the director of the physical plant, an effective administrator whose only shortcoming was that he was a 24-carat bureaucrat sent from “central casting” whose vocabulary did not include the word “change.”
I noticed that as the temperature rose in those early days of May, so did the number of complaints from students, faculty, and administrators about rooms being too hot. At first, I was not concerned, because the change of seasons typically prompts concerns from individuals who are sensitive to heat or cold.
However, as the calls and letters increased dramatically, I began to ask questions. The physical plant director explained in great detail that the campus had long had a plan that called for two employees to convert the chillers one building at a time in a priority order. He proudly stated that the plan had worked for years.
The result was that some chillers were converted after temperatures in West Tennessee climbed toward 100 degrees. Strangely, one of the last buildings on the priority list was the student center, which normally might have made sense on a campus in an urban setting. However, at UT Martin, the rural setting meant that the student center was the primary site of external community gatherings.
The crowning blow, however, came one Saturday night in early June when the center’s ballroom was the site of the annual Daughters of the American Revolution banquet. The room was filled with some 500 individuals, mostly women in the sixty years plus category. As fate would have it, I was the guest speaker.
The ballroom was warm when the guests entered. By the time all of them had been seated, it was clear that the heat was going to be unbearable. Shortly before the program began, I asked a staff member to check the temperature. The answer I received was not welcome news: 98 degrees.
The worst was yet to come. As I was being introduced, I scanned the crowd. What I saw will be forever imbedded in my memory: hundreds of ladies dressed in their finest, sweating profusely with mascara running freely down their faces and dripping onto their dresses and evening gowns. Suddenly, the snapshot of a DAR gathering with well-dressed citizens had been replaced by a montage of ladies with faces of clowns in multi-colored uniforms.
Needless to say, my speech was mercifully short. I apologized profusely for the oppressive heat in the room. The meeting was quickly adjourned by the emcee, and as my wife and I left the room, I faced a barrage of complaints. It was one of the worst evenings of my life.
As soon as I arrived at the chancellor’s residence, I called the physical plant director. It was difficult to control my emotions. I told him in plain English that enough was enough. His plan was not working. I said I wanted a new plan by early the next morning.
He was extremely defensive. He told me over and over again that the plan had worked for years. It took much too long to convince him otherwise, but he finally relented.
The next day we met. He again tried to convince me of the merits of his plan. I refused to budge. Finally, I simply told him that from that day forward, the chiller changes would be made in a period of no more than a week – rather than the six weeks it had taken previously – and that he was to assign more employees to the task.
The change cost more, but in the context of the university’s budget it was insignificant. Of greater importance, the gain in goodwill with the university’s constituents was dramatic. Never again did I receive complaints about rooms being too cold or too hot. Never again did I have to witness what happens when a room full of well-dressed ladies turns into a mascara nightmare.
-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved. Top photo courtesy of Werner Weisser at pixabay.com