Disrupting Leadership

Most of us in Acquisition know that queasy feeling when a new boss is coming onboard and we aren’t sure how our future will change.  Will the job change the person or will the person change the job? And of course, will we flourish under new leadership?

I’ve found two truths in the case of every transition in leadership, whether at a lower level team lead or the highest in the land.  I have seldom seen much territory between these two polarities.

1.      The position changes the person.  

In effect, it’s the hardened structure of the position, perhaps the bureaucracy of it, that changes the person.  The position “disrupts” him or her, if you will.  The position is the “immoveable object,” not the “unstoppable force.”

Remember hating on the stick-in-the-mud boss until he retired and being overjoyed when your easy-going buddy got promoted because you thought, Glory hallelujah, things are gonna change?   And then six months later, you don’t recognize your buddy?  Nice guy who was going to make your work life better for you?   Only, after he’s in the position, it’s like he’s channeling the previous boss, right down to oppressive and control-freaking mannerisms and “initiatives”?  Eventually, you start to feel the same way toward your buddy as you did the previous boss because you can’t tell the difference in their leadership.  Your friend has been molded to the position.

In those cases, it’s the density of the position that a weaker personality cannot overcome.  He’s content to walk in his predecessor’s shoes rather than blaze new trails.  Maybe weaker isn’t the best word, but this tends to be true of more passive personalities. The good guy, the nice guy, the one who means well but isn’t going to rock the boat, the sweetheart of a colleague who avoids needed confrontation like the plague and so gives in without a fight, the friendly face at work who doesn’t have a spine attached but would be the first person to change your tire in a thunderstorm.  The caring boss who won’t fight for his employees…ever…if his opposition is tougher than he is.  That is not to say that strong personalities equal good leaders—I’ve seen both—but that the stronger are more resistant to the inertia of existing leadership structures.

2.      The person changes the position.

This is the stronger personality that “disrupts” the leadership position and the organization he or she leads.  The leader here is the “unstoppable force,” and just keeps going in spite of controversy or tension with higher level leaders or an unhappy mosh pit of subordinates.  He or she may be aligned with the structure of the position already, in which case the changes may not be so noticeable, but if the new leader brings a very different point of view to the position, the disruption is obvious. 

Strong personalities, even the quiet ones, don’t tend to change and will swim upstream against the current to put his or her own thumbprint on their role as leader and on the organization’s mission. This is often true of acknowledged innovators.  Like the leaders who are changed by the job, the leaders who bring change can be good or bad.  Judgment one way or the other depends on your personal beliefs and needs, but the dynamic is real. The term disruption is not meant as a negative but those who like the structure of the position will see it as such whereas those who desire change to reflect their own points of view will find it refreshing.

Strong personalities, like those that aren’t so strong, have a long-standing pattern.  They bring their own frame of reference to the job.  For example, I’ve seen Government Contracting organizations replace leaders through promotions via the Policy office:  promote to Chief of Policy, then after a couple of years move them into some other slightly higher and more far-reaching leadership position within the organization.   What I’ve noticed is that the employees who tend to seek promotions into the Policy Chief jobs are among the most conservative in Contracting, and as a doorway to other higher leadership positions, Policy promotions ensure that upper leadership will be more conservative, though it may take several years to become evident as the addition of similar views in any organization’s leadership become not multipliers of the viewpoint but exponents of it.  

I don’t recall many Policy Chiefs over the years who walked into their new digs and announced, “Hey, let’s cut out as much bureaucracy as we can!” though I do recall it once or twice over three decades and can still name them.  The job is to be conservative and implement policy, not to reduce, rewrite, or streamline it.  Imagine if the gateway positions to Contracting leadership were intentionally designed to be whatever positions are considered the most innovative.  I hope someone out there is doing that!

As leaders (and managers and supervisors), we bring to the position what we are.   Who we’ve been.   What we know.  What works for us. Even unwittingly, we will try to make the organization a reflection of what we value, whether that’s innovation, structure, file perfection, smooth relationships with vendors, far-reaching networks, whatever. Strong personalities will bite their tongues through their first 100 days—maybe—but then the essence of who they are comes out.

The leader who relies on relationship-building to affect change will build relationships at a higher, broader level to “get after it.”   The leader who excels at being a “poop-stirrer,” as a polite colleague of mine used to call it,  will with little effort lead an organization rife with drama.   The leader who has for decades used a ruler to measure the tabs in his file folders to ensure they are perfectly measured, cut, and lined up will bring rules and detailed expectations to his or her desk.

It took me about 2 years to understand President Trump, whom I used to watch as a reality TV star, scripted to keep me watching.  When you remember that he comes from a place of marketing, ratings, and keeping you on the edge of your seat so you’ll tune in next time, it’s quite easy to understand some of his responses, the way he teases out news stories, and his command of news cycles.   Like him or not, he is a master at staying in front of his audience on a daily basis and keeping their full attention–and that factors into his leadership and decision-making methods.  As a writer, I recognize some of his tools and techniques to keep people tuned in, but as a blogger with a journalism degree (among others) from the era of “Lou Grant,” I try to make sure you can’t tell exactly what my politics are so that you focus on the dynamic at play rather than the politics.

Though I’ve seen leaders fall into one of these two dynamics—the position changes the leader or the leader changes the position—perhaps the most productive leaders are ones who can start an organization from scratch where no pre-ordained method of leadership must be followed or fought against.  We don’t always have that choice though.

If we are the followers in an organization where the leadership is changing, all we can do is look to see if the new boss will wrap himself or herself in the mantle  of the office or if the leader will, intentionally or not, disrupt the organization through a strong personality that will leave an imprint on the organization as a whole.  

When we are the leaders, others will be watching us to see if we are the unstoppable force or the boss who disappears into the rock of the immoveable object.

C 2019

Lorna Tedder

Effective 29 April 2019: Lead/Principal DoD Program Management and Agile Acquisition Subject Matter Expert at The Mitre Corporation


Lorna Tedder
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  • Recently retired Contracting Officer, unlimited AFMC warrant 1991-2018; Rapid Acquisition Consultant, 2018-2019.
  • Nationally recognized Innovation Thought Leader in Government acquisition
  • Rapid acquisition teacher, both FAR and non-FAR based contracting
  • Master brain-stormer and advisor to program offices across the DoD
  • Expert in developing junior and mid-level personnel to become innovators in Government acquisition
  • 3 decades of first-hand experience and success with Other Transactions, Oral Proposals, 10 USC 2373, Broad Agency Announcements, unique pricing arrangements, Price Based Acquisition, Award Without Discussion, streamlined source selections, multiple award IDIQs, UCAs, waivers, omnibus tool creation, Quick Reaction Capability teams, and strategic sourcing.
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