Leaders Operate in a Low Gravity Environment

For years, I thought of myself as a flat-organization person.

After all, I value what each person has to say.

I know that good ideas come from everywhere, and the best ideas rarely come from the top.

I want to have genuine relationships with the people around me.

And I don’t want these relationships to be impacted by our relative positions of authority in the company or organization we work in.

But what I want is not the same thing as what is.

The reality is that each person comes into each organization with an inherited orientation towards authority.

And it’s the job of the person with authority to understand this and act accordingly.

That means that, if you have authority, you have to remember how amplified each of your actions is: the more authority you have, the further your words carry, the more likely it is that they will land with a bigger impact than you intended, the greater chance that what you do and don’t say will be noticed by more people than you expect.

I find it helpful to think of myself standing on the moon: each step is much bigger than it would be on earth.

And every leader operates in this sort of low-gravity environment.

Adjust accordingly.

What does the Hippo think?

I was in a meeting recently with a successful startup CEO who was sharing how he runs his teams for best results. He finished by by saying, “…and that way we make sure we don’t end up with ‘hippo’ decisions.”

And I thought, “Heavy decisions?” “Decisions that are big and more dangerous than they appear?”

No, “hippo” decisions are actually HIPPO decisions, ones in which the HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion rules the day.

There are entire organizations and cultures built around HIPPO decision-making. You’ve worked at these sorts of places–maybe you do right now. In these cultures, in meeting after meeting everyone is holding their collective breath waiting for the HIPPO to speak. Or, whole conversations happen and ultimately the HIPPO tells everyone what she thinks of the conversation and tells us all what we’ll do next.

Some anti-HIPPO resources that might be useful: the original HBR article on Adaptive Leadership and the great +Acumen course that will help you learn and apply the concepts. A powerful book by General Stanley McChrystal on Teams of Teams.

The funny thing about HIPPO cultures is that they let everyone off the hook: you’d think the non-HIPPOS might feel frustrated that their voice isn’t being heard, but often it’s a relief to have someone else decide, to know that you’re just pitching in some thoughts and that someone else will be on the line.

(And to all you HIPPOs out there, while it’s possible that you’re consistently the smartest, most experienced, wisest person in the room in general, what are the chances that you’re the smartest, most experienced, wisest about all things all of the time?)

Lest we forget forget…hippos are the most dangerous animal on the Savannah.