First Among Equals

“Primus inter pares” is a Latin phrase meaning first among equals.  It is typically used as an honorary title for those who are formally equal to other members of their group, but are accorded unofficial respect, traditionally owing to their seniority in office.  The British better use it, I think, to describe a member of a group who is officially on the same level as the other members, but who in fact has slightly more responsibility or power.

It’s a very useful concept and practice for leaders, especially senior leaders with wide spans of control and (too) many direct reports.  I work with large government organizations whose senior leaders can have more than 20 direct reports.  And each direct report is individually senior and of relatively equal SES, GS, and political appointee grades/ranks, representing different staff functions and operational sub units of the larger entity.  Almost every senior leader in charge of these organizations thinks of and interacts with his direct reports as though they have equal responsibilities, the same numbers of subordinates reporting to them, and that they represent functional expertise with identical effects on overall mission performance of the organization.  Of course, nothing could be further from reality.

A few direct reports have thousands of their own employees, central roles and heavy responsibilities for the overall mission of the organizations, and critical functions which are key factors in achieving organizational results.  But most represent narrow functions, niche expertise, staff responsibilities, or special roles, which while important, are not the core mission of the larger organization.

The inability to properly differentiate between the two groups and apply their judgments and opinions in a manner proportional to their operational roles produces wide spread dysfunction.  All voices are equal, the core mission is marginalized, cliques of consensus form, agendas dominate, and rationalizing this cacophony is impossible.

It is the voices of those who lead the employees performing core organizational missions every day, whose successes translate directly into overall mission success, those with heavy responsibility, a central role, and who operate the organization’s center of gravity in the market or mission area that should matter most to senior leaders.

The women and men who represent the voices of their own subordinate leaders and employees must be heard at the top of every organization in order for it to thrive.  If you doubt this, consider the recent examples of the US Secret Service and Department of Veterans Affairs failures in their mission areas.

“The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.” — Woodrow Wilson

Leaders need to make sure those are the correct voices.

Happy New Year, Keith Stalder, #30

Copyright © 2014 Keith Stalder & Associates, LLC. All rights reserved.

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