Leaders who get all their information from those that report to them run the risk of only hearing what others think that they should hear. They have to find a way of finding out what the reality of the situation is, as the King finds when he inspects a project that is rebuilding a village after a natural disaster.
It had been a long and tiring day. King Philip had written up to Lynebridge in the morning and had a long meeting with Sir Thomas and his team looking at the rebuilding of the village, devastated in the spring floods nine months previously.
Philip was pleased he had come. There had been real discontent about the slow pace of the rebuilding. However, after four hours of inspecting plans and lists of actions that need to be taken, he was happy to see progress. Sir Thomas showed that they had laid the foundations of 30 new homes in the last month; there were now more than a hundred homes being built.
The plans for rebuilding the watermills, vital for the future of Lynebridge, were also well advanced. The team produced reams of data showing that the resources committed to the reconstruction had doubled in the last month. At last, after slow start, good progress was being made.
The small monastery they were staying in was 3 miles outside the village. The King, back aching after the day, poured himself a glass of wine and walked out into the herb garden. He sat on the bench, smelling the lavender, and closed his eyes.
Someone wants to see the King
He became aware that there was someone close to him. Opening his eyes and looking round he saw the figure of a large man standing near the water fountain. He recognised him as one of Thomas’s team, he had been silent most of the afternoon but when he seemed to have something to say he had been silenced by one of the others.
The King wished he would go away. He wanted 30 minutes to themselves before he had to go into a meal with the Abbot and Archbishop Anselm, who had come down with the King that morning.
But clearly the man was not going away. He was shifting nervously from foot to foot.
“…Richard, isn’t it?” said Philip, rather reluctantly.
“Yes, your Highness.” Richard said, with a nervous bowing of the head.
“I was pleased with this afternoon, you must be proud of the team!”
Richard seemed disturbed by this and suddenly stepped forward, kneeling in front of the King. “Your Majesty, forgive me. It is not at all good. I have to tell you what is happening!”
The King felt a flush of anger. Another malcontent. He abruptly said, “if you have a problem with work you need to talk to Sir Thomas, not to me.”
“It is not me, your Highness.” said Richard, seeming to gain confidence, perhaps thinking he had nothing to lose.
A difficult message to hear
He then started telling the king about the rebuilding, things that Philip did not at first believe but then, as the details mounted, became more credible.
Richard said that while 30 new foundations had been dug, the work team had not managed to get enough bricks from the brickworks, 40 miles away. The road not been rebuilt since the flood. As a result, there had been precious little building.
He also told of issues with the mills. The plans have been drawn up by one of the architects. However, an expert on watermills had pointed out that the flow of water would not be enough to turn the larger millstones that had been planned. The argument about who was to blame, and what should be done, had raged for two months. No one made a decision.
The worst of it were the villagers, who had been displaced. They had been housed in tents immediately after the flood. King Philip had been shown plans of where temporary wooden huts had been built for them.
“But, your Highness, those huts are on the wrong side of the river. Until the bridge is repaired, they have a 5 mile walk to their fields. So, most farmers are not living in the huts, but still camp around the fields.”
King Philip had a sinking feeling. If it was half as bad as Richard said, then it was a disaster. He went to dinner with the Abbot and Archbishop, but sat silently for most of the meal, distractedly playing with his food. After dinner he made his excuses and summoned the Archbishop to his chamber.
The King investigates
The next morning, he strode into the meeting that was being held in the chapter house, with Anselm at his side. Sir Thomas and his team stood there with piles of papers. The agenda was to agree the schedule of the works for the next six months.
“There has been a change of plan.” said the king, “I want to see what you have done; I don’t want to look at plans.”
“But your Highness” said Sir Thomas’s deputy, a short bustling monk called Benedict, “there is so much to do. We have so much to agree, we just do not have time to inspect everything.”
“I am going to see the repairs and meet my people. If they are happy and progress is good, then your plans will be fine.”
He called for his horse and quickly mounted it. He and Anselm started down the road to Lynebridge, accompanied by his guards and followed, as best they could, by Thomas and his team.
It was worse than the King had imagined. There were no workmen on the site, which consisted of a lot of trenches, mostly filled with water. The bridge stood across the river with its broken arch almost mocking the King for his impotence.
“The villagers?” said the King, curtly.
Richard led him up the banks to the fields, where the farmers had a ragged selection of tents. The King moved, grim faced, through them, talking to the men and women who were clearly pleased to see him, but angry and dispirited at their situation.
The ride back to the monastery was silent.
A painful interview
King Philip told Sir Thomas and Benedict to meet him and Archbishop Anselm in the chapter house. He dismissed the others.
“Well?” he enquired of the two men who nervously stood in front of them.
There was silence. Eventually the King said, “At this rate the work is not going to be completed in six years, let alone six months.”
“Oh no, your Majesty,” bustled Benedict, pulling out some manuscripts and laying them out. “We can reschedule. If we increase the number of workers by quarter, reduce the size the houses by just a little, and delay the watermills until phase 2, then we can deliver the majority of the houses in six months.”
“Enough!” roared the King, finally losing his temper. “You should be grateful that I can see you are incompetent, not corrupt. I have had enough. You are dismissed. Get out of here.”
He turned to Anselm, “Archbishop, you must take this on. Please appoint a good person to manage it. I need a plan in a fortnight as to what you going to do, then a weekly report. I will return here in a month to see progress. Can you do that?”
“Of course, my Lord.” said the prelate, bowing deeply.
Leaders are vulnerable when they get their information from just one source, the people who report to them. They will often be told what people think that they want to hear. This risk is compounded when the leader really wants to hear good news and does not look for signs that all is not correct. Too often leaders are only too pleased to get good news.
There needs to be communication channels with more junior people, who will be aware of the situation on the ground. It is a balancing act; as King Philip was aware, he should not undermine the authority of his managers. But there must be a way to triangulate information, to take soundings
The story also illustrates another problem of management, having a ‘perfect’ plan that does not deliver. Some managers can be so focused on the plan, and the need to deliver it, that they lose sight of the true objectives of the project. This can be a particular danger with large infrastructure projects, including ICT.
The Lonely King
Other posts in the Lonely King series available here
An executive coach and consultant. Andrew has been held senior roles in universities. His interests include medical research and innovation, education, leadership and research ethics.
Web page: ajtg.co.uk
Blog page: andrewgeorgeblog.com
© 2019, Andrew George, all rights reserved
Published 28 January 2020