Leading the Leaders

Taming a seat-of-the-pants executive doesn't have to be a death-defying act.

Recently, a friend described her boss: "He's a great guy, but he just does everything by the seat of his pants." Earlier, a prominent leader addressed a conference of government executives: "As leaders, we like to operate by instinct. Our gut often tells us the right thing to do."

But such instincts-often the very traits and qualities that make good leaders-sometimes have to be managed from the ranks before they result in a failed project or a million-dollar mistake. Employees respect action, not passivity. As the lion tamers in the office, their job is to help bosses prepare so when they leap through a hoop of fire, they get it right and it looks instinctive.

The trick is getting them to sit still, listen and work together. Four components work cohesively to make instinctive leaders tick and be approachable.

Multidimensional Thinking

Some bosses have a million ideas, but no concept of the time, people or resources needed to implement them. Many people have broad interests, focus on several things at once and multitask effectively. Instinctive thinkers grasp every detail in the blink of an eye. They think in terms of multiple issues-past, present and future.

Approach: Think multidimensionally about the problems you are working on together, and be prepared to identify interrelationships among people, information and events. Divide the boss' million ideas into short, near and long term. Use your knowledge, research and contacts to shape the idea, create value and manage risk. You must also be willing to say no so they don't leap in the wrong direction and get hurt.

Adaptive Learning

Former Boston Red Sox manager Jimy Williams once said: "It takes years of practice to be able to do something instinctively." He was not far off. Adaptive learning is what makes guesses educated and decisions informed. As they learn from experience, instinctive thinkers and leaders replace old instincts with new ones.

Approach: Adaptive learners need to know how change will affect them and how to use it. Always be upfront about the possibility of change, especially if it means involving new people. If bosses are caught by surprise, their defensive instincts will take over.

Focus on Doing

If you ask leaders what makes them tick, they can tell you about experiences, but may not be as expansive about how they think. They focus on doing and learn by doing.

Approach: People who focus on doing are not afraid. When you meet them to discuss a project, do not dwell on the process of how it will get done. Instead, pull them into the strategy as quickly as possible. They should see themselves literally as executive action figures.

Upfront Behavior

These behaviors-multidimensional thinking, adaptive learning and focusing on doing-must add up to something everyone can see.

Approach: Leaders must demonstrate their instinctive speed and strength upfront because people will judge them based on what they see and hear. How does the leader, boss or customer want to be seen? If you are working for someone who is too content, insular, isolated, or invisible, help them be seen in ways that strengthen not only their effectiveness, but their dominance, territory, social standing and survival.

While you can't lead from the middle, you can lead the leaders.

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