I find that some of the most satisfying moments for operations managers are when they successfully detect and solve a crop, animal or machinery problem before it has a negative impact on productivity. How are they able to detect problems early or even before they are a problem? First, they collect and analyze data. Second, they use their vast experience to observe what is happening with their crops and animals. 

Ever increasingly, this ability to be proactive with crop and animal problem solving is the hallmark of a great operations manager. Similarly, leaders must be proactive in identifying problems before they grow to the point that they damage the farm, business or other organization. The proactive problem detection for the leader applies to vision/mission, strategy, business culture and personnel.  

How is the leader able to detect problems early or even before they are a problem? Certainly the data collection and analysis and observation are still critical; however, a third tool is available for vision/mission, strategy, business culture and personnel problem detection. This third tool is even more powerful, but also more problematic, because it stems from the three unique attributes of people — that we can think, we can speak and we can feel. 

A leader’s followers are their greatest source of “early warning signals.” They are the ones that are most likely to first observe and feel potential problems, especially related to engagement in the vision/mission, changes in business culture or personnel issues such as a decrease in workforce motivation.

The challenge for the leader is to create an atmosphere where people are willing to share these “early warning signals.” No one wants to be the bearer of bad news. The more power possessed by the person receiving the news (the leader), the greater the barrier to delivering the bad news. It is very easy for a person in power to “punish” the bearer of the bad news. We often call this “shooting the messenger.”

Recently, we have seen a high-profile example of fear of “shooting the messenger.” It seems almost inconceivable that President Obama was not aware of the looming issues with the Obamacare website. It is my understanding, however, that many experts believe that was the case, even though nearly everyone around him knew. No one was willing to share the bad news with the President for fear he would “shoot the messenger.”

You as a farm owner have less power than the President of the United States. You do, however, have the most power of anyone on your farm or business, and thus you have the greatest potential to not receive valuable early warning messages for fear by the bearer that you will “shoot the messenger.” 

So what does a leader — you — do to lessen the fear among those you lead that you will “shoot the messenger?” Here are a couple of ideas:

We’ll get this one out of the way first: DO NOT SHOOT THE MESSENGER. This is easier said than done because our first instinct — our emotional reaction and our instinctive behavior — in hearing bad news is to be defensive. Your first emotion will always be to be disappointed, upset, even angry. Your emotional reaction you cannot or even should not change. You can, however, consciously modify your behavior in response to the news. You can use a more thoughtful reaction. Instead of proceeding with your instinctive behavior “shooting the messenger,” you should thank him or her for providing insights and perspectives, and tell him or her you will look into the situation and take appropriate action.

But what if you’ve already shot the messenger? (It happens.) Know that it’s not too late to get it right next time. But you should publicly apologize for your actions and demonstrate that you understand that the person involved was simply the bearer of bad news. It also wouldn’t hurt if you publicly commended him or her for the bravery it took to speak up.

Minimize your use of your formal power. In an earlier Leadership Lesson, I shared this quote: “The irony is that the more power one accumulates, the less it should be used.” Develop a leadership styles that develops trust in those you lead so they follow your lead because they want to, not because they have to.

Be open. It is all too easy for a leader to seem aloof and disconnected from those they lead. Go out of your way to be open and friendly with your employees, and to show that you value their input.

Leadership Lesson: Leaders need to be very careful to not “shoot the messenger” when problems are reported to them.


Bob Milligan is Senior Consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC and Professor Emeritus at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. He can be reached at rmilligan@trsmith.com or 651-647-0495.