Andy Blumenthal, CTO, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

While reading the book Leadership for Dummies, I came across the concept that a leader needs three things to succeed:

  • You must be the right person.
  • You must be in the right place.
  • You must be there at the right time.

It seems rather straightforward, and sounds similar to the refrain about information (e.g., information technology) being most useful to the business or organization when it’s available at the right time, in the right place and to the right people.

The more I thought about this situational leadership concept, the more powerful it appeared to me in terms of how people succeed or fail.

You can be a terrific employee, with all the winning attributes to be successful, but you know what? If you’re in the wrong place — the wrong organization or workplace culture — or there at the wrong time — perhaps at a time of indecision, mismanagement or political infighting — it may not be the right time for you to have the most impact.

Things have to gel; people must gel. As one of my great bosses and mentors used to say, “The stars have to align.”

This is why organizational culture is very important. Different organizations have different norms, values, beliefs and accepted modes of behavior, and not everyone meshes or works well everywhere. It’s individual but not trivial, because it touches our core thinking and beliefs — what makes us, us. Not everyone necessarily wants to work at round-the-clock Wall Street, on everyday Main Street or even in the bureaucracy of Washington, D.C.

Perhaps this is why great, legendary leaders who rise through the ranks over 15, 20 or 25 years at one or more organizations, and then get hand-picked by another company with great expectations, sometimes can’t replicate that magic.

Studies by hiring consultant Bradford Smart show that these hiring disappointments happen three out of four times a leader is hired!

Why can’t a leader — like Superman or Superwoman — overcome any and all obstacles (barring some Kryptonite) and deliver no matter what?

Because people, no matter how smart, eloquent or polished, don’t work in a vacuum.

They’re mortals who, despite maybe having extraordinary talents and the willingness to sacrifice inordinate amounts for their job, still need others to work with them. It’s still a two-way street.

Think of marriage. How many good — or even great — husbands and wives are out there who are loving, giving, caring and willing to do whatever it takes to make a happy, lasting marriage? But something goes wrong. They ask themselves (i.e., blame themselves) what they did or didn’t do to ruin the relationship and where they went wrong.

Perhaps, for the most part, they did right and it still didn’t work. Because there was another person at that place and time, sitting across the kitchen table from you, and no matter what you said or did, it was like fire and water.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t question yourself and ask where you fell short or what you could have done better. These can be positive questions to ask if done constructively, because despite our best efforts we all share and contribute to a situation.

Like the insurance company that says after a car accident: “It technically may not have been your fault, but everyone shares a part of the blame, so your rates are going up.”

How the blame is shared really doesn’t matter per se, because when a situation goes bad, everyone pays a price in terms of lost productivity and time, ill feelings, etc.

The key is to realize that you’re worthwhile. You don’t make your circumstances, but rather they test you — you must deal with the hand you’re dealt.

For all those in this still-healing economy who are looking for work, and for all those coming out of bad marriages or looking for the right relationships, do not despair. You are good, valuable people. For everyone there truly is the right person, career, place and time, and you will have yours.

Andy Blumenthal is the CTO of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A regular speaker and published author, Blumenthal blogs at The Total CIO. Blumenthal’s views are his own and do not represent those of any agency.

Andy Blumenthal  |  Contributing Writer

Andy Blumenthal is a division chief at the U.S. State Department. He was previously chief technology officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A regular speaker and published author, Blumenthal blogs at User-Centric Enterprise Architecture and The Total CIO. These are his personal views and do not represent those of his agency.