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Archive for September, 2007

More about the L word

Friday, September 28th, 2007

Note: This post started as a response to Rhett Laubach’s comment, but got a little lengthy.

My main argument, and the thread that’s been running through many of my posts, is that it’s the court of public opinion after the fact that confers the title of leader. I’d like to see people stop holding leadership up as some kind of brass ring on the merry-go-round of life and do more living to the best of their abilities. Sure, people can add to their abilities, but they should also lead when it makes sense and follow when that makes sense, ignoring positions and power and influence, which are situational.

Let me tell you a story.

Back when I was in Civil Air Patrol during high school, a friend and I were on a search that was supposed to be more of a good hike than anything, when we found the crash—and the bodies. I say hike, because the teams that included cadets always searched the areas that had a minus 99% probability of finding anything, but, of course, you never could tell. That plane was way off any logical course, but every so often someone went flying without filing a flight plan and the little hills west of Denver called the Rocky Mountains just ate those idiots for lunch.

It was not a situation that any of us had ever faced, but I’ve never forgotten who took the lead. It was an insignificant little guy around 20, skinny, nerdy (in today’s language), and without an ounce of charisma. He’d never said much previously, but he talked us past the shock, developed a plan, because we had to take the bodies with us (long explanation), and got us out of there.

Nothing was mentioned about who was supposed to be in charge, there was no discussion, we just did what we needed to do. Even afterwards, there weren’t any big discussion of lead*, nobody really thought about it, we just accepted it.

I think two things from that experience sank deeply into my brain.

  1. Don’t fly with idiots, especially those who don’t file flight plans; and
  2. it’s not what you look like or who you are that matters—it’s how you think, what I’ve come to call MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy)™, that comes to the fore when needed.

I think that’s why I’m in such total agreement with Paul Wright’s comment (see 9/17) that “leadership is for instances. How people react to the things that happen around them—that’s the crux of life”

Leading isn’t an elite function or stored in your DNA; it’s not conferred upon you through an exclusive education nor does it come wrapped in an MBA.

I think that there are brilliant visionaries who can’t lead and talented leaders who aren’t visionaries—and some who can do both. Some managers are termed leaders, but leaders can’t always manage.

Steve Jobs founded and ran companies, developed products, some brilliant and some total duds, but I never heard him called a great people manager and it was decades before he was publicly hailed as brilliant. Steve did what he believed was right to do and did it with all his idiosyncrasies and his idiotsyncrasies intact, just like the rest of us, but with far more sustained passion than most of us can conjure up.

And that’s a large part of what sets Steve apart—his passionate, unshakable belief that he’s right and his willingness to ignore the naysayers.

Of course, that’s also what set Hitler apart.

And that’s the other thread you’ll find running through my writing. While leadership is neutral, good, bad, ethical, etc. are situational, subject to the definitions of their times. As I keep saying, murder has always been wrong, but the definition of murder keeps changing.

Leadership is no longer something that people do, it’s become an industry and as an industry it can only prosper if people believe in its mystique (yes, I realize that if it wasn’t an industry with mystique this blog wouldn’t exist:), but I’ve seen too many really great leaders in the instance who don’t believe in their own abilities because they never studied leadership.

And I find that very sad.

Stop abusing the L word!

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

Not love, but lead/leader/leadership/etc. or lead* for short.

We, as a nation/world, have shot our collective discussions in their metaphorical foot by using certain words as if they’re interchangeable when they’re not.

Statesman, leader and politician certainly aren’t synonymous, but they’re often used interchangeably, especially by spinmeisters.

Likewise, Board Chairmen, CEOs and other executives aren’t necessarily leaders, but the higher they are the more often lead* words are used in conjunction with them—starting, again, with the spinmeisters.

In an opinion piece on this subject, Henry S. Givray says, “the problem’s roots lie in the fact that the terms “CEO” and “leader” have mistakenly become synonymous. Nothing could be further from the truth. CEOs are measured by quantitative results. Leaders are shaped and defined by character.” (Note: I consider the implied idea that “character” equates to good/fair/ethical incorrect.)

The July 23rd WelshWay column answers the question, “What is lousy leadership?” by describing bosses who aren’t leaders, just lousy bosses. Again, the assumption that managers are always leaders.

I have two ideas for addressing this.

The first is that people start using the correct term for what they really mean to say and/or stop talking leadership and all other variations of lead* into the ground.

My second idea is a new reality show called So you think you can lead…

It would start with an online questionnaire to reduce contestant numbers from millions to thousands and then, like Idol, it would have local, regional and national tryouts, just a lot more of them to accommodate the number of contestants who passed the written tests.

The judges of the final finalists would be selected from nominations sent in by subordinates (self-nominations not allowed). The final decision for judges resting with proven leaders—those whose leadership skill has stood the test of time. (Unfortunately, most proven leaders are also dead, but this gives great cross-promotional opportunities with other reality shows whose stars talk to the dead.)

The show would run for two seasons, with judge selection and tryouts in the first season and the televised competition between the final finalists in the second. Best of all, instead of summer reruns, the finalists could be profiled and filmed actually leading.

So, all you leadership junkies, what do you think? Would you watch—or would you get yourself nominated?

Don't be a leadership hog

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

“Leadership is like manure, it produces the best results when spread around.”— me

Yup, I said that to a CEO with an old world belief in rigid hierarchical management because I needed to shock him into actually hearing what I was saying in order for him to recognize the need to adjust his MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy)™ for today’s workers. I can’t remember reading or hearing it anywhere, so I think it really is original—and definitely true.

There are major advantages to spreading leadership opportunities around and cultivating Paul Wright’s “leadership for instances” (9/17) approach.

Foremost is the fact that if you want to hire these days you need to offer your workers meaningful opportunities to grow or they’ll walk. Growing includes leading and managing—even if it’s only a group of one, themselves.

It means pushing responsibility further and further down in your organization, and not just the responsibility, but also the authority required to accomplish whatever it is.

That’s where most leaders/managers blow it, they assign the task, but then require the person to keep running to them for permission to do each step. Sure, sometimes you shouldn’t hand over total control, but you can hand over enough to get the job done.

Even when it comes to money, which is often the biggest hang-up, you can still do it. Create a budget for that project ad give the responsibility for it to the person you’ve assigned to do it. Let her decide how to spend it without interference or “help” from you—unless she asks. And if she goes over budget don’t freak out. It’s not that much (or shouldn’t be) in the big picture and if you freak she may never recover. She already knows that she messed up, so beating on her will accomplish nothing. Sit down calmly and let her walk you through the thinking and decision-making that led to being over budget, discuss it and lead her through the pattern that would have succeeded.

And if it turns out that the error is yours and the estimate was wrong, admit it, don’t try and convince her that someone else could have done it. People aren’t stupid, she’ll know that the discussion ended as a CYA function for you—as will everyone in your group, since stuff like this never stays secret.

Other great reasons to spread it around are increased productivity, more employee satisfaction, fewer logjams when you’re out sick or traveling, easier staffing and less turnover.

Finally, spread it around because that’s what great leaders/managers do to they foster the growth of the next great leaders/managers.

Cultural Glue

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

There’s a very smart software VP over at Dovetail Software (was First Choice Software) whose approach to building his department’s corporate culture has great balance.

Balance between what? Between the serious aspects of a productive environment and the fun that is the glue that holds it all together, “I work at this – building a special kind of culture in my team at Dovetail. Some of it is big stuff – learning how to communicate more effectively, mutual respect, and so on – and some of it is little stuff – giving everyone putty to play with. Silly? Perhaps. But there’s something magic that happens in a group that plays this way.”

Anything about people is about relationships and the interactions are incredibly complex. Take three people and you have at least 12 sets of dynamics circulating,

  • A (alone)
  • A & B
  • A & C
  • A & B/C

etc. for each person, and this model grows exponentially as the group gets larger.And because people grow, change and have moods those dynamics are fluid, changing, and not particularly stable—so you need glue.

It doesn’t matter if it’s silly putty, limerick contests, nerf balls or what, the goal is laughter with each other, not laughter at another’s expense, and it’s easy to tell the difference. It’s as if the explanation, “…but I was laughing with you” is never uttered.

Yes, you may find that the big building blocks of great culture, such as clear and constant communications, a well-crafted, well-shared vision and multifaceted respect at all levels, internally and externally take most of your energy, but if you forget to make it interesting and fun you lose the glue, which may not matter in good times, but that’s what holds the edifice together when an earthquake hits.

Are you (in)competent

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Gotcha! I see all you readers twisting your arms in order to pat yourselves on the back because you know that even though you could improve at least you’re not incompetent.

Are you sure of that?

Way back in 2000 I read about research that stuck in my mind, an unfortunate reminder to me that I’m not nearly as good/smart/interesting/funny/etc. as I’d like to think I am.

It was done by Cornell’s Dr. David A. Dunning, who describes his research in the field of social psychology this way, “My social psychological work focuses on two related phenomena. First I am interested in why people tend to have overly favorable and objectively indefensible views of their own abilities, talents, and moral character. For example, a full 94% of college professors state that they do “above average” work, although it is statistically impossible for virtually everybody to be above average. Second, I am interested in how people bolster their sense of self-worth by carefully tailoring the judgments they make of others. That is, people tend to make judgments of others that reflect favorably back on themselves, doing so even when the self is not under explicit scrutiny.”

According to the research, “most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent. On the contrary. People who do things badly are usually supremely confident of their abilities — more confident, in fact, than people who do things well…One reason that the ignorant also tend to be the blissfully self-assured, the researchers believe, is that the skills required for competence often are the same skills necessary to recognize competence.”

Isn’t that encouraging.

How bad is it? “Asked to evaluate their performance on the test of logical reasoning, for example, subjects who scored only in the 12th percentile guessed that they had scored in the 62nd percentile, and deemed their overall skill at logical reasoning to be at the 68th percentile.”

However, since the skills that make you competent are the same that you use to evaluate your ability, if you’re good at something you’ll know, right?

Wrong! “Unlike unskilled counterparts, the most able subjects in the study were likely to underestimate their competence.”

So, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

The research did find that, “…a short training session in logical reasoning did improve the ability of low-scoring subjects to assess their performance realistically…”

But if you don’t know, why would you get the training? Or should you get it as preventative medicine.

Or maybe, just maybe, you should actually start listening to those around you and really hearing what they’re saying—even if it’s not complimentary, makes you uncomfortable and you don’t agree.

It doesn’t mean that “they” are always right, but if multiple people are all saying (by word or body language) the same thing, it’s very likely that they know something about you that you don’t know.

Listen, learn, think, change.

Nine historically correct rotten leadership tactics

Monday, September 24th, 2007

Ah, the difficulties of being a really rotten leader in the Twenty-first Century, I’m telling you folks, it ain’t easy.

You see, to practice truly rotten leadership one needs truly immense power and that’s getting harder and harder to come by.

Popular conceptions of current lousy leaders include all politicians, including dictators, warlords and rebels, by whatever percentage doesn’t agree with them; persons of the cloth, by whatever percentage doesn’t agree with them; and everyone else in major or minor leadership positions by whatever percentage doesn’t agree with them.

Rotten, like pornography, is in the eye of the beholder, but in spite of legal convictions, how many of the current crop will stand the test of time? How many of them really make the historical grade for awfulness?

Business-wise, Skilling and Kozlowski types destroyed thousands financially, but, heck, they didn’t kill them.

Any number of recent/current politicos have been working on the killing angle, but they pale in comparison to guys like Hitler and Stalin.

As to the religious scandals of today, the $585 million dollar fraud of William Pierre Crotts and Thomas Dale Grabinski can’t hold a candle to the acts of yore.

Some of the most famous are from the Papacy, John XXII, mainly for sexual excesses, but he didn’t hold a candle to the Fifteenth Century John XXIII (accused of atheism, among 72 other things) or the Borgia family, that included two Popes and an archbishop. It’s not that Catholics are any worse than other religious people are, but the Papacy has the most power concentrated in its leadership position.

Now we’re getting there. That’s the main reason that the bad guys of the past eclipse more modern villains—they had more power available to misuse.

And, I’m sorry to say, that hasn’t changed. The one thing that stands out about the really rotten leaders of today is that they all amassed significant power before doing their rotten deeds.

Some amassed it through violence, but for many it was all about telling oratory in the quest for money, with a bit of sex thrown in to spice things up.

The nice thing is that many of their convictions go beyond the court of public opinion to the legal courts. Besides those already mentioned, think Saddam Hussein (political), Jimmy Swaggart (religious) and Joseph Nacchio (business)

As you can see from this list, you need to go way outside the rotten leadership box; otherwise, you probably won’t even make it as a footnote, historically speaking. Also, keep in mind that the yardstick for excess is based on the times in which the acts occurred, not the standards of today.

  1. Boundless abuse of absolute power.
  2. Whimsical killing.
  3. Intemperate slaughter
  4. Rampant insanity.
  5. Unbounded flaunting of sexual mores.
  6. Gratuitous forms of torture.
  7. Aberrant actions that put the country at risk.
  8. Excessive ruthlessness.
  9. Profligate sex.

Notice that greed-based actions are missing from the list, that’s because historically correct rotten leaders already controlled most, if not all, of the money.

For those of you who want a better look at really rotten leadership in practice, check out History’s Worst Rulers by Mike Dash, a British historian and terrific writer with a wonderfully irreverent sense of humor.

Mike’s list includes:

  • Elagabalus
  • John XXIII
  • Mustafa I
  • Juana the Mad
  • Phocas
  • Charles VI the Foolish
  • Mansur
  • Ivan IV the Terrible
  • The Twenty–Seven–Day Emperor
  • John XII

Another list (supposedly) compiled by Catholic University in 1980 offers

  • Adolf Hitler
  • Josef Stalin
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • Nero
  • Attila the Hun
  • Ivan IV ‘The Terrible’
  • Idi Amin
  • Caligula
  • Catherine de’ Medici

A third list offers these “Villains Of The Millennium”

  • Tamerlane
  • Ivan the Terrible
  • Maximillien Robespierre
  • Joseph Stalin
  • Mao Zedong
  • Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier
  • Nicolae Ceausescu.
  • Idi Amin
  • Pol Pot

Gee, another feather in Ivan’s rotten cap—he’s the only person to make all three lists.

For those of you with less pretentious goals, see Nine Ways to Disengage your Employees for great ways to alienate your employees. They won’t earn you even a footnote in history, but practiced diligently they will earn you kudos in the small frog/small pond version of a rotten ruler.

Finally, feel free to add names or argue about those listed.

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Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

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Start as a nut, end as a leader

Friday, September 21st, 2007

In honor of TGIF, I thought I’d pass on the story of a man who dreamed as a child, translated that dream into a vision as a man, and then acted on it.

The man is Malaysian Tony Fernandes and his childhood dream was to own an airline—but as a man he couldn’t get a license. By the time he was 37 he was Warner Music’s top executive in Southeast Asia, but he quit cold, mortgaged his home and tapped out his life savings to follow his dream by buying a bankrupt airline for 26 cents and $11 million in debt, then turned the company around in less than a year.

“Most people thought I was crazy,” says Mr. Fernandes. “When we started, they said it wouldn’t work. They said we would die.”

Far from dying, “Air Asia is now an international carrier world-renowned for revolutionizing Southeast Asian air travel as Asia’s first budget carrier. Its no-frills business model has spawned copycats among Southeast Asian airlines offering low-cost fares and forced Asian skies open.”

Mr. Fernandes had passion and a vision, “When I look back, it does sound kind of unbelievable… But I just felt that it was the right thing to do and nothing was going stop me,”

And he makes it a point to hire those who share it, “Mr. Fernandes was standing in line at the Singapore International Airport when a young student told him, “I’d love to work for you.” After a chat, he sensed that the boy has talent, and that “he was going to be a superstar.” A few minutes past the passport check counter, he signed up the student. “Now he runs our Singapore office,” he tells CNN in a recent interview. “I look for ability and passion.””

But it’s the culture he built that stands out and is the basis of his success, “Air Asia’s head office is not in a tall glass tower but right at the airport – and for a reason. “We have to remain humble. We have to remember our roots. Too many companies forget their beginnings and that is where it all goes wrong,” the CEO says. Air Asia has “a family environment, an open culture, with no hierarchy.” No one, regardless of their pay scale, would hesitate to carry bags, clean the planes, or even email the CEO directly. “People are allowed to think. I believe a thousand brains are better than just ten,” he says.”

Here are a few of my favorite Tony Fernandes comments,

“Life is about risks, life is about not being afraid to fail.”

“Well, I think one is that everyone plays a part. There is no hierarchy. Everyone is valuable.”

“I look at people who have ability, who have drive, who have passion.”

“What keeps us different is the people, is the culture.”

“I want, I really want to be seen as a great company, corporate governance. I want to show the world that Malaysia can have a great company, and I want to be remembered for being a great place to work at.”

Now, Tony Fernandes is lauded as a brilliant leader, as opposed to the original consensus that he was a nut.

More proof that it is public opinion that confers the title of leader.

Read the full CNN interview and the inquirer.net article.

Why Strategy?

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

Over the years, I’ve had many managers (and individuals) explain to me why they don’t spend more time/energy on strategy—real strategy, not a to-do list for the following quarter.

Reasons not to plan/develop strategy are endless, but here are the most common

  • I don’t know what strategy should cover or how to plan it. This is the most annoying because it’s based on pure laziness. There are yards of excellent books, thousands of websites and hundreds of consultants all anxious to help you develop and plan your strategy.
  • The idea [of developing strategy] scares me. This has the distinct advantage of being honest. It’s usually not the envisioning part that’s scary, but the planning required achieving it. I’ve found that planning often scares people, but it won’t if you treat it like the Times crossword and do it in pencil rather than ink. That will remind you that it isn’t carved in stone.
  • What’s the big deal? What do I really need it for? The reasons to plan strategy are legion and millions of words have been written and spoken about them, but I can sum them all up with a quote from a book I read years ago. I’ve forgotten the name of the book and, after googling around for a while, I couldn’t find any reference to Savielly Tartakover, but I’ll still attribute it to him.

‘Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do.
Strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do.”

— Savielly Tartakover, Polish Grand Master

And that pretty much says it all.

Leadership sans power

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

The final changes request came from Scott Allen, my favorite social media guru, over at Linked Intelligence who said, “I’d also like to see more discussion/advice on how to lead when you’re not in charge.”

OK, Scott, but before we start on the how let’s start at the beginning, as in “does it [the group involved] actually need a leader?” Oft times the answer is no, it’s doing just fine without one.

Sometimes “it” doesn’t even need a good manager. If a good manager, let alone a true leader, were always necessary for a group to accomplish its goal, the human race would be in bigger trouble than it already is.

Seriously, think about the times you felt that your team (in the broadest use of the word) was just barely muddling through, yet when you looked at the result through twenty-twenty hindsight you were amazed at what was accomplished. Sure, maybe it could have been done a bit better or faster, but the end product produced was exactly what was needed and all deadlines were met. So, what’s not to like?

Granted, there are many over-achievers out there who believe that everything should be done at the fastest speed and with the highest level of perfection, which I consider an enormous waste of both physical and psychic energy. Some things, yes, but, as the old saw goes, choose your battles wisely.

But let’s say that the project you’re involved with is drifting, if so, it may just need a nudge here and there to get back on track. Nudges are like rudders, a very slight rudder movement can translate to substantial course changes. Thinking rudder instead of leader is especially useful when you’re not in charge.

The easiest way to nudge is by doing—just take the initiative and do something. That’s often enough to get everyone moving. Offering help to teammates who are stuck, in a manner that doesn’t undercut or offend them, is another way to lead (if you insist on using that term).

The worst way to exert leadership is by announcing that the project is drifting, thereby making everyone look bad and feel worse—you accomplish nothing except to turn people against you.

You also need to be well aware of your own motivation. Are you doing it to get the project done so the team shines or are you looking for public recognition and personal glory? If the former then this will work, if the latter you might want to rethink your goals.

In short, Scott, the simplest way to lead when you’re not the boss (or when you are, for that matter) is from behind, or, as Lao Tzu says, “As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence….to lead the people, walk behind them.”

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