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Golden Oldies: Discriminating Leadership and Influence, Persuasion and Manipulation

Monday, May 8th, 2017

It’s amazing to me, but looking back over more than a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written.

Golden Oldies is a collection of some of the best posts during that time.

This week is a two-fer, the first post was written in 2009, while the second is from 2015. Both contain links to other relevant posts. And both address a pet peeve of mine involving words — what else — their use, misuse and baggage.

Read other Golden Oldies here.

Discriminating Leadership

The ability to influence is not the sign of a leader; nor are visions, forceful opinions, board seats, titles or popularity. After all, if a high media profile was a sign of leadership then Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are leaders.

Millions of people are influenced and even inspired by writers and actors, but does that make them leaders? Angelina Jolie is considered a leader for her tireless charitable efforts as opposed to her screen credits; Rush Limbaugh may influence thousands, but I’ve never heard him called a leader.

It is the singular accomplishments; the unique actions that deserve the term, not the position you hold or just doing your job.

I knew a manager who thought his major accomplishment was managing his 100 person organization, but that wasn’t an accomplishment—that was his job. The accomplishment, and what qualified him as a leader, was doing it for four years with 3% turnover and every project finished on time and in budget.

Jim Stroup over at Managing Leadership (no longer available) wrote, “There is a strong and general instinct to ascribe positive values to what we have determined to be examples of leadership. In a world that so often confuses forcefulness with leadership, this can be – and frequently is, in fact, revealed to be – an exceedingly dangerous habit… There is a particularly frustrating – and increasing – tendency to characterize any practice or trait deemed “good” as “leadership.” When an executive exhibits behavior that is highly valued – or even expresses a perfectly ordinary one especially well – he or she is declared to be a “leader,” or to have demonstrated “leadership.”

Dozens of corporate chieftains who were held up for years as exemplifying visionary leadership now stand in line for bailout money—or dinner in jail.

There is no way to stop the word being used and abused, but you have the option to hear it for what it really is—a word with no baggage, no assumed meaning.

A word on which you focus your critical thinking instead of accepting it blindly, assuming that all its traits are positive or rejecting it based on nothing more than ideology.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/aafromaa/4476152633Influence, Persuasion and Manipulation

Last week I had lunch with four managers, “Larry,” “Mandy,” “Paul” and “Ashish.” At one point the conversation turned to how the ability to influence people affected the ability to lead.

It was a lively conversation, but I stayed on the sidelines; noticing my silence, Ashish asked me what I thought.

Instead of responding I asked all of them what the difference was between influence, persuasion and manipulation.

This provoked another active discussion, with the upshot that while it was acceptable to influence people it was wrong to manipulate them. This time it was Mandy who asked what I thought.

I responded that I didn’t see a lot of difference between the three.

That shocked them all, but really upset Larry.

So I explained my thinking, which formed the basis of this post in 2011.

Influence = Manipulation

Every conversation about leadership talks about ‘influence’ and how to increase yours.

In a post at Forbes, Howard Scharlatt defines influence this way,

Influence is, simply put, the power and ability to personally affect others’ actions, decisions, opinions or thinking. At one level, it is about compliance, about getting someone to go along with what you want them to do.

He goes on to describe three kinds of influencing tactics: logical, emotional and cooperative, or influencing with head, heart and hands and talks about ‘personal influence’ and its importance in persuading people when authority is lacking.

A couple of years ago I wrote The Power of Words and said, “Personally, other than socially acceptable definitions, I don’t see a lot of difference between influence and manipulation,” and I still don’t.

I realize most people consider manipulation negative and influence positive, but they are just words.

I often hear that leaders are good people, while manipulators are bad people. But as I pointed out in another post,

leaders are not by definition “good;”

they aren’t always positive role models; and

one person’s “good” leader is another person’s demon.

Everyone believes they use their influence in a positive way, but when you persuade people to do [whatever] who are you to say that both the short and long-term outcome is positive for them?

Influence, persuasion, manipulation; call it what you will, just remember that it is power and be cautious when you wield it.

In spite of the heated disagreement I saw no reason to change my thinking.

I was surprised at the end of the discussion when even Larry commented that while it made sense that the words didn’t actually signal intent he still didn’t like it and wasn’t about to use them interchangeably, which made sense to me, because language carries the meaning (and the baggage) of the time and place in which it’s used.

Image credit: Anne Adrian

Golden Oldies: Book Review: Managing Leadership

Monday, January 16th, 2017


It’s amazing to me, but looking back over more than a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written.

Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

I’m not a fan of the leadership industry; I think it has corrupted the whole notion of leadership. Anybody/everybody can be leaders at a given moment. Life changes and Jim Stroup, who wrote Managing Leadership, one of the best blogs on that subject stopped writing a couple of years ago. But all his wonderful posts are at the link and he also wrote an excellent book on the subject.

Read other Golden Oldies here.

During a conversation about positional leadership Richard Barrett said, “Reminds me of a Seinfeld joke. He pointed to professional sports teams and asked about team loyalty. The players change, the coaches change, and sometimes even the stadium changes. So, the people are really loyal to the logos on the team uniforms, just a pile of laundry. Maybe positional leadership is just laundry leadership?”

I like that—laundry leadership. Great term.

So what’s available instead of laundry leadership, especially these days when so much of the laundry is dirty?

Why not organizational leadership? Leadership that percolates from every nook and cranny of the enterprise driving innovation and productivity far beyond the norm.

Following this to its natural conclusion makes leadership a corporate asset and one that needs to be managed for it to have the highest possible impact.

Jim Stroup, whose blog I love, is a major proponent of this idea and defines and explains it in his book Managing Leadership: Toward a New and Usable Understanding of What Leadership Really Is And How To Manage It.

Of all the leadership books, Managing Leadership is the first book I’ve seen that breaks with the accepted idea of the larger-than-life leader whose visions people embrace and follow almost blindly.

Stroup says today’s corporations are far too complex for one person to know everything; that, given a chance, leadership will come naturally and unstoppably from all parts and levels of the organization making it a characteristic of the organization, rather than one person’s crown.

Sadly, fear makes the idea that leadership comes from all people at all levels and should be managed to make the most of it anathema to many senior managers; they consider leadership a perk of seniority and prefer squashing it when the source doesn’t occupy the ‘correct’ position.

I highly recommend Jim’s book. Even if the management above you doesn’t embrace this paradigm, you can within your own group. Encourage your people to take the initiative, guide them as needed, then get out of the way and watch them fly.

Golden Oldies: Compromise Means Listening

Monday, November 16th, 2015

2293239853_ddd6bc4ef4_mIt’s amazing to me, but looking back over nearly a decade of writing I find posts that still impress and with information that is as useful now as when it was written. Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

Compromise Means Listening (2008)

Jim Stroup at Managing Leadership wrote a fascinating post on the effects of principles and political compromise on our Constitution.

For the political slant click the link, but I think that these ideas are just as true in the business world.

“If you rule out compromising your principles, then you become an ideologue.”

Can business people be ideologues? Of course.

Managers adopt approaches and then rigidly try to implement (inflict?) them on every organization in which they work with no consideration as to their appropriateness.

Robert Nardelli did that when he tried to impose stringent metrics a la GE on Home Depot, ignoring cultural differences and the realities of running a successful consumer business.

“…maybe they see a higher, joint goal of sufficient value… This sometimes takes a kind of discipline, stamina, and focus that can be stunning, and much more productive, powerful, and enduring…”

When senior managers open themselves up to input from all levels of their organization—instead of forcing the dogmatic use a certain methodology—the results include stronger engagement, higher productivity and more innovation.

In business, this means a focus beyond today’s stock price—a focus on the long-term, which is rarely appreciated by Wall Street.

Compromise isn’t synonymous with ethical lapse, either; it’s not an excuse to lie, cheat, steal or fudge the information or the numbers.

It is about listening to others; listening to those whose ideas are revolutionary; ideas that are atypical; ideas that buck the norm and go in a new direction and that takes a lot of guts.

In business, as in politics, compromise often means being willing to put your job on the line—but refusing carries the same potential cost.

Flickr image credit: Scott Maxwell

Ducks in a Row: You Can’t (Successfully) Have One Without the Other

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015


To build a solid culture that will stay true to its values, yet flexible enough to grow with the company you need get past the idea that positional leaders don’t need management skills or that managers don’t lead.

Jim Stroup, who wrote a blog called Managing Leadership, the archives of which contain tremendously useful information on leadership and management for bosses at all levels, used to point out in numerous posts the absurdity of separating the two.

“No one has proven that leadership is different from management, much less that it is a characteristic inherent in individuals independently of the context in which those individuals operate, one that they carry with them from one organization to another and which they then instill into groups otherwise bereft of it.”

A comment left on a 2008 Washington Post column by Steve Pearlstein regarding the leadership failure that led to the economic crisis neatly sums up the problem with defining leaders based on their vision and skill at influencing people to follow them.

“What a great summary of the economic problem. However this was not a lack of leadership. Defining leadership as influencing people to move in a specific direction, the financial and economic elite successfully led the country into the economic disaster. The problem was a lack of management that failed to identify the signs of the pending disaster.”

Honing the skills to only do one or the other well short-changes your people and your company — but it’s how you win.

Being proficient in both leading and managing will

  • prevent visions from blindsiding you;
  • provide strong motivation;
  • increase productivity and creative thinking;
  • create an environment in which people are challenged and grow to their true potential;
  • ensure a higher level of personal satisfaction; and
  • increase your tangible rewards.

And if those 6 results don’t motivate you, the sophistication and mobility of today’s workforce certainly should.

Image credit: Rodney Campbell

Training as Brainwashing

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Yesterday I received the following email from Sean.

Hi Miki, I need some advice. When I graduated I accepted a position with a company I had interned with. The job isn’t terrific and I took it mainly because it gave me the opportunity to learn a lot in a short time and participate in various training programs. I was excited when my manager chose me for leadership training, which was supposed to fast track me into a more senior role. Pretty heady stuff for someone just a year out of college. The problem is that the leadership training feels more like brainwashing. But I don’t really have anything to compare to, so I thought I would write and see if this is typical.

Reading this reminded me of a post late last year by Jim Stroup over at Managing Leadership; I sent it to Sean and decided to share both question and answer with you.

Pod people

As the modern leadership movement’s (MLM) many and various advocates compete for attention, we inevitably find ourselves being bombarded with simplistic insights, each one, its “discoverer” will argue, the very cornerstone of a brave new world that can be built only on its foundation.

As it happens, if you can dismiss the ludicrous promises made for many of these, what is left may still be useful to peruse, even thought-provoking and helpful.

Unfortunately, though, the intensity of our angst over how we each individually relate to the pseudo-vital subject of leadership can make it difficult to distinguish between the product and its packaging.

This is particularly so in the MLM – with its devastatingly misplaced focus on the uniquely special attributes of the individual. Leadership is what you are, they pontificate. What you are – if you are the right things – is leadership, they add with trivializing profundity.

An exceptionally unnerving quality can become embroiled in this unstable mixture when the advocates of a particular insight-based approach come to uncritically accept their own hype. They can then become dogmatic about it, almost fanatical. Even not-so-subtly intimidating.

A manager recently wrote me about just such a leadership sect, if you will. The group is a well-known leadership consultancy of international reach, and the beneficiary of explosive growth built on the back of a run-away best-selling book by the founder. This book presented the well-worn idea – but with spectacularly well-tuned spin in the telling – that there is an inseparable link between success and wisdom in one’s person and private life, and one’s business position and career.

This group had been hired by my correspondent’s organization to present its leadership training program to the outfit’s managers. It seems, though, that some disquiet was caused by the presenters’ almost glassy-eyed praise of the founding principles of the program philosophy. Evidently, it was even described to the attendees as something that would – indeed, that must – have a “spiritual” impact on them.

The last straw for my correspondent was when there appeared to develop real, personal pressure on the attendees to demonstrate their willingness to drink the Kool-Aid. It seems as though an inordinate amount of time was spent ensuring that each attendee had genuinely internalized – rather than merely stipulated to for the sake of the argument – the philosophical underpinnings of the program. Those that resisted drew unsettlingly focused attention, and it seemed as though the program would not progress until they capitulated.

At this point, the alarm bells sounding in this manager’s head succeeded in drowning out the liturgical droning of the acolytes. He left the multi-day workshop, which had been a requirement, and explained to his seniors why.

When you hear alarm bells yourself during any sort of presentation – especially a workshop like this one – always heed them. Try to determine what they might mean. And never let yourself be intimidated by those who want to rush you along into group-thinking lock-step with their positions without allowing you time for calm, clear deliberation. Get out of the hot-house and evaluate the comprehensiveness and consistency of the case presented yourself. Make your own decisions, and draw your own conclusions.

Certainly, don’t turn into a mindless “follower” of a “leadership” of this ilk. If you’re alert to the phenomenon, you’ll be surprised to find how much of this kind of “training” so dangerously fits this mold.

I highly recommend Jim’s work, and especially his book, if you are interested in debunking leadership myths and creating a leadership culture instead, nor is this first time I’ve recommended him to you.

Image credit: Managing Leadership

Jim Stroup on Leadership

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Jim-StroupJim Stroup is one of my favorite leadership commentators; additionally, he writes one of the most erudite blogs in cyberspace. He was kind enough to offer this post to introduce you to his thinking. He is well worth any time you spend with him. I highly recommend a subscription to his blog as well as his book, Managing Leadership, which I reviewed here.

Summarizing the fallacy of individual leadership

I’ve covered a lot of ground over the past several years on Managing Leadership. I’ve talked about everything from free-market capitalism to history – even physics. But at bottom, it all has been about management and leadership; in particular, how the former is a proper and honorable individual undertaking in an organization, and how the latter is, not to put to fine a point on it, neither.

I will be talking more about what leadership in an organization really is, and how to manage it at my blog, but for this post, I’d like to take a moment to summarize the fundamental problems with the current state of things – the intractable contradictions inextricably woven into the concept of individual leadership:

  • It is inescapably about the person – not the work. It encourages personal ties which rise to the level of cultishness. It describes these ties as existing between the “leader” and his or her “followers” – not among colleagues and their businesses or organizations.
  • It suggests that individual leadership can be developed. There is, however, no proof whatever for this contention.
  • It fails to connect leadership (especially inspirational or charismatic) with successful business management.
  • It is filled with fallacious proofs consisting of examples that seem to support it, but which ignore the multiples of examples that satisfy the posited parameters while still failing to support it, or that even contradict it.
  • Neither its presence nor its potential can be predicted.
  • It encourages adults to attempt to develop personality characteristics that may not be natural to them. This has not been demonstrated as possible; it may actually be harmful.
  • It further encourages adults to focus on developing these personal characteristics in order to attain a personally aggrandizing persona, rather than to improve their ability to contribute as part of a team to organizational work.
  • By seeking a universal individual leadership model it fails to see how individuals in “leadership” positions learn on their own to evaluate what’s working, what isn’t, and how to adapt to keep things going or to improve them.
  • It is irretrievably run through with contradictions – the most obvious being those among the widely touted and disparate lists of “essential” leadership traits.
  • It (often actively) encourages unaccountability by its recourse to superlative leadership skills and “intuition” beyond the ken of the rest of us.
  • As a really rather obvious result, it is irrelevant, distracting, and thus destructive on numerous levels.
  • Flowing inevitably from the above, in its lack of system, resistance to definition, and inability to develop practitioners or predict outcomes, it is inherently unprofessional.


Now read Jim’s complimentary post, Exuding something, that looks at the flip side of individual leadership.

Easily among the most disagreeable aspects of the generally disagreeable concept of exceptional individual leadership is the noxious notion of “followership.”

Image credit: Managing Leadership

Leadership’s Future: Figuring Out Leadership

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Eleven thousand business books are published every year. Amazon currently lists more than 60 thousand books on leadership alone. There are also magazines, web sites, e-books, audiobooks, podcasts, and blogs. They all offer ideas on what to do. (Thanks to Wally Bock for the great stats.)

Much of what is written is anecdotal.

Much of what is written is more for self-aggrandizement as pointed out in this post by Jim Stroup.

And too much is garbage, pure and simple.

What it all has in common is the idea that if you do what the author did, or says to do, then you will become a leader whatever the situation, circumstances or your experience.

Obviously, this is poppycock. Nobody would even think of suggesting this kind of ‘do it my way and succeed’ approach to an athlete or entertainer, so why think that leadership, or managing, for the matter, is any different?

Little of what’s out there involves the rigorous kind of research that forms the basis of most subjects.

HBSThat lack is starting to be addressed by Harvard Business School.

According to professor Rakesh Khurana “If we look at the leading research universities and at the business schools within them, the topic of leadership has been actually given fairly short shrift. … What we tried to incorporate in the Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice is how each different perspective illuminates key elements such as similarities and differences in leadership across task, culture, and identity.

Khurana also says that “Leadership just wasn’t tractable by large databases.” No surprise there, much of what involves human MAP isn’t.

But it was this comment that resonated loudest with me.

“There is no single “best” style of leadership nor one set of attributes in all situations.”

In conjunction with the effort to increase serious research, HBR is running a blog for just six weeks called Imagining the Future of Leadership. The articles are, in general, excellent and the comments interesting. Check it out and add your own thoughts.

I don’t believe that Harvard is the last word, but it is encouraging that a serious and respected institution agrees that the subject is complex, doesn’t fit neatly into a specific field and sees the need for much more than is currently available.

Flickr photo credit to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/patriciadrury/3237604522/

A Leadership Carnival for Labor Day

Monday, September 7th, 2009

Hopefully you’re not laboring today, at least not at work.

There’s no football, so other than eating what is likely the last BBQ of the season and indulging in too much beer you might be a bit short of entertainment.

Never fear, just click the link and settle in for some great viewpoints on leadership, management, employee interaction and other pertinent subjects at September incarnation of the Leadership Development Carnival.

You’ll not only find my favorites, Wally Bock, Steve Roesler and Jim Stroup, but a host of excellent writers and downright smart people.

It doesn’t matter if you agree with what they say (I often don’t), but agree or not you will learn and that’s the real value—oft times you will learn more from those on a different side of the subject than from those with whom you agree.

Click around the carnival and then come back and share what impressed you most or what set your teeth on edge.

Your comments—priceless

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Image credit: kirsche222 on sxc.hu

Leadership Fashion

Friday, July 10th, 2009

I never really paid attention to leadership as an industry until I took over Leadership Turn a couple of years ago. But now I realize that it’s as pronounced and cyclical as the fashion industry.

Jim Stroup at Managing Leadership describes it well.

“Initially the gurus told us that leadership was a superlative individual characteristic reserved to the elite, then a democratically distributed attribute accessible by all… first to vision, then decisiveness, then courage, then team-building skills, then forcefulness, then empathy. It’s about looking inward to one’s core self. No, it’s about communication and connecting with others.”

The list of leadership fashions is actually much longer than Jim’s list; different looks are marketed by different leadership houses and each has a name designer at the helm with more junior designers doing much of the actual work. Every so often one of these junior people leaves and starts her own house and so the industry grows.

Along with the major houses are the small independent designers who may be aligned philosophically with a larger house, but put their own spin on the product.

Just as fashionistas drive the cutting edge (which can be pretty weird) in clothes, anoint designers, models and wearers as icons and then trash them for being out of touch or too <whatever>, so, too, do leaderistas drive what’s fashionable in leadership, hold icons up for adulation, dump them from their pedestals when their feet soften and switch when more trendy designs comes along.

The greatest difference is that fashion products are made of real stuff, while leadership products are built of words.

Consider Lao Tzu, who, 2500 years ago said,

“The superior leader gets things done with very little motion. He imparts instruction not through many words but through a few deeds. He keeps informed about everything but interferes hardly at all. He is a catalyst, and though things would not get done well if he weren’t there, when they succeed he takes no credit. And because he takes no credit, credit never leaves him.”


“As for the best leaders,
the people do not notice their existence…
When the best leader’s work is done,
the people say, “We did it ourselves!”
To lead the people, walk behind the.”

In 1987 The Leadership Challenge presented the 5 Practices of Leadership

  • Model the Way
  • Inspire a Shared Vision
  • Challenge the Process
  • Enable Others to Act
  • Encourage the Heart

These days the hot terms are thought leadership and servant leadership.

If you’re getting tired of the leaderistas go back to Lao Tzu’s Tao Teh Ching; I have a copy that, measured in inches, is 4.5x3x3/8 in an easily readable font.

It will rev up your brain, sink into your MAP, juice your leadership abilities and add peace to your soul—not bad for a book you can put in your pocket.

Your comments—priceless

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Image credit: manbeastextraordinaire on flickr

Follow Yourself; Partner With Others

Friday, June 19th, 2009

I have a great idea to make the world a better place.

Everybody who aspires to the cult of all-knowing leader stops.

Everybody who longs for an all-knowing leader embraces the reality that no such thing exists. (Jim Stroup has an excellent discussion on this that started June 8 at Managing Leadership. I highly recommend it.)

Replacing these, everybody would

  • learn leadership skills;
  • apply them constantly to themselves; and
  • occasionally in the outside world as circumstances dictated;
  • take responsibility for their own actions and decisions; and
  • partner with others as equals, whether one was in front or behind at any given time.

Not that I think there’s a chance in hell that this will happen, but it’s a nice thought on a beautiful summer Friday.

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Image credit: Joe Penniston @WDW on flickr

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