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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

Expand Your Mind: Leadership with Dan McCarthy

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

Dan McCarthy, along with Jim Stroup and Wally Bock, are of the rare breed that write on leadership, but don’t see it as an elitist function, genetic gift or an ability defined, let alone guaranteed, by position or promotion.

Tuesday Dan wrote one of the funniest (and shortest) posts I’ve seen in quite awhile—and turned me green with envy.

The post was truly “ripped from the headlines” and I offer it in full with Dan’s gracious permission.

10 (+1) Dumb Leadership Mistakes from Recent Headlines

Come on now, how hard can it be to be a great leader? It seems the bar keeps getting lower and lower every day.

All you need to do is browse the headlines and you’ll easily come up with examples of what not to do as a leader. Just follow these hopefully easy to adhere to rules, do a reasonable good job, and you’ll be running your organization in no time:

1. Don’t drop too many F-bombs at work. Or, as far as I’m concerned, don’t drop them at all.

2. But even if your employee does, don’t fire your employee over the phone. F2f is the only option for canning an employee.

3. Don’t slap your employees. Two words: anger management.

4. Don’t hit on or party with your employees. Some may argue with this one, but I’d say you’re only asking for trouble.

5. Don’t upstage your boss. It’s always better to let your boss go first.

6. Don’t launch an IPO and get married in the same week. It’s all about focus.

7. Don’t fire an employee for being “too hot”. Or for being too ugly. But you can for a dress code violation. But not over the phone, see #2.

8. Don’t flirt with the jurors during your corruption trial. I’d file this one under the competency of “judgment”.

9. Don’t lie about your education (let’s hear it for New Hampshire!). Or about your ethnicity (Hey, if I’m going to mention NH, I couldn’t spare Massachusetts). Better yet, just don’t lie, period. It’s easier to remember things when you don’t make them up.

10. Don’t steal your company’s money. Or “borrow” it, or “misplace” it, or whatever.

Last, but not least – and I’m sorry to have to mention this in a family leadership blog – don’t ever, ever, have sex at work, under any circumstances. Asking “was that wrong?” will not save you from being fired.

Hope you enjoyed this tour of leadership ineptitude headlines. Anything you’d like to add to the list? By the time this post is published, I’m sure we can come up with 11 more.

Seeing as how four days have gone by since publication I’m sure there are far more than 11.

To make it interesting, add your own link and comment for a chance to win a copy of Claudio Feser’s Serial Innovators. Winner chosen by random drawing.

Ducks in a Row: Guilt is Good

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

photos-aeu04117-449659020Guilt is a positive force or at least it can be as long as it is the right kind.

First, some background.

When people mess up they have one of two reactions, guilt or shame.

What is important to understand is that they neither the same nor is one the flip side of the other.

Whereas someone who feels guilty feels bad about a specific mistake and wants to make amends, a person who’s ashamed of a mistake feels bad about himself or herself and shrinks away from the error.

In other words, guilt embraces and focuses on fixing whatever, whereas shame runs away and hides.

This is important to you because in both controlled experiments and real-world feedback the guilt prone tend to have more initiative, AKA leadership.

In all the groups tested, the people who were most likely to be judged by others as the group’s leaders tended to be the same ones who had scored highest in guilt proneness. Not only that, but guilt proneness predicted emerging leadership even more than did extraversion,

As a manager, no matter your level, it is important to remember that everybody makes mistakes, causes errors or just plain screws up.

When interviewing, learning about mistakes, errors and screw-ups along with reactions and subsequent actions is often more important than knowing what candidates did correctly or their greatest strengths.

Initiative is one of the most valuable components of MAP and it’s difficult to evaluate when interviewing; after all, candidates are unlikely to say they don’t have any.

And that is why smart mangers hire MAP, not skills.

Flickr image credit: Murray Barnes

Expand Your Mind: Management and Leadership

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

Today is not about the difference (if any) or which is more important (you can’t have one without the other).

Which is more important in a CEO, age or experience? With the advent of the Facebook IPO that decades old question is hot again.

The debate typically pits the benefits of creativity and familiarity with emerging technologies against the need for disciplined decision making and experience dealing with hard times.

It’s funny how inaccurate most assumptions are, such as the supposed power of C-suite leadership teams. (Requires free registration.)

But in actuality, the group rarely conducts its work in unison, as a deliberative body or a source of command. Instead, its power comes from its members’ informal and social networks, their determination to make the most of those connections, and their ability to work well in subgroups formed to address specific issues.

Finally, take a look at the winners of the M-Prize on Leadership along with other out of the box approaches at the Mix.

If organizations are going to evolve from the hierarchical, command-and-control structure that has dominated over the past century to a new model where trust, transparency and meritocracy are guiding principles, they’re going to need to change the way they develop leaders.

Flickr image credit: pedroelcarvalho

Entrepreneurs: Abusing the E Word

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

In 2007 I wrote Stop abusing the L word!, and it is still one of my all-time favorite posts.

Five years later we’re still abusing the L word and the E word is getting the same treatment.

The E word is entrepreneur, but you knew that.

When I was young kids sold lemonade or mowed lawns wanted to earn spending money; it didn’t mean we were destined to start companies.

The E word, like the L word, used to be a label applied by other people after the fact to describe someone who founded a business that grew large—think HP and Intel.

Also, the label is more modern, even when applied retrospectively; Ben Franklin and Henry Ford weren’t lauded as entrepreneurs in contemporaneous writings, but always are now.

Nor do I class self-use of the E word as obnoxious in the same way that self-use of the L word is—I once saw a resume where ‘leader’ was used in both the ‘Position Desired’ and experience descriptions, “supervisor and leader,” “director and leader” (seriously, that’s what was written)—but it is a bit pretentious to introduce yourself that way, especially at a startup networking event (heard that, too.)

We all know that overused words lose their meaning, so lets lighten up on the E word; it gets a heavy enough workout from the media.

Image credit: Warning Sign Generator

Skip the Jargon

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Last Friday I cited HBS research that indicates that the best results are achieved when those in charge are both good managers and competent leaders and that the key factor is excellent communications.

Whether you think of yourself as a leader or a manager, communications is about more than talking clearly, it’s about providing all the background necessary for your people to understand why they are doing their jobs, as well as what jobs they are to do.

Think of it this way,

  • operational communications provide people information on how to do their jobs, while
  • management communications tell them what their jobs are and why they do them, giving form and purpose.

People need both.

Many of the problems that managers face daily stem from their own poor or inaccurate communications, often as a result of using jargon in an effort to sound sophisticated, knowledgeable and with it.

Jargon doesn’t work for several reasons.

  • You may not totally understand or be comfortable with the jargon;
  • your people may have their own individual understanding or be guided by their previous boss’ definitions that have nothing to do with your intended meaning. This happens often enough with words of one or two syllables, let alone multi-syllabic management-babble; or worse,
  • your people may shut down when they hear jargon.

You can create a relatively jargon-less environment by

  1. keeping it firmly in mind that your goal is to provide your people with all the information needed to understand how to perform their work as correctly, completely, simply, and efficiently as possible; and
  2. providing clear, concise, and complete communications at all times.

Follow these two steps religiously and the results will amaze you,

  • Productivity will skyrocket; which will
  • make your company more successful;
  • your employees happier; and
  • you a more effective manager with better reviews and an enviable reputation.


Be sure to check out this months Leadership Development Carnival; it’s been broken up to run over several days, so I can’t repost it here.

Flickr image credit: kevinspencer

Quotable Quotes: National Boss’ Day

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

Today is National Boss day and, contrary to what some think, it was not conceived by Hallmark to sell more cards. It was actually registered Patricia Bays Haroski in 1958 in honor of her boss, who was also her father. So in honor of all bosses out there, from team leaders to CEOs, I offer up these quotes by and about bosses.

According to H. S. M. Burns, “A good manager is a man who isn’t worried about his own career but rather the careers of those who work for him.” There are plenty of managers that still meet that description, but they don’t make good media fodder.

Culture is proof that likes attract, which is why you find so many managers who fit Peter Drucker’s description in the same company. “So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.”

Not to mention the truth of as spoken by General Joe Stillwell, “The higher a monkey climbs, the more you see of his behind.”

Sam Walton saw bosses in a different light, “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.” What Walton didn’t see is that workers are also customers of their boss and they, too, can vote with their feet.

And Robert Frost offers up irreverent advice for those who want to become bosses, “By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be a boss and work twelve hours a day.”

After spending more than a decade as a recruiter I can attest to the truth of John Gotti’s comment, “If you think your boss is stupid, remember: you wouldn’t have a job if he was any smarter.”

Finally, for all those stuck in a Dilbert-like world there is Homer Simpson’s fantasy to fuel yours, “Kill my boss? Do I dare live out the American dream?”

Flickr image credit: ilovememphis

Differences Worth Noting

Monday, July 25th, 2011

2185315789_e5d6af6e0d_mThere is a sizable difference between accepting positional leadership when a company is at the bottom and there is no place to go but up and taking over when its at its height—even more so when what was the growth engine and source of extraordinary profits disappears from the economic landscape.

It is one thing to maximize what you have, wringing out every last possible dollar, and investing in innovation for sustainable growth in the future.

It is one thing to create a culture where public shame and the likelihood of termination for missing your numbers rules and changing that to a culture that encourages appropriate risk-taking and never kills the messenger when the risk doesn’t pan out; a culture that understands not every innovation will be a home run, but encourages and applauds the effort anyway.

These are the differences between Jack Welch

But Welch had taken over when the company was in the bottom of an economic cycle. He took over GE in a recession, not the height of a bubble. Immelt got the job right after the end of the high-flying 1990s, an era which crowned CEOs with mythical, God-like crowns, and Welch was bestowed the biggest of them all.

and Jeff Immelt.

Immelt had known before the meltdown the company needed to ween off the leveraged risk from finance that was begun under Welch. … He admitted mistakes, as any good leader must do, and GE more quietly if not humbly went about its business in making the company a 21st century sustainable and reliable profit engine.

The differences are worth noting.

Flickr image credit: laurita13

Study Richard Branson

Monday, March 28th, 2011


Study Richard Branson as an entrepreneur.

Study him as a leader.

Study him as a manager.

Study him as an example of how to live your life.

Don’t just study Branson; study those around him, such as Stephen Murphy, Virgin CEO since 2006.

Studying both allows you to see how Branson differs from so many of his counterparts.

According to Murphy, “He [Branson] is a listener. He will say ‘I hired you to listen to you. I am not hiring you to tell you what to do’.”

Branson is known as Doctor Yes while Murphy is nicknamed Mr. No; together they make Virgin far stronger than either could separately.

Murphy balances Branson’s “screw it, let’s do it” attitude, but recognizes Branson’s positive mindset, “When there are nine good reasons not to do something, Richard is always the person who focuses on the one reason to do it.”

Branson is a master delegator, not just the responsibility, but the authority and once he delegates he lets go.

Study Branson to learn the value of controlling your ego or, better yet, being confident enough to let your people shine, knowing that giving them the spotlight doesn’t reduce your own place in the sun.

Last year I wrote a very short post on following and Branson seems to fit.

So when you are deciding whom to follow, who’s vision to trust, skip the shiny baubles and silken words and look to see who keeps turning the spotlight on others.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gulltaggen/4564600916/

Dr. Hawa Abdi

Monday, January 10th, 2011

vision-inspirationTypically heroes are leaders; not because they hold a high level position or are well compensated, but because they take initiative, often to extremes.

But even “extreme initiative” pales to insignificance as a description of 63 year old Dr. Hawa Abdi, better known as Mama Hawa.

For 20 years Mama Hawa has run a hospital and in May faced down Somalia’s most fearsome militant Islamist group.

Hundreds of women from a sprawling refugee camp on her property to protest, adding to a flood of condemnation from Somalis abroad that forced the militants to back down.

Hundreds of women from the sprawling refugee camp on Dr. Abdi’s property dared to protest, adding to a flood of condemnation from Somalis abroad that forced the militants to back down. Dr. Abdi even insisted that the gunmen apologize — in writing — which they grudgingly agreed to do.

What unique combination of genes, MAP and circumstances produces a Mama Hawa? Why has she flourished, while others flamed out?

What can you learn from her regarding initiative, drive, determination, leadership, inspiration and communication?

Take the time to read her profile and analyze it for the multiple lessons it contains.

Then start applying them to your own life one by one.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uggboy/4881735073/

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