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Guest Post: Our Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

When I was five or six, every Saturday morning was the same. I’d strap on my trusty toy six-shooter over my pajamas, grab my cowboy hat, and mount the arm of my father’s armchair, which I thought of as my trusty steed. From that perch, I’d watch the Saturday morning cowboy shows on our black and white television. Like most of the rest of America, I loved my cowboy heroes. It took a while to understand how unrealistic they were.

The cowboys were all white guys, there wasn’t an African American, or a Mexican American, or a Mexican to be seen doing real work. In real life, about a quarter of working cowboys were African-Americans. And much of the dress, equipment, and the language of the working cowboy came from the Mexican vaqueros.

The cowboys I watched on television were all clean and wore fancy clothes. Real cowboys did a dirty job and wore clothes and used equipment to make it safer and easier.

Television cowboys had almost superhuman skills. They could ride a horse at a full gallop and shoot the pistol out of a bad guy’s hand at a couple of hundred yards. When the evildoer was trying to run away, they could whip out their trusty lasso and pull him off his horse. Every time. They never missed. They were heroes.

The cowboy heroes did super masculine things with grace. They knocked out bad guys with a single punch. The women in the shows were always attractive, but their primary role was to be rescued or protected.

You would think, if they had the usual set of masculine urges that there would be some chasing after the beautiful women who populated the television West. But no. When their work of rescuing and protecting was over, the cowboy heroes rode away, accompanied if at all, by their trusty sidekick. That’s weird.

Those heroes were great for me when I was five. Today, I’m not so sure they fit the world we want to create.

Let’s Broaden Our View of Heroes

There’s no reason we need to limit our definition of heroes to white men with superpowers. Women can be heroes, too. So, can people with every shade of skin tone imaginable. They have been throughout history.

Heroes don’t need superpowers, and they don’t need to be flashy. Some of our greatest heroes do quiet work that makes a difference in the world, like Dan Nigro on and after 9/11.

Cowboy Heroes in A Team-Centric World

Today, most of the world’s work gets done in teams, so you would think we would modify our idea of a hero. We haven’t. Instead, we’ve made the situation fit our fantasy rather than the facts.

We laud lone innovators like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, except they weren’t “lone” at all. Edison had the muckers and Jobs had hundreds of people at Apple. We laud the fighter pilot and forget the crew that keeps the jet flying and the pilot safe.

When US Airways flight 1549 was set down in the Hudson River, the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, became the hero of the day. No one except Sullenberger wanted to talk about the contributions of the copilot or the cabin crew to making the landing safe and getting the passengers off the plane. No one wanted to bring up the training in the cockpit resource management that prepared those people to react as a team.

The all-knowing physician is another variation of the lone hero. That may make great TV drama, but it just doesn’t fit what we need. Atul Gawande is an author, surgeon, and professor. He puts the situation this way.

“We have trained, hired, and awarded physicians to be cowboys, when what we want are pit crews for patients.”

We’ve done that with managers, too. Except we don’t call them managers anymore. We call them “leaders,” that’s today’s hero-word. We expect those leaders to do the business equivalent of shooting the gun out of the evil-doer’s hand while riding at a full gallop.

Our Challenge Today

The world of the future will not belong to the superheroes, like the cowboy heroes of my youth. Instead, the work will be much less romantic but much more effective. Team leaders will learn that their job is to accomplish the mission through the group, not to do it all themselves. They’ll also learn that their job involves helping the individual team members succeed, develop, and grow.

None of that makes for good television. I’m pretty sure that no six-year-old today is sitting in his father’s chair spellbound by a TV drama about a leader coaching a team member. But that’s what effective leadership looks like.

Our heroes have always been cowboys, but maybe it’s time for something different.

Originally posted July 27, 2017 on Wally Bock’s Three Star Leadership Blog.

If the Shoe Fits: Do You Hire Ron-s?

Friday, May 17th, 2013

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mWally Bock, who provides some of the best and most pragmatic content available on being a boss, shared the story of Ron.

I’ve known many Ron-s in my time, both male and female, and the managers who hired them—hired them even when they knew better.

They ignored the red flags and rationalized away any information or signals that contradicted their desire to have the Ron on their team

Often the Ron came in as a star; the person who could save the project/product or bailout the team.

But stars can turn into shooting stars, since their reputation and achievements are often a product of their skill at managing up.

How many Ron’s have you hired?

Image credit: HikingArtist

Seize Your Leadership Day: Stroup, Bock And Saxon On Leaders And Mangers

Saturday, June 13th, 2009

In a new series Jim Stroup is exploring what drives our need for “the cult of the superlative individual leader as the cure for our current difficulties” in spite, as Jim points out, of those same cult members having caused many of the current problems.

“We will take the position here at the outset, then, that the family of definitions of leadership that we are discussing is that which incorporates the idea of ineffably sensed forward motion – profound vision, unfathomable wisdom or judgment, courageous decisiveness, a charismatic ability to attract followers, and the like.

After all, it is this type of leadership that we are being told we must place our faith in, so that its exemplars can grasp the reins firmly in their hands, and with reassuring sure-footedness steer we poor, benighted masses out of our barely perceived and dimly comprehended peril. Into which, let it be said again, those exalted exemplars’ predecessors led us.”

Please click over and read this brilliant, irreverent discussion of what leadership has come to be and why it destroys instead of sustains. (Be sure to subscribe to follow it.)

Then check out Wally Bock’s comments regarding the continued idiocy of the leader vs. manager concept.

And  my series on the same topic is worth reading if you haven’t already.

Your comments—priceless

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Image credit: nono farahshila on flickr

Two Absolute Requirements For Creating A Performance Culture

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

Wally Bock over at Three Star Leadership tells a great story about Lufthansa Air Line’s culture, a culture that just assumes that nothing is impossible.

But how do you make that happen?

Whether it’s a team, a department or a company, there are two basics to do at the start that are absolutely necessary

  • Hire people whose MAP is synergistic to the culture you envision; have the courage to walk away when the MAP is wrong no matter how right the skills are.

The first step is important, but it’s the second that leads to a true performance culture a la Lufthansa and sustains it for the long-term.

Image credit: flickr

Wes Ball: Can leaders walk on water? Should they?

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

By Wes Ball. Wes is a strategic innovation consultant and author of The Alpha Factor – a revolutionary new look at what really creates market dominance and self-sustaining success (Westlyn Publishing, 2008) and writes for Leadership turn every Tuesday. See all his posts here. Wes can be reached at www.ballgroup.com.

walk_on_water.jpgAre leaders and managers getting dumber or is it just who is assessing them?

Wally Bock’s Three Star Leadership blog led me to a very interesting post by Ken Nowack concerning the discrepancies between self-perception of performance and external assessment for corporate executives. The point of the article was that, as managers move up the corporate ladder, they seem to gain more and more blindness to their real performance.

The “no-clue gene,” as Nowack put it, crosses gender boundaries, but “does seem to be more pronounced as leaders move up the corporate hierarchy.”

Any of us who have worked in the corporate world know what he’s talking about.   And the worst part is that most corporate employees look at the top-most levels of their company and fear that the person at the very top may be one of the clueless ones.

I have seen this at work across all size companies from the largest in their category down to mid-sized regional companies.  Smaller companies are not immune, but there the faults of a leader are far more apparent to everyone involved, including the leader himself.

Ignoring the obvious and all too typical problem of employees naively believing that they could certainly do better at their manager’s simple job, even though they really don’t see what he or she actually does, I have seen three factors that drive such disconnects for managers between self-perception and the perceptions of those around them:

  1. Corporate pressures on managers/leaders and internal competitiveness are immense these days, and they create a self-defensiveness that increases significantly as one moves up the corporate ladder.  This pressure creates stress that actually does reduce performance aptitude, while it also creates a greater self-protective need to justify oneself.  Honestly, who would want a top-executive job in most large corporations these days, no matter what the payout looked to be?
  2. The demands upon top leaders are so great that they themselves don’t believe they are up to the challenge, so they compensate with apparently extreme conceit.  This is a most natural reaction among most personality types to any self-perception of weakness.  Among driver personalities it can be a positive self-motivator – they have learned that, if you think of yourself as something better, you can become it, so they use this tool to drive themselves to greater performance.  Among other personality types, this compensation usually backfires.
  3. Most leaders have bought into the belief that they must be able to walk on water in order to lead an organization or team.  It’s the old military code that a leader never admits ignorance; he just states his opinion with greater confidence.  That is a formula for failure in the corporate world, if I’ve ever seen one.  No one can stand up for long to that kind of expectation.  Yet, when faced with the reality of personal weakness, many positional leaders just can’t or won’t face that truth.

I wrote a post a few months ago supporting Jeffery Immelt of GE, who had just been whipped public ally by his ex-boss, Jack Welch, for not being a clairvoyant about profit in their tumultuous financial services group.  I’m not a big fan of Immelt, but the pressure he was under to perform with perfection in an imperfect environment demonstrates what many top leaders are up against.

This problem only decreases in scope and intensity, as you go down the corporate ladder.

  • There far too many persons ready and willing to throw someone else under the bus when they spot any weakness that can be exploited.
  • I can’t even guess how many times I’ve heard corporate employees say that they can’t trust anyone.
  • The loneliness of business that used to only exist at the top tiers has sifted downstairs throughout the corporate ranks.
  •  The fad of 360-degree assessments has only fueled such isolation, because everyone around you suddenly becomes a potential critic who will be heard.

There is certainly incompetence evident in most organizations.  I would suggest, however, that the perceptions of incompetence are often anything but objective, and the causes for the real managerial and leadership weaknesses seen could be addressed through a better model for expectations for leadership and how to assess performance.

When was the last time you trusted a co-worker who could assess your performance?

When was the last time you saw someone in your organization admit weakness?

I had a unique view of this through the 15 years of research I did into dominant companies for my book The Alpha Factor.  I saw it at an even closer level as we conducted the tests with more than 75 companies to see if our findings could create dramatic, sustainable growth.

One of the interesting things I discovered was that there was little direct correlation between ability of a company to create such sustainable growth and the actual competence of top leadership.

Rather, it was the willingness of top leadership to allow the smart, very competent people below them to do smart things that had a far greater correlation than the leader’s personal aptitude.

I recall being more than a bit skeptical about the conclusions of Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, where his team had decided that leadership approach was the critical factor in defining great companies vs. simply good ones.

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Image credit: flickr

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