Managers shouldn’t know it all

Moral: If you know everything going on in your team, you are an obstacle – and you’re likely taking up valuable time which your team could be spending on producing in a more innovative way or at a higher quality, but instead they’re reporting on the humdrum to you.

Excerpt:

“Do [you] know everything happening on [your] team?”

“Well, you shouldn’t. If you know everything happening on your team, you are likely too involved and stifling innovation. As long as a team has a clearly understood vision, empowered team members will consistently solve problems in unexpected ways.”

“An effective leader is constantly surprised but rarely stunned. Being surprised means you see solutions not of your own doing; being stunned means something happened that is out of alignment with the team vision. If you are not surprised regularly by your team, reaffirm the vision and back off” [1].

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  1. Bill Tolany. “3 quick questions to help leaders get out of the way,” SmartBlog on Leadership. March 27, 2012.

For managers: Indispensable to a meeting? Cancel it.

Moral: Indicate you value others’ time by not holding meetings which are mostly or entirely for your benefit.

“Go through your calendar. If you find a group meeting that is solely for your benefit, cancel it. This will signal to your team members that you value their time and that they should value it, too. If you aren’t sure about the meeting’s value, announce that you are going to miss it once and see what happens. If the meeting doesn’t take place, you have your answer” [1].

I’d only suggest two alterations (dare I say, improvements) to this insight:

  1. This holds true more, I think, for managers than individual contributors.
  2. This holds true more, I think, when the team in question is stocked with talented team members with expertise and/or initiative and common sense. But, if you hire right (like Netflix seems to), this wisdom should prove golden.

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  1. Bill Tolany. “3 quick questions to help leaders get out of the way,” SmartBlog on Leadership. March 27, 2012.
  2. Reed Hastings. “Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility.” August 1, 2009. (PDF)

 

 

Terrorism Steeped in Tao?

Back in November of 2009, I recounted my befuddlement by the perspective that al Qaeda is inherently weak because it utilizes a strategy of ‘leaderless resistance.’ The government advisor who expressed this view seemed to think that because al Qaeda cells did not have leaders following the Great Man archetype, boldly marching on the field of public consciousness, that they were weak and easily eliminated.

On the contrary, I mused. Perhaps these terrorist cells have selected a strategy of great strength and endurance. After all, as Lao Tzu said,

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him… But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.'”

A 2009 analysis published in Security Studies, which the aforementioned government advisor must have missed, seems to support my view that this strategy of ‘leaderless resistance’ may be stronger than it appears to the casual observer. This article, by Jenna Jordan and aptly titled “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation,” states that

“despite a tremendous amount of optimism toward the success of [leadership] decapitation, there is very little evidence on whether and when removing leaders will result in organizational collapse.”

In fact, Jordan goes on to say,

“The marginal utility for [leadership] decapitation is actually negative. Groups that have not had their leaders targeted have a higher rate of decline than groups whose leaders have been removed. [Leadership] decapitation is actually counterproductive particularly for larger, older, religious or separatist organizations.”

Perhaps, anticipating the incredibly predictable strategy of eliminating the ‘man at the top’, al Qaeda took heed of some ancient Tao wisdom and integrated it into their organizational culture.

If only Taoism was more widely (and thoroughly) followed.

Requisite to Good Leadership: Holding Your Leaders Accountable

In 2008 the popular television show How I Met Your Mother put forth “The Pyramid of Screaming” as a model for explaining where some of our frustration and come from – and where it can go to. The concept, detailed thoroughly in The Bro Code (a humorous read, highly recommended), essentially explains the process in which our bosses yell at us and, out of a need to ease our own frustration, we then yell at someone lower on our personal totem pole: whether it be a hapless employee lower in the office hierarchy or a family member.

How I Met Your Mother

While The Pyramid of Screaming was meant as entertainment, it has an obvious foundation in reality: when we feel that someone has yelled at us unjustly, we have a predilection for passing on that frustration to someone easily within our power. It isn’t a nice human quality, but examples of it are abundant. This habit, of course, speaks to something larger: a dissatisfaction with our ‘superiors.’  We are much more likely to feel maligned – that is, unjustly admonished – if we don’t respect the figure performing the act, or his/her position.

With skepticism about someone’s right to admonish us as pervasive as it is, it begs the question whether there is something intrinsically wrong with us (the followers) or them (the leaders)? Are we terrible followers or are they terrible leaders?

Some recent studies suggest what many of us have long suspected: that many of our leaders are not as advertised. Specifically, there is nascent evidence which suggests that – by virtue of their leadership roles – our bosses have increased capacities to fake their own competence and to lie.

As reported by Jeffrey Kluger at Time, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley subjected a number of groups to a series of exercises. After each, participants were asked to rate their fellows on specific qualities. Almost without fail, participants gave higher marks to individuals who spoke out more often and more loudly, whether or not what they said had any merit. In short, the participants demonstrated a tendencies to view someone as a leader based on how confident or competent they made themselves appear.

A study with similar experiences was detailed by the Harvard Business Review just this month. In it, Dana Carney divided participants into two distinct roles: either bosses or employees. They were subsequently given instructions to follow which involved lying to an interviewer. Participants were then studied to see how they dealt with certain biological and psychological results of lying. In Carney’s words,

“Just as kids don’t touch a stove once they learn it burns them, people don’t like to lie because it hurts them emotionally and physiologically. These data suggest that powerful individuals—CEOs, portfolio managers, politicians, elite athletes—don’t get burned when they touch the figurative stove. They seem to be more physiologically “prepared” to lie, which could lead to their lying more often.”

“Just as kids don’t touch a stove once they learn it burns them, people don’t like to lie because it hurts them emotionally and physiologically. These data suggest that powerful individuals—CEOs, portfolio managers, politicians, elite athletes—don’t get burned when they touch the figurative stove. They seem to be more physiologically “prepared” to lie, which could lead to their lying more often.”

After perusing these studies, it is easy to feel some angst towards people in all positions of power. But is that justified? Ask yourself these questions:

1) Who is to blame for this state of affairs?

2) Who can fix it?

The answer to both questions, of course, is “You” – the Everyman of American organizational culture. In a follower role, it is easy to persuade yourself to think you have less responsibility for your organization’s success. But that’s preposterous – followers have just as much responsibility for being good shepherds of their organization as their bosses do. You really are your bosses’ keeper. As Warren Bennis said:

“If I had to reduce the responsibilities of a good follower to a single rule, it would be to speak truth to power.”

Communicating Meaning is Prerequisite to Good Leadership

There are nearly as many definitions for leadership now as there are examples of poor leaders. Attempting to define such a concept is a challenge for many reasons, not the least of which is determining what qualities your definition should be built upon. Some definitions, for example, play up the need for charisma, assertiveness, and organization (personal qualities) while other definitions might lend weight to relationships as the vehicle through which leadership is accomplished.

“What will distinguish effective leadership…is not just the dissemination of information; it will be the ability to communicate meaning and to translate that meaning into responsible, ethical action.”

Although my personal definition of leadership has evolved over the years, one quality has remained constant: communication. Originally, I think I included communication as a personal skill necessary for someone to become a good leader. That seems rather obvious: of course a leader will need to be able to communicate a vision to followers, communicate progress towards that vision, and communicate what still needs to be done to accomplish it. And that’s just one side to the communication coin – the other being a need to listen to followers. Furthermore, the act of listening need not be a purely physical act; it will also require attentiveness and concern.

Recently, the role of communication in my definition of leadership has grown. Reading the Washington Post’s On Leadership column, I came across an essay which I thought expressed my view on the importance of communication. In an April 9, 2010 column, Katherine Tyler Scott discussed some of the leadership challenges facing the Episcopal church. A board member of the International Leadership Association and a Managing Partner of Ki ThoughtBridge, Scott succinctly summarizes some of the major 21st century issues the Episcopal church is facing and adroitly seizes upon the tools they will need to succeed. She writes,

“What will distinguish effective leadership…is not just the dissemination of information; it will be the ability to communicate meaning and to translate that meaning into responsible, ethical action.”

Scott wisely emphasizes the primacy of communication not just as a technical act – an item to be checked off a list – but as a  methodology to effecting impactful leadership. Good leadership, then, is a state of being, a relationship in the strictest sense of the word, which is born out of shared meaning. This shared meaning is fostered by an individual (a leader) for the purpose of motivating a group to action.

A leaderless enterprise

Driving home from work today, I heard a radio piece on the Fort Hood shooting. Just casually listening, I didn’t take much interest until a specific phrase caught my attention. In congressional testimony today Brian Jenkins, an advisor affiliated with the RAND Corporation, reported that

“Some analysts say that al Qaeda is currently following a strategy of ‘leaderless resistance” and “although it is difficult for authorities to destroy a leaderless enterprise, leaderless resistance is a strategy of weakness.”

When I got home, I found the report online (you can read the full thing here). I’m less concerned with the politics of what he said (which seem sound to me), than the interesting leadership observation he made. He suggested the following:

  • al Qaeda is following a strategy of leaderless resistance (“an army of autonomous terrorist operatives, united in a common cause, but not connected organizationally”).
  • the strategy of leaderless resistance is particularly hard to defeat.
  • this strategy is evidence weakness and/or is inherently weak.

This doesn’t sound right to me. My knee-jerk questions are:

  • Is this strategy really leaderless? Or is it leader-full? Full of leaders who are able to act independently, authentically, with great (i.e. impactful) result? Maybe when he suggests this movement doesn’t have a leader, he means it doesn’t have a handler. If that’s the case, then…
  • Is the strategy really a sign of weakness, or is it a sign of ultimate strength – the height of leadership?

I’ve always been fond of Lao Tzu, who said

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him…But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.'”

I think the merits of a leader who can lead from behind are obvious. And, by virtue of such logic, isn’t an organization which accomplishes a single mission (causing strife for the U.S.) without a leader issuing constant commands the perfect form? Conceivably there’s some mastermind behind it all, gently pushing, nudging, inspiring – but the fact that he/she isn’t out on the front lines almost seems a reason to brag.

If this really is a sign of excellent leadership, then I think we have reason to be afraid. Not just because we’re facing an organization with good leadership, but because we’re perceiving it as the opposite – and maybe dismissing it on the merit of that observation.

(The Good) Life and Leadership Laboratory

I’m a regular reader of about two dozen blogs. One of my favorites is Talking Philosophy, which recently featured a really compelling post by Jeff Mason, entitled “Philosophy and the Good Life.”

I’m not sure what inspired it, but I’m glad Mason indulged himself. A couple of excerpts intrigued me:

  • “Religion, as it were, does the thinking for the people who do not have time to think things through for themselves. Philosophy, however, asks people to think for themselves, to question doubtful premises and assumptions using reason, logic, and experience to provide the best arguments for their own position, while being able to put forward objections to rival arguments, and to answer objections to their own.”
  • “Finally, there are some people who appear to pursue truth and wisdom rather than pleasure, riches, fame or power. These, of course, are the philosophers. To be honest, when philosophers talk about the good life, they stack the deck in their own favor. Whenever they discuss it, the good life is the philosophical life. This does not mean that they are wrong, but we should be cautious how we receive their arguments. There is no such thing as the good life for everyone, and neither philosophers nor religious expositors have any right to lay down the law about it.”
  • Mason mentions how Aristotle suggests the philosophical life begins, which I think would be a good way to begin each morning: “in wonder at the universe and the spectacle of life.”
  • “The good life is a life devoted to the discovery and communication of truth within a community of like-minded people possessing moral integrity and a genuine desire to learn.”

That last quotation seems more appropriate to me as the definition of an ideal society: a society of leaders.

Self-efficacy as the secret ingredient to effective leadership?

(Review of “A Leadership Self-Efficacy Taxonomy and Its Relation to Effective Leadership.”)

What makes that crucial difference between a leader and an effective leader? One study out this month[1] suggests that the key is leadership self-efficacy, which the authors perceive to be

“a person’s judgment that he or she can successfully exert leadership by setting direction for the work group, building relationships with followers in order to gain commitment to change goals, and working with them to overcome obstacles to change.”[2]

This study is predicated on the observation that Continue reading “Self-efficacy as the secret ingredient to effective leadership?”