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.


“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].


  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.


  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)



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.

“…Man is Either a King or a Slave…”

As we draw open the blinds on each brand new year, our inboxes, mailboxes, and trips to the store are assaulted by self-help media. Didn’t get that job you wanted? Here’s how! Didn’t make as much money as you hoped? Here’s how! Want to improve your sex life? Your demeanor among friends? Your outlook on life?

It seems that with each new year, we feel increasingly qualified to wax from on high about the ultimate aims in life and the best (or only) methods to achieve them. Thanks to Brett McKay, Head Honcho at the Art of Manliness, I ran into a common sense turn-of-the-year approach. Where most self-help sources would start by accepting you weren’t at fault for achieving your goals, Mr. McKay acknowledges that the real reason for achieving anything less than what you intended comes down to one thing and one thing alone: discipline. I found his thoughts, captured in “The Secret to Becoming a Better Man in 2010,” to be refreshing.

What’s more, I ran into a passage (and an author) which I will never forget. As a corollary to his post, Mr. McKay directed readers to William George Jordan’s Self-Control, Its Kingship and Majesty, published in 1905. For your benefit, I include the most salient passage here:

“When a man fails in life he usually says, ” I am as God made me.” When he succeeds he proudly proclaims himself a ” self-made man.” Man is placed into this world not as a finality,— but as a possibility. Man’s greatest enemy is,—himself. Man in his weakness is the creature of circumstances; man in his strength is the creator of circumstances. Whether he be victim or victor depends largely on himself.

Man is never truly great merely for what he is, but ever for what he may become. Until man be truly filled with the knowledge of the majesty of his possibility, until there come to him the glow of realization of his privilege to live the life committed to him, as an individual life for which he is individually responsible, he is merely groping through the years…

With this broadening, stimulating view of life, he sees how he may attain his kingship through self-control. And the self-control that is seen in the most spectacular instances in history, and in the simplest phases of daily life, is precisely the same in kind and in quality, differing only in degree. This control man can attain, if he only will; it is but a matter of paying the price.

The power of self-control is one of the great qualities that differentiates man from the lower animals. He is the only animal capable of a moral struggle or a moral conquest.

Every step in the progress of the world has been a new “control.” It has been escaping from the tyranny of a fact, to the understanding and mastery of that fact. For ages man looked in terror at the lightning flash; to-day he has begun to understand it as electricity, a force he has mastered and made his slave. The million phases of electrical invention are but manifestations of our control over a great force. But the greatest of all “control ” is self-control.

At each moment of man’s life he is either a King or a slave. As he surrenders to a wrong appetite, to any human weakness; as he falls prostrate in hopeless subjection to any condition, to any environment, to any failure, he is a slave. As he day by day crushes out human weakness, masters opposing elements within him, and day by day re-creates a new self from the sin and folly of his past,—then he is a King. He is a King ruling with wisdom over himself. Alexander conquered the whole world except,— Alexander. Emperor of the earth, he was the servile slave of his own passions.

We look with envy upon the possessions of others and wish they were our own. Sometimes we feel this in a vague, dreamy way with no thought of real attainment, as when we wish we had Queen Victoria’s crown, or Emperor William’s self-satisfaction. Sometimes, however, we grow bitter, storm at the wrong distribution of the good things of life, and then relapse into a hopeless fatalistic acceptance of our condition.

We envy the success of others, when we should emulate the process by which that success came. We see the splendid physical development of Sandow, yet we forget that as a babe and child he was so weak there was little hope that his life might be spared…

We shut our eyes to the thousands of instances of the world’s successes,— mental, moral, physical, financial or spiritual,—wherein the great final success came from a beginning far weaker and poorer than our own.

Any man may attain self-control if he only will. He must not expect to gain it save by long continued payment of price, in small progressive expenditures of energy. Nature is a thorough believer in the installment plan in her relations with the individual. No man is so poor that he cannot begin to pay for what he wants, and every small, individual payment that he makes, Nature stores and accumulates for him as a reserve fund in his hour of need.

The patience man expends in bearing the little trials of his daily life Nature stores for him as a wondrous reserve in a crisis of life. With Nature, the mental, the physical or the moral energy he expends daily in right doing is all stored for him and transmuted into strength. Nature never accepts a cash payment in full for anything,—this would be an injustice to the poor and to the weak.

It is only the progressive installment plan Nature recognizes. No man can make a habit in a moment or break it in a moment. It is a matter of development, of growth. But at any moment man may begin to make or begin to break any habit. This view of the growth of character should be a mighty stimulus to the man who sincerely desires and determines to live nearer to the limit of his possibilities.

Self-control may be developed in precisely the same manner as we tone up a weak muscle,—by little exercises day by day. Let us each day do, as mere exercises of discipline in moral gymnastics, a few acts that are disagreeable to us, the doing of which will help us in instant action in our hour of need. The exercises may be very simple—dropping for a time an intensely interesting book at the most thrilling page of the story; jumping out of bed at the first moment of waking; walking home when one is perfectly able to do so, but when the temptation is to take a car; talking to some disagreeable person and trying to make the conversation pleasant. These daily exercises in moral discipline will have a wondrous tonic effect on man’s whole moral nature.

The individual can attain self-control in great things only through self-control in little things. He must study himself to discover what is the weak point in his armor, what is the element within him that ever keeps him from his fullest success. This is the characteristic upon which he should begin his exercise in self-control. Is it selfishness, vanity, cowardice, morbidness, temper, laziness, worry, mind-wandering, lack of purpose?—whatever form human weakness assumes in the masquerade of life he must discover. He must then live each day as if his whole existence were telescoped down to the single day before him. With no useless regret for the past, no useless worry for the future, he should live that day as if it were his only day,— the only day left for him to assert all that is best in him, the only day left for him to conquer all that is worst in him. He should master the weak element within him at each slight manifestation from moment to moment. Each moment then must be a victory for it or for him. Will he be King, or will he be slave?—the answer rests with him.”

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?”