Much has been written about what makes effective leaders, but the post modern debacle of the current financial fiasco, the upcoming elections, and the world political scene, is providing a spectacular cavalcade of incompetence, the likes of which we may (hopefully) never see again. If you tend toward the pessimistic, you may view this as a supernova of stupidity; a once in a lifetime chance to observe cataclysmic ineptitude up close and personal. If you are more of an optimist, consider yourself lucky to be treated to a virtuoso performance of trickery, deception and charlatanism that would even impress John Brinkley, that famous Kansan who came within a chin whisker of parlaying a successful career implanting goat gonads as a cure for male impotence into a successful run for Governor. (Today, no doubt, he would be lauded as an innovator and landslide into office).
With such a bumper crop of examples all around us, it would be a travesty to allow this historic moment to pass without pausing to harvest a few of the shining examples of bad leadership that are ripening all around us. By reflecting on these, perhaps we can learn something of value so all is not wasted. Since this blog concentrates on business and management, I will adapt the behaviors in the news to the workplace.
This favored tactic of government leaders has unfortunately become a predictable response to hardship from many managers. Their instinctive response to a gathering storm is to instill fear in their employees in order to convey the severity of the situation by clarifying all the things that might go wrong. These are the leaders who send out memos announcing that "during these difficult times, everyone needs to work harder, come to work earlier, stay later, and do everything possible for us to survive. We can scarcely afford to keep anyone who is not pulling their weight." This stirring call to action does little more than paralyze people with fear. It offers no clear road-map for success, fails to clarify what people can do to help, and makes them feel expendable and vulnerable. Veiled threats are bad management.
The financial crisis didn't happen overnight, it took years to develop. The fact that Congress thinks they can end it in two weeks is a shining example of the ineffectiveness of snap judgments. The consequences of such judgments are the inevitable reversals that accompany them. Many snap judgments are wrong, causing other snap judgments to be made. With each successive snap judgment, management is seen to be perplexed, befuddled and bewildered; hardly characteristics that inspire confidence during a crisis. Effective leaders take the time to deliberate on a constructive plan of action, and communicate this plan along with specific instructions of what each person can do to contribute to success.
UNCLEAR OR DECEPTIVE MESSAGES
Those of you with a taste for the absurd can enjoy a crash course in deception by spending an hour or two observing a presidential debate. On display is world-class talent in misdirection and obfuscation. Avoiding questions and direct answers is not as easy as it looks. It takes years of careful nurturing. But it is one of those skills, like being a really good liar, that effective leaders can do without. This skill is predicated on the premise that employees aren't smart enough or strong enough to hear the truth and that they can't be counted on to react appropriately if they are accidentally presented with it. Not only is this false, but it is patently insulting and infuriating. Worst of all, people see right through it, and the only one being fooled is the fool who tries it.
COVERING UP INCOMPETENCE
How many examples of this have we been privy too lately? The list is long and deeply disheartening. From failed FEMA leader Michael Brown to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson we have been treated to a steady stream of incompetent leaders. But are they really less competent than those who preceded them (or those likely to follow)? I think not. In fact, I believe that incompetence is the base state of all leaders. To assume that anyone is competent enough to handle all the demands of leadership is a dangerous fallacy and it leads to cover ups. And there is nothing more sad and depressing than watching a leader try to cover up their incompetence. It is like a bad singer missing the high notes. Effective leaders understand their limitations and are confident enough and comfortable enough to accept them. This enables them to seek advice and counsel freely, to consider all points of view, and to avoid dogma and rhetoric.
SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION
Nothing quite angers employees and gets them to want to knock the candy out of your pinata quite like shameless self promotion. And this seems to be constantly on the mind of so many of today's leaders. I realized just how far this sad trend had gone when I saw Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with his own TV special promoting his new book. Where will this end? Can we get a little humility -- please? Effective leaders are comfortable remaining in the background, letting others shine and not always grabbing the lime light. They realize the best compliments are unsolicited, not brazenly pursued.
Was a better word ever created to describe poor leaders (Bushingenuous)? The extent to which leaders are disingenuous can be measured directly by the intensity of people's appetitive for plain talk. And today, most of us are starving.
Effective leaders are not afraid to tell it like it is. They understand that doing so does not weaken their standing but strengthens it simply because it feels so good to be told the truth.
To the extent that a leader's tenure can be characterized as a regime is a clear indication of impending doom. Regimes are polarizing -- they have insiders and outsiders, supporters and detractors, believers and disbelievers. And they are transitory.There is no sense of permanence with a regime. Why are regimes inherently unstable? Because so many people strive to topple them. And who are these people? They are the ones who comprised the last regime and who will form the next one. And how does a regime treat its detractors? Often with intolerance, iinequality, and disdain. And this is not always blatant --it can be as subtle as males who are discretely dismissive of females, older leaders who trivialize the contribution of others less experienced than themselves, or Americans who emphasize nationality over merit. Effective leaders avoid regimes by building bridges not walls. They find room in their organization for everyone, avoid playing favorites, and are careful to value everyone's contribution.
BRINGING OUT THE WORST IN PEOPLE
Leadership, any kind of leadership, good or bad, is a very scary thing. Why? Because in order to have leaders, there must be followers. And it is the followers who do the most damage. One bad leader, all by themselves, can't do much harm. But emboldened and empowered by a multitude of followers, that leader can be a disaster. There are three types of people who follow poor leaders -- the weak, the ignorant, and the corruptible. This covers nearly all of us. The few remaining can have little effect on the outcome. This is the dirty little secret of leadership, both good and bad. It is up to the leader to avoid the temptation to appeal to people's base nature, and instead to seek ways to bring out their best. Besides the obvious moral and ethical importance of doing so, there are practical benefits. If you want your company to succeed, you must bring out the best in every employee. Not doing so dooms the company, and the leader, to failure.
INCONSISTENCY AND UNPREDICTABILITY
Not every leader can be the steady hand of reason, unfalteringly reliable, unerringly wise. But they can be consistent and predicable. This seems so obvious that it begs the obvious question; why would anyone be otherwise? Weak leaders allow themselves to become inconsistent and unpredictable because they indulge in what many believe to be a basic prerogative of leadership -- the right to do what they want. This right, they believe, entitles them to make up the rules as they go along. They falsely believe that the mere fact that they have become a leader is proof of the fact that they are superior to those around them. This naturally validates their belief that whatever they do is, by definition, right. Such people believe themselves to be above following the rules and exempt from behaving in a consistent and predictable manner. In some cases, they can act out as badly as spoiled children -- "this is my room and I can do what I want!" Effective leaders understand how disturbing and unsettling this is to their employees and struggle to suppress these desires in order to create a stable, consistent, predictable environment in which employees can thrive.
MISTAKING POWER FOR LEADERSHIP
Simply put, power is the ability to make people do things they don't want to do; leadership is ability to get people to want to do what you want done. Wielding power is antithetical to effective leadership. When a manager mandates a 10% across-the-board salary reduction, that is power. When he makes a compelling case for cost savings, then voluntarily reduces his own salary causing others following suit, that is leadership. Of course, dealing with dissenters is always a challenge. Succumbing to the temptation to use power on them cheapens the decisions of the others and undermines their motives. That said, leadership requires power, but it must be used cautiously and selectively. Doing so requires patience and good judgment. It is almost always quicker and easier to mandate decisions, but the near-term gains often result in long-term losses.
"I AM THE BOSS"
Which brings us to the most common and familiar incompetence of all. The fallacy and misconception called "I am the boss." Nothing could be further from the truth. Leaders work for their followers, it is as simple as that. And even the most naive, inexperienced, deluded leader eventually figures this out -- often the hard way. If you in doubt, just look at the ignominious fall of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. But followers (be they employees or citizens) understand this instinctively, which is the downfall of so many managers. Employees know that if they chip away quietly and subtly, carefully undermining their manager's authority and credibility, systematically eroding his power, they will eventually destroy him. For some it takes longer than others, but the outcome is always the same. Effective leaders easily avoid this by recognizing that they exist to support and assist their employees; not the other way around. They constantly look for ways to make their people successful, offering support, advice, encouragement, resources, whatever is needed. The iconography of the organizational pyramid that places the leader on top is wrong -- flip it over with the point facing down and you have a picture of true leadership. In this image, the whole organization is not holding up the leader; the leader is carrying the entire organization on her shoulders.
In the days to come, we will no doubt be treated to numerous other displays of inept leadership, each of which offers new opportunities to discover what not to do. Careful review and inspection will reveal new ideas to those who desire to improve their play-book for effective leadership -- in most cases, just imagine yourself doing exactly the opposite of what you observe. If it is true that people learn from mistakes, the learning opportunities are endless. Let's take full advantage of this unique opportunity.