On Teaching Leadership

The idea of teaching leadership is a counter intuitive one.  As I covered in the first two articles, leadership is the outcome of interactions with group members and really occurs very naturally.  Leadership is a learned behavior but it has always been subject to personal interactions.  Those individuals who are introverted by nature, and there is enough evidence that the trait of introversion/extroversion is genetic and inheritable, tend not to be leaders in a group of extroverts.  Now this does not mean they they are always followers and never exert any influence on the group or individuals.  We tend to think of individuals as either leaders or followers and that follower automatically dance to the tune called by the leader.  This is simply not true.  One might as well believe in herding cats.

Let us refocus on groups and membership.  The primary reason to become a member of a group is to associate with those other individuals who, one: share your values; and two: share your goals.  Why would I become a member of a sports team booster club when I don’t like that particular team and would rather see them lose?  On the other hand I will accept an offer of employment if it is the only one available no matter if I dislike the organization.  Indeed, many people work for corporations and companies they do not really like for the simple reason that they can’t find any other employment.  These individuals are the cats in your work groups, not easily herded but still able to be led if the proper stimulus can be found.  The other problem comes when once enthusiastic employees become enthusiastic.  This happens far more than the manager or top level executive might expect.

I will give you an example.  In the late eighties the new wave of management style, for lack of a better word – ok, idiocy, came to Pacific Telephone.  As a stolid public utility we had our problems such as paternalism, old boy networks, and all the other forms that make for a stratified organization.  Still, one was a member of an organization that had some pride of being.  Technology was taking off, people were buying personal computers and wanted to be connected in some way.  The dial up bulletin boards showed promise but the connections were slow and the internet as we now know it had yet to appear.  Our profits on the regulated side of the house were controlled by the CPUC.  On the other hand, we had never had an unregulated side of the business.  We didn’t sell the telephone sets, we rented them to the customer.  With the advent of new equipment makers, businesses could and did buy their PBX equipment from other vendors (Western Electric was our vendor and owned by AT&T).  That meant that Western Electric could sell to the customer through our sales people.  Ah, a bit of competition and now profits that could not be regulated.  High Tech was here to stay and our new top management wanted a piece of the pie in the worst way.  So changes became forced upon us.  Pacific Telephone wasn’t a good enough name and the old Bell symbol was just that, old.  We now became Pacific Telesis with some sort of globe looking logo.  Back then the anti-drug public service television commercial was on the air waves.  If showed an egg, this is your brain.  Then it showed an egg being fried in a skillet, this is your brain on drugs.  We circulated a xeroxed sheet of paper with the Bell logo at the top of the page.  This is your company.  At the bottom of the page was our new company logo with the caption, this is your company on drugs.  To make matters worse some EVP came up with the idea that all company employees should be unpaid sales people, sell telephone service and equipment to your friends and family,  Sell to your local businesses where you shop.  It was bad enough not to get paid for this “extra” duty, but to lose friends and family because the EVPs are too lazy to perform their jobs, well, you know where that stuff can go.  People, leadership isn’t by fiat and when those in charge try to use fiat it tends to fall on deaf ears.  You might as well try herding cats.

Those individuals who are introverted should not be considered weak personalities or easy to dominate.  This is simply not true.  an introvert is quite capable of putting up resistance  to your attempts ot domination.  Again, we are dealing with human behavior and not some academic theory.  Individuals use influence to achieve what they want or don’t want.  And when they feel that they are not being listened to, they get resistant, they become aggressive, they become irritated and not easily placated.  A parent, if they are smart, will lead a child to good behavior not through violence but through suggestion and example.  Willfulness is the reaction of a child that is not getting what he needs from his parents.  The same happens in work groups.  When managers get stupid (notice I say manages and not leaders) employees become labor lawyers and find all manner of creativity to fight management.  The best a manager can do is fight the employees to a standstill.  Again, it is about values and goals.  If the values and goals need to be changed then all must perceive the whys and wherefores and howtos.  Humans are by nature cooperative animals.  That is, we depend upon cooperation for survival.  Language comes from that need for more complex cooperation for survival and growth of the population.

Did you know that chimpanzee troops rarely number more than 40 individuals,  Once they exceed that relative number the troop breaks up into two different groups, one much smaller that goes in search of a new territory and the larger group that retains its territory.  They lack the complex communication to support larger groups.  The ability to lead depends upon the size of the group.  The leader of a large organization of individual groups that are the make up of that organization does not lead all those groups directly.  The American Civil War was the last war that saw a general at the head of a column of infantry charging the enemy line.  Even on the battle fields of WWII attacks on enemy lines were done but units no larger than regiment size and usually on company or platoon level.  the attack may have been coordinated by regiment or army unit headquarters, it is usually the smaller units that do the work on their own objectives.  It’s a thing called focus.  A leader has to focus on the group he directly controls.  The CEO may be the head of the corporation but his focus is on the EVP group that carries out his decisions.  I have never had a president come down from his office to tell me how to do my job.  But then I was never an EVP or even a VP.  Leaders usually observe protocol, that is, one does not undermine a subordinate or a superior without superior cause.  If the corporate hierarchy doesn’t work it is because its leaders have lost control over the process of leading.  Again, in every group there is both a formal and informal hierarchy.  And when that hierarchy is ignored, even temporarily then the process of leading breaks down.  It means that the values and goals have been ignored or usurped.

Leading is about attitude.  Not that false attitude of positive happiness or dynamic charisma.  I have met two individuals who had that personal charisma.  One was a brief friend and the other as a high level manager.  Both men had the ability to focus intently on you so that you felt you were the only one in the room.  They both listened intently and mirrored what you said.  They both appeared very sincere in addressing the problems or subjects of interest.  It he manager’s case he left you feeling that he was going to take positive action.  But he didn’t.  It was an act and those of us who interacted with him were left feeling that it was useless to talk with him again.  We felt that he didn’t care and wouldn’t do anything positive unless he was forced to take action.  This is a classic case of leadership by charisma.  Many a prospective CEO wants to be charismatic.  But charisma isn’t leadership, it’s just an attitude that is so often a manifestation of ego and incompetence.  Leadership is not the Rah, Rah, cheerleading style so often pushed by the positive progressive management stylists.  The group members are not stupid, they know fake.  It may take them a while to find out that you are a fake, but they will.  Never insult the collective or individual intelligence of your group members.  There is a golden rule to all this, don’t do unto your subordinates what you don’t want your superiors to do to you.

This means that being a leader is not about you.  You may be naturally dynamic and positive by dint of personality but that doesn’t make you a good leader.  I have worked for good leaders who were dour and reserved, the direct opposite of the popular trend in management journals, courses, and consultant counseling.  Leadership is about being effective, not being a “personality”.  This is why it is so difficult to teach good leadership and why it is counterintuitive to popular theory.  From childhood on we have been fed these misconceptions, god knows why.  Perhaps we, as humans, just love those happy stories.  I think it is laziness, humans love shortcuts.  Shortcuts work only if they more effectively utilize processes and resources.  Saving time just to save time or energy is not good enough.  And ill thought out short cuts by leaders are disastrous.  You simply can’t shortcut leadership.  There are no shortcuts to being one.  As a leader you must study your people.  You must pay attention to them in detail.  You must also trust them to do their jobs.  If they need training, give it to them.  If they need help, ask questions that help them define the problem and the solution.  Leadership is not about you but the people you lead.  You help them to redefine their values and goals because it helps them.  And they, in turn, help you.  Always, leadership is a two way street.


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