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Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR


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Are you the leader you think you are?

“You don’t lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership.” – Dwight Eisenhower

So you’ve been extremely successful for a while now.  Do you ever think luck had something to do with it, since your leadership style wasn’t.  Let me explain.  I worked with and executive who we’ll call Tom who at the age of 36, (20 years ago) was pursuing his career with a vengeance. It was all about him – about making a name for himself, being recognized, and making an impact. He had the highest standards of performance for himself and his team.

They were in fact very successful. More successful than any of them had imagined would be possible, given where they started and the barriers they faced. Everyone on the team was smart, dedicated, hardworking, and committed to the common goals. Tom was proud of himself and his team.

He decided to go into an intense leadership development program where he took a battery of personality tests and a leadership 360 where he solicited feedback from peers, direct reports, his boss and his clients. Upon receiving the feedback, he was pleased – that is until he saw the results from his boss. On a scale from minus 10 to plus ten, he rated Tom in the minus range on a large number of people-related behaviors. Tom was convinced he had just made a mistake – these results couldn’t be right.

He asked for a meeting with his boss and during the meeting Tom pulled out his feedback report, proudly showing him the ratings from his peers, clients and direct reports. And then Tom showed him his ratings, asking him why he had given him such low scores.  He was shocked by what he heard:

His boss said “Tom, you have amazing skill, drive and talent and you have been extremely successful. We are all grateful for what you have been able to accomplish. But to get that success, you are beating up your team. You make them feel like they are never good enough. You constantly look for someone to blame when things don’t go right and never put blame on yourself.  You intimidate them into working long, grueling hours – and they are afraid to tell you any of this for fear of your reaction.”

Tom was stunned, but he still held out hope that his boss had it all wrong. However, he bravely decided to speak with him team members one-on-one.  He asked them to be truthful and assured them there would be no reprisal.  After talking to his team, they confirmed what his boss had told him was true. Tom was crushed as he thought he was a great compassionate leader.

The feedback came as an affront to his own identity and his conception of himself as generous, caring, and nurturing leader.  He was, quite simply, embarrassed. Tom told his team members he was ashamed by his behavior. He then pledged to change his approach.  So with the help of his boss and his team’s coaching and support, he began to work on creating positive, rather than negative relationships with each person on his team. Part of it was purely personal, so he could feel good about myself again. The second reason was performance-related: leaders who form positive relationships enable higher levels of collective performance.

Talking with his boss and his team members about the situation was the first step in a long journey to turn his negative, overly critical style into a leadership approach that would continue to pursue the highest standards of performance – without beating his team up.

How did it turn out……I’ll let you know next time.

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Leadership Primer

There are so many theories and philosophies of what makes a great leader. I have written about it for several years now. I’ve also had the opportunity to listen to and talk to many leaders about their challenges and frustrations, as well as their secrets of success.

One leader that has always stood out in my mind is Gen. Colin Powell, and I am always impressed by the confidence he maintains in his leadership views. When asked about the essence of leadership he has said, “Being a great leader means sometimes pissing people off.” Really blunt, but so true.

I actually keep a presentation which is called General Powell’s “Leadership Primer,” in which he offers 18 leadership lessons. I won’t go into all of them but the first one on the list is “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”

Powell’s point is insightful and profound. Too many of us in leadership positions are too concerned with wanting people to like us and the decisions we make. That is simply not always possible nor preferable.

Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity. You’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset.

Hope is not a plan, particularly for a good leader.

Powell is right. The irony is that when we don’t make the tough choices as leaders because we want to be “nice” to everyone all the time or treat them “equally,” regardless of their performance, we guarantee mediocrity. The fact is, being a great leader requires that sometimes you will make decisions that make people on your team angry. You will have to communicate directly without mincing words that someone’s performance is under par.

Here’s an example: “Steve, we need to talk specifically about how you are not getting the job done and we need to come up with a plan to turn it around quickly. If not, it isn’t going to be good for you or for our team.”

When you communicate with Steve in such a fashion, he is not going to walk out of your office singing your praises. In fact, there is a good chance he goes into his office and text or calls his wife to tell her what a jerk you are.

But what would happen if you, as a leader, didn’t have that conversation with Steve, knowing that his performance had been sub par for so long? What if you chose to communicate by doing nothing and just hoping things got better? Hope is not a plan, particularly for a good leader.

I’m not advocating that you “piss people off” just for the sake of it because you should or you can. That’s just arrogant and contentious. However, “pissing people off” goes with the territory if you are the kind of leader that deals directly and honestly with your people and the situations that must be confronted on a daily basis. The alternative is unacceptable and the outcome of such a passive approach will be much worse for you and for your team.