This post is for you leaders of leaders. Those of you who have the responsibility and authority to select, coach, and replace other leaders within your organization. And a warning … it’s a bit of a rant.
Some years ago I worked with a manager from another company. I’ll call him Tom. Tom was intelligent, efficient, honest, ethical, and all things considered, a decent guy. He had inherited a solid, dedicated team, but there were several inefficiencies that had been allowed to fester under the previous manager. Tom took this team in hand, dealt with the inefficiencies and in the end, accomplished more goals with fewer resources. This was one of this strengths. Another was the fact that Tom took responsibility for his team and regardless of any criticisms might give in private, he always had their backs in public.
Tom wasn’t perfect though. He was brusque. He wasn’t always clear in conveying his visions or expectations and often gave conflicting directives. He expected people to read his mind and was quick to anger when people didn’t demonstrate the necessary clairvoyance. And he had trust issues and would yank authority away from someone as quickly as he gave it to them. His behavior wasn’t a function of the team he inherited. He handled the people that he hired after taking over the position in the same way. In the end, the negatives overwhelmed the positives, fear and frustration became dominant emotions in the office, many of the lower-level managers became too afraid to make any decisions and the sense of team gave way to a sense of everyone-for-themselves.
Tom’s shortcomings as a leader are actually not at issue here. We all struggle at some point. We all need a little coaching and education. We all have some bad habits that need to be kicked. We’re all human. What was horrifying to me was that his behavior did not change noticeably over the seven years he held the position. Now for the most part, I observed the situation from the sidelines, so I don’t know if Tom’s bosses ever tried to correct the issues. I suspect not because other than a slight moderation of the behaviors, they persisted throughout his tenure. But I do remember hearing from a several people something along the lines of “What are you going to do? It’s just his leadership style.” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that sentiment and it certainly hasn’t been the last. And I haven’t heard it exclusively from those who suffer under a struggling leader and have little hope of affecting change. I’ve also heard it from those who are in charge of the struggling leader. People who have EVERY hope of affecting change. And therein lies the problem.
All too often we shrug off any kind of leadership deficiency as a part of “Leadership Style”. Something to be left up to the individual and not tampered with. To be sure, there is such a thing as Leadership Style. It can legitimately refer to one of the defined Leadership Styles (Autocratic, Democratic, Delegative, Transactional, etc.) that describe a general approach to managing a specific team for a specific project. I also think of it as the personal style that a leader uses in executing the requirements of their position. To me, Leadership Style is how you accomplish your job. However, accomplishing certain aspects of your job but failing to accomplish others is not a matter of style.
For example, let’s say my job were to stack a thousand bricks in the shape of a cube within an hour. Defined task (stack the 1,000 bricks), defined time frame (in an hour), and defined results (shape of a cube). But instead of stacking all 1,000, let’s say I only stack 500 and then stop. Or instead of stacking them in a cube I create a clever mosaic. Or let’s say I make the 1,000-brick cube, but it took me half a day instead of just an hour. That’s not me demonstrating my style, that’s me failing to do my job. Tom’s shortcomings had nothing to do with his Leadership Style. It wasn’t Tom’s style of communication that was the problem. It was the fact that he didn’t communicate clearly in the first place. It wasn’t the way that Tom create a sense of team that was the problem. It was the fact that instead of creating a sense of team, he created an everyone-for-themselves atmosphere. And to be honest, the real problem wasn’t even these lapses in Tom’s leadership. It was that the people who put Tom in his position in the first place wrote off his deficiencies as “well, that’s just his style” instead of coaching him and helping to fix them.
There are certain aspects of leadership that are every bit as important as any defined goal. Communicating, being consistent, acting ethically, walking the walk, providing a vision, etc. These are the things make or break your success as a leader. These are the things that determine not only if you achieve your goal, but also whether you have the resources left (e.g. people) to tackle the next one. How these things happen might be open to interpretation and style. If these happen is non-negotiable.
That Jane communicates mostly via text and email, relying on face-to-face only for the important stuff is a matter of style. That Ralph incorporates bits of humor in his state of the company address is a matter of style. That Jeremy holds weekly status meetings, but Mary keeps an updated project blog … matters of style. That Steve does not communicate at all is not a matter of Leadership Style. It is a failure of leadership.
That Mark motivates people by getting into the trenches besides them and leading by example is a matter of style. That Scott has regular team-building lunches … style. That John keeps the troops in line by fear with a “you’re lucky to have a job” attitude is not a matter of style. It is a failure of leadership.
You might sense that I’m fairly passionate about this topic. I have two primary reasons for this. First, you have likely made a huge investment in selecting and/or building that leader and the team they’re leading. Whatever discomfort you might feel at having to coach a leader in their job (especially when it’s someone with a lot of experience and an impressive resume) is nothing compared to the agony of having to fire that person after the damage is done. Those scars linger on an organization for a long, long time.
Second, the impact of poor leadership reverberates throughout an entire organization. The poor leader is already doing nasty things like setting a bad example, driving away good staff, hurting efficiency, killing morale, etc. But when the people who have the authority and responsibility to do something about it are reluctant to correct the situation, it adds another level of tacit approval that just compounds the effects.
So whether you’re a board selecting a president from amongst your peers, a civic group hiring a director, a group leader promoting a new project manager, or even an electorate who has chosen their representative … take responsibility for your selection, make sure that they’re leading and avoid considering deficiencies as simply a matter of their style.