Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is It Leadership?

Google ‘leadership’ and in six seconds 199,000,000 links appear on your screen. Lately, I have found myself asking the question-has the word leadership lost its meaning? Do we apply the label of leader too readily today?

Leader used to be the term applied to the few who consistently displayed competencies that motivated others to follow their vision. Gandhi and Mother Theresa still evoke appreciation from people who have only read or watched videos that told the stories that best modeled their leadership skills. It is a rare day that I don’t read an article in which someone has quoted Gandhi-what he said resonates with many even today.

So Where Did All This Leadership Come From?

Over the past decade many organizations began to send their managers and “high potential” employees to leadership training courses and many universities developed leadership specialties within various disciplines and some as a specialty in and of itself. High schools have leadership programs. Volunteer organizations recruit leaders.

Gradually the roles of CEO, vice-president, manager, director and supervisor were referred to as leadership teams.

A significant percentage of those 1999,000,000 articles advise us that there are 5, 10, 20, 30, 50…things leaders must do, competencies they must have, character traits they must exhibit; there are many articles that debate whether leadership is innate or can be developed. To my question as to whether a ‘bad or evil’ person should be referred to as a leader, one pundit firmly replied that “if a person has followers, they are a leader”; a stance that sits uneasily in my mind.

Identifying Leadership in the Hiring Process

Job advertisements sometimes include the requirement to “be able to prove demonstrated leadership skills”; candidates endeavour to convince interviewers that they should be hired because they have strong leadership skills. Identifying those leadership skills often proves to be difficult and the final assessment may be a little fuzzy at best.

What leadership skills are transferable to different situations? Does the leadership style that works at Apple also work at TD Canada Trust? Are managers really leaders?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Why Leaders Ask the “W” Questions

Phrases that make me stop and ask “why, what, who, where or when?” seem to be cropping up more often both in my online work and in face to face conversations. These phrases use the following terminology:

• “Most people…”
• “The majority of (Canadians etc.) feel (think, believe etc.) that…”
• “Everyone knows that…..”
• “No one wants……”
• “People in (Vancouver etc.) are so (mean, stupid, cold, unfriendly etc.)”
• “Never do business with (ABC), they are *the* worst…..”
• “People who (rely on technology; ride without a helmet etc.) are idiots”
• “Everyone who works here feels….”

There are more of these phrases but those examples are the ones I seem to come across quite often. The use of this terminology is likely to arise from a variety of factors (the 140 character Tweet is one of the Social Networking contributions to this phenomena) but they carry with them a sense of drama and suggest a belief that if *I* think this particular point is true, surely the ‘majority’ must agree with me.

If you are in a leadership or managerial role, or if your work involves frequent interactions with employees the why, what, who, where and when questions will often shift the discussion from an all-encompassing issue to gathering details that will assist in the problem solving process. Perhaps the difficult part of this type of interaction is quickly getting our own first reactions under control so we can ask the “W” questions from an objective position.

What phrases are triggers for you? How do you deal with them?

Monday, March 07, 2011

Learning From ‘Leaders”

I read a posting recently that was an invitation to obtain free access to a session in which “Leaders” described as great leaders to learn from, the author noted how much he had learned from observing and listening to good leaders in his career. (I failed to save the link and can't find it to properly credit the author by I did see it while reading a post by Michael Brisciana who authors HR perspectives at

While reading this it prompted some thoughts that recur in my mind:
 not all people who are labeled as “leaders” are good, or even leaders for that matter
 that we have gone from describing those ‘in charge’ in business as managers or directors to calling them leaders (perhaps as a result of the plethora of leadership training initiatives in organizations since 2000)
 we learn from bad “leaders” as effectively, if not more so than from good leaders.

I was briefly engaged in a discussion in a Leadership Forum in which I asked the question-why do we call people who are bad at what they do or perhaps even evil (think Hitler) ‘Leaders’? The response was that if a person has followers then they are a leader regardless of whether they are good, bad or evil. If one accepts that definition then yes I guess poor managers can be called leaders-except I don’t accept it. A poor manager is simply that-a poor manager. Should managers in business even be called leaders? Do they really have followers in many cases? After all people are paid to be there, do what they are told and treat that manager with respect-because they are a manager.

Learning from Poor Leaders
When I think about some of my strongest learning moments it is just as often that those experiences occurred because I observed first hand a “leader” showing poor judgement or behaving inexplicably badly towards others and then observing carefully the reactions of those around that leader. Sometimes even seemingly small decisions or acts can have wide ranging effects on the people involved and the ability of those people to carry on the tasks of the business effectively.
Consider the following scenarios-just a few of many experiences I have learned from over two decades working with various management teams (or leadership teams if you prefer):

(1) A senior level manager is called by her staff to help resolve a customer request – she shows up clearly inebriated and is rude to the customer (who happened to be a long term loyal customer); her staff are embarrassed and horrified but sadly this is not the first time she has shown up drunk, just the first time a customer was directly involved. This incident was “too much” and the staff filed a complaint.

(2) A senior level manager makes a decision that affects the way many people conduct their day to day tasks but refuses to discuss the change before implementing it; aside from alienating those involved there was a financial cost to making needed adjustments that would have been accounted for had he taken the time to consult with those affected first. This behaviour was typical of this manager and created similar issues over a number of years.

(3) A mid-level manager repeatedly makes “jokes” about various people in the organization and when advised that these “jokes” were inappropriate and disrespectful, responded that it wasn’t his fault people didn’t have a sense of humour.

(4) Two members of a management team accuse an employee of theft in a management meeting; when questioned by the other team members as to precisely what happened and what proof was evident the accusation fell apart; it became clear after a very long discussion that the two managers had contrived it out of thin air. They had started out demanding that the employee be fired but ended up admitting that there was no evidence any theft had occurred.

(5) A senior level manager who was ‘having a bad day’ lost his temper and destroyed a $20,000 piece of office equipment, in front of staff.

(6) A senior level manager “goes through executive assistants faster than a speeding bullet” was the running joke in one organization. It wasn’t funny for the EA’s involved though, he was abrupt, hyper critical and a micro manager and often left staff in tears. He once stated that he had no idea why his EA’s kept transferring to other managers.

(7) A junior level supervisor bullied one of her direct reports repeatedly, making coworkers uncomfortable and delighted in reminding the employee that she was “so tight” with her boss (a senior VP) that it would not go well if she complained. The CEO’s executive assistant saw the behaviour first hand and raised the problem with The CEO, who spoke to the VP, who spoke to the supervisor. As predicted, it did not go well. The employee resigned a few days later after being ripped to shreds and threatened by the supervisor.

What did I learn from these and many other situations? The impact that these behaviours had on the organization overall was much greater than it might appear first hand.
 Other members of the management team learned to work around them rather than with them
 Employees learned to avoid discussing problems with these managers, often leading to cost, quality, production and customer service problems
 Employee retention, development and morale suffered
 Innovative thinking, project team cohesion, continuous improvement efforts slowed or stopped altogether increasing costs and decreasing sustainability
What was the most important thing I learned from these types of situations? That the ability to listen and understand the perspectives of other people affected by the actions of managers – or – leaders and to take that information to action. Oh-and that I learn as much from poor leaders as I do from good leaders.
What have you learned from a leader-good leaders or not so good?