Monday, June 23, 2008

What Kind of Leader Are You?

I was talking to a friend the other day about leadership training. She is a rising young executive in a large defense contractor, and, as such, is being run through a series of leadership training classes. She was describing the latest session of her classes and related some of the course reading material. As might be expected, it included a number of the recent leadership books, books that have hit the market in the last decade, most of which, curiously enough, are written by teachers and psychologists who have had scant experience actually leading.

But, that is the subject of a future discussion.

What strikes me about many of these courses, and the books that inspire them, is the deterministic nature of the concepts central to these books. The central theme is that a test can be given or an evaluation performed, and it will identify the strengths and weaknesses of any given individual, and delineate how that person is best used, where they are limited and where their talents should be channeled. It all sounds remarkably neat.

But people aren’t quite that simple. Certainly, some of these tests are of value in providing hints as to how best overcome weaknesses.

But, if we are to truly lead, we need to recognize several issues:

First, you play the hand you’re dealt. It is all well and good for someone to walk in off the street, administer some tests, and tell you that the other members of your team aren’t as talented as the guys over at GE. And if you had billion dollars you could go hire a bunch of really exceptional people. But, there are a few things to remember: no one ever has enough money to buy all the talent; even if you did, talent doesn’t guarantee success; and success is a team sport.

Second, the talent is already there. Robert Townsend tells a great story about a company that had been tested and assessed by a large management consulting firm and, according to the assessment, was devoid of any top grade management personnel. Townsend then went in to run the company. In his own inimitable way he motivated them, gave them guidance and enough authority to get things done, then set them free to do their jobs. Less than two years later the same management consulting firm sent over another team to assess the company and found that it was richer in leadership and upper level management talent than virtually any other company they had ever assessed. Townsend then tells you what you have by now guessed: that he had hired no knew people and fired few. These were the same people, but the leadership (Townsend) knew how to get them to produce.

Again and again I have found that poor leaders settle for what they have and use it to justify mediocrity, or as an excuse for why they haven’t achieved more. Good leaders however, always seem to have ‘exceptional’ people around them. The fact is that it is the good leader who makes his team ‘exceptional.’

Third, we are rational creatures: the right leadership will allow us to rise above our behaviors and instincts and become more than we otherwise would be. Pigeonholing based on a pseudo-scientific test administered on any given day is as accurate as finding criminals by measuring the shapes of their skulls. The obvious proof in all those tests is that every single category has a few great leaders, and, if we only had the right information, every single category contains one or more criminally insane. In the end, we can change ourselves, we can learn and then we can choose to improve. We are not fated to be one thing or another.

Fourth, in the end, real leadership makes lemonade out of lemons. In fact, in many cases, real leadership is ABOUT making lemonade out of lemons. We are all handed lemons every day. The trick is to recognize the lemonade sitting ‘inside’ the lemons. Good leaders recognize not only the strengths and weaknesses in their people, they also see a way to motivate them to shrug off those weaknesses and rise above stereotypes.

When properly lead and motivated, when given the right help, encouragement and training, people can startle you with what they can achieve. When ‘management’ settles and believes the labels someone has attached to you and your team mates, when management decides things are the way they are and we aren’t going to materially improve things without getting different people, and worst, when they surrender and simply decide ‘this is fine,’ they have stopped leading.

Every person and every organization had weaknesses. Leadership gets people and organizations past the weaknesses. Is there a fine balance, where you have to recognize that there are some things that some people can’t do? Certainly. But don’t abrogate that decision to a psychological test and some independent and uninterested evaluator. It’s your organization and they are your team. You need to get the most out of them and that should be subject to YOUR evaluation, and no one else.

Obviously, there are particular skills that you might need that are non-negotiable, but skills are not personality traits, and don’t let some evaluator twist the argument around and then assert that ‘Jones is wrong for this position because Jones has this type of personality.’ That is your decision, based on your knowledge of Jones.

In the end, the only real value to be found in all those profile tools is for you to realize what your habits, and those of your team mates, are so that you can break them. We are creatures of intellect. Use your intellect to carve out your vision and to train yourself and your people with the skills you all need to succeed. But don’t buy into the proposition that you or your people are confined to the pigeonhole that someone is trying to place you in. Your team deserves more than that.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Leaders and Hubris

Lord Acton famously observed that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is worth remembering as we sort through recent news.

The subject today is the resignation in March of Governor Spitzer. Immediately following his resignation there was a good deal of talk on TV, radio, newspapers and various blogs about ‘the why’ of Governor Spitzer actions during the last several years, visiting one particular house of ill repute a number of times while publicly railing against prostitution. Why would he take such actions – repeatedly – when he had so much to lose? Psychiatrists and psychologists are offering various explanations, even that he was sub-consciously self-destructive, that he wanted to be caught.

Governor Spitzer’s personal motivations may never be known, even if he writes a ‘tell all’ autobiography in a couple of years. But I have seen enough outrageous behavior from various leaders to recognize that at least part of the explanation for his behavior can be found in the corrupting nature of power. And there are several real lessons to be drawn from this incident by any leader of any organization.

Everyone who has acquired some power, some authority, over others is tempted by that power. Its corrupting influence is subtle and pervasive. You believe in both the correctness of your goal and your ability to achieve those goals. Actions taken to sustain and achieve your vision are justified because they move the organization closer to goal posts. Inevitably, you come to associate any decision you make as being the right one. You become special, as important as the goal itself. Anything that helps you is therefore okay. Remarkably, this can be found in the smallest of organizations as well as the largest; the Hollywood stereotype of the small-town cop who turns into a petty dictator is not a morality tale about the dangers of small towns. Rather, it is rooted in the corrosive effect power, even a little power, can have on the most normal of people.

And the same is true of everyone: power corrupts. When you start to see special rules drawn up for the senior executives of any organization, exceptions to policy that only apply to the front office, you are starting to see the corruption take place.

There are ways to fight it. (And, of course, you can always cheat on the rules.) But, no system is perfect and it will require constant effort on your part to keep everyone within the rules – particularly yourself. As the one in charge, the standards must be higher for you then for anyone else; the simple rules your mother taught may well be your best guidance: if you wouldn’t want something published on the front page – don’t do it; if you wouldn’t say or do something in front of your mother, don’t say it or do it. If you don’t want your employees (or your children) doing something, then you shouldn’t.

A few steps may help. First, if you are in charge, establish a clear, simple, and brief code of ethics: these are the rules of behavior for everyone. Let me repeat: they need to be simple and clear. Insist that everyone live by them – including you. In fact, the more senior you are, the more strict must be compliance with standards. You might want to have an organizational meeting once a year, maybe more, that addresses the rules.* However you engage in this training, remember that the training is really for those in charge. The sadly comical situation where rank and file workers are subjected to yearly ‘en masse’ ethics training while the executives have special, tailored sessions may well be an indication that you are already on the slippery slope of making exceptions for yourself and your cronies.** This sends a host of ‘wrong signals,’ each a lesson in poor leadership: leaders held to different - and lower - standards then the workers, the suggestion that ethics are variables, the indication that the leadership simply won’t go through the same things it expects of the rank and file. (The simple example of the President and CEO sitting through the training with everyone else sends a host of signals; the example of both NOT sitting through the training necessarily sends other signals.)

Second, whether you are in charge or not, find someone you can trust, who knows all your secrets, who will tell you when you are wrong, and then don’t forget why you have that person as your confidante. Whether your wife or husband, brother or sister, childhood friend or your priest, you need someone who can look you in the eye and tell you that you are doing something wrong.

Third, if you are in charge of something, draft guidelines on your authorities. Make them as simple and clear as possible. Then publish them within your organization. The guidelines should clearly spell out what you can and cannot do, what standards of behavior you should be held to by your subordinates, and what will happen if you brake the rules. Good leaders hold themselves to higher standards then they hold their subordinates. If you are not the CEO, and your organization does not have guidelines, suggest that it be done at the next big meeting. You might go on line and copy the ethics standards of some large organization. Set an example in your department, publish your own standards. And if you are not in charge, one word of advice: don’t stay in any organization that doesn’t at least try to keep its leadership in line – get out as soon as you can.

Finally, remember that your life and your career are about your goals, your vision, and not you. Repeat that as many times a day as you need to.

Remember that morals trump ethics. In a band of cutthroats ‘ethical’ behavior (the ethos of the group) includes cutting throats. Your mother’s instruction (‘Would you jump off a bridge if everyone else did?’) is a sound a piece of advice as any. Just because others do ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ might be, and even if they get away with ‘it,’ perhaps someone has found a loop-hole in the law, you will know whether it is right. If it isn’t, if it abuses your power or sets a poor example, you will also know. So, don’t do it.

In the end, no set of rules, no amount of training, no organizational provisions or structure will mean anything if you don’t commit yourself to living by higher standards. People in power don’t brake the rules because they don’t know them, they break the rules because they believe they are special, they have come to believe in themselves over and above any organization, any goals, in fact, any thing. If you already believe that you are special you can either change, or you can simply accept that some day you will be exposed. If you are ‘lucky’ you will simply be disgraced. Or, you may lose your career, perhaps your family, your business, and certainly your reputation. Your vision, your dreams, no matter how noble, will be sullied by your behavior. Your choice.
* This is not meant to be a ‘touchy-feely’ session on norms of behavior. What is needed is more akin to the weekly reading of his letters of authority by ship captains 200 years ago, during which each possible crime was listed followed by the required punishment (which ranged from lashings to death by hanging). These sessions should be pointed and painful: if you do X, you will be fired; if you do Y, you will be fired; if you do Z, you will be fired, the corporation will sue you to recover wages, and your name will be given to the appropriate federal authorities for further prosecution.

** I recently heard the story of one Fortune 500 corporation, one which does not have a blemish free recent history, holding a yearly ethics training seminar in which a large concert hall was used in order to hold all the workers, and the hall was filled to capacity as production line workers received their day-long training, while the executives, the ones who had committed the ethics violations in the past that prompted the training, and who are likely to commit the ethics violations in the future, were given their own, tailored training.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Leadership at 3 AM

It was the inestimable Shelby Foote who said about General US Grant that "Grant the general had many qualities but he had a thing that's very necessary for a great general. He had what they call "four o'clock in the morning courage.” You could wake him up at four o'clock in the morning and tell him they had just turned his right flank and he would be as cool as a cucumber."

Perhaps this is the root of the recent flurry of comments as to what this or that potential president would do in response to a ‘3 AM phone call.’ But, as might be expected when everything seems to be compressed into 30 second news bursts, the recent discussion doesn’t always seem to get to the heart of the matter.

First, it is important to remember what is the real issue; as pointed out by Shelby Foote, the issue is whether you remain clear and cogent when you are threatened with doom – literal or figurative. You are sound asleep, you believed all was well when you went to sleep, and now the enemy (however conceived) has turned your flank, is running up behind you and may well have you at their sword points. The enemy may be physical, psychological, fiscal, whatever. But if the ‘enemy’ continues, your way of life is going to change dramatically, and for the worst. The thing your army, your side, needs now is your calm judgment about what to do to save them from ruin. GEN Grant had experienced moments when it looked like his army would collapse, and he had not shown fear and his judgment had not failed him.

The modern equivalent of that, from a national perspective, would be some sort of indication that the United States was about to be attacked or was being attacked. Since the days of Lincoln this has happened only twice: the Cuban Missile Crisis and September 11th. In both cases the President performed well.* Both Presidents had had some experience to fall back on: in the case of Kennedy he had combat experience that told him to make an accurate assessment first, do what you can to make it better, try not to do anything to make it worse, and if possible, ‘buy’ some time while you assess the situation and conduct some planning. Bush had not had a similar experience to Kennedy, but Bush had his years as governor of Texas to fall back on, which provided the proper degree of trust in the process of being the executive of a large, well established organization, in this case the well groomed process that surrounds the President as Commander-in-Chief, and he moved to a position where he knew he could get accurate information and make a considered decision.

Every President will, of course, benefit from the large, well trained and very well equipped organization that exists around the Office of the President. It is a fair statement that a President, any President, will have enough support that it would be difficult for him or her to make a truly stupid decision at ‘3 AM.’ But, there are some points that we can learn from considering the leader of any organization that is surprised and threatened with doom, whether it is a nation, an army or a private organization. Looking at great leaders in times of crisis lessons do emerge and are of value, even if we never are fated to lead a nation during her darkest hour.

Always remember that you are the leader. When no one can see you, you are the leader, when you are in the bathroom you are the leader. (This is the real weight of leadership (‘it’s lonely at the top’) and any leader who hasn’t felt it is shirking his duties.) So, when they ‘call you at 3 AM’ your response will be echoed throughout the organization. If you are calm and sure, they will be as well. If you let panic enter your voice, that too will get around. It is essential that those around you understand that they can, in fact, ALWAYS count on you to be the leader when they need it, not when you simply want to lead.

Prepared – Good leaders are always prepared. That is because they spend a great deal of time thinking ahead, exercising their brains, working out possible courses of action. This is true whether you are the President of the United States of the President of John Doe, Inc. If you have nothing else to do, think through various situations and work out basic steps you would take if that situation were to develop. You will never encounter exact copies of your plans in the real world, but, the more you think and exercise and plan, the more likely you are to have a framework that you have considered. Machiavelli considered it to be the duty of a Prince to look at each piece of terrain and think about how to defend it, and how to attack it, and to do so continually. The Prince’s number one responsibility was to defend his city, and to not prepare for it was a disgrace. His right duty was to spend much of his time considering how to defend the city and what would be needed to properly do so.**

Confident – the leader’s response in the dark of the early morning sends a signal to every single person in the organization –whether you believe it or not. Calm leaders are infectious, and so are worrisome ones.*** Teach yourself to be calm. In the movies we often see leaders of various stripes engaging in high drama, even yelling and grabbing people. It makes for good theater. It also makes for lousy leadership. When things get bad, good leaders are calm, quiet and considered.****

Experienced – Experience teaches that the situation is rarely as bad as it seems and it is rarely exactly what the first reports detail. Nervous leaders often will cycle between not making decisions at all and making decisions in a hasty and uninformed manner. Experience teaches that the best thing to do sometimes is simply ‘wind the clock.’*****

Experience as a leader under stress does not guarantee that you will make good decisions. But lack of experience will certainly ensure a spotty performance at best until you have accumulated some experience.

* Pearl Harbor doesn’t qualify for several reasons: it was not the United States proper at the time, but a territory; there was certainty that the Japanese could not invade the United States itself, and their was a certain intellectual acceptance that the US and Japan were going to be at war soon; Pearl Harbor was a tactical surprise, but Roosevelt certainly didn’t fear for the loss of the United States itself. Nevertheless, his handling of the crisis in the days immediately following December 7th was brilliant.

** This is why President’s and their immediate staff should participate in various war games – not because they are war mongers, but because it is both necessary that they understand what US forces can and cannot do, and because they need to be prepared for whatever might happen, and there is no better way to do this then ‘gaming.’ Corporations and other private organizations that are interested in their organizations surviving in the event of a catastrophe, (what now falls under the catch-all ‘Continuity Of Operations’ or COOP) should also be engaged in planning and exercises. Stockholders should demand it off their Board of Directors.

*** Churchill is perhaps the paragon of a great leader continually performing well under great stress. With his nation fighting alone against the Nazis and the Axis Powers for nearly a year he never showed anything but complete confidence that the UK would, in the end, be victorious, no matter what the reports might show. He extended this confidence to the issue of the ‘3AM phone call,’ instructing his staff not to wake him unless England were actually invaded. Throughout all of World War II Churchill was only woken a couple of times, no matter how dire things might be around the world.

**** Taking a lesson from several great leaders I worked for, I made a general rule for all situations: you can raise your voice under four circumstances – 1) the building is on fire; 2) someone is shooting at you – specifically; 3) you are having a baby; 4) you win the lottery. Other than that, shouting is of only negative value – it makes the situation worse.

One of the lessons taught in flight training is that, when things look bad in the airplane, and you are not sure what to do, wind the clock (many aircraft, even the most modern, have wind-up clocks in the instrument panel, for a number of reasons). What this forces you to do is concentrate on a specific action for a few seconds, which should both calm you down and allow the situation to become a bit more clear, and prevents you from doing something really stupid while you recover your wits.