Thursday, October 29, 2009

Truth, Lies, and Leadership

‘It’s so good to see you.’

I read an article the other day about the ‘lies’ we all tell every day. The gist of the article was that we see someone in the hall and ask how they are, and the mutual lie takes place: we don’t really want to know how they are, and the other person knows we don’t want to know. So, everyone is ‘fine’ and we continue on our way. The author’s point was that there are lies we tell every day that are part of the grease of society.

Maybe that is what’s wrong with mankind; a theologian might suggest that this is the real manifestation of original sin on our every day lives. Because we should be glad to see people. If we really were good people we would be happy to see folks, and we would want to know how Mrs. Sullivan’s nephew is doing. We really would want to know the state of health of those around us and we would really be concerned if they weren’t well.

In short, we would care.

There is an old – and cynical - saying that sincerity is the hardest thing, once you can fake that you can fake anything.

So what does all this have to do with leadership?

Easy: to be a great leader you DO have to care. You must want to see all those people every morning. You must be sincere, truly sincere, not just faking it. And the reason for that is simple: you and the people you lead are inextricably woven together – your dream has – if you are a great leader – becomes their dream as well; for your dream to be fulfilled, they must also succeed. Great leaders care more about their dream then they do about themselves. And the people you lead are now part of that dream. Caring about them and caring about your dream quickly becomes essentially the same thing.

General George Patton said that the coward who wears the mask of a hero soon takes on the characteristics of the latter. What he meant is that you can become what you aren’t, if you live it every day. The leader must live his role every day; he must communicate it every day. (And Patton had great leadership skills; he knew what he was talking about.) And at the core of that communication is sincerity. Great leaders are truly sincere. And since they care about their vision, they care about each and every one of their people. They intrinsically understand that the people who believe the vision ‘become’ the vision. So, great leaders must care about every single person.

But, you will respond, how can I care about 100 different people? It’s too tasking. I hardly know all their names. Next you’ll tell me I should care about their wives or husbands, about their kids, about their grand parents. I can’t do that.

Of course, most people can’t do that. But you must do what you can. In short, you have to care and simply do the best you can. Learn and remember what you can. Write it down. You don’t remember all of your brothers’ and sisters’ birthdays and anniversaries. But you can write them down. The same applies to the people who work with you and ‘for’ you.

In the end, great leadership requires a personal commitment from the leader to the vision and to the people who have adopted the vision, and a personal commitment from each of the people who follow the leader. That commitment is rarely given to an individual they don’t like and trust. And that means that you must engender that trust. Trust is the opposite side of the coin from sincerity: you can’t have one without the other.

Think about that the next time someone in the office asks you how you are feeling.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Micro-Manager

One of the requirements of any leader is the ability to simply walk away and let someone else handle ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is. Whether you are the Manager of a McDonald’s and you are letting the shift team leader handle some issue, the captain of a ship letting one of his division officers handle a problem, the senior VP of a Fortune 500 corporation or the President, there are situations every day that will require that you turn a ‘blind eye’ to the problem and let someone else handle it, in their own way. It will not turn out quite the way it would have if you had handled it yourself, but if you have already done your job properly – picked and directed the people beneath you, instructed them and motivated them to adopt your goals for the organization – it will work out properly.

Doing otherwise is overstepping your bounds, and is the first step towards micro-management.

One of the significant steps to turning yourself into the consummate micro-manager is the call for more data. Unfortunately, we are now equipped with the technology to provide mountains of data to any willing supervisor. Whether it is an automatic reporting system that forwards operational status of every vehicle in your company’s fleet (and their precise location), an endless stream of e-mails from every junior executive, foreman, supervisor, accountant and secretary, a hand-held texting device of some sort, etc., today’s executive can stay connected ‘24/7,’ to the dismay – and the continual underdevelopment - of his subordinates.

There are those that will respond that “I need to, this is necessary to make sure that…” My answer is that if it is necessary for you to do that, you need to fire your subordinates. But, you cannot possibly do their jobs for them, unless you know how to get more than 24 hours into each day. And, the fact that you continue to receive a steady stream of reporting will incite you to micro-manage when you otherwise might not. Ignorance may or may not be bliss, but it is quite possible to know too much.

Of course, there are exceptions. Or perhaps it is better to say there are apparent exceptions. Winston Churchill, one of the great leaders of the last 500 years, made certain that he was very well informed about every major facet of the economy even as he ran the war. And, when he deemed it necessary, he would delve down deeply into the workings of any branch of the government or private sector. But, Churchill not only rarely did this, he had made it abundantly clear that he trusted the decisions of his subordinates, and he had a wealth of leadership experience to draw on that made these ‘transits’ into various lower organizations of great benefit not only to himself, but to literally everyone involved.

Churchill also rightly recognized that the literal survival of his nation was at stake. Nevertheless, he left to his various ministers wide latitude to act and rarely if ever reached around them or gathered data that did not come through them. Churchill is, in fact, an excellent, though rare example of the great leader – he imparts the vision but remains above much of the day to day workings, focusing on the grand issues while remaining informed about what is happening around him.

Key to this was his ability to shut himself off from the outside. Churchill understood when he didn’t need more information.

That is why the news out of Washington for the past year worries me. For example, the President is receiving a daily brief on the economy, just as he receives a daily intelligence brief. One can hear all the caterwauling from the press (if they ever bothered to read this): the nation expects the President, perhaps even demands that he keep his fingers on this economic crisis. Well, if the American people expect that doing so requires daily detailed briefs on what is happening (and I doubt they do), then they are wrong.

One of the things that caused this crisis was the insane fascination that nearly everyone has with the daily market movements. It has caused all sorts of bad (terrible) financial and economic decisions, as managers and experts have become mired in trying to make their quarterly, monthly, maybe even weekly estimates come true. The last thing this nation needs is a President who isn’t thinking about the long term. Yet that seems to be just what is developing in Washington: a President who is going to focus on short-term economic issues and let the future take care of itself.

Our economy will recover irrespective of what Washington does in the short term, and the key element of making money available to the credit markets was already being addressed before New Years, though that will take some time to sort out. But having the President digging into daily economic activity and trying to make decisions based on them can only be disastrous. There are several very real structural reasons for this, as well as the obvious point that there is simply no way to condense the daily activity of a $14 Trillion dollar economy (that’s $14,000,000,000,000) into something that can lead to a single human being making meaningful decisions. Particularly when that individual has some other pressing issues, such as a war in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq, and the rest of the executive branch to run.

Structurally, the Constitution provides only a few tools with which to manage (or manipulate) the economy, and they are all large and very blunt instruments. Tax policy, monetary policy, government spending and bureaucratic regulation are the only tools the President has (unless he seizes an industry, which is at best questionable Constitutionally), and they are all ‘very large hammers, always looking for large nails.’ The idea that the President is receiving daily briefs on the economy leaves me wondering what is he going to do if he finds something he doesn’t like?

Good (never mind great) leaders focus on long-term visions, think strategically and manage the strategic vision and leave the daily churn to the ‘lieutenants,’ trusting them to inform him when they needed his help. Such leadership is rare and only comes with great experience.

Your job as the leader is to provide vision and guidance and motivation. Communicate, motivate, and then Delegate to your subordinates the authorities they need to execute their tasks, and help them do their jobs. The key to that is experience and reflecting on that experience.

For junior executives, the lesson you need to take away from this discussion is that you need to grab as much leadership experience as possible as you grow old. You need to watch the leaders around you and take notes, both the good ones and the poor ones. Watch how they delegate. Watch how they step aside and let junior managers take charge. Watch how the micro-managers work. Take notes on what worked and what didn’t and think about the ‘why’ in each case. Resolve to commit to the mission, whatever it is, and then grit your teeth and let one of your subordinates do it ‘his way,’ and help him succeed.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Nelson Touch

Today – 21 October - is the 204th anniversary of The Battle of Trafalgar, during which the Royal Navy, under the brilliant command of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, smashed Napoleon’s fleet and ensured both the survival on England and the eventual defeat of Napoleon. Admiral Nelson died during the battle.

All well and good, but what can we learn about leadership from Nelson that is relevant today? There is a phrase that has come down to us through the many biographies and paeans to Nelson – the ‘Nelson Touch’ – that bears a bit of reflection.

The phrase refers to both Nelson’s incredible ability to win battles at sea (his record is truly ‘incredible’), as well as his ability to motivate his crews, to elicit from them performances that were seemingly beyond their capabilities. Again and again the crews of Nelson’s ships performed heroic, seemingly impossible feats. Each time it seemed as if there was no way to improve on their performance. Each time, each victory seemed to lead to an even greater battle and a greater victory.

So, what was the Nelson touch? What was it that Nelson did that led men to not simply follow him, but to perform at levels well above what they might have expected of themselves, and certainly above the expectations of other leaders?

At the most basic level, the Nelson touch was several ‘simple’ ingredients, blended together, and applied consistently over the course of his career: First, Nelson knew his job; he studied and trained and learned all that there was to know fighting a ship at sea. He then applied that knowledge to his crews, training them to become the best crews in the world. Second, Nelson was committed to the mission of the Royal Navy: defend England and defeat the French fleet. He devoted his life to it and demonstrated that in word and deed daily. Third, he communicated both his professional knowledge and his commitment to the mission to his crew.

Nelson’s ability to communicate with his crews is really what sets him apart. Nelson spent a very great deal of time communicating with, talking with his officers and men. He had frequent dinners with his officers that would last long into the night during which he not only could observe them and judge their individual strengths and weaknesses, but he could also impart to them his plans, and, more importantly, his method of thought. It wasn’t necessary for Nelson to be present on each ship during the battle because he had so trained and educated his officers that he knew each would act appropriately irrespective of how the battle developed.

These three traits, tightly interwoven with a fourth – his complete trust in the men who served with him, produced the ‘Nelson touch.’ And each is as applicable today, in any leadership position, as it was then.

Professional Competence: Know your job, and know it better than anyone else. Then train your people. Give them the training and education they need to know their jobs.

Dedication and Focus: Commit to the mission. Before you can expect anyone else to devote himself to your cause, you must. Whether you are fighting the enemy fleet, or simply building a better small business, you must commit to success before you can expect anyone else to do so.

Communication: Talk to your people, tell them what you are thinking, what you expect of them, and listen to them. You need to understand their motivations and you need to make your motivations, your cause, their cause. Work with them on their issues and their ideas. You need to learn their strengths and weaknesses (everyone has both), and then learn how best to use each person’s skills to maximize their performances, both individually and as a team. As a general rule, none of us communicate enough; spend more time communicating WITH (not talking at) your people.

Trust: Once you have trained them and motivated them, once you have placed them where their talents best fit your goals, once you have done your job, get out of the way and let them do their jobs. Trust them. Remember, if you can’t trust them after you have trained them, you haven’t done your job.

These ‘simple’ ideas: competence, focus, communication, and trust – are at the heart of the success of perhaps the greatest admiral in history. But, the Nelson Touch can be applied to any leadership situation.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Leadership vs. Bean-counting

Succession is one of the most difficult things in the world to get your arms around: who will carry on the vision that you have created and nurtured. Good leaders often identify themselves by finding the right people to place as their successors and then letting those people lead, as they step into the background.

Of course, the key is the ‘right people.’ Who are the right people? Oddly enough, it can be almost anyone, if you are a capable enough leader and can inculcate in your followers the full breadth and depth of your vision. If you can, it fully becomes their vision as well, and then you will find that your vision will survive well beyond your presence in the organization. Even when you choose the wrong specific successor, if the ‘rank and file’ hold to your vision, they can prevent the organization from straying in the hands of a less than capable successor.

But, most often the leadership of an organization is not successful in developing that quality of ‘followership,’ nor is the organization structured to prevent the less than capable (new) leader from steering the organization towards ‘the rocks.’ Instead, what often happens is this: the great visionary finally retires, and is replaced by the great communicator:* someone who mostly understands the vision, but whose real skill is in his ability to provide an inspiring speech, to fire up the ‘home team’ and keep things moving in the same direction.

Then comes the second transition, and the communicator moves on. Invariably, the communicator is replaced by a manager. But not just any kind of managers, but by a bean-counter, someone who lets the numbers make decisions. Let me be clear: managers are a good and necessary part of any organization; accountants are also a good and necessary part of any organization. From managing a fast food restaurant to planning the invasion of Europe, management and accounting are as necessary as leadership. Bean-counters are not.

The bean-counter is the guy who hides behind the numbers, who chooses to react to the numbers rather than use the numbers to inform and to assist in making hard decisions, decisions that will, in the end, change the numbers.

Sometimes the great communicator and the bean-counter are the same person; the communicator changing over time as the organization moves further and further away in time from the founder and visionary. The communicator enters ‘uncharted’ territory and become resistant to change, because he is intellectually incapable of it. Change is needed because the world keeps changing, and that means the plans and operations must change to compensate for those changes in the environment. If plans and operations aren’t changed there is no hope of achieving the corporate goals, because the plans should always reflect the world in which you are, not the one in which you were.

Some organizations will face this problem as a result of a change in the Board of Directors, who will replace the titular leadership but then constrain it to act within the confines of the bean-counter’s numbers. This can be quite destructive, as the nominal ‘leadership’ will make pronouncements and announce plans to do ‘X’ but will be prevented from actually doing so by the efforts of the bean-counters who will report the potential numbers to the board. The nominal leadership ends up frustrated and the ‘rank and file’ end up confused.

If you are leading an organization, or a team or project within an organization, and it is one that is going to endure well beyond your tenure in the organization, you must spend as much time as you can both informing and shaping the people who work for you, so that the vision is sustained by the team, by the workforce as a whole – NOT you, and then you need to spend time identifying and grooming your successor. Before you pick a successor make sure you have had a chance to thoroughly evaluate his performance both as a leader and a manager, as well as his commitment to the vision. That evaluation will take a minimum of months, and may well take more than a year.  Failure to do so means you will inevitably be replaced by a bean-counter; failure to do so will mean you have failed as a leader.

* Not to be confused with ‘The Great Communicator’ Ronald Reagan, who was, in fact, a visionary and a great leader.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Focus, Focus, Focus

What do you think about Tiger Woods’ tennis game? Dr Anthony Fauci’s work on continental drift? Itzhak Perlman’s work in oils? Steve Job’s work in aircraft design?

The short answer is that you don’t. And there is a reason for this: great achievement requires focus and years of effort. Could Tiger Wood’s have a great tennis game? Certainly. But, it would be at a cost: he wouldn’t be the world’s greatest golfer. Dr. Fauci could undoubtedly master geo-physics, but only at the expense of the work he has done in immunology. The four individuals above are all bright ,talented men. And all have sacrificed greatly to achieve the level of expertise they enjoy. And so it goes. Every field requires both focus and sacrifice, because every time you choose to spend more time on your chosen field, you have less time to spend on other areas of interest.

But you MUST do that to succeed as a leader. First, you must focus on the few key issues that surround your strategic goals. You will never be a world-class trap and skeet shooter and a world class leader of a growing business at the same time. If you want to be a world leading research biologist AND run a successful chemical plant the odds are you will do neither. Pick one. Second, you will find as you rise in seniority in your field that many people will want you to spend time on their issue. Sometimes you must, it is unavoidable. This is particularly true as your position becomes more public. But understand that very time you do so, you lose time you could be spending on your key issues.

The history of the US Presidency is illustrative: the great presidents have all been men who focused on one or two great issues, and generally let other issues slide, handled by either the bureaucracy or generally ignored by the executive. They focused their energies on several major issues, rarely more than three during their entire term in office. Even with the huge support staffs that the White House has sustained throughout most of the last century, Presidents have found it very difficult to substantively address more than a few issues over the course of four years. Presidents who have dabbled in issue after issue while appearing in support of cause after cause have maintained their popularity but accomplished little.

If that is the case for that level of leadership, how much more so for you? In fact, one of the real problems for small and medium sized companies is that there is so much for the CEO/President/’Boss’ to do – must do - that does take away your time from your company goals. It is incumbent on you to delegate as much as you can to others, focus your energies on the two or three key issues, ignore a host of ‘other’ issues, and recognize that this is the price you pay for success.

Time is the most expensive ‘commodity’ you have to manage: spend it wisely.