It is an unfortunate truth that whatever can be misunderstood, will be misunderstood.
As inevitable as death and taxes, this Murphy’s Law of communication is especially true when the message is unwelcome. Whoever is in charge of sayings probably needs to change Bullock’s famous quote to include this:
’Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes and Misunderstandings
Leaders – especially when trying to change something (because pretty much all change is unwelcome for at least some of the people some of the time) – must factor this into their thinking.
We must assume that, whether by genuine accident or convenient design, even our most-beautifully crafted and benevolent utterances will be misunderstood.
Leadership isn’t easy, it demands a level of self-awareness, self-control and maturity that not all of us are able to muster.
In my experience of working with humans, I have noticed that they have faults. If you are not in a leadership position, maybe these faults are no big deal, but as you rise in the hierarchy and your influence broadens, the impact of those faults is amplified and the probability of them doing harm grows exponentially.
So leaders need to be vigilant about which of their traits are helpful to their leadership role, and which aren’t!
There are many ways to get leadership wrong, and I have certainly been guilty of a few of them (and am certainly guilty of a few more that I’m unaware of – and some I am aware of, it’s a work in progress …). These are linked to many different things, such as personality traits that may mismatch the context of the moment (such as Asquith’s guiding chairmanship being unsuited to the decision-making demands of World War One – more here), or personality traits that just don’t suit leadership so well, or maybe just the leader not being mature enough because leadership is – like good wine – something that often gets better with age.
Here are five immature leader types I have spotted, sadly it’s not an exhaustive list:
I used to get asked to do “change management” on projects that were not change management projects.
This is annoying if, like me, you reallylove doing change management projects, and there are so few opportunities to do really proper change management like those you read about in change management books.
The projects I was asked to work on were often the very opposite of change management projects, they were projects designed to minimise change while something disruptive happened. They were business continuity projects with the aim of avoiding the impact of changes happening elsewhere.
The most common example I was involved in was an office relocation, where you want the impact of the move to have minimal impact on the operation. You might want to take advantage of an office move to improve some things about how you work together, but the point is that they are peripheral, you are not changing how people work in order to improve your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and therefore, although it’s a bit change-management-y, it isn’t really driving transformation of the organisation.
If we look at an organisation’s performance over time (using the KPIs as the performance measure) then a successful organisation will probably be happily motoring around the amber/green lines most of the time.
The purpose of this type of “change management” (i.e. business continuity management) is to keep the Organisational Performance (OP) line as consistent as possible despite being buffeted about by disconnected external factors (i.e. disconnected from the KPIs, and so not central to the performance of the organisation).
A few years ago the L&D world was abuzz with the sound of people explaining that 70% of learning comes from experience, 20% from other people, and only 10% from formal learning events.
Thus the 70:20:10 model became the flavour of the month, and was used by Consultants everywhere to try to ram it into the stubborn heads of managers that a one-off tick-boxy training course is not a good way to help people get better at doing their jobs.
Like all things that are fashionable, it suffered the roller-coaster of fashion bias one minute, then anti-fashion bias the next, in turn exaggerating then obscuring the wisdom within the model.
Fashion Bias (noun, origin: just made it up): the tendency to overestimate the value of the latest thing because it is in fashion
Anti-Fashion Bias (noun, origin: just made this one up too): tendency to underestimate the value of the latest thing because it is in fashion
And lo, what had once been the answer to all L&D woes faded into the background to become yesterday’s news: a slightly awkward gimmicky sounding tool that people often took to mean that you should do a bit of job shadowing and watch a TED Talk once you’ve done the training course.
The problem with throwing out a model because it gets misunderstood and misused, and through familiarity ends up sounding a bit simplistic and old hat, is that one can accidentally also chuck out the good bits. I believe the metaphor to use here is the one about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but I’ve always thought that a rather dramatic and unfamiliar analogy: who hears that metaphor and thinks, “ah OK, now I understand thanks to my vast experience of accidentally throwing babies away“?
The whole point of managing other people is so that we can be responsible for more than we can do.
This inevitably means that we have to ask other people to do things, and ensure that those things are done to the right quality standards, at the right time, and within the right budget, and all without being too annoying.
This creates a tension because although we can delegate the task to someone else, we cannot delegate the responsibility – so as much as we might want to empower people and leave them to it, we also need the task done properly … which is where things can go wrong …
… if we delegate but cling on, staying too involved, then we not only set off the Annoying Manager Alarm, but we undermine their confidence and motivation. They will be left feeling frustrated and bored, and will be less willing to take risks and make decisions because they will just be waiting for us to pile in with our big fat red pen anyway.
Over time they will become more and more detached, slowly morphing into robots that follow instructions rather than creative individuals who engage with their work …
… but if we do the opposite and delegate too much, walking away and leaving them to it, again the Annoying Manager Alarm jangles as we undermine their confidence and motivation. They will be left feeling abandoned, they will be frustrated and bored, our disappearing act creating the impression that the task is unimportant and unappreciated.
Over time they become more and more detached, taking less and less care as no one seems to be that bothered, slowly morphing into mediocre employees operating well below their abilities.
One way to bring the worst of both these options is what I call the Occasional Demon, the manager who mostly wants nothing to do with our tasks, only to pop up out the blue and tell us what we’re doing wrong. They are absent, then suddenly too involved, usually demonstrating little more than their ignorance.
Occasional Demons are a walking Annoying Manager Alarm.
So how do we hit the sweet spot and get the balance right?
Today is my birthday and so, according to tradition, a higher number is now my age.
I am now unequivocally middle-aged, almost certainly closer to the grave than the cradle, but I don’t mind too much. I like being middle-aged, it suits my personality: being young was fun, for sure, but it was a chore compared to the don’t-mess-with-me-I’m-over-50 vibe that comes with the middle-age gig.
This is not just me making the best of the unavoidable march of time.
I have come to appreciate that the best things in life: good conversation, good wine, good books, are not so available in the noisy discotheques of my youth where I anxiously tried to fit in and appear attractive to women. Now I can relax and enjoy the conversation, the wine and the books and not get all antsy about looking idiotic dancing to Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” at the Chocolate Factory.
This, according to the phrase coined by NASA administrator Daniel Goldin in 1992, makes me “pale, male, and stale”: a self-deprecating description cooked up by a middle-aged white man to make the point that filling your top jobs with middle-aged white men, year after year, is a myopic leadership strategy.
Goldin didn’t describe the individuals as “stale”, just the organisation’s leadership as a whole, but the “stale” tag has become a synonym for “middle-aged” when used in conjunction with “pale” (meaning white) and “male” (meaning man).
As a Leeds United fan, I was horrified to see a tweet by the club contributing to the online abuse directed at football pundit Karen Carney.
Carney had expressed the oft-repeated view that Leeds might not be able to keep going with their fast-paced game throughout the whole season.
She went on to opine that, in the previous season, the Covid-lockdown break had insulated the team from burnout by allowing them time to recharge their batteries and come back to the last ten games full of renewed vigour: “I actually think they got promoted because of Covid in terms of it giving them a bit of respite. I don’t know if they’d have got up if they didn’t have that break,” she said, with ex-Leeds striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink nodding along beside her.
(This is the first in several posts about authentic leadership)
How can I be an authentic leader?
This is probably the question I get asked more than any other on leadership development programmes.
How can I adopt all these leadership behaviours you’re telling me about, act motivated when I feel deflated, pretend to support positions and decisions I don’t agree with, and at the same time call myself an “authentic” leader?
The thing is, it’s the wrong question to ask because “authenticity” isn’t the point.
Leaders who worry about being “authentic” are putting themselves in the centre and forgetting that leadership isn’t about them: leadership is about influencing and inspiring other people (other people who are our social equals and who shouldn’t have to put up with our crap) to do something.
The day you become a leader, it becomes about them
Or to put it in a potentially brilliant (or potentially confusing) way: leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about the ship.
So “authentic” is only good if it helps us influence and inspire others, it’s not necessarily good in itself.
In Venn diagram form:
This means that Person A is a poor leader despite being authentic.
They are unprofessional, quite possibly self-indulgent, and as they mistakenly seem to think we have to put with aspects of their “authentic self” which are unhelpful to leadership.
They are probably mistakenly thinking they are the star of the show and that leadership is all about them.
This approach might have some success when leading a cult, especially when backed up with a high level of competence (Steve Jobs maybe?), but it’s at best clumsy and exclusive (Donald Trump maybe?), most usually it’s ineffective and disrespectful.
A good training session doesn’t just lump participants into groups willy-nilly, driven by nothing more than the group size and the facilitator’s ability to divide numbers in their head. Splitting participants into groups is a well-thought-through process of considering the objective of the activity and the dynamics needed to make it tick.
Here is an imagined example, a training session using different group sizes to discuss using different group sizes in training sessions: extreme meta-training!
The facilitator says: Split into fours and discuss on a flip-chart the advantage of being in a group of four
Why is this better than a three or a pair?
Why is it usually better than a five or a six?
Rather than bore the crap out of each other by reading out your flip-charts to people who aren’t really listening, a more bearable alternative is:
Just tell us one thing – the thing you thought was most useful or interesting and let’s discuss it a bit … what do the other groups think?
If you want to succeed as a manager, you need to build relationships of trust with your team.
If they don’t trust you, nothing else matters: nothing you do will land right, the extra-mile won’t be run, the box won’t get thought outside of, no one will be saluting what you run up the flagpole … in short, creativity and motivation will drag sluggishly along the floor no matter how much cake you bring in on a Friday.
In fact, if our untrustworthy manager brought in cake on a Friday, what would you think?
You’d probably assume some sneaky ulterior motive, that they were trying to ingratiate themselves or bribe you with superficial treats … although obviously you’d still eat the cake, just to be polite.
If you’ve ever had a manager you didn’t trust, you won’t need much persuading on this point.
Saying you need trust in the team will seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious – and I’d agree with you, so imagine my surprise when someone once interrupted me to say:
We don’t have the luxury of building trusting relationships, we need people to get on with it and deliver
Someone on a management training course once (yes, seriously)
Hands up who wants to work for this person?
So, I am disappointed I need to do this, but I will start with three reasons why building trust is worthwhile, before going on to share three things you need to do to build trust in your teams.
If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you If you’re determined to learn, no one can stop you
I am assuming if you’re reading this, you like Ziglar’s quote above, and are already convinced of two things:
That being good at learning is an important skill; and
That you can learn new stuff, despite however many years you may have accumulated
On the first point, in our fast-changing world of immense complexity, the ability to capture the right learning from our experience is more and more important – and we don’t just learn from experience automatically; it’s a skill.
The difference between someone with ten years experience and someone who has one year’s experience ten times, is that the first person learnt from that experience.
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn
On the second point, it used to be thought that our abilities and talents were static after the age of about seven: this is the fixed mindset.
There is some truth to this, it gets harder to learn as you get older because the neural pathways are hewn more and more clearly into the grey matter, but research has shown that not only are our brains more plastic than previously thought, but that learning new stuff makes our brains even less fixed and more able to learn (the growth mindset)!
This means not only can we learn new tricks, but learning new tricks stops our brains from growing old!
The quickest way to become an old dog is to stop learning new tricks
Or maybe it was George Bernard Shaw, I don’t know.
The point being that young people don’t take full advantage of all that youth offers, all too easily squandering it, supposing it will last forever.
Do we “older” people do the same?
Do we squander the wisdom that comes with age because we stop being willing to learn? Do we close our minds, lose our humility, and consider ourselves the finished article, unable to be improved upon?
If so, maybe it’s because of a fixed mindset.
Did you ever learn that your brain develops most during a critical period in childhood – before the age of seven – and then doesn’t change much after that?
I remember bits of my seventh birthday quite well. It was an important day in my calendar, but I didn’t realise just how important. Had I known that from that moment on my destiny would be hardwired into my brain like footsteps set in concrete, I might have taken it all a lot more seriously.
There is a photo of me wearing my brand new “I am 7” badge, in my tiny boxroom bedroom, surrounded by clutter and friends. I am smiling, I have thick National Health specs perched on my nose and a big gap in my front teeth, but I am a seven-year-old kid so I still look OK.
That cute little scamp had no idea that his personality was now fixed and the limits on his intelligence were now set. He was ignorant to the fact that from this point on learning would be much more difficult, every change a mental struggle.
At least that was the prevailing wisdom: we develop a “static brain” early in life that establishes the structure of the grey matter, and so defines (limits) our personality, talents, and abilities for evermore.
Fortunately for me, and to a lesser extent the rest of the human race, this bleak picture turned out to be incomplete. Around the time I was blowing out my seven candles and listening to my new Showaddywaddy elpee, neuroscientists were changing their views about the plasticity of the brain.
Management comes with power, and with power comes responsibility.
Leaders may create the organisational climate, but managers make the weather. This is why it is the manager who is most often cited as the biggest single factor in employee satisfaction and engagement, and the biggest reason people leave their jobs.
A lot of this is due to a poor relationship and a lack of recognition for the effort employees make and the outcomes they achieve. Too few managers spend time building that relationship or taking sufficient interest to understand what their team is doing.
There are good reasons for this.
A lot of managers are expected to do a “day job” on which they are measured, then do some management too, as if it were a minor little add-on extra like being the Fire Warden or agreeing to be on the rota to empty the dishwasher on a weekly basis.
Management is a serious responsibility that takes time, and if you’re unwilling or unable to invest that time, then please don’t be a manager.
The impact you can have if you don’t take it seriously is enormous. Not just on the organisation in terms of the lost opportunities from the mediocre performances of most of the people you manage, but on the individuals themselves in terms of their happiness, wellbeing and career opportunities.
The starting place is always respect.
This isn’t an American TV drama where the boss gets to shout at the interns, this is real life where managers must treat the people they manage with exactly the same level of respect as they treat everyone else.
This isn’t a teacher-pupil relationship, or a parent-child relationship, it’s a professional relationship between adults.
The manager has more responsibility, and gets to make decisions and provide feedback – there is an undeniable power dynamic in play – but managers don’t get their blood replaced with the blue royal sort, nor get given a crown when they are handed the keys to management, and treating their team with anything other than respect is unacceptable.
The first proper piece of career advice I got was from my Father just before I started my first job.
I was 16 years old, and about to start working as a glass-collector in the local golf club where my Father was an active member.
The Bar Steward, Mr Jones, was a notoriously abrasive man, and I think my Father sensed trouble. Mr Jones was hard work, but he wasn’t the only one: I was an awkward argumentative know-all with all the social skills of a wasp at a picnic.
To him, and to most people I suspect, I looked like I was aloof or arrogant, but actually it was more about my lack of self-confidence and my social clumsiness. My personality is the sort that doesn’t do small talk and doesn’t crave human company for the sake of it, and this means it’s all too easy for me to stumble, as a bull may stumble its way through a china shop, when faced with uncomfortable social settings.
This blog isn’t just about contemporary leaders, it also looks back at history, and what we can learn from leaders in the past.
I find this especially interesting – partly for the hell of it, my geekiness extends beyond politics into history (and other things, but let’s keep the focus tight) – and also because I believe that although we may be doomed to repeat history, we should at least try to only repeat the good stuff.
Herbert Henry Asquith is an interesting character.
A long-serving PM, largely overlooked because he was shoved out the way by the more glamorous and extrovert David Lloyd-George – but actually Asquith served longer, was far more respected and liked, was successful for most of his time in the top job, and – perhaps most importantly – is the only PM we’ve ever had from my hometown of Leeds.
He was a successful Home Secretary under the Earl of Rosebery and then Chancellor of the Exchequer under Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and was the inevitable choice for PM when Campbell-Bannerman fell ill and died in office.
In fact he was the inevitable choice when Campbell-Bannerman succeeded in 1906 – there was an effort to kick CB upstairs into the Lords and let Asquith take over immediately, but his respect for the party leader led him to patiently wait his turn.
How did he become the undisputed obvious choice, and then such a dominant and confident figure for almost two decades?
And then, how did he lose it all, getting out-outmaneuvered by Lloyd-George and abandoned by his Conservative coalition partners?
I’m going to look at five things he got right, and then three things he got wrong that contributed to his downfall.
The romance was beaten out of travel many years ago.
I am not so naïve as to expect tearful relatives waving me off with their handkerchiefs every time I jump on a train, but nor am I ever quite prepared for just how functional the experience has become.
To make matters worse, my journey began on a bus.
Don’t judge me. This was because the train journey from Ferrol to A Coruña takes nearly two hours (the bus is 40 minutes), and the timetable was constructed by people who don’t understand the need for sleep or sleek connections. I would have had to get up absurdly early and be left with a good couple of hours of dawdling in A Coruña station, two things I didn’t want to happen to me … so I got the bus.
I walked through the Ferrol Bus Station concourse, past the closed ticket offices, and past the closed shops and down the steps to the platforms.
I now understand more about complexity theory, but am less interested in it.
I had hoped that this would be about complexity in human organisations, with examples linked to the workplace, exploring issues such as change management, systems thinking, and game theory … but oh no, there was none of that!
Fair enough, it doesn’t have to be laser-focussed on my own interests, but I grew weary of repeated examples of traffic systems and stock exchanges, and even when the theories are applied to things I care about – like whether to go out to a crowded bar or not – the theory felt lifeless in the hands of such lame examples. It felt like it was over-complicating simple decision-making for the fun of doing so – and hey, I love over-complicating things, so you’d think this would be right up my street, but it felt less like a useful tool for understanding the world, and more like an odd academic plaything of little practical value.
It’s harsh to say that Theresa May has been the worst Prime Minister in my lifetime, but it’s also true.
It’s not fair, because she is also the Prime Minister who got handed the most difficult gig since World War II.
In more benign circumstances she might have outshone the likes of John Major or Alec Douglas-Home or Ted Heath or Jim Callaghan … but we’ll never know, because she got handed a burning platform of toxic crap by a fractured party, and was expected to lead a divided nation through a potentially disastrous policy that she had opposed.
Would Anthony Eden or Harold Wilson or Gordon Brown have done any better?
In the L&D business, evaluation is the step in the process that gets done least well.
It is the poor relation, the neglected tail-end-Charlie at the end of the cycle that feels more like a box-ticky obligation than a critical cog in the machine.
I think this is dangerous.
If we are unable to provide a professional set of results to justify the investment made in our services, we are doomed to be stuck on the periphery.
This leads to what Charles Jennings calls the “Conspiracy of convenience” where everyone is happy that the training happened and the ragtag of MI measures and happy sheet smiley faces confirm that the box was ticked properly.
As a socially-awkward INTP, I am never quite sure when I am being super clever and when I am being hyperbolic, so please tell me to calm down if this is over the top, but I believe that showing senior leaders a jumble of unimportant graphs and expecting a pat on the head is infantilising the profession, reinforcing the idea that we are not central to the organisation’s success.