Originally published June 2, 2015
I was contacted through Twitter by Josh Brooks, the creator of the Brief Leadership Lessons podcast and blog:
I replied that I would be glad to be interviewed about my post about How to be a better leader. The result was a Skype chat the very next day, when we had a great discussion, some of which can be heard in this podcast.
As I thought about the key points I wanted to make, these five emerged.
1. Pointy-haired bosses: The Peter Principle posited that people are promoted to their level of incompetence. I have observed a harsher reality in which many managers are like the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert. When I ask people if they have had mostly good or bad bosses, they generally answer with the latter. This condition can be described as mediocracy:
- Rule by those who are of average, or below average, competence
- A society in which people with little (if any) talent and skill are dominant and highly influential
- A system which is the antithesis of a meritocracy
Why is this the prevalent condition? The reasons include:
- Fear: managers are afraid to make waves, stand out, rock the boat, disagree with others, stand up to their chain of command, risk failure, think independently, or uphold a set of principles
- Selfishness: managers mostly look out for themselves, including achieving power, controlling others, keeping their job, getting promoted, earning raises and bonuses, and enjoying perks
- Poor role models: due to the scarcity of good leaders, budding managers emulate their pointy-haired bosses
- Replication: when poor managers hire and promote new managers, they perpetuate mediocrity by hiring and promoting more poor managers
- Threat avoidance: bad bosses don’t want to be shown up by their subordinates or look bad in comparison to them, so they make sure that people even weaker than they are are hired and kept around, and that excellent people are not hired or promoted, or transferred or laid off
A related term is kakistocracy — a system of government that is run by the worst, least qualified, and/or most unscrupulous citizens.
A recent Onion article, Executive On Hot Streak With 2 Straight Logical Decisions, exemplifies the low expectations we tend to have for leaders. We have a long way to go to improve the prevailing state of leadership.
- Incompetent Male Leaders: The Case for Talent Over Gender
- Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?
2. Yin and yang: The best leaders are both nurturing and demanding. They treat people with respect while requiring excellence. When those they lead do well, good leaders praise them, including thanking them every time tasks are completed, no matter how minor or routine. When those they lead fail to meet expectations, great leaders provide coaching to help them succeed. They don’t wait for annual performance reviews, and they don’t send negatively-worded messages. They forthrightly provide feedback, offer assistance, and monitor performance until it improves. If despite their best coaching efforts, expectations are still not met, effective leaders help poor performers find a role which better fits their capabilities.
3. Knowing-doing gap: I searched for “leadership” in Amazon books, and there were 138,879 results. This is an incredible amount of potential wisdom, and when you consider how many copies of these books have been bought and read, something is not happening. Millions of people read these books, attend leadership training, and follow posts such as those in LinkedIn’s Leadership and Management Channel. But most are unwilling or unable to practice what they were supposed to have learned. This is an example of the gap between knowing what you should do, and actually doing it. It’s easy to read a book about leadership, but then you have to actually try out the new ideas, change existing habits, and go against the grain of what others are doing.
4. Servant leadership: Leaders should serve their people, not expect people to serve them. If all leaders followed this maxim, employee job satisfaction would increase significantly. Here are three books to not only read, but to put into practice:
5. Do as I say, not as I do: One of the most powerful ways to lead is by example. Too many leaders say one thing while doing another. People watch closely what leaders actually do, and then mimic those behaviors. In order to practice what you preach, you have to know something about what you are leading, regularly demonstrate how to act, and be one of the first to try out new ideas that you espouse. Here are three relevant articles:
- Lead by example, practice what you preach, and model desired behaviors
- Can you lead without deep knowledge?
- How leaders can improve internal communications
What are your top leadership lessons?