Making Leaders

Regarding that age-old question of whether leaders are born or made, here’s what I think. No, I don’t think people are born to be leaders. No, I don’t think anyone can be a good leader. But it’s not as mystical or dramatic as some might like to believe. Really it comes down to two things. You gotta want it and you gotta want it for the right reasons.

There are people out there who just don’t have an interest or desire to take on the responsibility of a leader. That’s fine. We’re way too obsessed with the notion of leadership. If someone doesn’t want to be a leader, you can’t make them, and you certainly can’t make them be a good leader.Leadership Venn

Other people may want to be a leader, but they want it for the wrong reasons. They just want power. They want to be able to get people to do whatever they want them to do. That’s not leadership, and it will be very hard to impossible to make those people good leaders. First you have to fundamentally change how they look at the world, and that means you’ve got a long road ahead of you.

So, can anyone be a leader? No. But it’s more people than you might think because there are a lot of people out there who just want to do good things for other people, and they’re willing to do just about anything to make that happen—including becoming a leader.


The Future of HR

In the future, HR will be fervent about developing people and helping them realize their greatest potential. It will be about proactive care of people—maximizing the good, not just minimizing the bad.

HR won’t be about reacting to screw-ups all day long, struggling to keep up, and bemoaning an inability to do anything about it. Nor will it be about providing loads of training that teach people all about what screwing up looks like and why you should avoid it. Yes, there will still be regulations and policy to develop and oversee, but HR’s core function will be to create an environment where people can focus on how they can do the most good (not how they can avoid doing bad), and ensuring that people are always learning and growing.

HR will understand that allowing people to languish without the tools to learn and grow is callous, and it undermines what the organization as a whole could achieve. In the future, Human Resources will provide humane resources that recognize people as thinking, creative, and earnest individuals who can contribute in their own meaningful way if only they are given access to learn. When a job doesn’t grow with the person because a department isn’t growing, the person will not be limited by that problem.

Today, in many organizations, people are developing faster than their organizations. Tomorrow, organizations will realize that the rapid development of their people will drive their own growth. It will be those organizations that consistently strive to keep up with their people that will come out on top.

As HR helps people with their cognitive and professional wellbeing, they will be able to identify people with high potential and place them in positions where they can have the greatest positive impact. Rather than letting them stagnate in a job that cannot  accommodate their drive for excellence, HR will find a place for them so the larger organization can receive the greatest benefit (or risk losing them to an organization that can keep up).

And when managers and department heads come knocking to complain that their best and brightest are being poached, HR will respond, “We do not punish our people for growing faster than your department is willing or able to grow.”





The Big Problem with Saying “If You Don’t Like It, Leave”

First and foremost, as a leader, when you respond to someone’s concerns, objections, or skepticism with something like, “If you don’t like it, leave,” it is an indication that you are complacent and on a race to the bottom. The implication is that you are fine with your organization being shitty because you assume it’s even shittier elsewhere. Not a great attitude to project. But there is something deeper and more complex at play when people use passive aggressive ultimatums like this.

In a command and control culture there is a tendency to lean heavily on binary determination—you’ve got two choices: my way or the highway. Leaders with an authoritarian bent like this approach because it’s simple. There is a right way and a wrong way to do things and the wrong way is not an option. In this environment, leaders build an arsenal of hard and fast rules intended to give clear direction to the team. There is no room for nuance or discussion. The rules are black and white.

In organizations like this, you hear a lot of phrases like “Zero-tolerance policy,” “We don’t need an exit strategy,” “That’s just the way it is,” “Just hit your numbers,” “We don’t want excuses, we want results,” and of course, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.” Leaders respond to anyone pushing back or questioning decisions by pushing back even harder, which escalates quickly. It creates an environment where shouting and hot tempers are the norm. People spend way more time bickering than getting and real work done.

There is no attempt, in these situations, to reason with other parties or consider alternatives because that would undermine the very core of the unyielding philosophy. It is a system that we see working hand-in-hand with a high reliance on positional power. That’s not a coincidence. There are professions where unfaltering respect for positions of authority and rigid rules are a necessity under certain circumstances—where, in an emergency situation or crisis, explicit direction must be met with immediate action, not deliberation and lengthy contemplation.

The assumption is that because that hard-line system works in the most dire and desperate of situations, it’s bound to work in scenarios when the outcomes are not so life-threatening. If it worked on the battlefield, it’ll sure as hell work on the loading dock. But that’s faulty logic.

When leaders say things like “If you don’t like it, leave,” what they are doing is trying to manufacture a command and control environment where it does not apply.

Just because a 40-ton excavator may have worked well on The Big Dig, that doesn’t mean you should use it to aerate the putting green. Leadership isn’t generalized. There isn’t a big umbrella leadership that if mastered will allow you to practice leadership in any other area underneath it. It’s not a league, class, or a seed system like sports where qualifying at one level means you are good enough to play anywhere below it as well. Leadership is extraordinarily nuanced, and the right principles and tools must be applied at the right time and under the right circumstances.

When leaders say things like “If you don’t like it, leave,” what they are doing is trying to manufacture a command and control environment where it does not apply. They want their environment to be a place where their decisions are not questioned and their authority is absolute. But the circumstances where command and control is the most effective approach are rare. As much as possible, you actually want to avoid desperate situations where people don’t have time to think critically and consider alternatives.

Trying to impose draconian rule whole-cloth on an organization’s culture destroys trust, will, autonomy, critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, and commitment. It makes the organization weak and stagnant. So readily resorting to threats and ultimatums are the acts of a leader whose only tool is a sledge hammer.

I don’t want to offend leaders who have or do employ this “love it or leave it” tactic, because I understand the tendency. People who complain about everything without understanding all the variables or reasons for decisions are incredibly frustrating. Certainly there are times when a leader needs to have a thoughtful conversation with someone about finding work elsewhere, but that’s not what “If you don’t like it, leave” is about.  That hollow response is destructive enough that it’s important to be blunt. “If you don’t like it, leave” and directives like it, are the hallmark of a leader who has only a shallow understanding of what it means to be a leader. It is lazy, offensive, and cruel. It demonstrates a leader’s unwillingness to listen or develop people, which is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of being a leader. Ironically, because those kinds of statements are intended to project an image of tough leadership, they are in fact a surrender and admission of defeat. It broadcasts your impotence.

Telling someone to leave if they don’t like it is a dodge.

If someone isn’t working out on the team or in the organization then take control of the situation—be a leader. Either develop them or transition them out. You’re the one who is supposed to take charge. Telling someone to leave if they don’t like it is a dodge. When you say something like that, it is clear that you are hoping the problem will take care of itself so you don’t have to do what you’re supposed to do.

Now, does that mean there should be no hard and fast rules or no zero-tolerance policies? On the contrary. There is a place for getting rid of any grey area and explicitly prohibiting certain behavior. In fact, that’s precisely why it’s important that leaders don’t go to an extreme for every policy and issue. Doing so will make it impossible to distinguish levels of gravity on what is condoned and condemned. For example, if you have a zero-tolerance policy on tardiness, how do you ramp up the seriousness for harassment and racism?

In the heat of the moment, people will say things that are unfair. When we don’t seem to be getting through to someone, we look for an easy exit. “If you don’t like it, leave,” may seem to fit the bill when your patience is exhausted, but language matters. As leaders, are always being examined and what we say is always being dissected. Be careful and considerate about the words you choose.


What Happens When Patience, Persistence, and Empathy Come Together

Making good things happen is successful at the intersection of patience, persistence, and empathy.

Yes, we must be persistent in realizing our vision and implementing our plans. Bold ideas require tenacity if they are to become a reality. You have to be willing and able to push through the resistance and overcome the obstacles, but we also must be careful not to rush into action. This is difficult to do when we are passionate about effecting change. We want it to happen right now because it is important and the outcome will have a positive impact that other people may not yet be able to see. We are eager to show them the light.

But making sure you have all the right information and are aware of all the landmines requires patience. Moreover, we need to be considerate of why some people may be resistant to the change you are proposing. Listen to them and take to heart the fact that other people worked hard to get you where you are today. It may not be an ideal state, but it has at the very least created a platform for you to launch your idea. Be grateful for that.


The Dirty Secrets About Micromanaging

There is a time and place for micromanaging. During significant change, like when a new leader or manager steps in, a direct report is new to a job, or when a big new initiative is being implemented, some level of micromanagement is often necessary. Managers and leaders are responsible for things like level-setting, compliance, efficiency, and just a basic understanding of what everyone does and how they’re doing it. When things are shifting or leaders are trying to get up to speed, a certain degree of micromanaging is warranted. Yes, this is often pretty annoying, but it does not have to be a horrible experience.

Communication is key here. Leaders must be absolutely clear with their direct reports about why they are scrutinizing their work so meticulously, and further that this will not be the longterm practice. Keep the dialogue open and be sympathetic to their frustrations. People will frequently make more mistakes when they feel like someone is always looking over their shoulder. (Have you ever tried typing while someone is looking at your monitor?)

Having said that, micromanaging can go awry. Chronic micromanagers have a hard time letting go. It makes them feel too vulnerable. They might feel like it is their responsibility to have complete control over a broad and expanding scope or work, and ensure that no mistakes are made. Ever!

If you don’t trust anyone and everyone around you seems to be inept, the common denominator just might be you. Maybe you’re the problem.

A couple things to keep in mind here if you think you might be a chronic micromanager. First, check your ego. You ain’t that special. You don’t get to own everyone’s job even if you are their supervisor. If you don’t trust anyone and everyone around you seems to be inept, the common denominator just might be you. Maybe you’re the problem.

Second, be more tolerant of risk. Allowing people to fail when the stakes are not critical is vitally important to running a healthy organization. It’s how people learn, grow, and innovate. It’s up to effective leaders to create that environment, and letting go is the first step. Empower other people by giving them ownership of what they do.

There is a more nefarious side to micromanagement as well. There are some people who micromanage because they are empowered by watching their direct reports grow increasingly confused and debilitated over time. The more incompetence they can expose in other people, the more exalted they feel. These people are abusive micromanagers. To the less astute, abusive micromanagers can even appear to be quite impressive. Their supervisors and peers may listen to the abusive micromanager’s litany of frustrations and make the assumption that this person must be highly valuable to be able to carry the weight of so much incompetence on her shoulders. Abusive micromanagers will feed off this attention. It makes them feel like they have more power. And in fact they do. They rob otherwise capable people of their power by picking apart everything they do. The modus operandi here is to obsessively point out when someone else does something wrong, but give no direction on how to do it right or direction that is bewildering or absurd.

It is not too much to say that for some, being micromanaged, justified or not, can be traumatizing.

Being micromanaged can feel like your autonomy is being taken away and your competence questioned. People will feel patronized, belittled, and disrespected. They report feeling acute anxiety and high levels of stress. This can be particularly true for people who have worked very hard over a number of years to establish themselves as respected experts and professionals in their field. Because these people are good at what they do, but they’re getting feedback that contradicts what they know about themselves to be true, it creates a cognitive dissonance that is crippling. This understandably starts to affect the quality of their work, which in turn supplies the abusive micromanager with real evidence of poor performance. From there it’s just a rapid downward spiral.

When micromanaging occurs within any organization, it should be taken seriously. Consider hiring a trained mediator. Get the chronic micromanager a coach immediately. You can try to develop abusive micromanagers out of the practice, but chances are that person is a narcissist, in which case your best move is to off-board ASAP.

If you are on the receiving end of that abusive relationship, you already know what you have to do. Hopefully you have resources and a mechanism for reporting abusive behavior and receiving counseling, but first and foremost, you need to start taking steps to get the hell out. Abusive micromanagement is insidious. It’s not like a physical attack that organizations recognize as clear grounds for dismissal. If someone does actually take action to help you, it could mean a prolonged investigation or review of misconduct, which means you may have to suffer through even more abuse as everyone else tries to figure this thing out. Of course a lot of people are in situations where finding another job is a lot easier said than done, but do what you can to take control of the situation. Don’t forget that you do indeed have power. Move on. Do good where they recognize your value and appreciate your contributions.