Way too many articles have been written about leadership, way too many seminars have been conducted. Way too many insights thrown around, mostly leaving people clueless about how to choose a particular insight to a particular situation.
Anyway, today I wanted to write on leadership from a different perspective. From a follower’s perspective. I have played leadership roles in some areas in my life, follower roles in some other areas of my life. I have come across some great leaders in my life and some not so great leaders in my life. So here are my two cents. This is how I like my leader to be.
Understand Self Respect Parity –
When any two people interact, there exists an implicit self respect parity. No matter how different positions they have, the two are entitled to the same amount of self respect, and rightfully so. Even if a beggar is interacting with the queen, the beggar loves himself/herself the same way the queen loves herself. The same goes for a janitor and a CEO, or the president and a common man.
Even if you are my leader, I think of you of my equal in some ways in order to justify this self respect parity and in case you are more accomplished then I am, I have an explanation as to why i still have right of same self respect as you.
For the lack of better terminology, I am going to make one up here. Plausible acknowledgement- the opposite of plausible deniability. So as long as the difference of status is not highlighted, I take it as plausible acknowledgement of self respect parity and that makes it easy for me to deal with my leader. Any attempt by you to break this self respect parity is a bitter pill for me. I may take it because I am mature professional, but I don’t like it and I don’t have to like it. You get only so many chances to break this self respect parity and beyond that the communication starts breaking down because I have made up my mind about who you are and I feel an urge to rebel to reestablish the parity.
This is very important for leaders to understand because asserting authority is extremely gratifying and reassuring for human ego. And leaders are human too.
This is a delicate dance between empathy and authority. Good leaders know this dance well. They know the limits from where to back off , they know how to soften the blow, or heal the wounds. They know to utter the words like “I want this done” very carefully.
Understand That No One Follows The Leader, They Follow Their Own Internal Compass-
There is a story. One time the donkey was carrying the idol of a god on his back. Everyone in the street was bowing down in donkey’s direction. The donkey thought everyone was bowing to him and he decided to throw a tantrum. He refused to go ahead. The owner of the donkey shifted the idol to another donkey and made this one carry a load of coal. Now no one bowed to him.
Often times people are following you because their values and self interests align with the direction you want to lead them. They are not following you even though it may look that way. They are not bowing to the donkey, they are bowing to the idol.
For a leader this is a good news and bad news. This may sound deflating to ego. But then it is liberating in a sense that you are free to be yourself and work on your vision. You don’t have the burden of convincing people to follow you. Just work on your vision.
Focus on Culture, Not Employee or Events
There is a memory I have of a great leader. This person was a known genius in his field. One time he presented a solution of a problem in a meeting. Later when i was going through it again, I found a serious mistake in what he presented. I went to him. “Great work” he said. “We have another meeting tomorrow. I will continue this presentation. I would like you to point out this mistake of mine in front of everyone. I want to create a culture where it’s OK to point my mistakes. I think people respect me too much”
This leader clearly felt very secure in himself and he knew that for long term interest of the organization, it was important that mistakes be brought to light. He wanted to set a precedent.
It’s not the strategy discussed in the meeting rooms, but it’s the culture set in motion by small everyday choices that makes or breaks the companies. As a leader, the culture you create is your biggest your contribution to the organization.
Often times when people make mistakes, the enablers to the mistake lie in culture. If you fix the employee, another one can make the same mistake at some other time and place. But if you fix the culture, you prevent the mistakes from any employee now or in future.
Watch Out for Manager’s OCD-
A few years back, I was helping manage my mother’s finances. She had accounts in two banks. When I saw how the accounts and money and documents were spread, I was suddenly captivated by this idea of consolidating the accounts in one bank. My mother was not happy. She resisted. I talked to her and tried to convince her. After a while I realized that for her, banking is not just about finance. She meets her friends when she goes in the bank.
And what was consolidating going to achieve really? Saving trips to banks? She loved making trips to those banks and I could access both bank accounts online, thus not needing any trips there. The allure of “consolidating” was extremely powerful. But in reality the net holistic impact on my life or mother’s life was not positive. So why was I still doing it? I realized that I loved myself when I was consolidating. It strongly resonated with my self image. There was an extremely strong cognitive bias.
That’s the manager’s itch, or manager’s OCD. Whatever you are doing, is it indeed good for the people you are leading? Is there a strong case for all stakeholders? Have you considered the holistic impact? Or is it that you love yourself when you are consolidating, diversifying, centralizing, decentralizing, cutting cost by 15% or whatever? Are you doing it because this gives you sense of control? Is there an ego boost or self validation for you? Would you be OK doing it even if it was someone else’s idea?
I have seen far too many examples of manager’s OCD in real life. Projects getting launched because someone loved to launch projects and then getting canceled at some points because someone loved canceling them. I find it ironic when managers fret over an hour or two missed by their employees but thousands of man hours of work simply get wasted when projects get launched and canceled due to these OCD decisions.
And I understand projects failing because of some unforeseen change in circumstances, or genuine mistakes, or simply because we learned we are on wrong path. I am not talking about those project failures. I am talking about project failures when right from the get-go, everyone has a sense that something is not right. There is not strong enough business case. Like projects that start when people have a solution in mind and they go on hunt to find a problem. Or when problem definition keeps shifting but solution is same. Or when someone is trying to convince someone else that there is a problem at all. If your initiative fits any of the above descriptions, there is a good chance it’s a manager’s itch.
Nothing wrong with being human, doing things that contribute to self esteem, as long as others are not sacrificed at this altar of self worship. Nothing wrong with doing things that give you sense of control, as long as your actions don’t deny exactly the same to others. That’s the problem about manager’s OCD. More often than not, the leader escapes the accountability. The leader can hide behind the defense “The idea was right, but the execution failed.” That is extremely demoralizing.
Don’t Underestimate the Powerful Bullshit / Unfairness / Hypocrisy Radar-
I read about a scientific experiment some time back. Scientists made two monkeys do some work. One monkey was rewarded with a handful of raisins and another was rewarded with just a couple. Even though it was in the rational interest of the monkeys to take whatever was given, the scientists found that the monkey that receives less reward for the same work refused the reward in protest of the unfairness. Even primates have a sense of what is fair and what is not. So how about human beings?
What authority figures often don’t realize is that the common human mind has incredible ability to discern unfairness, hypocrisy, and speech-act mismatch. An ordinary person may not have an aptitude to discern subtleties of a business practice, but has amazing aptitude to discern subtleties of human behavior.
Take a statement such as “We value our employees’ well being”. The only reason you would explicitly make such a statement is because you are afraid your behavior implies otherwise. And thus the statement pretty much disproves itself. People see through that right away. As a leader, it’s just better for you to be yourself and rather be unpopular than be manipulative.
Practice Non Judgmental Communication
Long time back, one leader I respect told me “I am not seeing any sign of xxxx” where xxxx was an attribute of my work that was desirable. What I really appreciated was that he said “I am not seeing” instead of “you are not showing”. He made observational statement, not a judgmental one. Thus he could defend his position and still leave room for me to defend mine. If he had said “you are not showing xxx”, i would have taken that as personal attack on me.
It’s OK to bring up uncomfortable subjects, in fact it is necessary to do so. But they should be done in a non judgmental way.
Understand That You have Different Resolution, Not a Better Resolution-
I remember reading about a consultant’s article in Harvard Business Review. As a part of his process improvement work, he observed a bank cashier. She was organizing customers in three categories. People who came to bank to do their transactions wanted to get in and out quick. Then there were people who came to bank, especially older retirees, who wanted to socialize and chat. And there were some others who came to bank for banking advice. The cashier had managed to come up with a system to meet the needs of these three groups. When a similar system was incorporated in the banking software, the software was liked by the employees. But the senior managers had no idea that this was common practice within their bank.
The leader has different resolution to the situation, not necessarily a better resolution. The people who work at lower levels in the hierarchy have very high resolution to their day to day work and often are the best person to make judgments about the situation.
When it comes to system design, it helps if the leader says “Show me your process and why are you doing what, and we will come up with the best software help for you.” than saying “here is our new software. Make sure to follow what it tells you to do.”
When it comes to cost cutting, it helps a lot when leader says “Hey, we have to cut some costs. Bring me some ideas how we can do that” rather than hand down a set of directives saying “These are the things we are going to do to reduce the costs. I want you to follow these.”
Way too many times i have seen the top down change dictation approach backfired because the leaders did not fully understand the picture at lower levels. There are times when leader has to hand out a directive and ask people to follow. But the times such a force is genuinely required are indeed rare. And if you have to use this force a lot, then there is something wrong in your organization.