Leadership 101: Beware of Bosses Bearing Platitudes

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Does this speech sound familiar? “Let me say, first and foremost, I am a people person. My door is always open. I would rather grant forgiveness than grant permission. There is no ‘I’ in team. I will always share the credit, and take the hit. You protect me and I will always protect you. You, the people who work for me, are always job number one. I would prefer to limit profit and maintain headcount than have things the other way around. Mistakes are merely new lessons, taught on the job. Errors are not terminal events on my watch. Nobody ever got in trouble disagreeing with my ideas. The only stupid question is the unasked one. There is always enough credit to go around. I play no favorites; there are no politics in my department, just equals. I don’t care if you are white, black, purple, or green; we are all in this together. “Sorry, no time for questions today, make an appointment with my assistant what’s-her-name.” I don’t know about you, but this is the kind of speech that motivates me to update my resume. I work on the assumption that those things others feel the need to tell you in speeches, especially if those speeches are an unending thread of clich?s, are in fact promises that are destined never to be fulfilled. As Shakespeare once wrote, “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!” My concern heightens in direct proportion to the ratio of clich?s to paragraphs. For example:

  • One clich? per paragraph equals a nervous person who feels on the spot.
  • Two clich?s per paragraph equals a scared person who feels on the spot.
  • Three clich?s per paragraph equals a person with nothing new to say, but they don’t know that yet.
  • Four clich?s per paragraph equals a person with nothing of their own to say, but who has sat through enough of these “first day meetings” themselves to have built up an inventory.
  • Five or more clich?s per paragraph indicates rampant nepotism in your company and an urgent need to marry the boss’s son/daughter or update your resume.

I realize the “welcome myself onboard speech” is a time honored and cherished tradition in management. It harkens back to our cave ancestors who upon achieving the honor of sleeping on the rock nearest the fire, felt compelled to grunt and scratch to signify their arrival in a place of importance or honor. So into the 21st century, the tradition continues pretty much as before. True, we have replaced the importance of proximity to the fire with the total square feet of your office and the quality of your view to measure your ascension into the hierarchy of management, but the speech remains pretty much unchanged, scratches and all. Furthermore, I have to admit my own prejudices. There are some clich?’s that bother me more than others. For instance I despise the following clich?, “I would rather grant forgiveness than grant permission.” Hey, unless you are my wife or my priest, you can forget about me “allowing” you to grant me “forgiveness!” Administratively discipline me, speak harshly to me, give me a demotion, or bring about my termination: I cede these powers to my bosses. But they don’t have the right to claim the moral authority to grant “forgiveness!” We often use words that “sound nice” without thinking through their implication. If you claim the right to forgive, you may need to deal with an arrogance issue before you become an effective manager. Besides, as “the boss,” you are paid to be aware and accountable. I suspect bosses who resist the duty of “granting permission” are not comfortable in their roles. Why do you think you have your own reserved parking space? When you hear the old “I would rather grant forgiveness…” speech, isn’t your first thought, “Yeah, right!”? I automatically assume “Mr./Ms. Micromanager” has arrived. I also tend to get bothered by people who use the expression, “…white, black, green or purple.” To date, I have never had an HR/staffing issue regarding racial tension or inequities with purple people. There is enough work in the real world of racial interaction that needs attention without inventing a fictitious one. Are some managers afraid that if they keep it “real” somebody might actually bring up an issue? In business we tend to promote people upon achieving competency at their existing level of responsibility. Seldom is training or preparation time allocated to equip this person for the next step prior to pushing them into it. Few, if any companies, engage in any strategic effort to identify internal leadership candidates and develop them ahead of time. As a matter of fact, few companies even understand the need to search of or develop leaders. One day some poor soul is a team leader with “pass down” authority (They do not create policy or make decisions, they merely pass the decisions of others on “down the line”) Before you know it, due to their unblemished attendance record, neat and clean appearance, nice teeth and generally placid demeanor, they are promoted to a supervisory-level position, handed a policy and procedure manual, and told that they are $50K over budget, the ISO audit team is due in three weeks, they have an employee issue with a person who felt they should have been promoted in place of them, they are now on salary and will be working twice the overtime without overtime pay, and their quarterly goal attainment report was due yesterday. “By the way, do you know the bulletin board in your area is out of policy with OSHA, EEO/AA, and somebody put up an ad for an escort service?!” Suddenly this once efficient, productive, and happy employee feels compelled to make a speech. Something like, “Noooooooo!!!” This problem of poorly prepared leaders has many origins:

  • We time promotion based on need of the organization, not based on the person-involved ability to assume the role. In others words, promotion planning is reactive, not proactive. Nature abhors a vacuum, and business abhors an empty box on an organizational chart. “Fill it poorly if you have to, but fill it. I need faces at my meetings!”
  • Often a person is promoted due to the ripple effect of a promotion above them by one or several layers. They are promoted because their bosses’ boss was promoted. Their ability to ascend was never part of the equation.
  • Promotion may also be a result of the old, dysfunctional, “sink or swim” corporate cultural. Sort of like initiation rituals at fraternities and sororities. “Hey, I survived it, so can they!”
  • No promotion policy actually exists or is enforced. Accession management is just a theory rolled out by HR to fill the agenda on slow meeting days.
  • We assume the ability to develop Excel spreadsheets and clever PowerPoint presentations indicates the ability to inspire and lead.
  • We assume growing into a management position is a natural progression. After three years?? bingo!?? you’re a manager.
  • We create an environment where promotion is the only alternative to stagnation, and thereby motivate a desire for promotion based solely on personal survival and not desire or competency.
  • Insecure managers promote insecure employees into management positions to shield their own weakness. The absence of strict corporate promotion guidelines and enforcement allows this practice to “thin out” the strength of internal leadership. Non-leaders tend to promote non-leaders; their own future is less threatened that way. (Him smart, me fire him. Him not smart. Me promote him.)

The need to identify, hire, train, promote, and sponsor true leaders in the corporate culture is significantly more important than any other skill search you can consider. It is also the most difficult and least compatible with modern screening tools. Therein lies the need to identify and deal with this issue as our continued reliance on automation may make this critical goal less and less obtainable. But let us get our vocabulary in line with the topic. The terms “manager” and “leader” are not interchangeable. In fact, they are mutually exclusive:

  • Many managers are not leaders.
  • Many leaders are not managers.
  • You become a manager due to a title change.
  • You become a leader because others accept you as their leader, regardless of your title.
  • The title of manager is an organizational expression.
  • The title of leader is an honor bestowed on you by those around you.
  • You can declare yourself a manager.
  • Others must declare you a leader.

You can manage time, money, reports, agendas, and to some extent, programs and projects. But people need to be lead, not managed. In the “manage only” role you are in effect “reporting” on events and activities, not impacting them to the fullest extent possible. People react to management, but they respond to good leadership. Quality leadership is in effect a “force multiplier.” By better managing a process you can enhance performance by percentage points. As an inspirational leader you can impact performance geometrically. That is not to say that managers cannot also be leaders, only that the title manager does not automatically insure leadership capability. It also means that you have leaders in your organization who do not have the title manager, and that is a criminal waste of talent. You don’t spill water in the Sahara, you don’t throw away blankets in the Artic, and you do not waste leadership in corporate America. It is too a rare commodity. So what “buzz words” can we use in searching for a leader? What is the correct skill mix? That’s the problem, it is mostly subjective:

  1. Integrity. You may get promoted playing “the corporate game,” but you will never be seen as a leader if you lack this honorable trait. People place their futures in leaders hands; they have to have faith in your honest desire to take care of them. They have to believe in you.
  2. Fairness. A leader must be seen as impartial. If employees are to keep their heads down and be more productive, they have to believe their leader is “watching their back for them.” They have to believe that self-promotion is not required because a fair manger will promote them on balance based on their personal accomplishments and not politics.
  3. Loyalty. A leader must be seen as someone who places a greater emphasis on “team” than “self.” Success to a true leader is plural; failure is singular (“They did a great job,” and, “I let the deadline slip”). The team senses this loyalty and works even harder not to expose their leaders to failure. By being willing to take the hit for your team, they will work till they drop trying to prevent you from having to.
  4. Consistency. Leaders do not make their team ride emotional roller coasters. Leaders recognize that their moods determine the quality of another person’s day. Leaders leave it at home if it’s bad and bring it to work if it’s good.
  5. Example. You manage by memo, but you lead by example. In every good leader there is also a good actor. Sometimes it is just as important that people see a leader in action as believe a leader is in action. Arrive earlier than your team and depart later than your team during a crisis. Always walk at a fast pace and always carry work, even to get a cup of coffee. Don’t go to Amazon.com looking for birthday presents during working hours. Be obvious; people need role models. If a leader does not offer one, people will seek one out. They may pick a bad one.
  6. No whining/gossip. Leaders do not take part in company bashing or rumor spreading. A leader cannot offer leadership in an environment they have also criticized and ridiculed. They deal with real issues and faults, of course. But they are not part of the “sky is falling” crowd or the “guess who is sleeping with who” crowd.
  7. No favorites. A leader is clear by their balanced actions that no one person is their favorite, or their least liked. If their team perceives an imbalance, they lose the motivation to respond, as it is seen a futile in a world where their roles are predetermined by non-worked related factors.
  8. Intelligence. A leader does not have to be the “Einstein” of the team, but they must be seen as knowledgeable and intelligent. A person with a broad area of knowledge will always lead better than a person with a narrow beam. Your team has to feel you can assist them in many areas. Otherwise, why seek you out?
  9. Resolute. The team must believe a leader will not jump from solution to solution, or issue to issue. When a leader establishes the course to be followed, the team must believe that the course will only alter due to new circumstances. They must believe their leader exercises due diligence before committing their time and energies to any task or goal.
  10. Empathy. A leader must know and sense what their team is feeling. They need to sense when to play tough, and when to back off and let the steam blow off. A leader cannot fake true concern for his or her team. People can sense insincerity faster than cheap shaving lotion.
  11. Volunteer. Leaders rise to the occasion; they are not promoted into it. A person who does not want to be a leader cannot be forced into becoming one. You can assign any title you want, but leadership is a role to which a person must aspire. A good manager may never place their career at risk to succeed as a manager. But a leader must be willing to place their personal career in a secondary role to keep their leadership title. The irony is that a good leader will rarely be at true risk, since good leaders consistently out-produce those who only manage.
  12. Courage. A leader is not influenced in their decision making by panic or fear. They must be seen as the person who “consistently keeps their head while all others around them are losing theirs.”

This is not a skill profile that readily lends itself to Boolean Logic or other screening assumptions. You cannot assume that the job title indicates the person is a leader. The fact that a person was in the armed forces does not guarantee they are a leader (some of the best leaders I know are ex-military, so are some of the worst). The absence of previous roles in management does not preclude their ability to assume that role now. Career turmoil can be both an indicator and a counter indicator of leadership skills. Bad references from past managers can be bad news, but they may also be indicators of leadership capability wasted in the wrong environment. Consider the source before assigning value to the information. Leaders can alienate and anger non-leaders in management roles. In the next installment, we will consider the methodologies to assist you in incorporating searching for leadership skills into your ongoing recruiting efforts. But first you have to determine if your hiring teams are in fact sophisticated enough to know the value of hiring potential leaders. Do they value the strong subjective skills of a potential leader? Do they know how to interview a leader? Or are they always hiring exclusively based on the objective capabilities offered by a candidate? In other words, are they looking for potential leaders and would they know one if they saw one? You may need to champion new hiring practices that incorporate identifying and hiring future leaders as part of a strategic human capital program, and not just as “a hole plugging the dam.” You must insure that you champion the need before you provide the source. You see, before you can recruit leaders, you have to become one. It’s not easy; it requires a lot of effort and carries risk. For one thing, you have to be willing to stick your head up out of the crowd and be seen saying something that is not already accepted as doctrine. Leaders can only be recruited by other leaders. There are easier and safer career paths to aspire to. Being one of the crowd may lack glory, but it is safe. But leadership is a goal worth aspiring to in your career. On a bad day, during a crisis when you suddenly sense that everybody is looking towards you to offer a solution, guidance, or reassurance?? well, you just cannot put a value on the feeling. Leadership roles carry risks, but they are never dull and never unfulfilling, and you never wonder if what your doing matters. Aspire to management titles, but earn your role as a leader. Remember, leaders give the greatest speech on their first day: “Follow me!” Have a great day recruiting!

About the Author

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.