Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why 'Brilliant' Leaders Fail

“He’s Brilliant.” I heard it again several times last week. I won’t say who exactly received these compliments, I’m afraid their egos are large enough already.

Every corporation, every organization, has at least one, a figure that that many people point to as ‘brilliant.’ Larger organizations often have many. In fact, large organizations that are having trouble often have large numbers of them.

Why is this a matter of leadership? Because what isn’t easily explained is why this or that corporation or organization is having so many problems. The boss is ‘brilliant.’ The vice president is ‘brilliant.’ The COO is ‘brilliant.’ The CFO is ‘brilliant.’ The CTO is ‘brilliant.’ (CTOs are often ‘truly brilliant.’) And, as with Garrison Keillor’s fictional town, all the workers are of above average intelligence.

So why is it that things often don’t work quite so well in these organizations?

The answer is leadership. More accurately, lack of leadership.

First, there are many different kinds of ‘smarts.’ Beethoven was a genius. So was Ben Franklin. So was Einstein. So was Bismarck. So were Stalin and Hitler – evil geniuses. They weren’t the same kind of geniuses. Yitzhak Perlman is a genius. I’d be willing to listen to an argument that says that Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Orr, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are all geniuses, but of different kinds.

So, let us accept that there are different kinds of ‘genius.’ Inevitably, people get ‘tagged’ with the particular label ‘brilliant’ relatively early in their careers. And so, a whiz kid in XYZ Corporation solves a particularly nagging problem. He is labeled as ‘brilliant.’ Promotions follow. He rises and continues to show flashes of his old ‘brilliance.’

But, is his old brilliance in fact what is needed? As he is promoted he is moving further and further afield of his old – and true - area of expertise. Nowhere is this more true then in the revolving door of the military – industrial complex. Lieutenant Commander Jones is an excellent staff planner. He is promoted and continues to work hard and provide thoughtful analysis. He is promoted to Captain and then Admiral based more on staff work and his analytic skills then anything else, and finally one day he is an admiral who may not really know how to lead. Nevertheless he is placed in charge of some large organization with a great deal of bureaucratic inertia and he abides there for two years.

He reorganizes when he arrives, because that is what he has learned, and, as happened after the last reorganization at this command, there is a spike in productivity, as people, in response to some element of the ‘Hawthorne Effect’ respond to the new organization. But, of course, that is all a mirage, as was demonstrated by the original study at the Hawthorne plant: productivity increases as a result of being watched, or because the workers perceived an increase in attention from the front office. But, there is no way to really measure productivity at most of these organizations, and besides, it would take several years. But, by then the ‘brilliant man’ has moved on to some other job. Back at agency X or Corporation Y the people have settled back to whatever was wrong in the first place.

The ‘brilliant’ leader now retires and is hired by some large corporation that does a great deal of business with the government and he makes a great deal of money opening doors and generating business. Then he is named to head a large agency in the government and he reenters government. He becomes the secretary of this or that department and works there for an average of two to three years. And the department struggles through another reorganization and another poor leader who is ‘brilliant.’

What happened?

First, in a very real sense, it’s not their fault. Good leaders are the product of both experience and introspection. You need both. Simple experience means nothing. The Bat Boy has the same experience as the Manager – they both stood on the sidelines and watched 162 games. It is the introspection that turns the experience into understanding. Most people, in industry, in the military, in government, in any field of endeavor, do not spend enough time thinking deeply about what they did, and what they should have done and constructing a ‘lessons learned’ from it. Most people spend a great deal of time ‘doing’ and never think about it.

Second, there is a great deal of time required to do this well. Most people on the ‘fast track’ do not spend enough time both gaining adequate experience or engaging in that introspection to build a foundation of knowledge to draw on. Rather, once ‘identified’ as a ‘fast tracker’ they are moved from one job to another, so that they can, at least on paper, gain the requisite experience. But, in most cases they don’t spend enough time to garner the necessary experience (you must be in a job long enough that your decisions – good and bad – have time enough to mature and you can learn and adjust; if you move to quickly, and too quickly is certainly less than 18 months and often more on the order of 2 and ½ years or more, you will only see the beginning of the Hawthorne effect, but you will miss the real outcome of your decisions – unless you fail miserably). Further, they are rarely, if ever, given the opportunity to think about their mistakes. There is ‘no time to sharpen the ax.’ Everyone is simply ‘too busy.’

Thirdly, ‘brilliance’ in one field, even if it does exist, doesn’t mean competence in another. A brilliant stock analyst is not necessarily a good manager. He may be a wiz kid on the trading floor, but the corporation would fall apart if he were in charge.

And so, people with wonderful resumes arrive at an important job, either in business or government, and yet they are not really equipped to lead. It may look like that on paper, but it isn’t the truth.

These people often are very smart. But, they were smart in something that got them noticed 10 or 15 years ago, sometimes even longer. But, what got them ‘here’ is not what they are required to do. It is as if we took Yitzhak Perlman’s instrument away and told him to work on our monetary policy. Why not give Alan Greenspan a violin?

In the end, good leadership takes a long time to develop. There are few truly brilliant leaders, and even fewer of them that are young. What there are plenty of is men and women who are intelligent, with some experiences, often not enough, and usually little time spent to think about their successes and failures. They rise through the ranks of this or that organization often benefiting from a single trait – the motivational speaker who has a keen memory for numbers, for example. But, in fact, few are actually brilliant and even fewer are good leaders.

The result is they eventually arrive at the top of some large organization without the real tools necessary to handle the role of leader. If they are unfortunate enough to remain in place for more than a couple of years their shortfalls catch up to them and they fall from grace. Much is then written about what decision led to their downfall. But, in most cases, the poor decision was the one that put the individual in that position in the first place.


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