Monday, June 23, 2008

What Kind of Leader Are You?

I was talking to a friend the other day about leadership training. She is a rising young executive in a large defense contractor, and, as such, is being run through a series of leadership training classes. She was describing the latest session of her classes and related some of the course reading material. As might be expected, it included a number of the recent leadership books, books that have hit the market in the last decade, most of which, curiously enough, are written by teachers and psychologists who have had scant experience actually leading.

But, that is the subject of a future discussion.

What strikes me about many of these courses, and the books that inspire them, is the deterministic nature of the concepts central to these books. The central theme is that a test can be given or an evaluation performed, and it will identify the strengths and weaknesses of any given individual, and delineate how that person is best used, where they are limited and where their talents should be channeled. It all sounds remarkably neat.

But people aren’t quite that simple. Certainly, some of these tests are of value in providing hints as to how best overcome weaknesses.

But, if we are to truly lead, we need to recognize several issues:

First, you play the hand you’re dealt. It is all well and good for someone to walk in off the street, administer some tests, and tell you that the other members of your team aren’t as talented as the guys over at GE. And if you had billion dollars you could go hire a bunch of really exceptional people. But, there are a few things to remember: no one ever has enough money to buy all the talent; even if you did, talent doesn’t guarantee success; and success is a team sport.

Second, the talent is already there. Robert Townsend tells a great story about a company that had been tested and assessed by a large management consulting firm and, according to the assessment, was devoid of any top grade management personnel. Townsend then went in to run the company. In his own inimitable way he motivated them, gave them guidance and enough authority to get things done, then set them free to do their jobs. Less than two years later the same management consulting firm sent over another team to assess the company and found that it was richer in leadership and upper level management talent than virtually any other company they had ever assessed. Townsend then tells you what you have by now guessed: that he had hired no knew people and fired few. These were the same people, but the leadership (Townsend) knew how to get them to produce.

Again and again I have found that poor leaders settle for what they have and use it to justify mediocrity, or as an excuse for why they haven’t achieved more. Good leaders however, always seem to have ‘exceptional’ people around them. The fact is that it is the good leader who makes his team ‘exceptional.’

Third, we are rational creatures: the right leadership will allow us to rise above our behaviors and instincts and become more than we otherwise would be. Pigeonholing based on a pseudo-scientific test administered on any given day is as accurate as finding criminals by measuring the shapes of their skulls. The obvious proof in all those tests is that every single category has a few great leaders, and, if we only had the right information, every single category contains one or more criminally insane. In the end, we can change ourselves, we can learn and then we can choose to improve. We are not fated to be one thing or another.

Fourth, in the end, real leadership makes lemonade out of lemons. In fact, in many cases, real leadership is ABOUT making lemonade out of lemons. We are all handed lemons every day. The trick is to recognize the lemonade sitting ‘inside’ the lemons. Good leaders recognize not only the strengths and weaknesses in their people, they also see a way to motivate them to shrug off those weaknesses and rise above stereotypes.

When properly lead and motivated, when given the right help, encouragement and training, people can startle you with what they can achieve. When ‘management’ settles and believes the labels someone has attached to you and your team mates, when management decides things are the way they are and we aren’t going to materially improve things without getting different people, and worst, when they surrender and simply decide ‘this is fine,’ they have stopped leading.

Every person and every organization had weaknesses. Leadership gets people and organizations past the weaknesses. Is there a fine balance, where you have to recognize that there are some things that some people can’t do? Certainly. But don’t abrogate that decision to a psychological test and some independent and uninterested evaluator. It’s your organization and they are your team. You need to get the most out of them and that should be subject to YOUR evaluation, and no one else.

Obviously, there are particular skills that you might need that are non-negotiable, but skills are not personality traits, and don’t let some evaluator twist the argument around and then assert that ‘Jones is wrong for this position because Jones has this type of personality.’ That is your decision, based on your knowledge of Jones.

In the end, the only real value to be found in all those profile tools is for you to realize what your habits, and those of your team mates, are so that you can break them. We are creatures of intellect. Use your intellect to carve out your vision and to train yourself and your people with the skills you all need to succeed. But don’t buy into the proposition that you or your people are confined to the pigeonhole that someone is trying to place you in. Your team deserves more than that.


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