Leadership “wisdom” that makes me crazy

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Did you know that there are almost 300 books that Amazon thinks contain “leadership secrets?” Do a Google search for the phrase and you’ll get more than nine million results in about half a second. That makes me crazy.

We’ve studied leaders and leadership for millennia. Is it really possible that there’s a secret out there that we haven’t uncovered? This sounds to me like those “medical breakthroughs” that are announced in infomercials.

Those thoughts started me thinking about other “leadership” things that make me crazy. Here they are in no particular order.

Anyone can lead

Really? In theory maybe, but in real life there are people who don’t want the accountability. Others are pathologically afraid of confrontation. And there are others who won’t make decisions. Anyone can have influence, but not everyone is willing to lead.

Don’t bring me a problem unless you bring a solution.

Oh right! If I see a problem and can’t find a solution you don’t want to know about it? Do you really think it’s better to go on in blissful ignorance until the problem blows up all over you? Besides, problems are often where progress starts.

That stupid bus!

Getting the right people on the bus and then deciding where to go sounds good, until you think about it. First off, most managers don’t get that luxury. They have to achieve the goals they’re given with the people they’ve got. But more fundamentally, how can you know the characteristics of “the right people” until you know where you’re going?

For the record, this might make sense for some start-ups. It did for Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.

Leaders versus Managers

Argh! I don’t care what Warren Bennis said. It’s not about people. It’s about different kinds of work. If you’re responsible for the performance of a group you have to lead and you have to manage and you have to supervise. You don’t get a choice.

For the record, Peter Drucker never talked about leaders and managers as separate kinds of people, but he did discuss leadership and management.

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What People Are Saying

Bob Vanourek   |   02 Jun 2015   |   Reply

Some clarifications I would like to suggest:
1. Anyone Can lead. You switch from “can lead” to “willing to lead.” Yes, anyone can lead. Leadership is a choice, and sometimes just by remaining silent, you are leading. And yes, “not everyone is willing to lead.”
2. Agree.
3. Right on. I immediately knew Collins was off base on this point. Where you want to go determines who should be on your bus, and I believe this is true for start-ups as well.
4. The best practitioners combine elements of managing (organizing, planning, budgeting, controlling, etc.) with leading (vision, alignment, inspiration, etc.). One can manage without being a good leader, and vice versa. The trick is to combine both.

Wally Bock   |   02 Jun 2015   |   Reply

Thanks for adding to the conversation, Bob

Audrey Aulenti-Gray   |   02 Jun 2015   |   Reply

Excellent points.
For #2, I would add this: If I have to bring you a solution, doesn’t that say I am not empowered or not competent to solve problems without your blessing. After all, if I have a solution and implement it, there isn’t a problem any more is there?

Wally Bock   |   02 Jun 2015   |  

Well said. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

Sheryl Robinson   |   02 Jun 2015   |   Reply

Thank you thank you thank you for your thoughts around “Don’t bring me a problem unless you bring a solution.
I’ve thought that for YEARS but NO ONE wants to hear that comment…

Wally Bock   |   02 Jun 2015   |   Reply

Thanks, Sheryl. You’re probably right, alas.

Uday Kiran Bolusani   |   02 Jun 2015   |   Reply

I’m going to be the guy who disagrees with this article mainly because I think each item stated is based on a contextual interpretation. So below are the contexts I think of them in that make them all valid in my opinion.

1) Anyone can lead – the context of this to me is that anyone can LEARN how to lead. Yes, some people may not want to for various reasons but anyone can LEARN to.

2) Don’t bring me a problem unless you bring a solution – the context of this to me is that if you have a problem, you should feel empowered to try and come up with a solution. This results in stretching yourself beyond your current depth which speeds up the learning curve. You can still go to someone without a complete solution or an incorrect one, but it speaks to putting in that extra effort vs. just stating a problem and expecting someone else to solve it.

3) That stupid bus! – the context of this to me is knowing how to use people’s strengths. Yes, you do not always have the ideal team you want. A good manager/leader will learn to identify strengths and weaknesses in the team members they have and ensure to put people in the right roles to function most effectively.

4) Leader versus Manager – I’ve never heard or read anything that said these are completely different types of people which seems to imply to me that someone can only be one. I’ve only heard and read and agree that being a leader vs. being a manager are two different functions. A manager specifically ensures jobs are done and supervises tasks, time, money, etc. A leader influences and shapes vision and does not have to be someone in a managerial role. A leader can be a great employee who exerts their great technical knowledge to have influence over direction of tasks/projects.

I’m sure I created some controversy but feel free to respond and reach out. This is why leadership is a great topic.

Wally Bock   |   03 Jun 2015   |   Reply

Leadership sure is a great topic and the debates are at least half the fun.

Thanks for sharing those insights. I’ll respond to two of them.

I disagree with the assertion that everyone can learn how to lead if, by that phrase you mean “everyone can learn to perform the work.” That’s simply not true in my experience. If you’re going to lead, one of the things you need to be able to do is confront team members whose performance is sub-par. I can teach you a lot of techniques, but if you can’t or won’t use them and use them promptly, you haven’t really learned to do that particular work.

You said that you’ve never heard or read of anyone saying the leaders and managers are different types of people. Here’s one example. Warren Bennis states exactly that in his book (with Burt Nanus) Leaders. On page 21 he wrote “Managers are people who do things right. Leaders are people who do the right thing.”

Others may chime in on this, too. Thanks again.

Uday Kiran Bolusani   |   03 Jun 2015   |  

Thanks for the response Wally. I disagree with you on the point regarding anyone can lead again because to say that someone can’t or won’t use doesn’t make sense. A proper leader/teacher puts in the right effort to get the root cause of what is causing someone to make those decisions of not using the techniques and does their best to remove those obstacles. If a leader is not able to actually reinforce their teachings into practice, it reflects failure on that leader. This too can be learned by that leader to ensure they are teaching their folks well.

Regarding the second point, your statement doesn’t tie to what I said. I stated that I’ve never heard of anyone saying that they are different types of people which seems to imply that someone can only be one. The latter part of my sentence can’t be ignored and when you don’t ignore it, your quote by Warren Bennis which I am familiar with reinforces what I have said. I agree with Warren Bennis and one individual can both do the right thing while doing it right and thus be a manager and a leader. This speaks to the two different functions I talked about.

Tim Campbell   |   03 Jun 2015   |   Reply

As a senior division manager, I strongly agree with Leaders v. Managers. I’ve seen a lot of very good supervisors fail as division heads because it takes a major paradigm shift in the way you approach problems, and a much more proactive attitude than a line supervisor. And I have seen leadership at all levels, from field workers to department heads. If you can articulate a vision and take action get it done, you’re a leader.

Wally Bock   |   03 Jun 2015   |   Reply

Thanks, Tom. My experience is that very often people who perform well in on situation cannot transfer that level of performance to a new situation whether it’s a different level, a different job, or a different company. I think the two most difficult transitions are the ones to supervisor and CEO.

Wayne Davis   |   03 Jun 2015   |   Reply

1. Anyone CAN lead. Period. Even if you are pathologically afraid of confrontation. If this is the case, why would you have this person on the bus, unless you have just recently recognized this, and then the answer is that it is time for someone (read Manager) to manage and coach this individual and to put them in a place with an opportunity to be successful.

2. It appears that “don’t bring me a problem……. has been oversimplified. I agree that problems are sometimes where opportunity begins, and this is generally the case when we are failing to manage and lead without vision. In other words, we should be operating proactively rather than reactively so we do not get to the “problem” stage. Implied in this concept is that people in an organization in recognizing a problem, should always have an interest in being a part of the solution. This does not restrict someone from communicating that there is a problem as issues should always be communicated, but neither does it give someone the ability to opt out of searching for the solution. This, in turn, will help others to be involved in more meaningful work and will help them to become the “right people” for a future “right bus”.

3. How do you know the “right characteristics” of people??? Very fundamental response, YOU talk to them, get to know them, learn of their interests, motivations, fears, etc……….and then you LEAD and MANAGE.

I also believe that the article has oversimplified what Jim Collins said, he said the bus was going in a certain direction — i.e. the vision that should be established by leaders (throughout the organization) and then you find the right people, with the right values (matching those of the organization’s values) and give them the resources they need ( “put them in the right seats on the right bus, and by the way this does not always have to involve money)to have a reasonable chance of success.

Finally, “achieve the goals they’re given with the people they’ve got” sounds very defeatist or at a minimum an excuse for failure. This IS the Essence of Management and will define your success in taking on this responsibility, commensurate with the “perks” associated with being a manager. If you are not prepared to be successful with “the people [you’ve} got, then why are you a manager??

4. Who cares about titles, designations or names. Do people have the opportunity and the fortitude to TRULY manage and lead, and does the organization’s culture thwart or promote opportunity. This is probably the more fundamental question, along with, what is your definition of leadership?

Wally Bock   |   03 Jun 2015   |   Reply

Thanks for adding to the conversation, Wayne. We obviously differ on some things, but we can nail down what Jim Collins said about the bus and the people on it. On page 42 of Good to Great you will find this:

“The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it.”

We can differ on many things, but what Collins said seems pretty clear to me.

John Weber   |   03 Jun 2015   |   Reply

“Anyone Can Lead: Really? In theory maybe, but in real life there are people who don’t want the accountability. Others are pathologically afraid of confrontation. And there are others who won’t make decisions. Anyone can have influence, but not everyone is willing to lead”

Couldn’t agree more with this statement. Many times people think that they will be a good leader and when given the opportunity they can’t handle the pressure of the decisions and accountability. So many people aren’t able to execute on their own without direction.

I see some comments that say something like “it’s the manager’s fault if their people can’t lead and that really reflects on the manager not being a good teacher or coach”. I’m sure that could be the case in some instances however depending on many variables (company culture, the teams function and the players on the team) there may not be time for the manager to ‘hand hold’.

Wally Bock   |   08 Jun 2015   |   Reply

Thank you, John. Leadership, like most kinds of work, looks a lot easier when you don’t have to do it. That’s when the pressures and demands become obvious. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

John Hornbeck   |   04 Jun 2015   |   Reply

Sorry, but I think Wally was spot on about the statement that not everyone can lead. In my opinion it is not true that anyone can lead, and ability to lead is not just a question of willingness to lead. To go one step further (here comes the stoning), I also disagree that anyone can be taught to lead. Leadership is both a skill set and an art form, and it is both complex and subtle. Can leadership be taught? Absolutely. But it cannot be taught to just anyone.

Wally Bock   |   08 Jun 2015   |   Reply

Thanks, John. I don’t think I could say it better.

Nathan Goc   |   08 Jun 2015   |   Reply

1. Yes, anyone can lead. But how a person acts determines if they SHOULD lead. Silence is a double-edged sword. It can show a person is watching everything going on around them and committing it to memory as well as showing that complaining is pointless because of the positions requirements.

2. Agree.

3. Agree.

4. Bob Vanuourek said my reply for me on this point.

Wally Bock   |   08 Jun 2015   |   Reply

Thanks for adding to the conversation, Nathan.