Looking like a leader versus being one

There is a saying about leadership. The better leaders tend to deflect credit to others, the worse leaders tend to assume credit even when it is not due. Think about this as you consider various leaders.

One leader in the news is known as a narcissist. He is on record as saying he alone can solve our problems. He has said  that no one knows taxes better than he does maybe in the history of taxes. He has said no one knows ISIS better not even the generals.

He has beaten on his chest saying how great a job he is doing when most observers see chaos and incompetence. Yet, he controls the message to his followers and says he is being treated unfairly.

He would not be the first leader to take advantage of photo ops, but this man lives a life without substance. He is all about smoke and mirrors. He is all about appearing to be a leader. He is not about being one.

Leaders have to deal with the truth and not bend it to fit their view. How can someone solve problems when they don’t know what they are or what caused them? How can someone lead when their history is one of self-service and not helping people? How can one lead people who he has taken advantage of his entire life?

This leader looks the part. He is successful  and wants people to know it. He stands in front of airplanes as successful people have airplanes. He has his name on everything as his name represents success. The dilemma is it is all for show. His business career is spotty. His mentor taught him to never admit mistakes and to sue everyone. He has had over 4,000 lawsuits in his career.  And, he has trouble admitting his mistakes. It is always someone else’s fault.

A leader does not do these things. There is another leader who did not look the part. He took over after a great, popular leader had died. He almost lost his reelection. He is known for two things. He said “the buck stops here” meaning he owned the problems. He is also viewed as one of the best presidents. His name is Harry Truman. We all know the name of the other guy.




Who’s got the monkey?

My blogging friend Persia inspired a revisit to an old topic with her recent quote courtesy of Henry Ford, “Don’t find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain.” It reminded me of an article I read about fifteen years ago called “Who’s got the monkey?” penned by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald Wass.

In essence, the article is designed to help managers budget their time. The authors called the delegation of an assignment – the monkey. The manager has passed along the oversight of this task to a member of his or her team. Yet, what often happens, is the team member will get stumped and bring the problem back and place the monkey on the manager’s shoulders.

The only result of this process is the manager becomes a bottleneck and nothing gets done, as the manager lacks the time. The manager also gets frustrated and stressed. The key theme of this article is for the manager to not accept the monkey back, unless one condition has been met. The monkey comes back with a couple of ideas to solve the impasse. Rather than bringing an unsolved problem back, the subordinate brings a solvable problem that just needs an OK.

So, if a team member just hands the problem back, the manager should not accept the monkey and ask that he or she work through a couple of paths forward. So, Persia’s Henry Ford quote is very relevant, in my view.  The article can be linked to below.


Don’t let your paradigm shift put your thinking back in the box

As a former consultant and client in a business setting, I get a kick out of the use of catch phrases that our bandied about within corporate walls to convey larger meaning. These expressions are over-used to the point of “Dilbert-like” status. Consider the following examples:

We need a “paradigm shift” or to “change our paradigm” – these tickle me as they allow the user to use a fancier word than model or template. It is an elegant way to say what you are doing is not working too well.

The most overused expression is we need to “think outside of the box” – this one conveys we have boxed in our thinking with our own processes, bureaucracy and cultures and don’t know what’s going on outside in the real world. I have also heard to “look beyond the nine dots” but to this day I do not know what that means and I am pretty sure the speaker does not either.

When all else fails, “let’s throw things against the wall and see what sticks”- this is a nice way to say, let’s just try some things and see what might work. It is also notes that no one has a clear cut idea of what to do.

Of course, change becomes easier when we have a “burning platform” – this phrase has great symbolism. When you are having some success, change is difficult, as some feel it is not needed. The burning platform means we better change as our ship is on fire.

The best business expressions, though, come from military service where their version of corporate headquarters is rife with opportunity. The most popular expression is SNAFU, which has actually made it to Miriam-Webster and Wikipedia. Even the most religious of people do not need help in spelling out the meaning of SNAFU. Trailing its more popular brethren, FUBAR has its own advocates. In the ranking of being screwed up, a FUBAR is worse than a SNAFU, with the exception a SNAFU is more normative. For the less familiar the BAR part is short for “beyond all recognition.”

Yet, my old friend Mike, who served in the Navy and was in the Control department of a company I used to work with, was my favorite with expressions. My favorite of his was “open the kimonos” meaning we should share information and not withhold any data. For the more worldly readers, the term is derived from how prostitutes would merchandise themselves to sailors on shore leave in an Asian port city.

He was also prone to describing how hard it was to change our bureaucratic organization saying it is like “turning a battleship in a harbor” which should not be tried due to its poor chance for success. He also had his own version of throw stuff against the wall, when he would say “we should just through the old bones and see what turns up.” This could refer to bones being dice or it might refer to a witch doctor or medicine man who would throw bones to read his own version of the tea leaves.

While these sayings range from being fun to the trite, they mask how hard it is to change and be forthcoming. If change were easy, more people would do so as circumstances present themselves. You need good information, but you don’t need every piece of information. The company Mike and I worked for wanted more information to decide something and often missed the market opportunity. Yet, the information should be a fair and honest assessment of the issue and potential resolution.

Also, the people closest to the customer or activity often have the better or good solutions, so their input should be solicited and considered. The only caveat to this is if someone’s job depends on the continuation of an old process. So, here is where some balance of outside thinking would be helpful, as the person may be reluctant to change.

Let me close with the phrases that convey trying things and keeping what works. Companies need to do this more than they do either in a pilot setting or small market or department. In the book “Built to Last” which is about extremely successful companies who dwarfed the success of their best competitors over time, a key tenet of these companies was trying stuff and keeping what works. In fact, a couple of the companies failed at their first product, but kept going.

So, it is more than OK to throw the old bones or throw stuff against a wall to see what sticks. But, at least be colorful with your expression when you do. Let me know some of your more memorable sayings overheard in your jobs.