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Reverse-Engineering Leadership

Fall 2012

Soundings

Reverse-Engineering Leadership

By Jim Stroup

Jim Stroup is a management consultant specializing in organizational leadership. From Managing Leadership.

Have you ever had a boss that clearly had his (or her, of course) act together? He seemed to have all the answers, could grasp the core issue of a problem and resolve it on the fly, and understood every aspect of the business from everyone’s perspective—employees, vendors, customers, even prospects.

This all made him the focal point of everyone’s attention. Everything emanated from him, and everything that was sought but not found could be asked of him. This is all pretty heady leadership material, isn’t it?

But wait, there’s more:

In spite of these superlative abilities, he wasn’t the least bit arrogant. Not only did his attitude seem refreshingly humble—he had an almost Zen-like self-effacement about him. And when you spoke with him, he turned and gave you his full attention, as if he was about to learn something important from you, that listening to what you had to say was absolutely the most valuable use of his time at that moment.

Wow! Now that’s a real leader, isn’t it? Intelligence, technical ability, focus, drive, humility, people skills, all adding up to a magnetically charismatic personality. The whole package. All the things the Modern Leadership Movement’s (MLM) experts say are what make a leader.

In fact, those experts say that those are precisely what make him a leader, and what can make you one, as well, if you only purchase their products and follow their prescriptions.

So, now, let’s consider that for a moment. Do you think that’s what your boss did? Do you think he learned to be a “leader” as we’ve observed him to be from a seminar or a book? For example, when he was listening so attentively to you, do you think he was truly focused on the import of your message, or was he silently reminding himself that this was the perfect opportunity for putting that leadership attribute on display?

Let’s go back to his role as the answer man. Did he get that (genuine) ability just from being smart, or perhaps from technical reading, or from his own personal experience?

Or did he get it from seeking out and listening to everyone’s perspective—employees, vendors, customers, even prospects. In fact, listening attentively and fully, not placing himself—and his pet projects, personal biases, or professional prejudices—between him and what his informants were saying to him about his business and their relationship with it?

That’s how first-class bosses come to obtain the set of qualities from which MLM experts erroneously try to reverse-engineer “leaders.” Real managers such as these get it from the work, and from everything and everyone related to the work. And the only way they can do that is by subordinating themselves to the work and to those who can help them make it succeed.

That “leadership” they’re radiating is really you reflecting back on you, because they have enough sense to know that—unlike the arguments of the MLM community—it’s not about them. It’s not about their personal qualities. It’s about the business, how it’s perceived by everyone connected with it, and how that knowledge can be obtained, harnessed, and employed to make it more successful. That process, of course, is a classic description of management.

If you are all about attaining these specific personal qualities MLM-style, then you are doomed to failure. Seeking the cynically marketed magical aura of leadership will undermine both the work at hand and you as well.soundings1

On the other hand, if you are about the work, you may find that you are beginning to be perceived as that mythical creature: a leader. But don’t fall for your own PR—the moment you do is when it all begins slipping away.

You just keep working on how to be a better manager for your business. You’ll learn how from the effort itself, as well as from the unique nature of your industry and your place in your company. Put down the leadership books. Get out of the office. Observe. Pay attention. Ask questions. Forget about yourself long enough to listen to and absorb the answers.

The qualities often associated with leadership aren’t its building blocks—rather, to the extent they exist at all, they’re wholly incidental consequences of the focus on their duties invested by dedicated managers. They’re likely not even actually the personal qualities of the person with whom they’re associated but, rather, are those of a diverse cadre of people and experiences from which that person draws them.

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.