They say people are born to lead or to follow. I can’t say whether that is true or not. I was always a leader. As a child I hated listening to others tell me what to do. I always had the ideas that led to trouble for the kids in the neighborhood.
Through many complaints from my school to my parents, it seems it was all based on my belief that every one of my teachers was an idiot and knew nothing of what they taught. As an adult, I can look back with fairness and mature reflection and assert that I was right. Like a manager who rises up the corporate ladder through nothing more then being no threat to those above him or her, ultimately attaining a position of power that they could never handle with any amount of training or psychological help or medication, teachers were assured a lifetime of destroying young, inquiring minds only through tenure and parents who had forgotten that teachers were also human and open to human frailties.
Think about your own childhood schooling. Did you ever tell your parents that you got bad grades because your teacher hated you? Of course you did and your parents most probably answered that your teacher didn’t hate you and was fair to all students because that’s what teachers do!
Judging by the daily news, teachers also sleep with underage students, molest students, do incredible amounts of drugs and, yes – hate some students. They are, after all, human.
Testing The Boundaries Of Leadership
People hate, love, lie, cheat, steal, make rationalizations about others and yes, do wonderful things, too. It is those wonderful things that push civilization forward.
I never thought about my role as a leader while being an art director, creative director or studio manager. Everything seemed to be natural and work in a certain rhythm. A day arrived when I was tested as a leader. Not through an impossible deadline or tragic circumstances, when most people prove leadership qualities but through a written test known as the McQuaig Word Survey.
I was being interviewed for a creative director position for a mid-sized company when the staffing director informed me I would have to take the online test for my personal interview. Basically, the test asks the same questions several times in several different forms, which, in some ways gives a result of truthful results and insight into the psychology and make up of the candidate for the position of a leadership role.
I flew out to my interview and was met in the lobby by the staffing person who had set me up with the McQuaig test. She handed me an envelope with the results and asked if I wanted to read it so I could answer any questions from the company owner during my interview.
“No!” I replied. “I’ll just tell the truth because he has to take the good and the bad if he decides to hire me.” I thought that answer was suave and slick. I hadn’t interviewed for many years as I was firmly entrenched in a corporate position that was comfortable but just didn’t hold any future growth and wasn’t really comfortable with all the advice I had read about on interviewing techniques and tips. I just figured if I were to be myself, I would either end up with a terrific work situation or not have to worry about being trapped in a bad workplace with daily emotional and psychological torture.
The owner entered the conference room after making me wait for an hour and propped his legs on the table while he fiddled absent-mindedly with a rubber band. “I think you just wouldn’t make a very good creative director,” he said right off the bat.
I don’t know if my face showed the shock I felt. “You want people to like you,” he continued. “I need someone who can fire people!”
My first thought was that he was insane and I wondered what sort of shape his company was in. Would I have to make my first act as creative director firing the entire staff?
I spoke at length about my experience in leadership roles and assured him that I had indeed fired many people. Some who had to be axed due to budget cuts and others who deserved to be fired – executed, if the law had permitted it!
To make a long, weird story short, he offered me a lower position as a senior designer and told me he would just hire an office manager to do the firing. Luckily he also wouldn’t actually name a salary, instead just asking “what kind of risk was (I) willing to take?”
The answer was none and he excused himself to “go to another meeting.” I left, walking down the long hallway and out the front door by myself. No goodbyes, no escort and no further word from anyone at the company. I had spent an entire day on planes, in cabs and all for a very strange half-hour interview in Middle America.
On the flight home, I opened the envelope with the results of the McQuaig test. It rated me as an “empowering leader.” According to the test, I helped people rise up the ladder, empowered them to be better and among other qualities I blushed at, was an “in the trenches” leader with my staff, which they appreciated and would return with loyalty and hard work. It said nothing about taking pure joy at firing people.
Firing people is never a joy or an easy task. When cutting a budget and having to release someone who did a good job was the hardest. I would try to soften the blow with a recommendation, calls to my network to se if the person could be placed elsewhere and offering whatever support I could. Those who deserved to be fired was a bit easier but still, destroying a life and dashing hopes is never really easy. Crushing the hopes of those who deserve to crawl through the mud, begging for a mercy bullet to the brain can be… pleasurable, more for getting them out of one’s world and ending the drama and psychotic behavior.
One of the many things Mr. Rubber-band didn’t see in a leader, which meant, as I suspected, made him a bad leader was the emotional side of leadership. The McQuaig test saw and probed it, as was obvious from the questions and label – “empowering.”
Daniel Goleman, in his article in the Harvard Business Review, writes:
The most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but mainly as “threshold capabilities”; that is, they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. But my research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.
As with those school teachers who showed obvious favoritism, dividing students into the “liked” and “hated,” there are leaders who, as humans, do not look to the best interests of the business and divide workers into an “A” list and “D” list. The first get raises, leeway in workloads and other perks not bestowed on others. The latter can just never please.
While a young designer, I started work at a magazine with a small art staff of a dozen people. The art director was rarely seen in the art department and the daily running of the staff fell upon the associate art director. When it was time for lunch, the associate ad would round up half of the staff and exit for a group lunch. After a few days, a couple of those left behind opened up to me, as I was obviously on the “D” list, too, that they were extremely offended at never being included in the “popular group.” Of course they felt left out. It’s one thing when it happens in elementary school but as adults we all expect such childish behavior to be left in the schoolyard. Often the manager who divides workers is making up, in their mind, for a popularity or power they have never felt in life. Abusers of power feel powerless. Leaders who share power are comfortable with themselves and their place in the world and they don’t mind sharing it with others.
Within two weeks, an invitation to lunch was extended to me and at the urging of several other designers, I joined in. It was, as I had suspected, an organized worship session of the associate art director. It was also a childish bitch session about coworkers and those not invited. As it always took place at a nice restaurant, it was also expensive for all but the associate art director, who was treated by all present. After two or three of these lunches, I made excuses to not go anymore. This, of course, put me back on the “D” list.
Eventually, the associate art director was fired and I never heard any further word about her in the professional community. Both the “A” list and “D” list people knew what she was and trustworthy and caring were two words that would never be attributed to her.
There have been other managers I’ve known who faced the same fate. If you are known for being unfair, then it follows you as people come and go in your life. Your reputation follows you. Your future will be overshadowed by a network of people who not only won’t lift a finger to help you but will also be there to tell those making hiring decisions that they didn’t care for your management style.
Aside from making those under you miserable, being a bad leader will effect your department and the company itself. For some it takes years in the same position to be discovered as a poor leader. For some, once discovered, there is no regaining the same level of a professional position ever again. At my last corporate position, there was an odd method of promotion. Those who couldn’t make it as designers were put in a position of a line planner. Those who couldn’t plan were made art directors. Those who couldn’t art direct were made creative directors. Creative directors didn’t actually direct – they went to meetings and shuffled papers. Those that couldn’t shuffle papers were given secretaries who could. At the bottom were the designers who came up with initiatives, new lines, creative ideas and thought up the processes that made the whole thing spin in greased grooves.
Sure, that sort of power structure led to problems. Problems, of course, led to inner strife and discontentment and when those at the bottom stopped innovating and improving on process, the company started to lose money and market share. Naturally, those at the top got rid of those that scared them – the smart employees… those with leadership qualities. As time went by, and not a lot of time in the scheme of things, further loss had the upper management of the company seeing cause and effect and many of the “leaders” also lost their jobs. A quick look at the “people you may know” section on LinkedIn tells me that these “leaders” have not been lucky enough to find employment and it doubtful they will.
There are many clues to bad leadership. One is in the words used by a leader. In an article in Inc., “7 Things Your Employees Never Want to Hear,” author Jeff Haden, writes:
“We” is a powerful word—except when it’s not. Employees can tell when you pay lip service to “we.”
In public, say “I” when your company makes a mistake. Say “we” when your company does something well.
Inside your company, say “you” when employees do something well. Say “we” when you do something well—because your success is always built by and based on the efforts of your employees.
What Is The Cost OF Bad Leadership?
The cost of bad leadership is obvious on the surface: Discontent, lack of employee engagement, high employee turnover and a bad reputation in the industry for replacement employees.
While in a very bad position, I awoke every work day to dry heaves before heading for the subway on my ride to hell. I dreaded having to see my boss and awaiting signals of what kind of mood he would be in and what surprises each mood would bring. In an article published by Psychology Today, the author writes:
Bad boss behavior seems to be pandemic and now, a new survey reveals that self-oriented bosses are more prevalent than ever. In a survey Taylor commissioned of 1,002 adults, 86% of Americans felt that too often, bad boss behaviors fly under the radar until it’s too late, affecting too many people. According to an earlier study, 70% of workers said they believed employees must be careful when managing up with bosses, or they could lose their jobs. A five-year, national study compared bad, childish traits, including stubbornness, self-oriented, overly demanding, impulsiveness, interrupting and tantrum-throwing in bosses between 2004 to 2009, and found “self-oriented” spiked by 50% to the top spot in that period. In the same study conducted by a global research firm, seven in 10 Americans said “bosses and toddlers with too much power act alike.”
Swedish researchers, led by Anna Nyberg at the Stress Institute in Stockholm, have published a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine on the issue of leaders’ behavior and employee health. They studied more than 3,100 men over a 10 year period in typical work settings. They found that employees who had managers who were incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive and uncommunicative, the employees were 60% more likely to suffered a heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac condition. By contrast, employees who worked with “good” leaders were 40% less likely to suffer heart problems. Nyberg said, “for all those who work under managers who they perceive behave strangely, or in any way they don’t understand, and they feel stressed, the study confirms this develops into a health risk.”
A study of 6,000 British office workers found employees who felt that their supervisors treated them fairly had a 30% lower risk of heart disease. A 2008 meta-analysis of the connection between health and leadership by Jana Kuoppala and associates concluded that good leadership was associated with a 27% reduction in sick leave and a 46% reduction in disability pensions. The same study concluded that employees with good leaders were 40% more likely to report the highest levels of psychological well-being including lower levels of anxiety and depression.
In an article by Richard Williams, Wallace Higgins and Harvey Greenberg, published in the Boston Globe, they cited numerous research studies regarding leadership style and the health of employees. They concluded “your boss can cause you stress, induce depression and anxiety or even trigger the onset of serious illnesses. It is not just bad managers who can negatively affect employee health, but it is also the lackadaisical and mediocre who put employees on the sick list.” And the cost is huge in terms of lost productivity, healthcare costs and employee turnover. The authors argue that a whole new field of litigation in the U.S. is developing-”lawsuits against ‘bad bosses’ and the organizations that negligently allow them to supervise.”
There are, of course, costs to the company in addition to those listed in the Psychology Today article. As Christian Claudio points out in a piece on leadership:
Companies spend close to an average of $2,000 to $8,000 or more per non managerial employee for on boarding. Then depending on the position, there a “ramp up” period before the employee actually becomes profitable for a company. I would argue, no matter how much money you spend on an individual, if the company or even office culture is not equal to the standards of talent resides in those desks, you will not keep your talent. From financial incentives, benefits, training and daily operational costs, its no wonder why companies spend in the millions of dollars to maintain their human capital. Employee turnover, especially before you recoup the investment is a huge problem. The direct costs to your bottom line of employee turnover can cripple your business. Think of what it costs you to recruit, train, and get a new employee up to speed. Although the actual cost may vary depending on the job or industry, the cost per new hire can average $2,000 to $8,000. Even if you only turnover 10 employees per year, that is $20,000 to $80,000 off of your annual profits. This doesn’t even take into consideration the indirect costs listed below. Turnover adds to indirect costs as well. It affects employee’s morale, on the job injuries due to lack of personnel or lack of experience, customer relationships, productivity of other employees and increased theft.
Add in the costs of lawsuits and brand damage to the company and the costs go even higher. One firm I left, on less then good terms, had some very bad racist behavior by managers (covering many different groups). Human resources did their utmost to protect these horrendous managers not because the company as a whole believed in the racism that was happening on a daily basis but because to correct it would mean to admit it had occurred and that would affect consumer confidence. Instead, HR covered it up as much as possible as if it was never present. There was little choice for the company as if word of what transpired ever got out, it would translate into millions of lost revenue dollars when organized ethnic groups started boycotting the products and services provided by the company. The side effect was, however, internal. Employees who saw these problems withdrew from a feeling of loyalty and engagement into a state of fear and loathing. The leadership showed the worth of the average employee and so, every employee clearly knew where they stood when it was their turn in expecting fair and balanced treatment.
Different thoughts on leadership
In a joint article, “How leaders kill meaning at work,” Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer write:
Senior executives routinely undermine creativity, productivity, and commitment by damaging the inner work lives of their employees.
As a senior executive, you may think you know what Job Number 1 is: developing a killer strategy. In fact, this is only Job 1a. You have a second, equally important task. Call it Job 1b: enabling the ongoing engagement and everyday progress of the people in the trenches of your organization who strive to execute that strategy. A multiyear research project whose results we described in our recent book, The Progress Principle, found that of all the events that can deeply engage people in their jobs, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.
Even incremental steps forward—small wins—boost what we call “inner work life”: the constant flow of emotions, motivations, and perceptions that constitute a person’s reactions to the events of the work day. Beyond affecting the well-being of employees, inner work life affects the bottom line.2 People are more creative, productive, committed, and collegial in their jobs when they have positive inner work lives. But it’s not just any sort of progress in work that matters. The first, and fundamental, requirement is that the work be meaningful to the people doing it.
Rajeev Peshawaria, a contributor to Forbes, in his article entitled, “There Is No Such Thing As Bad Leadership,” writes:
Nelson Mandela was regarded a great leader long before he became president. How could he be a leader during the long years in prison? Clearly, he had no position or power while in prison, yet ultimately he overturned apartheid. Mahatma Gandhi never occupied any political office and never had any material wealth or power of any kind, yet he succeeded in sending the British back home without firing a bullet. Gandhi’s impact was so profound that among millions of others, none other than Albert Einstein called him one of the greatest leaders to have ever walked upon this earth. Countless mothers around the world work tirelessly every day and every night to groom their children with the hope that they (the children) will one day become responsible citizens. Many unsung middle managers in companies around the world coach their subordinates selflessly so that they (the subordinates) can be as successful as can be. Many such mentor-managers are relatively powerless in their organizations, and often have very bad bosses above them. Instead of passing down the same bad behaviour they receive from their bosses, these managers choose to behave differently with their subordinates. They make this choice knowing very well that their efforts will not be recognized by the higher ups, but they do it anyway because they have a deep desire to ensure that tomorrow is better than today. They are the real leaders.
So if leadership is not about position power, then what is it? Leadership is about first visualizing, then working endlessly towards creating a better future. The key is in the word better. The better future leaders strive to create is not for themselves alone, it is for others around them as well. If all you work towards is getting a better deal for yourself alone, you are not a leader. If your goal is to simply win an election or to get promoted to the next level, you are not a leader. To be a leader, you need to have a clear picture of the better future you want to create, and an even clearer picture of what is ethically right and wrong. I often refer to these two things as purpose and values.
Mr. Peshawaria does, add:
The problem is, some people have a very self-focused purpose, and they are able to work very hard to achieve it. They do not however have an equally clear sense of values. They go after their goal no matter what the price. Furthermore, as they taste initial success, they get hungry for more and more. Without a moral compass, they become what many people call bad leaders. The point I am making is simply this – people with just a self-focused purpose are not leaders at all. They may occupy important and powerful positions but they are not leaders. They are demagogues, dictators, thugs, dons, or bullies. At best they are heedless. And even if their purpose is not self-focused, they still don’t become leaders until they are able to clearly articulate and act upon their moral values. A narrow purpose, and/or the absence of values can make you a boss, but not a leader. A broader purpose (one that goes beyond self interest alone) together with enduring moral values makes a leader. In this sense, there is no such thing as a bad leader. There are leaders, and there are good or bad bosses.
Mike Henry, “Founder and Chief Instigator of the Lead Change Group,” has an interesting insight into leadership:
Let’s agree today that good leadership is not the same as effective leadership. Let’s agree that the word good is an evaluation of the end result rather than the leader’s actions. Did it achieve good purposes? Did it create value? (By value I mean benefit in excess of cost). Did the benefit to all parties exceed the cost to all parties? Let’s agree that good leadership is that authority or influence that creates a good outcome. If the outcome is not generally good, it would be bad leadership. Using this model, “bad” becomes a big word. Any leadership that doesn’t create positive outcomes for the contributors and stakeholders can’t be good.
An effective leader is someone who manages to get people to do what they want. It could be defined as one who exerts influence to get others to achieve the leader’s objectives regardless of the quality of the outcome. It will be effective if people allow themselves to be influenced. The outcomes can be good or bad.
As with many assertions on bad leadership, Mr. Henry agrees:
Ineffective leadership is just plain Ugly. We won’t even try to clean it up. If you have to stoop to manipulating or threatening or bullying, that’s ugly leadership.
With all of this in mind, I still assert that the best leadership I have seen and experienced is management of and by the people. The “we” in leading people – and truly being one of the workers with understanding for human failings, strength for when people are weakened by overload and emotional insight when the best needs to be pulled from those who have it within themselves but need a firm and kind hand to reach out to them.
In my last full-time position, I was relieved to be just a designer, no longer having to deal with the strength and drama a leader must endure and to not have the responsibility leadership entails. After dealing with some really awful leadership above me, I swore that my next position would be as a manager once again. I was a great leader and, I thought, in a world of bad leaders, I owed it to the workers to provide a workplace they would feel engaged, purposeful and part of a team. I will empower them because apparently that is my leadership style. I could lead no other way. I wouldn’t change it because, that is who I am as a person.