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Rules of the Road for Real-World Leadership

April 4, 2010
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As a leadership coach and trainer, I love leadership books. I love the idealism of Strengths-Based Leadership, The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair and Meg Whitman’s The Power of Many. I’m at the front of the line for new books by Marcus Buckingham, Marshall Goldsmith or Daniel Goleman.

But it doesn’t take much for my enthusiasm to turn to frustration. When I talk to friends and clients about their jobs, I don’t hear about emotional intelligence and results-only work environments. Too often, I hear about disheartening violations—not of lofty leadership principles, but of bare-minimum management norms. I hear about employees who are disinvited from key meetings after they ask a pointed question of the boss. I hear about employees whose bosses communicate only by e-mail—if that.

I have a client who has tried in vain for four months to get input from the boss on her development plan. And the boss is not the secretary of state. In fact, she’s an HR director.

Leadership in the books is a Lamborghini. In the workplace, too often, it’s a battered Chevette, and everybody pretends it’s not rattling and spewing smoke.

I yearn for some ordinary rules of the road in organizations—rules everybody would need to follow, or risk having their licenses suspended.

Good leadership is no mystery. In my workshops, I ask people to describe the qualities and behaviors of great leaders they have seen. The result is always the same. A great leader, people agree, is someone who treats staff members respectfully, as individuals, and helps them grow. It’s someone who engages with employees, challenges their assumptions and provokes thought. It’s someone whose optimism is contagious. Someone with unquestionable integrity. Somebody who can be trusted as a guide and advocate.

You’d find the same ideas, more or less, in the 58,937 leadership books currently for sale on Amazon.com. That’s a lot of shared wisdom.

Most everybody recognizes good leadership. The problem is that not enough leaders practice it. And in the average organization, the consequences of poor leadership are suffered by its victims, not its perpetrators. A reckless leader may run red lights and crash into others indiscriminately, and he won’t necessarily get a ticket.

In recent years, of course, there have been reams of research showing the business benefits of good leadership, such as here and here. The costs of poor leadership have also been well documented.

When is all of that data going to start changing behaviors? Couldn’t we all agree on some basic standards for the treatment of subordinates?

In recent weeks, I’ve heard a number of disconcerting boss stories. Here are three, along with ideas for remedial managerial rules.

1. A friend has been in his job three years, working 50- to 60-hour weeks, and can count on two fingers the number of times he’s gotten individual feedback. He’d need many hands to count the sleepless nights he’s had, fretting about how he’s doing in an environment where it’s not cool to ask. Recently, when the boss said he wanted to talk about his performance, my friend was worried he might be fired. Instead, he got the maximum bonus.

Rule of the road: Give people regular feedback on their performance. Take five minutes every month and tell each direct report what’s going well, what could be better and how you will help. People need to know where they stand.

2. Another friend found out in a staff meeting that her major responsibility was being diverted to an outside consultant. My friend had sensed the boss wasn’t happy with her, but didn’t know why. In the meeting, the boss didn’t mention my friend’s name, but the implications of hiring the consultant were clear—and devastating in such a public setting.

Rule of the road: If an employee is not living up to your expectations, tell him or her exactly what needs to improve and establish a timeline for making improvements. If he or she doesn’t improve enough and needs to be relieved of a responsibility, tell the employee privately.

3. A client’s new boss is ambitious and eager to make her mark. The boss has taken over creative decisions that belonged to my client for 10 years: 10 years in which she’s gotten nothing but good reviews. “I’m essentially there now to sharpen her pencils,” the client told me. To stay sane while she hunts for a new job (in a bad economy), my client is practicing the sort of presenteeism we HR types deplore; she is putting as little of her energy in her job as she can get away with. She’s just trying to survive. If she engages too much, her rage and grief will get the best of her.

Rule of the road: As the boss, your job is to harness the skills of those who work for you. You are there to help others contribute for the good of the organization. Combine others’ talents with your own, and you’ll be able to have much bigger impact than you can alone.

I’m reporting only one side of these horror stories, of course. Maybe these employees could have done things differently and gotten a different result. But my point is that there are simple leadership practices that should not waver with an employee’s behavior.

We need civilized practices in the workplace, just as we do in traffic. Somebody might cut me off on the highway and make me really mad, but I am not then justified in crashing into him.

As a manager for many years, I know the temptation to exclude an employee, embarrass him or ignore him just because you can; because you have authority that is difficult to challenge. I know how easy it is, when faced with an employee who seems incompetent, disengaged or disrespectful, to rationalize violating the principles of leadership we all recognize in our hearts. Stooping low as a leader damages people—employees and bosses alike—and, ultimately, it poisons the organization.

Now, maybe the employees I’ve described could have negotiated better treatment with their bosses. But we forget how risky that can feel to an employee, especially when jobs are scarce. If a boss is insensitive enough to announce to a crowd that you’re losing an important responsibility, what sort of brutish reaction are you in for if you dare to suggest he might have told you first?

Most leadership books aim to raise the ceiling on leadership practices, and that’s all well and good. But, first, I think we should look at raising the floor. We should establish some basic rules of the road that leaders observe and organizations enforce.

HR’s role in this should be to boil down the grand concept of leadership to a few behavioral do’s and don’ts and ask the organization’s leaders to live by them.

In addition to the rules proposed above, here are some possibilities:

• Whenever possible, consult employees before making decisions that will affect them. Include them as early as possible, explore options with them and take their ideas and concerns to heart.

• Take an interest in each employee’s professional well-being as a unique individual and provide assignments that will help him or her to develop.

• Take action to address employees’ needs, and follow up with them when you say you will. Don’t leave them hanging.

• Treat each employee with respect and establish a relationship with each, even those who are very different from you. Beware of favoring those with whom you have natural rapport.

• Treat employees’ mistakes, especially as they are learning new skills, as learning opportunities. Don’t punish initiative.

• Keep your promises, or tell employees promptly why you have to break your word.

• Don’t include anything negative in a performance appraisal that you haven’t spoken about with the employee.

• Tell your employees about these rules, and ask them to hold you accountable so that you can grow. Acknowledge that you, too, are a work in progress.

Rules like this won’t create paragons of emotional intelligence or strengths-based leadership. They won’t spawn learning organizations or cohesive tribes. But they might create a needed sense of security and civility in the average, stressful workplace. And we’d see fewer professional injuries and casualties.

I think most leaders want to do the right thing. But under the stress of managing the organization, they may lose sight of what that means. Most aren’t going to read the big books on leadership. We need to give them some simple rules to live by.

Workforce Management Online, April 2010 -- Register Now!

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