Archive | November 2010

Managers Are Not Leaders: and true and great leaders are humble

I contend that by first denying managers can be leaders, we may actually begin to explore some links between these two roles.

first snow…a little bit…of the season

There must be thousands of research articles on leadership alone, and only slightly fewer on comparing leaders and managers.  Leadership was one of my least favorite topics when I was taking courses for my PhD.  It’s interesting to talk about, but mind-boggling to read through. To me, leadership is one of those moving targets whose full nature you can never really pin down.  As for equating managers with leaders?  I think this is another one of those business schools’ cynical calculations, allowing  managers to further inflate their already sizable egos.  Even without research (do we need to spend another $50K to confirm this intuition?), most of us would probably prefer to be considered as “leader” rather than as “manager.”  Now, why is that?!

a close-up look of first snow…a bit more substantial

One of the reasons why the definition of leadership is a moving target is that no sooner is one definition espoused, we are reminded of other qualities of exceptional people around us.  This makes me think that intrinsically, most of us can take on the leader’s role at some point, depending on the situation or the circumstances. Sometimes, it’s the one with most knowledge, and other times it can be the person with most experience, or imagination.  I don’t know for sure if “leader” and “leadership” are largely Americans’ obsession or if it’s also heavily emphasized in other cultures, but I suspect that other cultures may look at these concepts differently.  In American’s heavily individualistic psyche, we rarely read about  followership in discussing “leadership.”  But how can anyone try to lead if there aren’t followers?  So, to begin with, all those managers out there who desire to be considered “leaders,” just ask yourselves, “do I actually have anyone following me, and following me willingly?”

Recently, one top executive in my local big organization was unceremoniously “demoted.”  (No one came right out to say it, but in essence that’s what it was.)  She was ambitious for her sub-organization of about 800 people, and when she started in this role she did have a clear vision.  However, she was impatient to get to her vision, and watching her from a distance, I would say that because she was impatient, she overly micro-managed her people.  By resorting to micromanagement in lieu of leadership she failed to inspire enough people to work with her, and ultimately did not succeed in conveying her own ideas.

this is how NOT to lead…by biting on one’s hind quarter

In a very broad sense, leaders possess vision, which by itself means little until the leaders can convey this vision clearly.  Then others who resonate with this vision may decide to follow and become the ones who fulfill this vision.  Generally, leaders have strong emotional connections with their followers.  Managers certainly can have vision as well, but need to be mindful of making sure the vision aligns with overall organization’s mission.  Managers’ task needs methodical and deliberate execution; they are generally problem solvers.  Managers’ people don’t always have to agree with managers’ vision, which may not always be present.  Managers and their people “just” have jobs to hold and work to accomplish.  Most likely, people’s emotional attachment to their managers is much more tenuous than followers with their leaders; however, I argue that the more successful managers tend to evoke strong positive emotions in their subordinates.  The less successful managers, or the ones who are downright dreadful, do manage to bring out negative feelings in people, sometimes very strongly.

In other words, whether to lead or to manage, it behooves the person holding these positions to pay attention to their subordinates:  What is their mood?  What gets them excited?   What do they do well?  What do they enjoy?  What are the perpetual stumbling blocks that prevent work being done?  What can managers do about these stumbling blocks (instead of being ones themselves)?  We’ve all seen enough of insecure managers who actually compete with their own people for credit!  It’d never occur to these managers that allowing people to do their best is actually going to make the manager look good; of course, even though “looking good” shouldn’t be any manager’s purpose or goal, it’s the logic that seems to elude them.  One of the best ways to be in touch with the people is to actually talk to them; how often do we see CEOs actually talk to the people at the lowest level?

I learned something new recently, from an old book with a great title, “Up the Organization,” by Robert Townsend.  What I learned is “you can’t motivate people.” (italics mine) Probably not even leaders can, although they can excite their followers.  But for both managers and leaders, to get people to accomplish, they must create an environment, or a climate, in which people’s self-motivation gets the job done, and helps the organization reach its goals.

a river flows only one way

We often confuse charisma with competence for getting things done, especially in an organization, and even more so when the organization is in turmoil.   Jim Collins’ books, “From Good to Great,” as well as “How the Mighty Fall,” give plenty of examples of how the best managers move companies forward and upward without seeking personal attention from media; if anything, they tend to shy away from it.  These examples include Nordstrom’s Blake Nordstrom, IBM’s Louis Gerstner, NUCOR’s Daniel DiMicco, names that are not household familiarity.  Then, there are those CEOs, like Jack Welsh, Lee Iacocca, who might have done great for their respective organizations for a while, but when they left, they didn’t leave a good structure for their organizations to keep growing.  And finally there are those, such as Carly Fiorina, who became Wall Street’s darling overnight, then used their celebrity status for various high-risk maneuvers that failed.

a different view of the same river

Many “quiet” and effective managers share the following mantras:

  • putting company first before personal agenda;
  • insisting on facts;
  • preserving the core of the organization, not unlike “going back to its origin;”
  • grasping the fundamental culture (usually about people);
  • NOT thinking that they are above others and “entitled” to the perks;
  • no pretense, for example, Blake Nordstrom answered his own phone calls;
  • most important, they see themselves as “serving” their people.

I would add that it is precisely because these unassuming managers go about their work diligently – by that I certainly don’t mean attending meetings from morning till night – and methodically that they are the true leaders.

they always know where to go

Last week, I talked about playful organizations, and the principles and values of bringing in some playful elements.  But how?  Unfortunately, a lot of “good” things that can and should happen in an organization have to come from the top.  An interesting example was given by Pfeffer & Sutton in their “Knowing-Doing Gap.”  At the conclusion of a workshop they conducted, they were approached by a local manager of Macy’s who was excited about what she had learned, but felt frustrated, because whenever her boss visited her location he never stopped to talk to the staff; he just wanted to be shut in to examine the books.  Pfeffer and Sutton, while feeling sympathetic, told her there was really little she could do.  On their way to the parking lot, the authors next encountered two managers from Trader Joe’s, huddling together and having a discussion.  When approached one of the fellows said, “see my colleague there?  He’s texting back to the HQ about some of the lessons that we can implement immediately.” Which organization do you think will excel?  So, I am afraid, the best that employees at the staff level — those who actually do the work on the ground – can do is to suggest and push, and push hard and harder…

Manager or leader, it’s really about working with people, and that entails honestly knowing your people, not just your lieutenants and gatekeepers (and why should there be gatekeepers?) but people across all levels.

As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate…When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves’.”

From Lao-Zi, “The Way.”

The quote should apply to managers as well.  Until such great managers become a commonplace occurrence,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

an expansive sunset

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Play and Reason: How an organization expands its horizon through relaxation

this playful sculpture garden always brings a smile to my face…

Regardless of whether or not we are parents, we all have been children.  Children’s world and adults’ world are not the same, but we do yearn for certain aspects of our childhood.  When we describe some adult as “having the heart of a child,” it is usually said with a mixture of mild rebuke and considerable envy.  What we wish to recover but can’t seem to reach is what we think of as the carefree spirit; however, if we push a bit harder, it is simply the ability to “play” we would like to regain.  We adults like to claim that child’s play isn’t quite the same as adult’s play; theirs is considered frivolous in adults.  Why?

Children are encouraged to play; the implicit assumption, by adults, is that they learn through playing, about math, about behavioral codes, about teams, about art, about nature…about life.  And with adults’ “guidance,” they will gradually acquire a set of values that we deem worthwhile.  Children’s “choosing” to play does not involve purpose or predetermined intention; however, adults’ choices are to fulfill purposeful intentions.  Adults have to formulate some goals, then make choices to reach those goals, while children’s choice just is.  Why the distinction?  Because we adults always assume that the goals, regardless of their origin, are not to be questioned, but are important to have.  I will come back to this later.

The above contrast is part of the premise of an article, delightfully titled, “The Technology of Foolishness,” by James March, a preeminent scholar in management and sociology.

a beautiful pair

In adults’ world, we rationally argue that thinking should precede action because action is to fulfill purposes, and that purposes are defined in terms of a consistent set of pre-existing goals.  Recall the earlier post of “the knowing-doing gap:” organizations tend to get stuck in the thinking mode (actually individuals do so as well) when in fact, we probably would gain more valuable knowledge from doing first.  Not unlike a child’s world!  I remember my son, somewhere between 3rd grade and 8th grade, making several versions of a trebuchet, from small to huge, a voluntary exercise from which he learned a bit about physics, math, and engineering design.  A trebuchet is an ancient weapon; as adults we have some values attached to weapons which we pass on to children.  Children, on the other hand, are just fascinated by “cool” things and simply want to play (of course, we adults have to teach them not to harm anything in the environment while playing). (Ironically, the trebuchet was made popular [again] by a recent television show that starts with a piano being hurled several hundred yards!)

my son built this without any plan…he was only 11

So, as we grow up, we gradually learn to formulate values and design our goals based on these values.  As if these values and goals won’t change over time once we become adults!

Let’s work it through.  We set some goals at current time x that we hope to achieve in the future time y.  As time moves forward, whether we change noticeably or not, there are many other exigent factors that can impact our progress and development, sometimes even our values.  So by the time we reach time y, we either will have had to modify our goals or to stay rigid in our ways since time x, in order to reach the goals made at time x.  In adopting the latter option, of not changing anything, what difference if we are at time y or time z-100?  This is not to imply that we always have to modify goals, but to ask why we hardly ever challenge the making of goals.  In reality, there is much ambiguity and fluidity in making goals.  Decisions are not always based on perfect information and we aren’t perfectly logical and rational beings.  Within organizations, or within ourselves, I think we don’t spend enough time contemplating how to develop interesting goals.

Rigidly defining and observing goals tend to force people to dwell on consistency,

oh, let’s…

exemplified in track records and documentation of which most organizations are very fond.  So, March advocates allowing some playfulness within organizations; “interesting people and interesting organizations construct complicated theories of themselves.”  Most of the time, we are reasonable entities using all the rational tools to help us formulate goals and decisions, but sometimes, we also need, yes, need, a degree of “foolishness/playfulness,” to act before we think, to wrestle with uncertainty to gain new knowledge.  The constant insistence on reasons, consistency, and purposes limits us to act within what we know.  The occasional “irrational” act relaxes us and may bring us to new territory or new perspectives.

There are may examples of “inventions through accident” and multiple websites that discuss them.  One such “accident” (a form of play?) resulted in Dr. Fleming’s famous discovery of penicillin.  It was through sheer neglect that Dr. Fleming allowed a mound of mold to grow over his Staph Petri dish after going away for a 2-week vacation.  The mold was probably disgustingly looking but it killed the bacteria.  Years later when Dr. Fleming toured a gleaming new medical laboratory in the States — the environment was impeccably clean and probably sterile – when his guide asked what inventions he’d be able to create here, his reply was, “not penicillin!”

a failed experiment on capturing solar energy…now a garden display!

March defines playfulness as “the deliberate, temporary relaxation of rules in order to explore the possibilities of alternative rules.”  Playfulness is both experimentation and reasoning; it has a built-in obligation that it will either be stopped at some point or incorporated into the existing structure.  The rules are only suspended temporarily.  In this context, being playful is NOT (1) mindless party-like activity, (2) self-indulgent deviation from the norm, or (3) pursuit of some mystique balance, e.g. fire-water, gentle-tough.

There are a few concrete guidelines for playful activities:

  1. Treat “goals as hypothesis;” this would allow us to explore alternative goals.
  2. Treat “intuition as real;” this can help free us from constantly justifying our behavior.
  3. Treat “hypocrisy as transition;” this releases us from the bondage of consistency.
  4. Treat “memory as enemy;” this leads us to try something new.
  5. Treat “experience as a theory;” this creates alternative interpretations of what we think we have learned.

If organizations allowed some room for playfulness, imagine that!  Managers don’t have to act as if they always know what to do and what’s going on.  That kind of pressure has to be enormous.  Planning can be much less onerous; if we allow playfulness to change our goals, we don’t need to follow every step in the plan for the next year.  In fact, some of us rather like the notion that planning should be viewed for interpreting past experience rather than laying out steps for the future.  Similarly, we don’t need to tightly specify all the criteria for evaluation because new ideas may intrude at some point!  A more relaxed environment has a higher probability of enabling innovation and creativity.

A few years ago, I consulted for a small art organization.  I recommended the whole staff take a few hours off to view a then-recently released film, “Pan’s Labyrinth.”  In this way, they could spend some “fun” time together (not that the movie was “fun!”), discuss their reactions, and probably gain some insights into their organization.  They didn’t manage to do that but they took my suggestion to heart and pursued some other types of playful activity.  And felt better for it!

If you know of any organizations that encourage playful activities, please share.

yet another creation from my son, at 9…those little pieces come out of the big carrier!

Imagine if our organizations allowed us to play; imagine if we allowed ourselves to wander!  Till you get there…

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

By the way, some of you asked how to alert you whenever this blog has a new entry.  Flattered I am, but don’t really know how… however, with friend’s help and someone’s trial and error, here is a tip:

“when I pasted THAT into Google Reader, voila, now it works!!  🙂  Incidentally, leaving off the “/#” does NOT work but instead results in a subscription to the feed for generic news announcements.”

Do let me know if there are other methods!  Thanks.

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Win-Win, Win-Lose: which one would you prefer?

In today’s space, I’d like to go a bit deeper on competition, a sub-heading from last week’s knowing-doing gap.  This is a concept most Americans embrace without question; it is so taken for granted in this society that most may even consider it as part of human nature.  But there are many other cultures that emphasize cooperation much more (and therefore feel cooperation is natural), enough so that the notion that competition is part of human nature is suspect.

Perhaps a more pertinent framework is to understand when and where to promote competition.   Research has shown that by and large, competition within an organization, while benefitting a few individuals, is unhealthy for overall organizational performance.  However, between organizations, competition can serve as a catalyst for better performance.  A further distinction can be made on the basis of the nature of the task:  Competition can foster higher efficiency for routine tasks within an organization, but should not be the driver for work that is intellectual, innovative, and creative.

We see evidence of internal organizational competitions everywhere:  “employee of the month,” sometimes with the best parking space reserved; ranking employees on forced performance curve, ranking units with “winners” and “losers;” awarding bonuses to only certain people who “won” some accolades.  The list goes one.  And they are all, ALL, based on zero-sum games.  Such an approach might inspire and motivate a few people, especially those who eventually “win,” but the “costs” for those who don’t win can be enormous.  These costs include lower morale for the majority who lose, jealousy and bickering that can bring down overall productivity, turf struggles, etc.  What’s more, remember, winning isn’t the same as succeeding; one person’s reward does not translate into a good product that wins customers and customers’ loyalty.

I call the thinking behind competition typical of scarcity mode.

what’s happening?

This following example comes from the book “The Knowing-Doing Gap” that I summarized last time.  As the computer applications were growing in complexity, to the point where one person alone could not grasp it all, Microsoft tried to emphasize the importance of teamwork.  So, the company advocated sharing information, learning from each other, and working together.  Yet, it failed to implement what it preached; the reward system still favored each individual’s performance.  People might work hard, but they did not share.  And the “forced-curve, zero-sum” salary distribution system meant that helping coworkers to improve productivity may hurt your own raises.  So is it surprising that Microsoft is notorious in releasing bug-laden software?

I am not aware if there have been studies done on Apple’s approach to designing software, but it is widely believed that Apple’s programs are open code and that their products have far less bugs.  Setting aside the possibility that the growing Apple market share comes with a higher rate of bugs, many experts have argued that as a rule, open system for computer design is more effective than a closed system where proprietary information is heavily guarded.

I would say an openly cooperative operation is abundancy mode.

good friends…95lbs & 10lb…it can work

People who choose, or are forced to operate in, scarcity mode typically carry a more cynical attitude, are guarded about details of their work, and are suspicious of their colleagues’ performance.  Those who are comfortable with abundancy mode tend to view their environment in a more global manner, by structuring work in ways that can benefit the group, the unit, and the whole organization.  Recently, I found myself delayed at the airport, by more than one hour.  This isn’t rare these days, but what was rather unusual was that this was Southwest Airlines, which for the most part enjoys a reputation for fewer delays than other airlines, and usually with clear reason such as weather conditions.  At first, we were informed “someone took our airplane!” Later, we finally learned that the plane for another flight had mechanical problems, and the crew made a local decision to use another available plane, ours.  While that still left some customers a bit miffed, by and large, most of us shrugged off the delay and felt sympathetic with those on “our” plane who might have otherwise had to wait a lot longer.  Have you ever noticed that you rarely see an idle Southwest airplane on the tarmac? But often see idle planes bearing other airline logos?

balancing flavors, enhancing taste

Over the years I have heard from many individuals that they are very uncomfortable with external competition; their way of improving themselves is by “competing against” themselves.  They have some internal yardstick against which to measure their own performance and achievements.  But how does one compose this “yardstick?”  After all, all yardsticks are composites of performance levels accumulated by others.  But these “others” against whom one competes internally are not necessarily – and often aren’t – one’s colleagues or even contemporaries.  So, the individual’s gain, in terms of satisfaction and achievement, is not at others’ expense.

I contend that competing against colleagues is relatively easier to manage than competing against oneself.  When competing against others, once the result is in, your task is done…till the next one.  But competing against oneself can lead to a never-ending refinement and modification.  The extreme case is obsession with “perfection.”  How does one distinguish between aiming to be “professional,” “excellent,” and reaching that “perfect/close-to-perfect” product?  For example, at least in the academic world, if there aren’t deadlines, most of us could spend umpteen hours to finish a research project, or a paper to be published.  There are always more data to be collected, more time needed to polish models or equations, more rewrites, etc.  Many years ago, in collecting data for my dissertation, one of my designers said, “if I can ever design a perfect piece, I may as well die.”  So, one continuously walks the line between “professional standards,” “good enough,” and “just one more…”

Part of what I am trying to verbalize is that in abundancy mode, everyone improves without making anyone lose; while in scarcity mode, someone always loses, and therefore the whole improves little if at all.

working with the tree…creating interesting wall

Even at the inter-organizational level, where competition may work better for the organization, there are limits to its benefits.  Should the organization become obsessed with the competition, it would neglect its basic goal of achieving something: new product, new service, improvement … for its customers.  Again, let me stress that winning a competition isn’t necessarily the same as achieving success.  Toyota tends to have loyal customers; it’s not necessarily because their cars are cheaper, it’s because they have the reputation for consistently building quality cars.

One of the key questions in applying the Appreciative Inquiry process is asking the question:  What are you good for?  This is pertinent for both individuals and organizations.  The conventional approach of “what are you good at” only aims for skills development.  But once an organization ponders what it is good for, there is a higher purpose which offers room for more people to contribute, and a greater likelihood that their contributions result from playfulness.

working with leftovers…chocolate chiffon cake, green tea macha swiss buttercream, green tea jello (the only new creation), and whipped cream

So, next time, I will discuss the idea of playfulness within an organization, and for individuals.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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