Archive | December 2010

A Few End-of-the-Year Random Thoughts

enough snow would transform everything

Is it precisely because one does not regard oneself as a leader, or even a potential leader, that one has the real possibility to become a leader?   If true, this is the paradox of true leadership.  I am not going back to discuss leaders or managers, but instead discuss the powers which a manager applies to build and sustain an organization.  Besides, I owe you some positive examples, don’t I?

The funny thing is that pinpointing the specific achievements of really effective leaders, the achievements that make a lasting impression (other than awesome near-term performance e.g. stock values), just isn’t easy.  One of the major reasons is that these leaders (and I will call them leaders, for reasons I will elaborate below) themselves are humble and always credit their employees.  They tend to operate outside the media radar and Wall Street sandbox.  For lack of a better label, they are what Jim Collins calls “level 5 leaders.”  Mr. Collins defines the L-5 leader as someone who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” (p. 20, in “Good to Great:  Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t.”)

a little wet snow goes a long way

The level-5 leaders embody Lao-Tzu’s description, “As for the best leaders, people do not notice their existence…When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” And I add that this type of leader would totally concur with their people’s assertion that they “did it themselves,” without any doubt and reservation.  And that’s why I call these managers/CEOs “leaders.”  They use their powers with discretion and for bigger purposes other than their own satisfaction.

In Mr. Collins’ book, he and his research team pressed these L-5 leaders to specify what they had done that had made their respective organizations perform so well, their usual response was, “it’s luck,” or, “I have great people working here,” or variations of the same themes.  Yes, they might have made some tough decisions that in retrospect made the turning point for their organizations, but by themselves, those decisions were no tougher than other monumental decisions that are recognized and studied.  In fact, sometimes, their decisions were actually ridiculed by the Wall Street pundits.

a level-5 leader?

For example.  Darwin Smith, CEO of the Kimberly-Clark for about 20 years starting in 1971, made the decision of selling off Kimberly-Clark’s core business foundation, its mills.  He reasoned that the core business was doomed to mediocrity.  However, by selling the mills, the company might be forced to focus on consumer paper product business, against the world-class competitor Proctor & Gamble.  This focus forced Kimberly-Clark to aim for greatness (or perish).  Some business analysts deemed the move “stupid,” and Wall Street downgraded its stock.  25 years later, Kimberly-Clark owned Scott Paper, and its six out of eight products were better rated than P&G’s.  In retirement, Mr. Smith reflected that “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job.”  Is it better to have inspired standards or inspired personality?

just another fence…

Another example was the CEO of Abbot Laboratories, Mr. George Cain.  He saw that nepotism was the root cause of the company’s mediocre-to-low performance, and set out to systematically and methodically replace family members with the best qualified people he could find.  Firing family members couldn’t possibly have been a pleasant task!  Letting go people with seniority would be counter-intuitive.  But Mr. Cain’s ambition was for the company, not for himself.   And when Abbot eventually gained ground and its stock rose substantially, the family members forgave Mr. Cain.

Another facet of these quiet L-5 leaders is that by putting the company first, they are likely to find successors that have similar priorities.  In fact, Mr. Collins and his research team found that charismatic managers/CEOs often subconsciously find successors who are likely to fail, and thereby bolster their own images.

where is the level-5 leader?

A further interesting point about these quiet leaders is that all but one of the 11 that were identified by Mr. Collins’ research team came up through the ranks within the companies.  By contrast, whenever the board of directors attempted to bring from outside some flashy personality that would catch the media’s attention, these organizations had a high probability of failure, and failed spectacularly at times.

The outsider-insider divide for high management positions invites another observation, on the implicit assumption that MBA offers a shortcut up the managerial ladder.  But when a person tries to substitute an MBA for on-the-ground education and experience, s/he eventually will fall short; there is no shortcut for grasping an organization’s history, core business, and culture.

just love the snow

Note that the converse isn’t necessarily true; that is:  Absence of flashy personality doesn’t always make a potentially brilliant leader.  But that said, how can level-5 leadership qualities be taught, and learned?  Given the amorphous nature of leadership, there aren’t likely any 10-step programs or 12-points to remember to move up to that level.  One needs to take time, develop keen observational abilities, possess deep levels of self-reflection – to name just a few – to understand how to use powers for the betterment of the organizations, never for oneself.

Related is the issue of the fit between a person and the position to which one aspires.  Most people just are not a good fit with high management positions.  If we don’t collectively deem such lack of fit as “failure,” I think we’d all be better off, for the people as well as for the organizations.  It is difficult to try to find the balance between accepting one’s limitations and pushing oneself for higher goals.  But one can always aspire to higher standards.

from my computer room’s bay window

And then, there are those egotistic and narcissistic types who by definition will never become level-5 leaders.  Oh, by the way, I heard that “narcissistic personality disorder” just got deleted from the latest edition of DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual for Mental Disorder).  Do these people feel slighted, as their inherent self-importance is now clinically ignored?  Should the rest of us feel alarmed that egotism and narcissism are no longer disorders?

doesn’t it look like a crocodile’s head?

Anyway, I wish you all happy holidays.  This is the last entry of 2010.  I will resume the blog on 1/9/2011.  May you be safe, at peace, and contented.

Until 2011,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Management of Power: the Slytherins have won.

don’t fall into them!

In the last entry, I noted that those who craved extreme power are usually portrayed as one dimensional in their villainy and whose use of power was inevitably unidirectional.  This doesn’t happen very often in real life – thank goodness – and probably even less likely within organizations (one hopes).  However, in modern organizations, most managers with real powers do resemble the descriptions of Slytherin House members in the Harry Potter books; by that I mean most managers, especially at the top levels, make their way (acquire their power) through their network of connections and mutual self-interests.

It is not without good reason that the expression “going postal” has unfortunately gained staying power.  I don’t have research evidence to back up this assertion, but:  How many people in your circle of friends and colleagues actually love where they work?  While the majority do not “go postal,” frustration at work places has been mounting.  Recall the recent incident with a Jet Blue flight attendant – he told a passenger off, grabbed some cans of beer and exited the plane via the emergency chute – and by venting in a nonlethal form became a cult hero.  “Going Jet Blue” already appears in the internet UrbanDictionary (beware! Not an uplifting site).

power of (we)ed

Why do I mention this? and Why do I think that Slytherins have taken over? Especially in the context of my advocacy of Appreciative Inquiry? I have ideals, but I am not blind to reality.  Most of this organizational frustration affects people working in medium to large organizations.  It doesn’t mean that the smaller enterprises are free from abusive managerial power demonstrations, but in general, large organizations share similar management problems.  And the Slytherin orientation largely applies to the top tier of executives and CEOs; it is rare that people would move to that level without demonstrating that they have similar lineage of schooling and have moved around in the “right” circle of friends and colleagues.  Remember Slytherin’s emphasis the importance of pure blood, and Hogwart’s Sorting Hat’s stanza

You’ll make your real friends,

Those cunning folk use any means

To achieve their ends.

  • From the “sorting hat’s song” in the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

powerline trail

While extreme-based power does not course through organization corridors unchecked, and certainly not for long, there are plenty of managers who would use a  combination of secrecy, fear, innuendo, concealed threats, and half-truths to subtly (and often not so subtly) move subordinates to do the work, and to grow his/her power base for the sub-unit s/he manages.  I sometimes think that a controlling boss is worse than a downright nasty one, the latter being one I have more legitimacy to rebel against or fight.  However, if one feels powerless in one’s job or choice of jobs, then, it doesn’t much matter how bad the boss may be.

The large R&D organization with which I have some familiarity belongs to the Department of Energy (DOE).  Its organizational structure is heavily top-down, with each of the senior managers sitting on his/her silo-like mini empire.  I say “silo” precisely because each director has little incentive to consider working with others to create some synergy, especially when the top leader is but a weak and thoroughly harassed bureaucrat who would concede to anything desired by the DOE.  In turn the structure of DOE is itself profoundly dysfunctional; everyone from middle management up seems to be only about keeping and growing his/her pot of money and kingdom of grantees.  But back to the local lab.   One particular senior manager (let’s call him Tom) owns the organization mission of compliance for safety and security.  Tom is a very smart and decent man.  But what he does, what he feels compelled to do, is: hold his cards very close (secrecy); make sure that his empire gets high performance reviews (bonus this year and more budget next year); focus on enforcing all the compliance rules (more power); all to the detriment of scientific research.  Where scientists might devote 80% of their time to actual research work, they actually need to devote 50% of the work week to filling out forms, attending meetings, watching their surroundings.  If an innocent accident happened, there would be a “critique” (remember Communist China?) whose meetings could go on for weeks before making recommendations.  And often the recommendations would become more rules to be followed, even if DOE doesn’t demand them.  Not even a dog would go looking for such ways to further restrict himself!

So, Tom does this, in the name of assuring good safety and security performance.  He does hear and seems to understand the needs of other senior managers whose missions are scientific work.  He makes appropriately sympathetic noises (half-truths) about their needs and desires but science continues to be irrelevant to his real mission.  He courts good relationships with the director (cunning) and with the director’s DOE bosses (very cunning).  And since DOE’s annual review emphasizes safety and security, Tom feels vindicated by winning good marks, after all they’re for the good of the whole organization.  Instead of taking on an advocate’s role on behalf of the whole organization to fend off the more foolish DOE’s demands, he not only goes along with them, but actually augments them when it suits his real mission.  It’s all about his real mission (him).  In a fragmented organization where separate silos do not have incentives to complement each other, Tom’s priorities and methods are understandable.   But not forgivable.   In the face of what he could have achieved for the whole, he chooses to use his powers for his own good.  And he knows it, as do the scientists.  Jet Blue, here we come.

don’t grab it…those aren’t harmless threads

Most managers are not purely evil or bullying as portrayed in fiction.  In reality, they have more complex personalities, behavior and motivation.  However, the archetypal descriptions do give us some rules of thumb by which to gauge our work environment.  Speaking of rules of thumb, Robert Sutton of Stanford University wrote a book titled, “The No Asshole Rule,” about spotting assholes (those who use bullying power):

  • Test One:  After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target” feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person?  In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?
  • Test Two:  Does the alleged asshole aim his/her venom at people who are less powerful (Mr. Sutton’s emphasis) rather than at those people who are more powerful?  (pg 9)

A manager doesn’t have to scream, yell, or use nasty words to make subordinates feel oppressed or enervated.  Sarcastic tone or innuendos would do just fine.  But I think the most telling is when managers behave very differently depending on the power status of the audience.  So, while these rules may be written specifically about “assholes,” the answers to these yardstick questions don’t have to be just yes/no; different degrees under “yes” would be indicative.

A simple example on a small scale illustrates my point: A manager who deliberately keeps someone waiting way past the appointed time is being a bully.  I have known managers who actually didn’t do anything serious, perhaps signing some papers, or reading non-urgent documents, while keeping people waiting for another 15 minutes or beyond.  To what end, other than throwing around managerial weight, just because they could?  Most of them use this power to reinforce their importance (power), probably without thinking, not realizing that they are being bullying.  Inevitably, behind such display of power is a sense of insecurity.  In such cases, the bullying behavior probably is the least troublesome; more insidious is the accumulated effects of various power abuses on the person at receiving end.

Is there ever a need to use bullying power?

I came across this fable, “The legend of the Two Wolves;” I really like it.

An elder was teaching his grandchildren about life.  He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me; it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.  One wolf is evil – he is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, competition, superiority, and ego.  The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.  This same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person too.”  They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf will win?’  The old man simply replied, ‘THE ONE YOU FEED.’”






one type of feeding



Harry Potter’s first choice was to disarm his opponents (“expelliarmus”) whereas Voldemort’s was to kill (“Avada Kedavra”), be they enemies or innocent bystanders.  So, my problem with a lot of managers is that they don’t make distinctions in applying their powers; they don’t think hard enough to realize and grasp the long-range impact of the decisions they make on people’s will to contribute, and even on their lives, both inside and outside of the organizations.

a different type of feeding

Today’s entry is downright depressing.  My apologies; sometimes, I need to vent a little.  I’ll relate some positive images next time.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The Hogwarts School of Management: Powers!

I often find that good novel writers seem to have the innate ability to grasp complex aspects of human nature and render them in intricate and frequently gripping storytelling.  Whereas social scientists, having spent much money and time conducting research (novel writers do research as well, albeit in much less sterile conditions), sifting through and analyzing mounds of data, participating in debates and discussions, then produce these dry-dry-dry research papers.  Of course, it is not fair to compare two completely different genres, but it does make one wonder.

This isn’t my topic today!

Today I write regarding J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series.  Many interesting discussions of power in these pages can be applied to the study of organizations and management.

I warn you:  My imagination and writing cannot come even close to Ms. Rowling’s magic.  But I’ll try not to be too dry and boring.  And if you haven’t bothered with Rowling’s work already, today’s musing may not appeal to you.

Different situations call for different leadership styles, and so it is with the use of power.  Some people are intrinsically hungry for power and others use power only when confronted by situations.  I won’t go into the psychology of why some are power hungry – I think we all have theories based on our daily encounters – but I assume that most of us exercise power at one point or another throughout our lives.

Extreme Power Display is Uni-directional and Uni-dimensional

One of the first things that struck me about Lord Voldemort’s power trip is that it is fairly one-dimensional, like a lot of villains in both fictitious and real worlds.  They just desire it, and a LOT of it, and all for themselves.  Total Power = Total Control.  We see it in Voldemort, in Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, in Hitler, in Mao Zedong, etc.  Have you ever wondered what would these monsters do when they actually got all those powers?  Just how much more destructive could one enjoy being? How many murders would satisfy them?  How much material would satiate them? What do they want next?  Perhaps it is because their hunger is so great that their continuous desire to exhibit their power makes them seem one-dimensional, even though the paths by which they have acquired their power are varied and fascinating because these paths are inevitably sordid.  (We do like sordid stories!)

What all of these super villains share is the base of their power: fear.  As much as Voldemort’s hunger for power is insatiable, so also is the fear he engendered in both his followers and innocent bystanders.  This is not to say that Harry, Hermione, and Ron weren’t afraid of him, but their fear was specifically targeted and manageable.  Innocent bystanders couldn’t grapple with their fear; they didn’t know where the fear resided and they didn’t possess the knowledge or the means with which to defend themselves and others.  The unknown and the uncertainty paralyzed them, to the point of not even daring to refer him by his proper name.   And how about Voldemort’s followers, all the Death Eaters?  While they themselves were powerful, their boss was much more powerful.  What’s more, they also desired to have more and more power, and “reasoned” that only by following Voldemort would they get more.  Insatiability can turn a person inside out.  But ironically, the Voldemort type of fear-based power is all about him; he was the only beneficiary and he would never share significant power with “his” Death Eaters.

Secrecy-based power is a close cousin of fear-based power:  However, it depends on what you do with the secrets.

The Dursleys’ biggest secret was also their biggest fear; that they had witches and wizards for relatives.  Their secret became all consuming:  It dictated their conforming behavior and it gave them justification for controlling Harry Potter.  If Harry and his mother were not in the Dursleys’ lives, the Dursleys might have demonstrated their controlling behavior in other manners; they might still want to conform (to whatever standards they deemed “right”), but their motivation might not have been as strong and their bad behavior might have been tempered.  Not Harry’s nor his mother’s fault, but it was these relationships from which the need for secrecy became the driving force for the Dursleys.

But Dumbledore also kept secrets from Harry too, so why wasn’t he as remotely obnoxious to Harry as the Dursleys?  For one major difference, Dumbledore didn’t need to keep the secret to preserve his power.  Yes, occasionally, Harry was mad at Dumbledore for not confiding in him.  But Dumbledore was a skillful teacher and sometimes, teachers have to be manipulative.  After all, it is much easier to just catch that damn fish and feed it to the student, yes?  To impart skills into another human being, to ignite interest in acquiring those skills in the same human being, and to stand aside so that the person learning the skills can take the time to absorb the lessons, all require a subtle play of offering and withholding information (i.e. secrets).  Not unlike fishing. With Dumbledore, the boundary between withholding and offering evolved with Harry’s gradual awakening.  With the Dursleys, there was only withholding; they saw deprivation as their only weapon.  Dumbledore’s use of deprivation was a means to lead Harry to the places where he could gain his own insight.

guardians of what?

Then, there is the purely bully power.Bully power is embodied in Draco Malfoy and his cronies.  Of course, one could argue that Voldemort was a bully too; after all, a bully strikes fear in the victim.  However, Voldemort was extremely skillful and intelligent in applying his skills to manipulate, to strike, to conquer.  He would be more like Dumbledore than he was like Draco.  The bully relies only on brute power, sheer mean spirit and strength.  Where Draco lacked the strength, he made up with his two bulky minions.  Draco also had no qualms about using his family’s history for bragging points.  Generally, there are strategies behind villains’ use of fear to gain power; bullies simply enjoy beating up others, mentally and physically, and their satisfaction is immediate and transient.  One can avoid bullies for periods of time; one might also out-maneuver bullies.  But fear-based power can sustain its grip on people even in the physical absence of the person wielding such power.

Draco’s character was largely annoying and obnoxious, but he gained more interesting notice later on as he attempted to use cunning to gain attention.  He didn’t strike me as desiring a lot of power then, but certainly a lot of attention.

Dudley Dursley was an even more pure bully than Malfoy; no thought accompanied his nasty behavior toward Harry.  He was parroting his parents.  Harry was not happy living with these people, but he was not afraid of them; rather, he viewed them as pathetic and a joke.  Harry almost never saw himself as a victim.

a pretty flower is better than an empty mind

Vacuity-based power!! Imagine that!

Who can forget the empty-headed, celebrity-seeking, self-glorifying but good-looking Gilderoy Lockhart, the Defense-Against-Dark-Arts teacher?   Or, the poison-pen reporter, Rita Skeeter? who had no trouble using innuendo to create a different sort of vacuum into which people could insert their own imagined stories?  So, flashy appearances can be powerful too; flash may not last long, but often causes damage that can last longer than do the persons using such power.  However, if followers weren’t blinded by the flash, these people wouldn’t be able to wield such power.  So, while the person possessing the power may be vacuous, s/he does have to know how to read the (potential) followers’ desires.

Trust-based power engenders respect and growth in others.

This of course was largely embodied by Dumbledore, not just toward Harry, but toward all the other people around him, including the seemingly sneaky Snape, the occasional bumbling Hagrid, and many others.  Longbottom’s courage grew with the series but was first recognized by Dumbledore for his standing up to Harry, Hermione, and Ron in the first book of the series.  Dumbledore was the epitome of Appreciative Inquiry, always seeing the positive sides of a person and giving them plenty room to grow into and develop those strengths.  While Appreciative Inquiry might strike some as a bit too saccharine (it isn’t; that’s likely to be our cynical side giving such a descriptor), Dumbledore never wavered in his commitment to fight against the Dark Lord.

I always felt that Dumbledore’s fight against the evil figures in the books was never mean-spirited, gloriously rendered, spectacularly exhibited, or greatly publicized (by himself).  Yes, he was manipulative, but he was fallible, and was the first one to recognize his own dark side.  It was precisely his recognition of his ambition for power that decided him never to take the “Ministry of Magic” job.

a good contrast!

In contrast, Voldemort could never understand the principle of trust (nor love).  When Malfoy Senior and Bellatrix “let him down” by “allowing” Harry and his friends to escape, his reaction was, “their stupidity and carelessness prove how unwise it is ever to trust,” thereby assuring that his followers would never “grow” under him; his followers could only at best not repeat the same mistakes.  Of course, if a villain could understand trust and even embrace it, s/he wouldn’t be a villain in the first place.

Power Sharing/Situational Power display:  The triumvirate’s accidental and reluctant show of powers

At first glace, the power bases of our three heroes, Harry, Ron, & Hermione, were straightforward:  Harry’s in his courage, Hermione’s in her book knowledge, and Ron’s in …comic relief?  It’s easy to dismiss Ron’s importance, but his trust in the friendships with the other two, and theirs in him, was the solid foundation for Harry to be ever more courageous.  Harry wasn’t spectacularly brilliant; he was smart, enough to grasp the nuances of life, but eventually he learned to trust his instinct in many situations, led by Dumbledore, the fiercely loyal friends, and his love for his parents, without which his instincts might not have been as powerful.

Hermione might be great in book learning, but she was in the thick of the action all the way, despite her better judgment at times.  Ron might be a sidekick, but try to imagine this whole saga without him!  The complimentary nature of the trio is worth noting; we often neglect that which is NOT in our appreciation of what it IS.  It is at the intersection of what is and is NOT that we gain a sense of true identity, such as Muggle vs. wizard/witch, offense vs. defense (why would there be defense in the absence of offense?), safety vs. risk, etc.  When Ron ran away from the other two for a while in their final battle, he immediately realized his folly.  These three friends helped make each other who they were.

Throughout the series, these three friends always took turns to lead (in figuring out how to rescue the Soccer’s Stone or break through the Chamber of Secrets), to take risks (wearing the locket containing one of the Horcruxes), or to figure out what’s needed at the moment.  The best example of the interplay among these three was when Harry relinquished the Gryffindor sword to Ron to destroy one of the Horcruxes:  Even when Ron was wavering and sidetracked by Voldermort’s manipulation (through the Horcrux), Harry never attempted to take over the task.  Later when Dumbledore met Harry at King’s Cross, he said, “…perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.  Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.”  Not that any of the three wanted to keep on wearing such cloth!

Now, the followers.

these little gems help steady the flower arrangemen

When leaders are absent, there are those amongst the followers who would and could step in and become leaders.  When the trio returned to Hogwarts to find the final Horcrux, they found Longbottom and Ginny Weasley had lead the students in various rebellious acts against the Dark Lord’s cadre of teachers and rules.  When Harry had to pretend to be dead in Hagrid’s arms, it was Longbottom who came charging at Voldemort.  Charging at Voldemort!!  And it was Longbottom who destroyed the last Horcrux, getting some pleasure out of leadership role by slicing off a snake’s (Nagani’s) head using Gryffindor sword!

Voldemort’s followers, the Death Eaters, could never have stepped in to assume his place.  First, Voldemort wouldn’t allow it.  Second, without any trust that allowed Death Eaters to “grow,” they could never see the whole battle in any purposeful manner.  So, third, when their leader was gone, they had no one and no purpose to follow, because it was always about Voldemort.

There are other forms of power under “followers,” such as what Dementors and house elves possessed, to name only just two.  Another time perhaps.

Power begets power, but where does it stop?  By not seeking power actively, one may possess more power, and by not using power wantonly, one may know how to exert the right kind of power when the situation demands it.  The key is always trying to learn.  Broad knowledge comes in handy.  One of the passages that resonated with me toward the end of the saga was Dumbledore’s explanation to Harry of the difference between Harry’s and Voldemort’s command of power,

“And his [Voldemort’s] knowledge remained woefully incomplete, Harry!  That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend.  Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing.  Nothing. (italics in the original)  That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”

So, by attempting to destroy the child of the prophecy, Voldemort’s own fear set the stage for his ultimate destruction.

unexpected shot of contrast

Fiction or not, the lessons and principles are real.  I will use some real examples next time.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent