Executives ≠ Leaders; Business Operations ≠ Government Operations; Business Executives ≠ Political Leaders

“We must reject the idea – well-intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.’” — from Jim Collins’ “Good to Great and the Social Sectors

(“Social sectors” can be easily replaced with “government agencies.”)

When I first read that passage, I wanted to dance a jig. Finally, someone well known and highly respected for his ability to bridge academics to practice says something that I, with little public reputation, have been arguing for quite some time.

imgres-2While a great leader – with talent manifested in a track record of sound judgment and excellent decisions outcomes – may be able to transfer her talents from business to social sectors and government, the entities themselves are not quite comparable. Using Mr. Collins’ language, both the input and output of business operations is money. In government operations, money is only an input; the output measurement is largely effectiveness. Furthermore, many functions and objectives within a government may compete with each other, such as environmental concerns versus energy production.  Comparatively speaking, focusing on only making money seems more straightforward.

When a business runs into trouble, it allocates money to finding solutions, fixing things, and/or generating PR campaigns – in real time. A government agency doesn’t get to allocate money easily, or quickly. A typical business executive may choose from a diverse range of options for any issue at hand, and most of the time, the boss doesn’t need to consult with others beyond those few the boss likes. The president of United States has to work with many body collectives; within his inner circle, he may occasionally get pushback, but outside of the West Wing, the opposition has grown fiercer over the decades. Being tough is a requirement for the US presidency, but it doesn’t give anyone the right to shout louder, talk incessantly with made-up stuff, and insult others with impunity.

Many candidates of this year’s presidential campaign have been making racist, misogynistic, inflammatory, and simply false statements. These people would have been fired long ago had they been employed in private companies or public sector entities. Yet, one of them is now the presumptive nominee in one of the major parties in our country, which is regarded as the leader of the free world. For now.

More importantly, on the matter of running government as a business, as one writer, John Harvey, argues well in a 2012 Forbes leadership column, “not everything that is profitable is of social value and not everything of social value is profitable.” The various government agencies have different types of functions and purposes, but their purposes are not to make profits. And even if we debate till our faces are blue, we cannot ever agree on which agency and which function should be privatized. Further, to think that somehow private businesses are more efficient – think about hospitals, phone companies, most airlines, your local cable company, to name only a few – is just not realistic.

In today’s private industry, many large-ish companies run like government: top-down decision-making, little transparency, little attention to consumers’ voices, blatant intrusion into our privacy…etc. Market mechanism doesn’t recognize morality and it isn’t always effective in checking and catching abusers and cheaters, from both within and without. How many colossal private industry meltdowns do we have to go through before this lesson is learned? Should we take that kind of risk in running our government like business?

I am by no means arguing against checking the efficiency and effectiveness of government, but the metrics for measurement are not readily transferrable from private sector to government, certainly not without careful calibration. Running a government and operating a business are fundamentally different. In fact, many government agencies’ budgets are so constraining (with most employees’ pay, especially most senior executives’ pay, at much lower levels than private industries) that from a financial perspective, perhaps some of these agencies are more efficient than private businesses?!imgres-1

Again, it’s not that government cannot learn a thing or two from private industries…or vice versa. Let’s just not mindlessly associate private industry’s practices with virtue and government’s practices with evil. And if we really want some business executives (with true leadership qualities) to lead our government agencies or branches, let’s choose executives who have a history of wisdom instead of self-indulgence, who recognize talent over sycophancy, who show a willingness to work with other wise people, who exhibit breadth of knowledge and passion for truth, and feel deep compassion for all people. Such leaders would have a higher probability of creating effectiveness, financially or otherwise.

Most of today’s politicians deserve the scorn from the general public. They are as responsible for the rampant bureaucratic waste as the executives and managers running the various agencies. However, when it comes to government waste, we the voters have to take some responsibilities. These “wastes” are totally socially constructed reality. It seems that a good portion of people use the term only on the programs with which they disagree. The left thinks the defense budgets are wasteful corporate welfare, and the right thinks the Affordable Care Act is wasteful public welfare. Who’s right?!

Eric Schnurer in The Atlantic points out that most of us have some pet government programs we want to keep while eliminating others. While many have complained about the growing federal budget and “wasteful” programs, by and large, the ones we might consider giving up would amount to a miniscule dent in the budget. And how do we go about agreeing on what’s truly “wasteful” and to be eliminated? “The public — not just here, but everywhere — demands a wide range of government services. On the other hand, the public is unwilling to pay for the government it demands. Yes, that means taxes.

images-4And just about all experts, and non-experts too, agree that indiscriminately cutting budgets across the board is the most inane way to go about reducing our waste. Yet, that’s exactly what Congress has given us, through “sequestration.” In the meantime, we think building a wall across our southern border is a wise way of spending money? (Hint: Rome tried that on its northern border in Britain, China tried that on its northern border in Asia, Russia tried it on its western border in Berlin, France on its eastern border with Germany. Admittedly, nobody seems to have tried it on its southern border, so maybe that will work better.) Strangely, these days, it seems the comedians have a better grasp of the nuances of public policy. For another perspective on building this wall, please take some time to view John Oliver’s delivery on the topic.

In general, I have avoided talking about politics in this space. However, the pervasive insistence that business operators know better how to run our government in the face of evidence to the contrary, has compelled me to cross the line. I am sure I have overlooked many aspects, so I invite you to help me learn more in this area.

Till next time,

Staying Sane (and Calm) and Charging Ahead.

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Wishful Thinking; Magical Thinking; Idealism; Reality: We seem to lose our ability to distinguish these categories

I try; I’ve really tried, and I truly want to hold onto appreciative mode of thinking. But these days reality frequently bites me with reminders of why so many people in our society, or for that matter, in the rest of the world, have become cynical.

Last week, Ted Cruz chose Carly Fiorina as his VP running mate in the GOP presidential campaign.

Snake has more grace than some humans.

Snake has more grace than some humans.

Professor Jeff Pfeffer, of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, once described Fiorina succinctly, “[even] people who have presided over catastrophes suffer no negative consequences. On the contrary, Ms Fiorina, who by any objective measure was a horrible CEO, is running for president on her business record. I love it! . . . You can’t make this stuff up — it’s too good!” Perhaps Mr. Cruz thinks that Ms. Fiorina could help other businesses understand how not to fail?!

Oh, what am I thinking? That would require a degree of humility to acknowledge one’s mistakes. Humility in today’s leadership? either in organizations or in politics?!

The aforementioned Professor Pfeffer is one of the prominent scholars in the management field. He’s studied countless organizations and leaders/managers. He and his colleague, Robert Sutton, have written many books that are good reading for both academics and practitioners, of which “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense” was the basis for several of my earlier posts (here & here). Pfeffer’s latest book is titled, “Leadership BS.” According to the Financial Times writeup, even some of Pfeffer’s colleagues think that he has become too cynical, focusing too much on the “scorpions, spiders and cockroaches” of D- or F-rated leaders. Hmmmm…first, let’s not call these D/F-rated managers or politicians “leaders.” Second, only the cockroach should be used as the reference; the other species actually serve a purpose in the ecosystem. Pfeffer’s defense is: He relates what the data inform him.

In Professor Pfeffer’s view, we want to imbue inspirational qualities in the images of ideal leaders, qualities such as authenticity, consideration, humility, etc. But the majority of the managers in his studies do not live up to this inspirational image. This doesn’t negate the existence of a few truly inspirational leaders with abundant humility. Pfeffer himself has named a few inspirational leaders in his years of studying leadership. Jim Collins’ books, for example “From Good to Great,” illustrate some of the quiet type of leaders; yet, Mr. Collins has highlighted many charismatic, pseudo-inspirational leaders who focus on their own satisfaction rather than serve the good of the people in their organizations. Nonetheless, I take Pfeffer’s point that genuinely inspirational leaders are few and far between. By building up the “shoulds” in the leadership attributes while neglecting the reality, we (who like to write about or teach these topics) do a disservice for our audience and help create the disenchantment that’s been festering in our society. It is but one source for the loss of our collective trust in our management and leadership.

Another strand of criticism laid against Professor Pfeffer is that by focusing on the narcissistic leaders/managers, he is essentially condoning those who hoard power. Pfeffer argues that there are always those who hunger for power; we cannot ever eliminate that; it’s part of human nature. Nor can we wish it away by only focusing on the few inspirational leaders. We may try to contain the abuse of power, but hierarchy is part of our DNA where power is a tool. What his research has done is to help us understand how people acquire and keep power. Pfeffer uses the examples of President Lincoln and Nelson Mandela to illustrate that even true leaders have to lie and manipulate in order to achieve what they perceive as “higher” purposes.   As for how to use power for better purposes, for the greater good of the public, answers lie in our upbringing, our philosophical leaning, the kind of peer and social circles we have, etc.

Snake or twig?

Snake or twig?

And oh, by the way, just because someone can lie and manipulate masterfully, or even seemingly so, doesn’t make that person a shining example of a “leader.” Especially if at the end of the lying and manipulating, there is little evidence of accomplishment for anyone but him/herself…that’s simply someone drunk on power; it’s called “being Voldemort.”

Ultimately, what we look for in leadership is judgment exhibited in the track record. It isn’t just successes we want, but also the quality of these successes…as well as the nature and circumstances of failures. Making tough decisions is not the relevant metric; if (say) three out of five tough decisions lead to impressive failures then “the ability to make tough decisions” is hardly a bragging point – a tossed coin could have done better. Tanking a Fortune 500 company might be worth, say, five-fold failure.

According to Professor Pfeffer’s research, the data on the quality of leadership do not back up what the business schools teach or what the leadership industry advises. Should we give up? Of course not, but a healthy dose of realistic examination would be valuable. In fact, Pfeffer and Sutton have another book calling for such practice, “Evidence-Based Management Principles.

Robert Townsend in his book “Up The Organization,” offers an easier and much less costly method of assessing a good leader. “How do you spot a leader? They come in all ages, shapes, sizes, and conditions. Some are poor administrators, some are not overly bright. One clue: since most people per se are mediocre, the true leader can be recognized because, somehow or other, his people consistently turn in superior performances.(Highlight mine)

A genteel dog in real life.

A genteel dog in real life.

Regardless of the method we choose to assess leaders, the evidence clearly demonstrates that some of the business operators who attempt to enter into politics do not possess a good track record. Yet because they themselves have not suffered terribly in the business world, their narcissism leads them to think they know better. Hence the public cynicism. It seems there are no consequences for executives’ bad behavior and decisions. Ms. Fiorina was fired, but enjoyed a golden parachute of millions in compensation and stock options. Mr. Trump has filed four bankruptcies, but is touted as successful billionaire. As many have pointed out, had Mr. Trump just sat on his inheritance, he’d accrued more asset than what he currently claims to possess. In addition, having 1,300 lawsuits involving Trump and/or his companies since 2000 isn’t exactly a positive reflection on the quality of his business, is it?

Still, many keep arguing for a business operator to run the largest government on this planet. The assumptions for such a wish are fallacious. I will address these assumptions in the next post. Till then,

Staying Sane (and Calm) and Charging Ahead.

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Follow-up on Introvert-Extrovert

Introverts aren’t automatically shy; shy people aren’t always introverts. And there are shy extroverts, truly.

My articles on introversion-extraversion* seemed to have struck a nerve with many readers, particularly the introverts. Not a surprise, since by definition, introverts generally wouldn’t be compelled to speak up themselves. However, from various comments and conversations, I feel the need to clarify and distinguish between introversion and shyness. Of course, these two concepts overlap, but they are fundamentally different. In Susan Cain’s “Quiet,” which has provided much of the material for my articles, she explains the differences, “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.” Her distinction is further articulated by a neuroscientist, “Shyness is a behavior; it is being fearful in a situation. Whereas introversion is a motivation; it is how much you want and need to be in those social interactions.”


Many people seem to have equated their feeling of inadequacy and awkwardness in social situations during their teenage years with introversion. As teenagers, about to enter into the adult social world — wholly different from anything they have known – it’s natural to feel uncomfortable interacting with adults. To further complicate the teens’ internal struggle for their nascent identity, the social codes of peers can also make them feel like outcasts, sometimes even among those “popular” ones. All this can overlap with true introversion. However, ultimately, it’s the feeling of joy in a solitary environment that partly defines introversion. If a teen feels that she has to adapt to solitude, that alone isn’t sufficient to establish that she must be an introvert.

Our struggles through our teen years sometimes can lead us to label ourselves erroneously. For the longest time, I would tell people that I have a very bad temper. It wasn’t till I was in my 30s, working on my PhD, when a fellow graduate student – a good friend – looked at me with exasperation in his voice, and asked, “Where in the world did you get that idea about yourself?” I paused, and answered, “My family.” From that “aha” moment, I have never since allowed that image to define myself.

My point is that there are always many nuances behind social concepts, labels, or principles.

Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton Business School, demystifies “5 Myths About Introverts And Extroverts.” They are:

  1. “Extroverts are better salespeople than introverts
  2. Extroverts are better networkers than introverts
  3. Extroverts are better leaders than introverts
  4. Introverts are plagued by public speaking anxiety
  5. Extroverts get energy from social interaction, whereas introverts get energy from privately reflecting on their thoughts and feelings.”

All but one of Grant’s explanations resonates with me; it’s the last one and I’ll come to it later.

Bark of a skinny tree.

Bark of a skinny tree.

I have written about ambiverts being the best salespeople, and how the quieter and more understated level-5 leaders are more effective than charismatic or flamboyant ones; therefore, I need little convincing to accept that introverts can be quite effective in any social situations when they choose to. An introvert’s network may not be as extensive as an extrovert’s – and even this is debatable — yet the network offers diversity and quality connections, which are necessary for effective networking.

Feeling anxious in public speaking is more related to shyness than to introversion-extraversion. Susan Cain offers the example of Barbara Streisand as a shy extrovert and Bill Gates and a calm (or, non-shy) introvert. We can’t always tell the difference from appearances. A shy person may not feel comfortable speaking up in a meeting; an introvert simply may not feel compelled to speak in a meeting. Similar behaviors, but from different sources of being. I learned that the recently deceased David Bowie, whose groundbreaking stage performance was the equal part of his success as a rock star, for the longest time abhorred going on stage. His preference was to do the design and song writing but have someone else sing and perform. Who’d have thought?! Of course, there are countless examples of performers who have used performance to overcome their shyness.

The Quiet author, Susan Cain herself is both an introvert and a shy person, but you wouldn’t know from her TED talk – one of the top five most viewed. To overcome her anxiety for the TED talk, she employed a performance coach ahead of her scheduled talk, to teach her how to control her breathing, and critique her numerous trial runs. Now she’s one of the most engaged public speakers, traveling all over the world. And each presentation has helped her desensitize her fear and make her more at ease. So, one can overcome anxiety but one does not need to overcome and compensate one’s introversion.

The myth that I struggle with is the one where introverts recharge by being alone while extroverts rely on social interactions. What Grant points out is that we are all social beings, and introverts can gain energy from social interactions as well. Grant elaborates further:

  • “Introverts spend about the same amount of time with other people as extroverts, and enjoy it just as much.
  • When people are randomly assigned to act extroverted or introverted, extroverts and introverts alike experience greater energy when they talk more.
  • Extroverts report the most energy when they’re being talkative and assertive–but so do introverts.”
It's part of a gnarly tree trunk.

It’s part of a gnarly tree trunk.

Social beings need social interactions. True enough, then, what distinguish between introverts and extroverts? It’s the sensitivity to stimulation. So, all things being equal, introverts would get exhausted more quickly than extroverts in social interactions. Well…that negates all the points listed above. No? Personally, I question the application of the premise that “we are all social beings; we all fundamentally need to belong.” While the premise may be valid as a general principle, it does not necessarily hold for everyone, nor to the same extent.

Ultimately, regardless of one’s “types”– everyone possesses several — we aim to be at peace with ourselves.

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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* According to Scott Barry Kaufman, “extrAversion” is more appropriate than “extrOversion” and accurate, most likely what Carl Jung would have intended. In principle, I probably should have used extravert, but that usage is almost non-existent, and so I will continue using extrovert. Academics!

The Social Psychology of The “Spock” Phenomenon

It tugged at my heart when I read the news that Leonard Nimoy died, at age 83. Mr. Nimoy’s “Spock” character in the short-lived but long-lasting impactful Star Trek series definitely fulfilled his destiny to “live long and prosper.” And based on various accounts, Mr. Nimoy was a fine, multi-talented human being. I am by no means a sci-fi aficionado, but I have enjoyed a few sci-fi books, movies, and TV shows. As a social scientist, I am always intrigued by the social psychological aspects of these stories (the scientific propositions, though fascinating and certainly fun to speculate, can be at times too fantastic).

imagesSeen through modern lens, and perhaps even from the perspective of the late 60s when the series ran, Star Trek seemed campy. So why and how did the series gain such faithful followers? I don’t mean just the generic “crazy” fans, but people who were, and still are, genuinely engaged in the episodes and characters. While each character in the series captured audiences’ hearts and souls, the half human – half Vulcan Spock definitively won a much larger reception worldwide. From the “readers’ comments” to articles on Mr. Nimoy’s death (sample of readings listed below), I lost count of how many expressing sentiment such as, “You inspired me to pursue science.” According to Mr. Nimoy’s account of his own encounters with fans over the decades, that was a common refrain. A TV series, a fictitious character, somehow manages to produce such a lasting impact that reaches across the globe. A teacher’s wildest dream. Or, as Mr. Spock would say about such a phenomenon, “Fascinating.”

I am sure that the timing of the series had something to do with it, being a decade after Sputnik. While Sputnik had already sparked an uptick in the country’s collective fever for scientific study, Star Trek ignited growing young minds’ imagination in a way that Sputnik did not. Spock embodies “the logical scientist” without messy human emotional baggage. Yet his thirst for knowledge also includes understanding human emotions. He doesn’t always accept these emotions, but he tries to learn about them. As a result, Spock is never clueless, and he made being smart truly cool.

There have been many comments on the “diversity” impact of the series, again embodied by Spock. Because of his inter-species background, many people of minority backgrounds have sought comfort, inspiration, and wisdom in the character. It is usually his unemoting deliberation when explaining social psychological dynamics that allows reason and dignity to coexist. So, while the Spock character is an invention and “unreal,” somehow, he comes across totally believable. And Captain Kirk was right to say that of all the souls he had known, Spock was the most human.images-1

Personally, I find in the Spock character a pursuit of purpose and determination to make a difference in the universe that is most engaging. And he would pursue making changes by changing circumstances rather than throwing his weight around. He never uses “because I am smart (or, my IQ is N, in the stratosphere)” to stop or win an argument, even though he was almost always right. He was never self-centered but always listened to others’ ideas…before refuting them logically. Yet, he was willing to concede in matters that were emotional, illogical, irrational, without denigrating his human counterparts. Compared to the current crop of TV shows that pretend to celebrate the cerebral talents of self-absorbed infants (I am thinking of Sheldon Cooper of “The Big Bang Theory”), Spock is the genius with genuine mature humanity. For every scientist out there inspired by Spock, Cooper probably lost three.

Granted the Spock character was not invented by Mr. Nimoy but by Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original TV series, yet, it was Mr. Nimoy who brought Spock to life, and made him more real than Roddenberry’s original writing. Like many fans, I cherish Star Trek, and particularly the unique Spock. And in learning a little bit more about Mr. Nimoy, I am thankful that such a beautiful human being walked among us for a while.

I wonder what effects Star Trek would have on the current generation. What do you think?

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Suggested Readings:

Versus, Either-Or: It’s a lazy way of thinking

blue ballsIn management talks, one common framing is “leaders vs. managers,” or, “leadership vs. management.” Many managers like to think that they are leaders when they can’t even manage well. And most self-proclaimed leaders think that managing is beneath them. Clearly, in our minds we assign values to these two roles. Yet, true leaders, with humility, spend valuable time understanding the people around them, their work, and the context; wise managers value the knowledge of how work is done and think holistically. In great leaders, we see their managerial talents, and in great managers, we see their leadership qualities. Pitting one category against the other feeds small-minded egos, and often results in unfortunate decisions and counterproductive policies.

More importantly, leadership qualities and management skills can be manifested in anyone without carrying any titles, depending on the context and situation. One doesn’t have to be a team leader to lead a project. There are many aspects involved in executing a project, and at any given time, someone, anyone, can seize the opportunity to lead with her suggestions or ideas. Or, one can take the lead in networking, scouting resources, or trouble-shooting during any phase of a project. Someone with impeccable administrative talents would be a godsend to me in my team!

In Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great, his “level-5” leaders exhibit and appreciate for detail, fact, and evidence, spend time to understand how work is carried out, do not seek credit or spotlights, have the courage to make risky decisions instead of hiding behind process and procedures, and give staff room to develop. My point is that true leadership and great management skills overlap quite a bit.

However, in today’s ever-increasingly stressful work environment and our push for specialization, people feel they don’t have enough time to ponder and make distinctions. Putting everything in neat categories, assigning a value to every variable, or codifying every procedure appears to save us time, but we all pay the ultimate price of being boxed in, having little room to maneuver, or feeling neglected for our special talents.

Just look at some basic aspects of our daily life. When you call a business with a question or a problem, be it an airline, wireless company, doctor’s office, etc., the gauntlet you have to go through to get to the “right” channel is maddening. By the time we are motivated to call an outfit, our needs may be so specific and individualistic that we can’t seem to find a fit with their system’s pre-determined categories. I usually just randomly choose an option and then explain my reason for calling; it seems to matter little just who I initially get hold of. Have you noticed that at each gauntlet “station” you have to explain your reasons to each agent all over again?

Not only we are limited by the categories from which to choose, we contribute to the overall constriction by thinking we can choose only one of the two choices. Just two, either-or!

art in nature

When someone thinks that she’s a “leader,” and therefore only needs to focus on making big plans, dreaming big dreams, coming up with big visions, and attending strategic planning retreats, she often makes unrealistic demands on the lower ranks by imposing counterproductive deadlines, authorizing arbitrary budgets, or constraining staff power. Think of a leader you admire; I’ll bet that he knows his industry, his company’s capabilities, and his people’s skills, very well. He doesn’t just espouse lofty ideas. However big the dreams these admirable leaders have, they know how to push their dreams to reality, and they know what people they can rely on to help them realize the dreams. Knowing all the facts can paralyze an average leader or manager, and making a wise decision and driving it to execution isn’t limited to either management or leadership.

To do the right thing, a leader needs to understand what it takes to do things right.”  by Bob Sutton, co-author (with Jeff Pfeffer) of The Knowing-Doing Gap & Hard Fact, Dangerous Half-Truths, & Total Nonsense.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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“Only If I Must Lead…”

Having read “level-5 leadership”, then observed and heard stories about some leaders/managers, I occasionally wonder if those who are tapped for (or in some cases, conscripted into) leadership roles are more methodical, reflective, and deliberate in their managerial/leadership style, compared to those who aspired to manager/leader roles. Since learning the concept of “reluctant” leadership (read here, here, and here), I do agree that reluctant leaders seem to take the time…to listen, to ponder, to consider nuances, to take a longer and a wider view, when making a decision. Not surprisingly, some followers and bystanders see such leaders, especially in the early stage of their roles, as “indecisive,” “slow,” “weak,” or maybe even “incompetent.”

Oversize objects always need help to maneuver.

Oversize objects always need help to maneuver.

“Reluctant leaders” possess these qualities: “adaptability, humility, a capacity to bring others along in their efforts, and a plain old willingness to listen.”  Studies on “reluctant leaders” have primarily taken place in the “service” industries where professionals are more willing to consider alternatives to the traditional “command and control” model of management/leadership. Most of these professionals, including potential “reluctant leaders,” prefer calling their own shots, or, designing their own projects. The sources of their motivation are mostly intrinsic. This fits in Dan Pink’s definition of motivation, in which “autonomy” is one of the three key elements for better performing organizations; the other two are “purpose” and “mastery.”  When we take power and control out of management – and I question that we ever really need them in certain sectors – how do managers proceed?

Reluctant or not, managers of today’s quick-paced and volatile economy need to dance to different tunes. In this fast moving economy, as well as in the social world, we all have to be a lot more flexible than we used to be. And since we don’t become flexible overnight, or as soon as a situation calls for flexibility, we have to develop this quality over time. So, a concomitant to “flexibility” is a willingness to listen to others and absorb multiple perspectives…regularly, frequently, constantly over the long term.

There are two leading vehicles, and a police car, to help "lead" that big object, part of a windmill.

There are two leading vehicles, and a police car, to help “lead” that big object, part of a windmill.

Perhaps we are still in a transitional phase in most organizations – switching from “command and control” to “listen and coordinate.” Transitional phase is inherently in flux, marked by uncertainty, and requiring skills in negotiation, political maneuvering, and knowledge of when to bend and when to insist. Maybe this is why many younger professionals are reluctant to step into leadership roles? Further, whether working to the new or old model of management, there is a great deal of “politics” involved in management, an aspect most professionals try to avoid. And, while there is no shortage of manipulation, maneuvering, or concealment among the reluctant leaders, I suspect that the tenor of “politics” as endured by this century’s flexible leaders is different from the old school of manipulation, power, and deception. I hypothesize that a reluctant manager is likely to manipulate situation rather than people. A manager once described to me – and he has a pretty high EQ, emotional quotient — “If a manager thinks he’s a ‘Manager,’ he’s likely to manipulate people. If he doesn’t see himself as a manager first, he’s likely to focus on the situation.” Imagine this: Upon seeing a fire, a traditional “Manager” might say, “YOU, go and put out the fire, and use the hose closest to you.” A “reluctant manager” might respond differently, “Fire, let’s put it out.”

Given the above definition and description, “reluctant leaders” may be cut from very different cloth than the traditional “command-and-control” type of leaders. For instance,

  1. A sense of humility may mean: “My colleagues know more than I do,” and therefore “I need as much input to help me as possible.”
  2. A sense of resolution may mean: “This is about the health of the whole organization,” and thereby “I need to build a majority, preferably a consensus on the bigger picture.” It follows then that reluctant leaders have little need to obfuscate; they tend to be more open about their thinking process.
  3. There is a built-in paradox in “reluctant leadership:” “I despise playing politics, so I will adjust my approach so as to minimize the politics in my decisional and operational environment.” However, paradoxically, “In order to minimize my political involvement, I need to be cognizant of how others are playing politics around me.”

As I have indicated before, we cannot, and should not, examine leadership without considering followership. What would the people “following” a reluctant leader be like? They need to see their leaders’ professional record as equal to, or superior to, their own. They are given plenty of room to develop their own skills; they accept being challenged even while they don’t want to be directed or managed. While they may not like playing politics (as if they could totally avoid it), they are sympathetic to the leaders’ occasional need to act politically.

"I don't need no stinky leader.  I just want a friend."

“I don’t need no stinky leader. I just want a friend.”

The key to the relationship between the reluctant leader and his followers lies in one of the elements mentioned earlier, “autonomy.” It’s paradoxical, and that’s why it’s fascinating. It is precisely when a leader is willing to relax control of people, letting them determine their own courses of action, that people are willing to “follow” the leader’s vision. Conversely, in a professional organization, a controlling manager, hungry for more power and control, is likely to alienate his people. The committed professionals are still going to aim for excellence in their work, but they may not always have the controlling leader’s vision in mind. In such a scenario, the work done by the “reluctant” followers isn’t likely to cohere with the organization.

In abstract, “reluctant leadership” feels tiring. I wonder if reluctant leaders/managers stay in their positions for very long, especially compared to the command-and-control type. What do you think?

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The Never-Ending Nature-Nurture Debate

Mr. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues would like to convince us that so-called “innate talent” is highly overrated…if it exists at all. They are convinced by their own research (and others’) that ultimately, it is long-term and highly committed effort, at least 10,000 hours or 10 years, that propel certain people to the top echelon of experts and elite performers in all fields. After reading two articles by Ericsson and several colleagues, one published in Psychological Review (PR) and the other in Harvard Business Review (HBR), I still have doubts. I have no quarrel with their methodology, but I question how they gloss over some important premises.

I am convinced that consistent, thoughtful, and determined hard work pave the foundation for anyone who wants to excel in her chosen professional field. I am also convinced that an early start, say, as young as three-years old, does make some difference (in fields which allow such early starts, of course). I just find the notion that “innate talent” plays a miniscule if any part in the development of elite professionals, to be very troublesome.zack6

In the PR article, Ericsson et al provide evidence through two studies, one with violinists and the other with pianists. The authors demonstrate that the elite performers have the edge over their lesser-accomplished contemporaries primarily through the former group’s accumulated practice hours, starting in their childhood. If some of these elite performers were deemed “child prodigies” it is because their parents, or adult guardians, perceived them to be talented, at playing the piano, running, drawing, playing chess, etc. The adults then provided resources to nurture children with these budding skills, or should I say, to nurture these budding skills in their children. Ericsson el al recognize the children’s enjoyment in doing these activities as an important motivational factor; after all, lengthy practice is inherently un-enjoyable per se, you have to like what you do in order to persevere. And because the children keep receiving praise for what they do well, this in turn gives them more incentives to willingly spend more hours practicing.

I think these researchers have discounted this “intrinsic motivation” too quickly. For preschoolers to “endure” hours of practice, parents’ demands alone don’t cut it, and the children’s own “simple” determination, will power, or “grit” (the current buzzword) doesn’t quite add up either. Might the long hours of practice seem “un-enjoyable” only to outsiders? Might there be some level of joy in the practice that is in synch with their developing skills? The question is how do we unpack the emotions from the activities, for the sake of measurement.

In the HBR article, Ericsson el al (a different group of colleagues) quote the well-known scientist Lord Kelvin, “If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” Might this be the reason the authors discount intrinsic motivation? Yet just because we cannot easily measure intrinsic motivation, emotions, or soul, doesn’t mean they don’t exist or can’t be improved upon. For millennia, human beings have been trying to grasp what constitutes sentience, as in “sentient beings.” And for millennia sentience has defied measurement and the best we have ever done is assert it (“cogito ergo sum”); but does it follow that we cannot improve upon our “sentience” simply because we can’t measure it? Can we measure the very thought that Lord Kelvin must have had when he asserted the importance of measurement?

One marginal outcome from at least 100 iterations of the same character...and bamboo stalk.

One marginal outcome from at least 100 iterations of the same character…and bamboo stalk.

Since HBR articles are designed for business community and management, the authors try to argue that managers can practice to achieve better management. They choose the example of charisma, manifested in public speaking. Of course, one can improve on public speaking, but in different assessments of management skills, “charisma” or “public speaking” does not rank very high. In fact, I wonder what are the practicable management skills – and which of such practicable skills truly make one a better manager? Listening, yes, making better relationships, of course. If only improving relationships were readily learnable and practicable! In both HBR and PR articles, we learn that elite members, or experts, devote 2-4 hours every day on practicing their chosen skills. What can managers practice? Do 8 hours a day being a manager also constitute practicing management? Discipline is an important feature of the elite performers. In what aspects should managers discipline their practice? (I vote for meditation.)

The HBR article ends with an example that almost made my head explode. The authors, while not disputing the extraordinary accomplishments of Mozart, assertively remind readers that Mozart started early – at age four – under his father who was a skilled composer and an author of a violin instruction manual.   While the modern authors do not explicitly claim that there could have been other Mozarts given those two key elements, they do insist that with an early start and tutelage under an expert, any one of us may achieve Mozart-esque status.

I guess “Tiger Moms” would agree with such an assertion. Yet, of all the children brought up by tiger moms with emphasis on playing music instruments, how many have achieved national and international status? More likely, many of these children slack off the practice as soon as they become independent. That pesky unmeasurable “intrinsic motivation” probably has something to do with it. Or, it might have something to do with innate talent, or rather, the lack thereof.

possible?We can also learn about the issue of innate talent from adults acquiring new skills. For instance, I wonder how many novices recruited to becoming pilots in the British RAF during WWII made it through the program? The instructors couldn’t have had the luxury then of nurturing anyone and everyone into competence. On what criteria was the selection made? From Googling, I learn that nowadays a person who cannot pilot solo after about 10-12 hours of instructor flight time may be less able than average. Doesn’t this suggest some influence of innate ability?flying human

A recent BBC story reports that artists’ brain images show grey matter in certain areas that are different (more) from non-artists. It is possible that the years of practice produce this additional grey matter. Brains are malleable. However, we still do not know the cause and effect; more research is needed.

No one doubts the importance of long-term, deliberate practice, but I think Ericsson and his colleagues have not presented a convincing case against the existence and importance of “innate talent.”

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Appearing Confident ≠ Being Competent

Do we know, with high confidence, how to discern competence from confidence?  I am sure we have encountered, or dare I say, even been fooled, by people who act confidently but who really are borderline nincompoops.  If we were fooled, we usually keep quiet lest we appear incompetent ourselves.  Last week, my post focused on Amy Cuddy’s research that demonstrates the value of “faking it till making it.”  She would argue, from her own experience and research, that there are plenty of people who are genuinely competent but doubt themselves and therefore appear to lack confidence.  Her research basically offers one strategy to help truly competent people to realize their potential.

In today’s post, I offer a slightly different take on this topic: adopting a confident appearance is often used to mask the lack of skills.  Recently, HBR (Harvard Business Review) Blog Network posted an article with blatantly provocative title, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?”, written by Professor Tomas Charmorro-Premuzic, of University College of London.  He tosses a few morsels, in this article, for us to chew upon and debate.  Professor Charmorro-Premuzic argues that men tend to act as if they have more leadership skills than they actually possess, and thus get promoted.  Women tend not to do so, and that’s partly responsible for the lack of women in leadership positions, especially at the higher levels.  And the reason for such disparity is that most of us don’t discern, can’t or won’t, between competence and confidence, or between genuine sills or talents and charm & charisma.

Predator you take seriously.

Predator you take seriously.

Indeed, many competent people don’t feel the need to act confidently, and too many confident-looking people are actually insecure.

One of Charmorro-Premuzic’s arguments is that “arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent.”  While research does bear out this notion, it is yet another tendency most organizations ignore.  Put another way, we can say, “The best leaders are usually humble.”  (See my post on “Level-5 leaders” in Jim Collins’ “Good to Great)  However, humility doesn’t get much media coverage nor academic research emphasis.  (I guess humility is not exciting unless the humble leader is acting counter-culturally, as Pope Francis has recently been saying and doing.)  And part of what makes a person humble is manifested in his/her level of “emotional intelligence.”  On that dimension, in general, women outperform men.  Let me state this once more: men who exhibit emotional intelligence tend to be regarded as “weak,” “indecisive,” and/or perhaps, “lacking leadership.”  In abstract, we say we want to see respect, humility, or emotional intelligence in leaders, yet, we keep “rewarding” managers and leaders exhibiting the opposite behavior.  Sheryl Sandberg in her “Lean In” still advocates for women to behave more like men in order to climb up.

One of the most interesting passages in Charmorro-Premuzic’s article is this:

“…the mythical image of a “leader” embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders, such as narcissism (Steve Jobs or Vladimir Putin), psychopathy (fill in the name of your favorite despot here), histrionic (Richard Branson or Steve Ballmer) or Machiavellian (nearly any federal-level politician) personalities. The sad thing is not that these mythical figures are unrepresentative of the average manager, but that the average manager will fail precisely for having these characteristics.

My fault with this passage is that while there are plenty of “average” managers exhibiting these mythical characters (and failing), there are just as many of them who don’t “fail.”  In fact, so many of them get rewarded that others want only copy their “behaviors,” acting as if they are confident, as a means to the top.

Predator you don't take very seriously...unless you are allergic to her scratches.

Predator you don’t take very seriously…unless you are allergic to her scratches.

Needless to say, this article got a lot of readers’ responses.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the time, nor do I care, to wade through all of them.  The few top comments on this article, mostly objecting or critical, seemed to be penned by men.  However, one of them offered a legitimate alternative to the article’s title, “Why Do Many Incompetent People (emphasis mine) Become Leaders?”  Indeed, thus far, most women who have gotten to the top levels seem to be just as belligerent, arrogant, and self-centered as many of their male counterparts are.

While there are pockets of remarkable leaders in politics, businesses, and other arenas, they usually don’t attract attention.  And by definition, people with humility would not seek attention. Our society (and there are plenty of others, I am afraid) is obsessed with the charismatic leaders who may or may not have true humility – which is ironic, recalling how George Washington was so adamant about yielding the Presidency after his second term (“ … I had rather be in my grave than in my present situation…”) and only reluctantly accepted the office in the first place (“…my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties…”).

Are there ways to restore our cultural admiration for humility?  I am thinking…  If you have any wisdom to offer, please speak up, confidently and competently

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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I Like Brevity…Till I Need More.

Pithy comments can be enlightening, useful, and often embed great wisdom.  However, sometimes, their brevity leaves much to ponder over.  Or, maybe that’s the purpose of pithy words; it provokes us to think more.  While I cherish Robert Townsend’s “Up The Organization,” full of piercing observations of organizational nonsense and wise advise to counter it, I often want to parse some sentences for details on the how’s.  It is difficult to address how’s in a pithy manner.  A thoughtful and wise manager (yes, it’s a rarity but such managers exist) may be able to glean guidance from this modest volume, but most mortals need more.  Such is also my reaction to David Ogilvy’s observations on creative leaders’ quality and management principles.

A hummingbird moth

A hummingbird moth

Many considered Ogilvy to be the “The Father of Advertising,” or, the original “Mad Man,” according to Maria Popova, the curator and founder of  He was in the creative business and was successful at running one of the world’s leading ad agencies in the 50s and 60s.

Mr. Ogilvy offers many excellent points and lessons on writing, creativity, leadership, and management in his “Unpublished David Ogilvy.”

On the quality of creative leaders, he offers the followings:

  1. “High standards of personal ethics.
  2. Big people, without pettiness.
  3. Guts under pressure, resilience in defeat.
  4. Brilliant brains — not safe plodders.
  5. A capacity for hard work and midnight oil.
  6. Charisma — charm and persuasiveness.
  7. A streak of unorthodoxy — creative innovators.
  8. The courage to make tough decisions.
  9. Inspiring enthusiasts — with trust and gusto.
  10. A sense of humor.”


It is difficult to argue with these seemingly common-sense points.  However, times have changed since these words were uttered, decades ago.  For instance, Mr. Ogilvy explained the hard working principle,  “Hard work never killed a man. Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They do not die of hard work. The harder your people work, the happier and healthier they will be.”

If people are allowed to have their “purpose, mastery, and autonomy ” at work, they would want to work hard to reach their personal “high.”  But when an organization – through management – demands, seemingly wily-nily, that you surrender evenings and weekends, it kills your soul and spirit eventually…and possibly your marriage and family.   Working hard is what most of us desire to do, but that has to come from self-motivation rather than external incentives/disincentives.   If Mr. Ogilvy could see how much busywork there is in organizations these days, and how people are stressed because they can’t find enough time to do what they really care to do, he probably would modify his statement on “hard work.”

Twofer...including the blurry one.

Twofer…including the blurry one.

And about “charisma,” I am always a bit wary of charismatic people.  Lee Iacocca was hugely charismatic, so was Jack Welch.  Both of them had shining moments in their “leadership” years, but ultimately, much of what they did was for their own egos.  They are not considered “level-5” leaders, in Jim Collins’ taxonomy, for good reasons.  In fact, many “level-5” leaders are not at all charismatic but definitely methodical; they may even be a little dull.  Does this mean that executives in advertising industry have to be charismatic?  Does the nature of the industry have certain claims on leadership qualities?

Before you think I need to challenge most of Ogilvy’s words, here is one gem I love:  “If you fail to recognize, promote and reward young people of exceptional promise, they will leave you; the loss of an exceptional man can be as damaging as the loss of an account.”  Yet…yet…beware of those self-important “exceptional” persons.  An “asshole,” no matter how brilliant, can be demoralizing for colleagues at the workplace.  So, I found strong resonance with Ogilvy’s point on creative integrity: “Our offices must always be headed by the kind of people who command respect. No phonies, zeros or bastards.”

Ultimately, my point is this:  For every wonderful pithy statement, there are many nuances one needs to consider.  However, I accept totally this piece of wisdom from Mr. Ogilvy:  “If you ever find a man who is better than you are – hire him.  If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.”  What humility!  If you encounter such a boss or colleague, cherish your luck.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Let’s Celebrate Understated Leaders

“How do you spot a leader?  They come in all ages, shapes, sizes, and conditions.  Some are poor administrators, some are not overly bright.  One clue:  since most people per se are mediocre, the true leader can be recognized because, somehow or other, his people consistently turn in superior performances.”

From “Up the Organization,” by Robert Townsend

In what ways does this quote resonate with you?

Lance Armstrong at the team presentation of th...

Lance Armstrong at the team presentation of the 2010 Tour de France in Rotterdam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, two Armstrongs were in the news.  Lance Armstrong, of the tour de France fame, decided against continuing fighting doping charges.  Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the moon, passed away quietly.  While neither ran any organization, both were considered leaders of something.  One grabbed the spotlight, both willingly and unwillingly.  The other shied away from the spotlight at all times.  One inspired others to exercise determination and enhance physical mastery and the other steadfastly helped others build the prowess in science and engineering.  One is a charismatic leader and the other is a quiet level-5 leader.  Actually, by definition, level-5 leaders do not seek to lead any body of people; they just quietly, methodically and determinedly build something or solve some problems.

Flag of the United States on American astronau...

Flag of the United States on American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s space suit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

American is an action-oriented culture; doing something is always deemed better than doing nothing.  So, every new manager has to do something, or change something.  Regardless!  Is there something wrong with “doing little or nothing” for certain times and contexts?

There was a good reason for assembly-line workers, burger flippers, or shop mechanics to have breaks throughout the day…though probably not enough.  But white collar (do we still use this term?!) professionals don’t seem to even take a lunch break very often…unless you are in the high ranking positions, and then, a lot of those lunches would probably give you heartburn, not from food, but from the stressful conversations.

We don’t take enough time to stop, to be still, to think and reflect.  As a painter, if I don’t step back and examine what I have just done, I can mess up my painting quickly.  Those who do detailed paintings or a large piece of creative rendition need to step back even more frequently.

Organization clears your path

Organization clears your path (Photo credit: nist6ss)

I advise people at work to take a ½ hour walk, rest and listen to some music for a while, read something light for 15 minutes, or engage in whatever takes one’s gaze off the task at hand.  I am not concerned for just the individuals; I am equally concerned, if not more, for those around such individuals — especially if they occupy a management seat.

Do you have examples of gaining a fresh perspective after a brief rest or an insight while daydreaming?  And when was the last time you followed your own example?

Happy Labor Day!  Till next week,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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