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Don’t let Hubris be your Downfall

The media has long tried to warn us not to take success for granted. If you have not already taken the queue from Gordon Gecko’s famous portrayal of greed-gone-wrong in the Wall Street movie series, pick up your classic copy of Oedipus Rex, or re-read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Macbeth.

What these modern movies, classic tragedies, and iconic plays all have in common is the tragic downfall of a protagonist who succumbs to weaknesses of his own. In traditional Greek, the operative term applied to such characters was “hubris” or overconfidence. Though conceived when the ancient Greek plays were transcribed, the word still applies to many modern leaders.

It is not surprising that when individuals reach extraordinary heights of success, they often lose touch with reality. The media frequently criticizes leaders who display too much pride, seem overly arrogant, or come off as seriously narcissistic. Less elaborately discussed is the gradual process by which these undesirable traits directly lead to the demise of their possessors.

It is important to discuss the symptoms of hubristic leaders so that it is easy to identify such individuals. It is also important to establish that not all confident leaders are presumptuous, and confidence alone is not a blameworthy characteristic. The danger is when after getting to the top, certain leaders start to become narcissistic, which can be blinding and detrimental to themselves and employees.

Certain industries are designed in a way that breeds leaders who think they are always right. Companies that reward the most confident and vocal employees with better opportunities, increased visibility, and company benefits incentivize their workers to adopt aggressive characteristics. With such incentives, it is no wonder that by the time individuals gain prestige, they feel they deserve it because they adapted themselves and paid their dues.

So how do we determine the point when pride and conscientiousness transforms into overconfidence, ignorance, and arrogance?

1.  When a leader starts ignoring the advice and opinions of others. Hence, they often prefer isolation, or act rude and brash when hearing suggestions out of line with their views.

2.  Another revealing act is when leaders overuse company perks for their own personal benefits. This often reflects a sense of entitlement and indestructibility.

3. Because of their inflated sense of superiority, leaders plagued by hubris often repeat actions long after they have stopped being effective. Either they are stuck in their outdated ways and have been ignoring relevant new trends, or they simply think they can get away with anything without being detected. Take the great fraud schemes of Enron and Bernie Madoff.

Despite years of warnings from movies and literature, it seems that certain leaders are still prone to go down a slippery path of self-destruction. Therefore, no matter how high the walls of success may be,  leaders need to keep their egos in check and their feet on the ground. After years of hard work, leaders should enjoy their success, but not let hubris be their downfall.

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It goes by many names. Nodder, wobbler, bobbler, bobbing doll, or, more commonly, bobblehead doll. The one name, though, that is rarely applied to these amusing spring-connected collectible toys is “leader”. While popular culture and The Office, specifically, advance the bobblehead industry by creating toys bearing the likeness of organizational leaders, many leaders would resist this association. The representation of a proactive leader with a flimsy and inflated head that nods ad nauseam with mechanical approval is not what most managers want sitting on their desk. Yet, as much as much as the politically competent leader may cringe at this symbol of reflexive apathy, it unfortunately hits too close to home for many pinheaded executives.

Often on this blog, we touch upon this notion of leadership styles and the distinction between facilitative and directive management. As we argue, facilitative leaders adopt an empowering laissez-faire approach that allows coalition partners to autonomously advance a shared agenda. These leaders are not (usually) negligent but instead favor a more hands off approach. Arianna Huffington is likely a facilitative leader as she creates an empire but then empowers writers and contributors to mobilize the organization and advance a common agenda.

Directive leaders are then the foil for their facilitative colleagues. They favor a very hands-on approach and carefully prescribe and choreograph assignments for coalition partners. Just as facilitative leaders are not necessarily lazy, directive leaders are not automatically paranoid or dominating. They simply favor a stricter management scheme and design campaigns that accommodate or necessitate such an approach. Sarah Palin’s current SarahPAC is more directively managed as Palin carefully choreographs her staff actions and maintains strict regulation of her public and private campaign elements.

Both facilitative and directive approaches are valid and effective depending on the organization, agenda, and coalition players.

So back to the bobblehead and the emergence of a third, detrimental leadership approach. The bobblehead leadership approach is a poisonous fusion of facilitative and directive styles. The bobbler leader may dictate specific elements of the agenda or may empower colleagues to define these elements themselves but, in both contexts, this leader quickly succumbs to a yes-(wo)man approach.

The wobbler evades difficult choices by simply offering his weak but dependable approval for all campaign elements. The nodder remains silent in meetings, but she always defaults into consent when an opinion is solicited. Ultimately, the bobbing approach is one of apathy and fear that produces a vacuous, feeble campaign.

So sit at your desk and chuckle as your bobblehead offers its unconditional, detached support for all your ideas. But eventually you need to spring into action and get your head in the game.

Pic Credit: brianjmatis

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The Electrifying Textbook

The fanfare was intoxicating. A glowing governor, flanked by adoring aides and enraptured legislators, signed the bill into law mere minutes after the State Senate approved it by a razor thin 33-29 margin. Two days later, after a regional and national media torrent rained down praise on the governor for his inspirational politicking, it was time for the parade.

The Governor triumphantly marched past an estimated two million fans waving signs reading “Thank You, Governor!” and “Promise Kept.” The throngs, “chanted his last name, sometimes at deafening volume,” as the, “parade’s rock star,” strolled down 5th avenue. Beaming, the governor described the experience as “electric” (Bolcer, 6/26/2011).

This hero’s celebration reads like the embellished culminating scene in a clichéd leadership film. Leader rises to prominence. Leader faces defining challenge. Leader overcomes obstacles. Leader celebrates and teaches lessons learned to an adoring public. It’s the stale, yet reliable, hero’s journey. The attraction here, though, in Governor Cuomo’s Gay Marriage Hero’s Journey, is how closely life imitates art.

Governor Cuomo’s real life leadership and mastery of the micro skills of agenda mobilization earned him the subsequent fanfare; and as we all know, rivaling Oscar Wilde’s “life imitates art” maxim is the reality that things are often “easier said than done.” This is the story of how Cuomo embraced the textbook fundamentals of leadership to advance a Marriage Equality bill and win a hero’s welcome from the public.

Cuomo’s first fundamental skill was establishing style. As Michael Barbaro explains in his excellent NY Times postmortem on the marriage equity campaign, “the lobbying had to be done the Cuomo way: with meticulous, top down coordination. ‘I will be personally involved,’ he said” (Barbaro, 6/25/2011). The Cuomo leadership style was at its core, a directive leadership approach seemingly lifted straight from The (Bass) Handbook of Leadership. Cuomo emulated this style where, “leaders decide and announce the decisions to their followers” (Bass, 2008, 460). As his predecessor Governor Paterson explained, “[Cuomo] ran the whole process through his office, and that was nothing short of brilliant” (Grossman, 6/27/2011). Cuomo understood that a directive style was critical in the highly strategic legislative environment and fully embraced this fundamental leadership approach.

Next, Cuomo clearly got a hold of a copy of Get Them on Your Side and closely dissected the chapter on agenda and coalition formation. Evidently a devout scholar or leadership materials, Cuomo understood his marriage campaign typified the developer agenda category. “As a combination of a planning and overhauling [approach]… [Developers] are committed to staying on top of things—empirically, rationally, and incrementally (Bacharach, 2005, 46). Cuomo was going to overhaul centuries of state tradition but he was going to do it through meticulous, political planning.

After agenda classification, Cuomo shifted to coalition formation. First, he knew to, “highlight all the people who share [his] agenda” (Bacharach, 2005, 67). He understood he had the active support of gay-rights advocates and could deploy these allies as needed.  However, he directed five fragmented activist groups to coalesce into one streamlined New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition.

Understanding that money is mobilization in politics, Cuomo then pursued passive support from the upper echelon up Republican donors. These donors were sympathetic to the libertarian, social freedom legislation and Cuomo tapped them for financial fuel to power his campaign. Even if they weren’t directly pounding the pavement for his agenda, they still offered critical, passive support.

With this machinery, the governor chased down wavering legislators, shifting them from reluctant to active supporters with his intimidating credibility. He easily flexed this credibility with a barrage of mail and personal lobbying while exploiting strategic alliances with heavyweight constituents in swing senators’ districts.

Finally and most surprising, Cuomo solicited the weak support of his primary opponent: The Catholic Church.  He appreciated that, “they [would] likely be some of [his] strongest skeptics, so [he would] need to develop strategies to keep them from derailing [his] efforts” (Bacharach, 2005, 68). So the governor, a practicing Catholic, contacted New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and explained his case while inviting Church input into the bill construction. Effectively neutralizing his prime opponent, the Church found itself unwittingly co-opted into the coalition.

In the end, to complete his hero’s journey and slay the proverbial dragon, Cuomo veered slightly off textbook script. One vote shy of securing passage, Cuomo lobbied two fickle Republicans Senators for support. While both were sympathetic to the governor’s agenda, neither wanted to be pegged as the decisive “traitor” who pushed the bill over the top. So Cuomo, the shrewd Machiavellian, “informed both [senators] that another unnamed Republican would cast a yes vote” (Barbaro, 6/27/2011). This then delivered the final momentum the Governor needed and won him the weekend’s parade.

Ultimately, savvy leadership requires more than simple textbook analysis. The world is full of uncertainties and every leader benefits from a little supernatural luck on their hero’s journey. Nevertheless, Governor Cuomo on his road to legalizing gay marriage illustrated the power embedded in the micro skills of leadership. By establishing a vision, a leadership style, and a supportive coalition, he effectively executed his agenda. It may sound stale at times, but as Cuomo said, success can be an electrifying experience.

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Did Steve Jobs Overreact?

In the latest issue of Fortune, Adam Lashinsky details Steve Jobs’ hands-on managerial style as well as his meltdown after the rocky and buggy 2008 debut of Apple’s cloud based storage service MobileMe. After a number of horrible reviews of the service, Lashinsky claims that Jobs let the executives responsible for the debacle have it, and have it good. Jobs’ reportedly told the offending team that they “…should hate each other for having let each other down” and that their failures had “tarnishing Apple’s reputation.”

So is this tirade by Jobs an example of a leader who is overreacting? By ripping into the MobileMe team, did Jobs go too far and do damage to his ablity to lead effectively? As we will see, the answer to both questions is no.

On the surface, this blow-up would seem like just another CEO throwing a tantrum any six year old would be proud of, but in fact this incident is the perfect example of that even when frustrated Steve Jobs keeps his eyes on the collective. He supposedly fired the entire MobileMe production team, but it was done to teach others within the company that what failed wasn’t simply a product but the sense of the collective which has made for Apple’s success.

I am guessing that everytime there is a minor problem at Apple, Jobs doesn’t fire entire teams, but sometimes you have to make loud moves to keep everyone’s eyes on the collective prize. With this in mind it’s  important to highlight the fact that pointless overacting can be a major problem for leaders.

As I discuss in my book Keep Them on Your Side, there is a least one over-reactive leader in nearly every organization. They are the leaders who take every piece of information, every strand of data, and take action based on that information. These leaders seem to be unable to prioritize or filter the fundamentally important information they receive from the anecdotal, anomalous information that is pervasive in organizations.

You’ve seen or heard it before. Someone will come into the office and declare, “We’ve been getting a lot of complaints (read: two) about our new software upgrade.” The overreactive leader may take that information, call up the lead programmer on the project, and demand that a new version be created immediately. Overreacting is a strategy that leaders choose to assure that they won’t be perceived as “falling asleep at the wheel.”

What over-reactive leaders fail to realize is that with each shift, they are sapping the momentum they’ve built from past action. Think of it like rolling a ball bearing down an incline. If you let the ball bearing roll untouched, momentum builds. But what happens if after the first couple of seconds, you redirect the ball bearing with your finger? Then what happens when you redirect it another second later? Then another? The ball may come to a virtual stop or, worse, it will keep moving but in a jerky motion, never really building up any critical mass. This is a metaphor for how team members experience initiatives run by over-reactive leaders.

From all that we’ve read, it’s clear that Steve Jobs demands an almost mythical level of excellence and in cases like the MobileMe debacle, he can also use tough-talk, anger and outright dismissal as a motivational tool. But in no way does that make him an over-reactive leader. Steve Jobs has built the Apple brand around the idea that the company’s products are cutting edge, user-friendly and most importantly highly functional and reliable. That is the vision of the company and when the company and its workers fail to reach those heights it’s up to a leader like Steve Jobs to bring his people together to not only solve the problem but also make sure it doesn’t happen again. “Bringing people together” doesn’t always mean sitting in a circle around a roaring campfire and sharing your innermost feelings. Sometimes you have to drop an f-bomb or two to make those you lead remember the over-arching and communal reasons for previous successes.

As long as you don’t overdo it, strong and forceful reactions can work in your favor. But it’s crucial to remember that people who work on projects led by over-reactive leaders are likely to burn out or become frustrated by the frenetic action and stunted progress of the initiative. Too much time is spent asking—and answering—the question, “Where are we going next?” In this situation, it is difficult for the leader to make sure the work gets done and that things keep moving. Over time, people are more likely not to do work, fully expecting that priorities and objectives will change shortly. When behavior reaches this point, an initiative has lost, and is unlikely to regain, momentum. You can run around frantically saying the sky is falling once in a while, but if you do it every other day, you’ll kill momentum.

In the end there will be times when you will need to lose your temper and act decisively like Steve Jobs did in 2008. The key is you need to remember to pick your spots wisely. You must avoid casting and attributing blame causality. Your goal must be to make adjustments while keeping people on your side.

-Adam Lashinsky’s article “Inside Apple” is available in the latest issue of Fortune for iPad as well as from Amazon for your Kindle. It will also be in the May 23 print edition of Fortune.


photo: traveling.lunas
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100 Best Companies to Work For in 2011

Things are tough all over. Jobs are scarce and the ones you can find offer low pay and few if any benefits.  What are the Average Joe and Josephine to do? Well, you could throw your hands in the air, sell all your worldly possessions on craigslist, move to the wilderness and live off the fat of the land or you could take a deep breath, shine up your resume and check out latest list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For. Most lists just give you a company’s ranking and a quick paragraph or two about who they are. But the nice thing about Fortune’s Top 100 list is that it includes job listings (provided by for each company. As well there are subsections that cover the companies that offer the best benefits and the companies that offer the biggest pay.

But this list isn’t just for job hunters, it’s also quite helpful for all you leaders out there. Motivating, engaging and retaining those you lead is a top concern these days. So it couldn’t hurt to get a small peek behind the curtain in order to find out what makes employees happy and content.

Whether you are a direct report or a leader, Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For is a list you need to check out.