Managerial Competence Political Competence Proactive Leaders

The Secret To Leading Teams: Balance

Yesterday, Professor Sam Bacharach wrote an article for Inc.’s blog, Leading Teams: Find the Right Balance Between Hands-on and Hands-off.

Teams are capable of executing large agendas–but they aren’t always productive. Too many voices can distract and one strongly worded opinion can lead to groupthink. Team leaders need to allow flexibilty, provide rewards, and encourage creativy while setting goals, meeting schedules, and getting things done.

It’s a delicate balancing act that requires careful thought. In the article Professor Bacharach mentions four ways leaders can strike the right leadership balance.

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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

Leadership On the Edge Social Media

Top 10 Social Media/Tech/Leadership Links 6.13.11

1. Building your own iPad and iPhone apps just got easier

2. Has the internet “hamsterized” journalism?

3. Conan O’Brien’s amazing Dartmouth commencement speech

4. Apple worth more than Microsoft, HP and Dell COMBINED

5. Nine reasons your company should use brand advocates 

6. Winning, Losing and Collaboration7. Tips on successfully blogging from home

8. Google acquires Admeld 

9. Five tough questions entrepreneurs have to ask about growth

10. Lonely Employees and Productivity

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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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Charisma Can Die

Once in a while an event occurs that triggers a plethora of articles and an overwhelming amount of thoughts about a topic.  It should come as no surprise that the surgical elimination of Osama bin Laden has suddenly stimulated a rush of articles and op-eds about leadership. Indeed the entire event, when looked upon outside of it’s overblown dramaturgical frame, raises some wonderful points about different types of leadership.

The first issue is whether or not organizations can survive the demise of a charismatic leader. In this particular instance I have non-theoretical bias and hope that the answer is NO! I think we will all be much happier if in this instance if the empirical test fails. But beyond that what can we speculate?

Max Weber spoke about the transformation of charisma: The challenge of transferring charisma from one leader to another. For this transfer to occur there needs to be a development of ritual mythologies and legends that legitimize the continuation of the mission laid out by a charismatic leader. Obviously it’s too early to know if this core of cultural activity will emerge, but if it does it may be so diffused as to be ineffective. For charisma to succeed, to really be transferred, there needs to be a continued organizational structure that can take the mythology and transfer it into concrete organizational mission tactics.

In this particular instance the mythology may continue but it’s unlikely that a loose structure will ever be able build an organization without the continuous presence of a charismatic leader pushing the agenda. This of course means that the free world needs to assert continuous pressure to make sure that the organization’s structure and stability are never allowed to emerge. The way you make sure that the mythological head on the snake does not reattach itself to the body, is by making sure the body remains dismembered.

While the transference of charisma is one of the issues raised by this event, the other is one of our favorite themes: pragmatic leadership. In this instance President Obama’s capacity to keep his focus on the mission, to sustain the goals, to keep his team together, to maintain momentum and not drop the ball is one of the best examples in recent years of the capacity to get people on your side and keep them there. This balance of political competence and managerial competence is clearly what is necessary for execution. In many ways it is the exact opposite of the charismatic approach. It is grounded in the tradition of keeping your mouth shut and keeping your eyes on the ball. In that regard we draw a very simple but important lesson from this: execution is everything, execution demands a leader that can make sure his team can go the distance.

So what have we learned from this event? What are the leadership lessons?

  1. Don’t be overwhelmed by charisma
  2. If you want to get something done keep your mouth shut and focus on execution

photo: Orin Zebest