Clicky

Monday, October 23, 2020

To Succeed, First Forget About Leadership Technique

There is an epidemic today that is more virulent and destructive than Bird Flu. It has found its way into business schools, into boardrooms, and into workplaces throughout the land. It infects every human resources department and just about every consulting group. It is extremely contagious, attacking the infected individual with unsurpassed rapidity, and it slowly and inexorably chokes every spark of creativity and fresh thinking out of the poor devils who catch it. Worst of all, people don’t pay to get some kind of immunization shot to ward off this menace. They usually pay good money to be infected.

The virus I am thinking of is the virulent belief that success—in just about any business or leadership endeavor—comes from one simple source: technique.
All of this comes from a simple and erroneous belief: that it is possible to discover and understand the root causes of success, translate them into a simple series of techniques almost anyone can grasp, and then reproduce the original success again and again, on demand and without further thought.
The people who transmit this disease—consultants, trainers, academics, and writers—are some of those with the most chronic infections. To them, success is a simple matter of applying the correct technique (theirs, of course) to any given situation. To sugar the pill of infection, they present their ideas in the form of simple lists of techniques and actions for people to follow. Like the marks of the bubonic plague that once terrified Europe, you can see the sure sign of infection: the numbered list of things to do. The Seven Habits of This, or the Eight Steps to That, or The Ten Simple Things Every Successful Leader Knows. The more technologically-minded among them produce software packages so that their techniques can be applied more simply and consistently. You need neither to think nor choose. Plug in the data and the software will tell you exactly what needs to be done.

All of this comes from a simple and erroneous belief: that it is possible to discover and understand the root causes of success, translate them into a simple series of techniques almost anyone can grasp, and then reproduce the original success again and again, on demand and without further thought. What could be simpler or more desirable?

Management theory is riddled with this mistaken kind of thinking. The world of popular self-help manuals is almost entirely based on similar errors of understanding.
Unfortunately, this edifice of marvels rest on extremely shaky foundations. Causality is full of pitfalls. It is easy to note that two events happen one after the other, then jump to the conclusion that the first caused the second. Management theory is riddled with this mistaken kind of thinking. The world of popular self-help manuals is almost entirely based on similar errors of understanding. It ought to be plain that there is something seriously wrong with this line of thought, of course, because it does not work. If even a single group of techniques brought sure-fire success—if just one of those lists of six, seven, eight, or ten steps to follow truly delivered what it promises—the person who produced it would be a billionaire and all the other books, tapes, courses, and programs would be chucked into the garbage.

How much more unlikely is it that ordinary, non-expert managers will be able to produce the perfect marketing plan, the perfect product mix, the perfect recruitment scheme, or the perfect office environment, just by learning and applying a few, simple techniques listed on a flip-chart?
There are many different approaches precisely because:
  1. None of them work consistently, regularly, or even predictably—if they work at all; and
  2. People are desperate for help and cling to the belief that, one day, they will find the magic button to press.
There are other obvious flaws too. Even if you could understand fully enough how some natural process of leadership or management works (and most are so complex that this is far from likely), that does not mean you can control it and produce the outcome you want. We know pretty much how the weather works, but there is no way to control whether or not it will rain tomorrow—or even to predict it with anything approaching certainty. We understand quite a lot about how children grow, learn, and develop, but no one (sane) believes they can produce perfect human beings as a result. How much more unlikely is it that ordinary, non-expert managers will be able to produce the perfect marketing plan, the perfect product mix, the perfect recruitment scheme, or the perfect office environment, just by learning and applying a few, simple techniques listed on a flip-chart?

Techniques are like tools. There are many of them. Some are simple and some very complex. Some fit easily into the hand, while others require machinery or computers to operate. Using the wrong tool will screw things up, but having the right one is no guarantee of doing the job well. That takes expertise, years of learning and practice, careful thought, and (often) highly-developed skill. I can go to the hardware store this afternoon and buy saws, hammers, drills, planes, and routers (plus a dozen manuals), but that won’t make me a carpenter. A trip to the music store for a guitar and a book of playing techniques won’t make me a musician—or even someone whose playing you could listen to without pain.

What is it with this (largely American, I’m sad to say) delusion that having the right technique is all you need to be successful?

Forget worrying all those smart leadership techniques until you have developed the judgment, understanding, insight, trust, wisdom, and compassion necessary to become a leader.
Technique is simple and saleable—and it plays to mankind’s wish to be able to get great results easily. We want to believe in it, however often we are disappointed as a result. Reality is very different. Thought counts for more, knowledge is more useful, skill is more essential, experience counts in more instances, and luck—which is usually ignored completely—probably matters more than any of these. In fact, all of them matter more than techniques. An unskillful, inexperienced, ignorant, thoughtless, and unlucky person is a blight on any business. Arm that person with a battery of personal, organizational, and computer techniques and you have all the Biblical plagues of Egypt rolled into one. He or she will get things done—but I, for one, don’t want to be depending on the outcome.

Forget worrying all those smart leadership techniques until you have developed the judgment, understanding, insight, trust, wisdom, and compassion necessary to become a leader. Until you do, giving you good techniques is like arming a blind person with a machine gun and telling him or her to go into your yard and shoot some rabbits. In place of courses to teach techniques, what about some time devoted to: Now that would be a course worth taking.


Stumble Upon Toolbar

Comments:
I just purchased a self-help book that, being a child of the 70's, I have found to be fantastic. It is called "Before You Leap A Frog's-Eye View of Life's Greatest Lessons" by Kermit The Frog. I think my favorite piece of advice is from Floyd of the Electric Mayhem band on strategies at work. He suggests that "If the boss doesn't notice you, then you got it made, Dude." Kermit adds that if you want to be a more pro-active employee, just make sure you get the desk next to Floyd. Anything you do will look good.
Seriously, I think leadership techniques are useful if you understand, like anything else, that you need to pick and choose what you take away from them. I went to a 1 day communications workshop that my boss set up for me after I requested assistance with a team I was having trouble leading. The work-shop was the basic rigomoral that every single communication book, workshop, speech, hypnosis tape, you name it goes through. However, I did take one thing away from it that still helps me deal with difficult teams. The workshop discussed how people's communication styles change when they are under stress. I'd never really thought about that before, and this one idea has really helped me stop and think about why a person or team might be communicating in a certain way (usually a negative way) and approach that communication in a more constructive way (instead of getting angy.) Another leadership book I read talked about the importance of leaders listening to their teams. A huge part of communication is listening. This is something I have conciously worked on - actually listening to someone rather than developing my next thought. It is really hard to do in a fast paced and emotionally charged environment (a start-up company, for instance) but it makes a world of difference and it is something I hadn't really thought about much until I read that book.
The magic bullet and seven steps don't exist, but I think that people like me (who are a little thick headed and need some nudging) can take away some ideas from these books. Be sure to think independently and remember these are ideas to get you started thinking about leadership in your particular situation.
 
Carmine

I believe you are onto something here; technique is not enough. However, the situation, the epidemic, is much worse than your posting suggests. It is not so much that leadership Gurus are infecting organizations with the "belief in technique". Rather the epidemic is in the near universal belief that leadership is the answer for all of an organizations shortfalls.

For a more in-depth discussion, join me at The Leadership Epidemic.

Take care...

John
 
Hey, Anon, I never said that techniques are useless, merely that they aren't going to solve anything on their own. What I mean is that, like tools, they need to be used with skill, understanding, and insight. It's important to have access to useful tools (as you found), but using them demands more than blind obedience to some set of "rules."

Your comment is a great reminder of that, and I thank you for it. Keep reading, my friend.
 
Great comment, as always, John.

You are so right in saying that "leadership" has become a kind of panacea for every problem or difficulty faced by organizations. Most of the time, the word is used in such a vague and imprecise way that it means nearly nothing, other than one set of people pointing the finger at another—and claiming that "they" should have done something (or should do something now, unspecified) to sort out the mess.

What I would love to see is some clear, objective thinnking, free from management and other dogmas. That's the only way anyone ever made real advances, in business or anywhere else.

Keep reading, my friend.
 
this blog just gets better and better.

The biggest and most obvious lesson here is thatsuccess has no root cause

We look at these previously successful icons - Gates, Branson, The Google Brothers, Thomas Watson Sr etc etc etc....and find there is no common behaviour

The only commonality, the only theme, is that these fellows made their own rules.
 
I agree with you, Jason. The only "cause" of success is doing the right thing at the right time, and that has nothing to do with rules. They are always based on doing what someone else did some time in the past, and hoping it may work again.

Thanks for the kind words.

Keep reading, my friend.
 
Post a Comment



<< Home
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?