Ladies and gentlemen, the Peter Principle is alive and well in American business today. A lot of managers get promoted, but few know how to become a great leader in business.
It seems the biggest single contributor to attaining a position in management is to be entirely devoid of people and communications skills. I know, that’s harsh, but that’s the way it is in many businesses that I see today. Being picked as the Chosen One at a company is great for the new manager, especially for his wallet, but it can have a devastating effect on the company. Productivity falls away to near nothing, employee morale disappears, and retained earnings evaporate under your very eyes. Management tracks a lot of data and issues a stack of memos like they were born for the job, but they couldn’t lead an army of fire ants to a picnic held by the American Crumb Association. The managers are soft in the leadership category, and chaos follows. What’s really scary is that these traits occur just as much in established managers, people firmly entrenched in their positions and sticking it out until they get their gold watch.
Here is the 5 point litmus test to identify a weak manager, a leader in name but not in action. Does your strip stay blue once you immerse yourself in the test? Let’s hope so. You can overcome demonstrating one, maybe even two, of these attributes; more than that, start designing your safety net now, because your team’s going to fall.
1. Can’t Let Go of the Past. Managers in the lower talent quartile continuously reminisce about the old days, when the people worked harder for less, when we didn’t have this damn technology to convolute things, and global rivalry only happened every four years in a place like Innsbruck, Austria at the Olympic Games. They long for the simpler times, and spend an inordinate amount of time telling tales of how it used to be.
Are you stuck in the past? Get on with your life. I’m not advising ignoring past success or the principles that made it possible, but the techniques you engage to manage these days need to be resilient, flexible. People aren’t stimulated by the same things any longer. Money doesn’t govern all behavior, and job security in today’s human capital marketplace just ain’t the anchor it once was. People like hearing about the future, and the only way your business can profit is to plan for it and then eagerly anticipate its arrival.
2. Afraid of risk. Don’t cause trouble. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Timid managers say these phrases and others like them, a lot. What’s worse, they believe them. The status quo is great, and they’ll fight to keep things the same. New ideas from employees and colleagues are scrutinized for the possible negative outcomes. These so-called leaders don’t see possibility in new point of views; they envision the danger that may occur. Their managerial careers are governed by fear and shrinking, not broadening, their comfort zones. Many of these token leaders don’t even recognize they have this character deficit. One of these guys will steal second base, provided his foot is nailed to first.
If you find yourself in this group, start by taking small steps. Risk taking is a skill that needs to be practiced to become comfortable. Take a gamble on a new initiative where the negative risk isn’t so bad (there NEEDS to be some downside, or it’s not a risk, is it?). See what happens. Work your way up to leading by taking larger and larger calculated risks with higher rewards. I’m not suggesting carelessness here, but as you move up the risk taking curve, your skill at hedging your bets and creating successes from your decisions will improve. Your company can’t move forward residing in the status quo, so this one is vital to future success.
3. All talk without walking the walk. Strong leaders never have to remind people of their title. Their subordinates, peers and clients know who they are. General Schwarzkopf didn’t have to keep informing the troops he was their leader, they already knew it. These type of things happen when respect is gained through deeds and the example that a leader sets. On the other hand, weak leaders relish telling other people, particularly subordinates, their titles. The weak leader’s business card has an impressive title after the name, often using the word “Executive” somewhere in the phrase, as if the rest of us don’t know that a Vice President is an executive. Because respect hasn’t been earned, this bunch gets challenged frequently and their only way to secure victory is to pull rank.
The difference between a leader who has forced followers and one who has an eager, passionate support team is the difference between a mackerel and a tiger shark. If you find yourself needing to continuously justify what your position in the company is, you’re the mackerel.
The tickets to earning respect and loyalty with the troops are many, but here are a few:
- Set a congruent example; practice what you preach. Don’t ask employees to do what you wouldn’t be willing to do.
- Pass along credit to employees, even if their involvement was minor compared to yours. Nobody likes a self-congratulating boss who is perceived as someone who takes credit for other people’s achievements.
- Actually provide a vision for the company, which leads us to weak leader test number 4…
4. Has no specific goals. By very definition a leader needs two things so as to exist. The first is supporters, and we’ve covered that. The second is a direction, somewhere to take the followers. Thousands of managers in modern business fail here, wandering aimlessly through life, taking it as it comes. How do you spot the vision-less manager? Ask her, “What’s your vision for the future of your team, division, etc?” If an immediate response doesn’t follow, synopsized in one clear, distinct sentence, you’ve found an imposter. If she takes out her business card, flips it over and reads the company mission statement, second strike. I’m not trying to say that managers ignore the overall company mission. Far from it, but each individual person who wants to lead must have a goal that sets the direction for those in his domain. That should be supportive of, but not exactly a repeat of the entire organization’s mission. People want a reason to help give their work meaning, something to pursue. If they don’t get it from management, it’s up to chance that they’ll find an empowering vision somewhere else. Managers need to identify what they want from the organization for the future, condense it down to something clear, and beat the drum regularly so that every employee knows it by heart.
5. No Stick-to-itiveness. Effective leaders demand and get payoffs for the major initiatives that they want to execute, often by the power of their own personalities. If a manager launches an event that needs care and nourishing, then forgets it is the next time he reads a business book on a trans-continental flight, he is wishy-washy and inefficient. This coward doesn’t have the courage to follow his convictions about what is right for the company, so the direction of the group is set by what’s hot-the flavor of the month. Look for this warning sign too-a manager who calls off a project at the first sign of trouble, not recognizing the opportunity and results that lies beyond the wall of failure. This occurs every day, where the company accountant brings a report into the big cheese’s office that shows red ink at the start of a project. The manager then thanks the bean counter and withdraws support for the change, which heretofore was touted as the “planned paradigm shift for the organization, crucial to our future success.” Hogwash!
There is an old skiers proverb, “No guts no glory, no falls no…”, well, you get it. Staying the course through tough times demonstrates character strength and true leadership to those around you. Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, General Custer had courage, and look where it got him.” No, Custer was stupid, ignoring the evidence before him and disregarding warnings from trusted counselors in the pursuit of personal glory. Know the problem, know the business plan that you’re going to follow, and know the reasonable effects that can stem from the change, including initial red ink, then make a decision and stick to it.
Your job now is to go through your business on a weak manager safari, finding those who aren’t leading but simply existing and costing the company dearly. If you’re one of them, now you know. Once identified, you can help them develop, re-assign the lost causes, or ignore the problem altogether. So what’s it going to be?
Karl Walinskas is the CEO of Smart Company Growth, a business development firm that helps small to mid-size professional service firms build competitive advantage in an online world of sameness. He is author of numerous articles and the Smart Blogon leadership, business communication, sales & service, public speaking and virtual business, and Getting Connected Through Exceptional Leadership, available in the SmartShop. Get your FREE LinkedIn Profile Optimization eBook & Video Course, Video Marketing video and course, or Mastermind Groups e-course & video now.