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Archive for the ‘leadership’ Category

Forced to choose between being a follower or a leader, I would reluctantly choose to be a leader. But I would far rather be neither, because I perform poorly in both roles.

The trouble I have with being a follower is that I am not a passive person. I am quick to express my opinion, and ideas come quickly to me. But under all but the most enlightened management, these are not traits that are appreciated. Consequently, as a follower I either have to suppress my thoughts or risk antagonizing those who are supposed to be in charge of them.

This situation leads to repression, which either slips out in the form of sly and generally unwelcome remarks, or over-compensation, in which I try so hard to conform that I end up applying to myself some of the wonderfully inventive eighteen century terms for describing underlings, such as toady or lick-spittle. Probably no one else would think those words apply, since I don’t give management insincere compliments or anything like that, but the point is that this is an uncomfortable self-image to have.

Even worse, having managed in my time, I’m always second-guessing those further up the ladder, and thinking – no, knowing – that I could do better. I keep thinking that, if I were left to manage matters, everything would go more smoothly. Telling myself that this belief is probably a delusion does nothing to keep me from holding it.

Like most people, I can deal with being a follower if I get my exercise and rest, and keep up my other interests. But it’s an inherently unstable situation, and sooner or later I crack from the strain.

Being in charge is preferable because of the greater autonomy. I enjoy setting priorities, and being responsible for decisions.

All the same, as a leader I’m only slightly more at ease than when I’m a follower. If nothing else, knowing how I chafe as a follower, I’m constantly wondering I’m affecting those around me, and what they think of me.

It doesn’t help, either, that I don’t believe in leadership or hierarchies. My observations and personal experience has convinced me that, for all the emphasis on leadership you hear from management gurus, no one – including me – has any clear idea of what leadership is about.

What worries me is that I will start to confuse myself with the role – that, instead of thinking in terms of tactics or strategies, I will start to use my position as a justification of expressing my ego. I worry that I will get used to having people obey me, and actually get to like the power. If I’m not careful, I may start pressuring myself into actions that the leadership role logically demands, but which I would be reluctant to do in my personal life. The chance of losing myself in the role is always all too likely.

Even trying to be an egalitarian leader is only a palliative. Priding myself on an open door policy, talking about how I am against the cult of leadership, claiming that someone can replace you in a couple of years – all these things, I worry, will only hide the rot that is slowly setting in.

Nor, I suspect, that worrying about such things do anything except make me even less of an effective leader. In the end, I find being a leader only slightly more endurable than being a follower.

Given a completely open choice, I would far rather work in a group that pools its efforts, and hammers out tactics and strategies in discussion. But this is largely a fantasy born of reading stories about King Arthur and Robin Hood, and I’ve rarely and only briefly ever found such a situation.

Instead, I prefer the role of consultant or freelancer, in which I negotiate an exchange of services as something like an equal, and I’m less likely to twist myself out of shape. Being a freelancer isn’t always easy, but it’s the role that comes far nearer to preserving my self-respect than being either a follower or a leader.

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One of my pet peeves about business is the constant consternation among executives about employees doing personal business on company time. Even if the transgression is just a few minutes browsing on the Internet, it’s viewed with the greatest concern. Business experts talk earnestly about what such loss of productivity might mean to the nation, and devise ways to spy on employees, or to block web sites that employees might like to view. Doing business on company time, they gravely explain, is the worst sin of our secular age – stealing from your employer. What annoys me is that such concerns are a grotesque hypocrisy.

I’m not talking, you understand, about the extreme cases, where a middle manager spends five or six hours a day on a gambling site, or a system administrator watches porn all day. Such behavior is obviously unacceptable to anyone. I’m talking instead of people who take five or ten minutes a couple of times a day to read a news or hobby site, or to dash out on a family errand.

Of course, even this behavior was unacceptable thirty years ago, when people worked regular hours and rarely deviated from them. After all, the lost time quickly adds up.

But the workplace is different today. Instead of receiving an hourly wage, the average office worker is on salary – a ploy that forces them to work hours of unpaid overtime. Especially in high-tech, the norm is to take advantage of this situation, putting heavy pressure on those who leave after eight hours and implying that anyone who doesn’t devote evenings and weekends to the company are not being good team players and letting everyone down. More than once, I’ve encountered supervisors who had a habit of starting meetings ten minutes before the end of the day and forcing people to work overtime, knowing very well that the social pressure would keep most people from objecting.

And only rarely does anyone get a day off to compensate for their extra hours. Rather, unpaid work has become the norm.

Under these circumstances, how dare employers complain about the loss of half an hour or an hour a day when they are averaging twice that in unpaid overtime from their employees? If anything, they ought to be glad that employees are taking short breaks. Otherwise, productivity would decline steadily after about nine hours. By taking those breaks, employees are actually making better use of the time actually spent working, because they are more refreshed than they would otherwise be.

An employer with any knowledge of human nature should be glad that employees know how to pace themselves. Otherwise, employees risk falling into the unproductive habit of a resident doctor I once knew. When I asked how she handled the thirty-six hour shifts that are part of the hazing ritual for new doctors, she explained, “I try to make all my decisions in the first twelve hours. After that, I just try not to make any mistakes.”

Anyway, what choice do employees have except to conduct personal business on company time? When employees are working long days, often the middle of the day is the only time they have for errands or personal business. Very few stores are open at 10PM – assuming that someone staggering home after a fourteen hour day even has the energy to stop to shop.

At any rate, employees are doing nothing that many executives haven’t done for years. Despite all the pep talks about the importance of leadership, the average manager works far less strenuously that the average employee. The exceptions are those who have a hands-on approach, and lend a hand in anything that needs doing, and they are usually in a startup. The average manager thinks nothing of doing exactly the sort of thing that annoys them when employees do them.

And perhaps that’s the problem, Maybe the executives who worry about productivity are simply irked that average employees are claiming perqs that used to be reserved for them alone.

When companies pay overtime or don’t cajole and threaten free work out of their employees, and managers set an example of dedication, then they will have a right to complain about what is done on company time. Until then, so long as employees put in the number of productive hours listed in their contract, they have every right to reclaim some of their free time.

So far as I’m concerned, the employees aren’t the ones who are stealing.

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Today, I was interviewing someone who stated that any company or free software needed a leader who was passionate about the work.

The idea was that, being a leader, they could quickly make the decisions necessary for the smooth running of the company, and that, being passionate about the work, they would make desirable decisions – or, at the very least, spare their subordinates the problem of making no decision at all, which the interviewee saw as often worse than making a wrong decision.

Given what I know of the interviewee, I wasn’t surprised to hear this belief expressed. All the same, I was amused that, shortly before the interview, I had read a new release announcing that a former employer, who also believed in being a passionate leader (perhaps he reads the same books on management as the interviewee) had just sold 95% of his company after five years of trying to make it consistently profitable. And if that is not a sign of bad leadership, what is?

As the interviewee expounded his theory, I couldn’t help thinking that you can passionately make the wrong decision at least as often as the right one. If anything, if you push logic aside in favor of inspiration, you’re probably more inclined to make wrong decisions.

Also, although I kept silent – interviews not being about me, I strongly believe – I couldn’t help thinking that, nine times out of ten, when people talk about leadership, they are viewing themselves as the leaders in question. What other people might think of the arrangement they are expounding hardly enters into their consideration. The assumption always seems to be that non-leaders will automatically follow.

I suppose that some people might exist who want a leader to make decisions for them. Or, at least, if they do exist, such people might explain neo-conservatism. But, I’ve never met them. The most apathetic and most obedient alike always seem jaded or cynical about their situation, if you can get them talking in a place where they feel safe.

For the most part, I suspect that people are not looking for a leader so much as a sense that their input into a decision matters. Nothing can be more irritating to someone with specialized knowledge than to find that their experience has been ignored in the decision-making.

I remember one long, hot summer when I was working on a design and writing project with a company. Whenever we held meetings, the CEO would arrive forty minutes late. He would then spend the next twenty minutes vetoing all the decisions the rest of us had made before his arrival – so far as I can see, simply because he felt like asserting his authority. Those of us who were consultants soon got into the habit of being late ourselves, and of not talking about anything to do with the project until the CEO arrived.

Needless to say, we were fuming, partly about the waste of time, but partly because our suggestions, which we believed were in the best interest of the company, were being ignored.

Very likely, we were sometimes wrong n our decisions, but, given our experience, we were almost certainly right more often than the CEO, who had no relevant expertise in the project – only a passion to have things his own way.

Such experiences explain why, whenever someone talks about visionary leadership, I start getting very apprehensive (at least when I have to endure it; when I don’t, I just shake my head). Somehow, business in the twenty-first century has got hold of the idea that leadership is some sort of natural trait or at least something that is an end in itself.

The idea reminds me of people who believe that a writer simply needs to know how to write, and has no need for expertise on their subject – in both cases, the odds of poor performance increase to near certainty, probably because so much time is spent disguising ignorance and inability.

Personally, I think leadership is simpler than that. These days, I tend to avoid situations where leadership arise, having decided that I have no particular wish to lead, and that I most definitely do not want to led.

However, in the past, leadership roles continually came my way – probably due the wrong-headed belief that if you are skilled in one area, you are somehow fit to lead. When I could not avoid such roles, however, I quickly learned that they were not about me, or making me feel good.

To me, leadership decisions were simply a matter of problem solving: I gathered what information I could in the time allotted, consulting people when I needed to, made a decision, then moved on to the next matter needing my attention. But, then, I’ve never thought that any leadership that wasn’t hands-on was worth a damn, anyway.

To this day, I have no idea how effective a leader I was. Nor am I likely to find out now. But it seems to me that there is far less to the role than those who aspire to it like to pretend.

Passion? Vision? So far as I am concerned, passion is for martyrs, and visions are for saints. I’ve always been aware that I wasn’t so exalted, and that I had a job to do.

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Martin Michlmayr, the former Debian project leader and recent Cambridge graduate, wrote to say that my dismissal of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as “simplistic hypocrisy” in a recent blog entry was an interesting contrast to the “glowing review” he had read on another site.

I answered privately, but Carnegie’s book has been viewed uncritically for so long — almost seven decades — that I think a public debunking is in order. So let me say here and now that Carnegie’s book presents a limited view of complex problems, and trying to follow his advice usually leads to psychologically dangerous behavior — two points that are often lost in his readers’ relief at being given concrete solutions to problems that concern almost everyone at one time or another. His advice is especially unsound in the IT department, whose members mostly interact in situations for which Carnegie’s advice is simply not designed.

You should never forget that Carnegie is a salesman first and last. And, like many people, he sees all situations in terms of the one that’s most familiar and important to him: being face to face with a potential customer, trying to close the deal. However, if you think for even a moment, there are many situations where this view is both inappropriate and misleading. Should you really see closing a deal as having anything to do with working on a group project? To the relationship between teacher and student? To a marriage? While you may find aspects of sales in some of these relationships, none of these examples are defined nor dominated by closing a deal — or, if they are, they are profoundly toxic.

The same is true of people. In the true capitalist tradition, Carnegie assumes that you can appeal to people’s competitive spirit in your effort to persuade. Yet, when you stop to think, even those who are competitive in certain situations hardly want to be so all the time. Often, other values like truth or reciprocity have a higher priority, even in the business world. Encourage computer programmers to compete, and they’re likely to roll their eyes. Ditto for graphic artists or researchers.

And just ask yourself who you’d rather work with on a project: someone who wasn’t outgoing but came up with original insights, or someone whose first priority was to be liked? Yet Carnegie urges that, in your efforts to be liked, you should hide your own passions in favor of echoing other peoples’, thereby cutting off the exchange of ideas that often leads to the greatest creativity.

The truth is that many situations require some give and take, even some temporary disagreement. But a person trying to follow Carnegie’s advice will shy away from conflict, even if it is ultimately useful. In many situations, trying to live by Carnegie’s stripped down sense of the world means that you won’t be able to function effectively. Outside the world of sales, being liked just isn’t the most important concern. Much of the time, assuming that it is becomes a dangerous and unproductive simplification.

Consider, too, the effect that following Carnegie’s advice can have. In his book, Carnegie stresses the importance of having a genuine interest in people, and genuinely listening to people. And, granted, diplomacy is a social grace. Yet if you have a shred of honesty,you have to admit that you will not have a genuine interest in some people. At times, you won’t even have a genuine interest in listening to the most important people in your life, because you are tired or distracted.

In such situations, what are Carnegie’s followers to do? Unless they abandon their credo, they can only lie, both to themselves or to those around them in everything they say and do, pretending an interest when they have none. In other words, they can only transform themselves into hypocrites. They are not just being polite; when you are polite you may not tell a boor that you want run screaming from him, but at least you know that’s what you would like to do. But when you are being a hypocrite, you add a level of manipulation to a relationship that is not only avoidable, but destructive to both you and the relationship.

Carnegie’s advice contains a fundamental contradiction: on the one hand, you are supposed to genuinely like people and encourage them to warm to you people, but, on the other hand, you do so only in order to manipulate them. Making a point of remembering their name, leading people along with a chain of questions that leads them to buying, letting people blow off steam so that they are calmer when you start addressing their complaints, offering upbeat praise, introducing them with a compliment that they will feel they have to live up to — all these are ultimately ways to control people, according to Carnegie, not things to do to develop a relationship for its own sake. So, once again, hypocrisy taints the relationship if you follow Carnegie’s advice.

Not that all relationships are between equals, or should be. But when you are constantly concerned with manipulating the other party, how can respect or any other mutual feeling enter the relationship? You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t despise a person you can always manipulate. You may even come to despise yourself for being the manipulator.

For these reasons, dealing with one of Carnegie’s followers can be a deeply frustrating experience. When you want a new perspective, often they won’t give one. If you want honesty or team work, you’ll be lucky to get it. If you’re used to not hearing a compliment unless it’s sincere, a Carnegie follower can momentarily lead you to think that you’re been extraordinarily successful — at least, until you realize that he or she says much the same of everyone, and the compliment is empty. In fact, once you become aware of Carnegie’s relatively limited bag of tricks, they become so obvious that you quickly stop trusting the person who uses them and start wondering what their hidden agenda might be. In the end, conversation, let alone working together, can become almost impossible.

Carnegie’s advice is not always so unhealthy. Some of what he says, such as trying to imagine yourself in the other person’s position, or allowing them to save face when you admonish them are solid people skills. Other pieces of advice, such as readily admitting you are wrong are also good advice — good enough to have come down over the millennia from Aristotle. But the trouble is, these nuggets are embedded in such an unstable strata of simplistic and hypocritical advice that they are hardly worth the effort of separating them out.

Unfortunately for Carnegie, all relationships are not a sales deal — and trying to pretend that they are is not only risky, but mentally unhealthy as well.

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Business experts always have an air of fantasy about them. Many give watered-down accounts of outdated psychology like the Meyers-Brigg personality test. Almost all give the impression that the writer’s experience of the modern office is either scant or years in the past. I mean, what other field would still consider a piece of simplistic hypocrisy like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People a significant work for seventy years? But while their sense of dislocation fascinates me, business experts can be dangerous and offensive — and never more so than when they are promoting the modern cult of the leader.

According to this cult, proving yourself a leader is the way to advance your career. If you are not a natural leader — whatever that means — then you should try to become one by imitating various role models. Some experts go so far to suggest that you should copy the fashion sense and behavior of those higher in the corporate hierarchy. The goal is to become someone that others look up to and admire so that they follow you willingly (that is, are willing to sacrifice their personal time for your business goals). Should you not appreciate this goal, the subtext always seems to be, something is deeply wrong with you (presumably, that you’re a natural follower instead).

Where do I start explaining what is not only misguided but also deeply insulting about this sales pitch? Perhaps the point to make first is that this advice is based no more solidly on research than creationism, cryptozoology, or any other junk science. Are some people natural leaders? Or is that just code for being aggressive and extroverted? Can you really become one by imitation? Or does such imitation simply flatter your models and identify you forever as a follower? What percentage of people who use these techniques succeed, and what percentage fail? The failure rate must be extremely high, since by definition there are far fewer leadership positions than candidates for them. And how does the undisguised opportunism advocated fit with the more laidback, flatter corporate structures of today?

For that matter, who says that people are just looking for a leader to follow? Many jobs in modern business, up to (and maybe especially) most management, executive, and officer positions, can be done adequately by the average eighth grader. Beyond the inevitable division of labor and the coordination that it requires, very few people require a leader — and those that do aren’t people you want to hire anyway, because they are probably untrustworthy.

Similarly, while it’s true that people are often looking for a higher cause to give meaning to their lives, most of them don’t expect to find it at work. They put in hours of over-time because doing so seems a job requirement and they’re afraid of being fired if they object. Just because they put the best face on such demands, that doesn’t mean they enjoy them. Most people know when they’re being exploited, and having a leader won’t inspire most of them to do anything except hide their resentment better. Generally, it’s only very young workers or those very high up in the power structure who have a mental stake in a business. For the rest, it’s a income, a means to an end.

Nor does the average person’s relative indifference to advancing their career indicate inferiority in intelligence and talent compared to those who are dedicated careerists. Some people prefer to stay in a position where they are competent or fulfilled rather than advance. Many prefer to carve out their own small empire at right angles to the main power structure, like the quartermaster or surgeon on a 19th Century sailing ship. Others see those in the main power structure as enemies, and more or less actively oppose them — unionists, for example. An even greater number seek meaning from something other than work.

But the worst thing about those indoctrinated into the cult of leadership is that their beliefs encourage an arrogant oversimplification. Ambition, to cult members, is the only legitimate aspiration. From that position, it is a short step to justifying everything you do and viewing others as stupider and less talented than you are, and yourself as a superior being (or, at least, a demi-god in training).

Such a world view may be comforting to you when you have doubts at night, but, during the day, it’s also likely to make you a damned unpleasant person to be around. I wonder, too, how many cultists have defeated their own ambitions because they made their goals a little too obvious and displayed their contempt for others just a little too openly?

Perhaps the rest of us should thank the business experts for making it easier to detect their cult members. However, I think this service is vastly outweighed by the disservice the experts do by encouraging the cultists in their worst behavior by flattering them with comparisons to samurai warriors and heroic Antarctic explorers, and by pretending their naked ambition is anything except the rather paltry egotism that it so often is.

And should you be someone attracted to the cult of leadership, take a moment to consider how many assumptions that are either unexamined or at best proved by anecdotal evidence are contained in the key message of the cult of leadership. Personally, before I guided my future by such experts’ advice, I would like more proof that it was well-thought out and based on solid evidence. Otherwise, I may be making plans on a very shaky foundation — foundations that could very easily crumble beneath me and leave me unhappy and, because of my arrogance, very much alone.

Of course, the experts would have an explanation ready for such failure. Probably, they’d say I didn’t try hard enough, or didn’t apply their ideas correctly. That’s the beautiful thing about closed systems of belief — for the faithful, they defy debunking.

All I know is that I wouldn’t do a relatively unimportant thing like buy a washing machine from a clerk who sounded like the so-called business experts. So why would I buy a philosophy of life from them?

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