Saturday, August 17, 2013

Reversal of Opinion: Leaders Matter

I know leaders are the pacesetters and help determine the values of an organization and its culture. I've always thought and worked in such a way that if a critical mass within the organization could be developed, the culture would be inoculated from any toxicity a new leader might bring. In one of Jim Collins' book, it's said that corporate cultures attract and retain a certain kind of employee. For example, they said, Nordstrom has a great customer-focused culture, but not everyone thrives in it. Those who don't soon look for ways to go elsewhere. Similarly, I thought, that new leaders who didn't fit in would soon be isolated and look for ways to move on.

Recently I heard a talk by one of the authors of Multipliers, Liz Wiseman. She and her partner had studied what distinguishes the leaders in organizations to which people are giving nearly all of their intellectual effort from those leaders where people are barely putting forth half of their effort. Most managerial and leadership characteristics are similar in both sets, but they found 5 distinguishing areas. In the high-performing organizations, they were led by multipliers--those that surround themselves with great people and try to make them greater. Multipliers have flavors like talent magnet, liberator, challenger, debate maker and investor.

On the other side are the diminishers--empire builder, tyrant, know-it-all, decision maker, micro-manager. They found lots of evidence that people's performance actually decreases when they work for a diminisher. They seem to lose capabilities and know-how that they once had and exhibited. Their apathy also increases around a diminisher.

I know the phenomenon because I've done great work for a multiplier and struggled through a diminisher's tenure. What was most surprising and caused some reflection on my own leadership style is that they are "accidental diminishers". They don't cause as much harm, but they're still not getting the best from everyone. I've been one or more kinds of accidental diminishers: the idea guy (so many ideas people can't keep up and figure out which are the priorities), the always-on guy (never a break), rescuer (his people are 'just not good enough'), pacesetter (creating quitters and spectators because the standard is too high), rapid responder (first to speak, first to determine the direction) and the optimist ('how hard can this be' is condescending).

Can leaders change the culture? Maybe, maybe not. They definitely can change the level of engagement and the feeling that doing your best is worth it, recognizable and means something to the others. A healthy and functional culture might survive a diminisher if the others feel strongly about maintaining what they have had. If not, the tyrant or micro-manager will win, and everyone else loses.

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