3 things you need to tell young leaders

Running teams is a great way to develop your leadership skills.  Each person I’ve lead always had something to teach me about how to lead.  More importantly, each person I’ve lead always found a way of exposing one of my weaknesses I didn’t know I had.

A business leader’s job is to convert the work of others into a desired tangible result.  Any other description is corporate bullshit and window dressing.  No job title will ever tell you if a guy is a strong leader.  In fact, the more a dude covets a sweet sounding title, the less likely I trust him as a leader.  You want to find a good leader?  Find one that can effectively lead a group of unpaid volunteers.  You want to find a good leader?  Find a guy in your back office who quietly goes about his business and helps others without reward or fanfare.  A job title doesn’t denote a leader.  You can be the VP of Awesome and can’t lead a ball downhill.  A leader is someone others want to follow by choice.  He’s the kind of guy, that upon leaving, will have a few followers, following him for possibly less money to different pastures.  A leader isn’t identified in a moment.  Often loud, charismatic folks are thought of as leaders.  Sometimes.  But not always.  Leadership is picked up by others through conduct and sincerity.  Is this guy a quote-spewing dinosaur or is he someone who actually cares about my personal success?

Here are three things you need to tell the new leaders you hire or promote.

"Do what I say because I give good quotes!  Oh wait...what do you mean I'm extinct?"

“Do what I say because I give good quotes!  Oh wait…what do you mean I’m extinct?”

1.  A good leader is one who focuses on high value activities and not window-dressing bullshit just to show that something is being done.  I’m willing to bet my car that millions of business plans have been demanded of staff only to be presented once and never looked at again or even thought of.  I’m willing to bet my house that millions of hours of strategy and cheer-leading (the worst) meetings have been burned just so the guy calling it can feel good he called it while people leaving those meetings are now further behind because they lost those hours.  A good leader removes all impediments and bullshit from their staff’s day so they, in turn, can perform their highest value activities.  An insecure manager adds complexity so he can justify his pay.  

So this is what I say to a young leader:  “Find good people and manage only when you need to.  Do everything you can to clear their deck.”  Over management is a clear indication of your insecurity.  Anything that must be said can be said in 10 minutes.  Teach them 75% and let them innovate the other 25%.  If a guy can innovate the other 25%, he’s your superstar.  If the guy gets by on the 75%, he’s your grunt and second-line player.  If a guy can’t even figure out the 75%, get rid of him.”

2. A good leader gets rid of weak links the moment he knows they are weak.  This doesn’t always mean the worker is not competent.  It might mean the job or environment is not right for the dude.  Who’s a weak player?  It’s not always about results and production.  It’s also about what they bring to the clubhouse.  If you’re a manager and you can’t rapidly remove these people, you’re riding a crippled horse.  Here’s a list of the usual suspects.  Every team has at least one or two.

Inconsistent performer.  One day he’s a star, the next he’s a dud.  There is simply no process or reason for his success or failure.  It’s as if he’s only good if he had the right breakfast that morning.

The consistent under-achiever.  These guys never get it.  They work hard and are likable but they never gain traction.  You hate to get rid of these folks but you’re probably hurting them by keeping them.  There’s a perfect job out there that they might rock but they’ll never know if you keep them around because you’re too weak-kneed to make a move on a buddy.

The dirtbag.  This guy somehow finds a way to offend someone at least once a day.  He’ll apologize and tell you how sorry he is that you were offended but not for his actual dirtbag behaviour.  A guy like this is a walking legal liability to the entire company and each time he gets away with it, you look like less of a leader for letting him stay.

Drama queens.  These are people who absolutely suck the life-blood out of an office.  They’re gossipy, moody and typically exhibit constant attention-seeking behaviour.  They know they’re doing it yet pretend to be shocked when they’re called on their bullshit.

The 80-Man.  This guy alone sucks up 80% of your time and attention.  In fact, 80-Man is likely all of the above and you find yourself constantly having to deal with crap this dude dredges up.

The Yes-Man.  This guy is the worst.  He’ll say ‘yes’ 100% of the time and actually do it 50% of the time.

So this is what I say to a young leader:  “People are not equal so do not treat them equally.  When you treat a B-Player the same as an A-Player, you’re accepting mediocrity.”  A-Players expect to be treated better because they know they are better and they can prove it with process, attitude and results.  A-players do not exhibit any of the above behaviours because they’re too busy focusing on their work.  Far better to focus on the guy who can do the job of two than the guy who can’t do the job of one.  As a leader, if you are forced to keep B-Players, you, yourself need to move on because you will never find success.

3. A good leader isn’t blind.  You demand production because you’re paid to demand production.  You demand answers, gap plans and photocopies of Covey’s 7 Habits on everybody’s wall.  But you neglect to notice the obvious – that half your team is dead from dysentery.  Blindly demanding production is asinine at best and only the worst of seagull managers do it.  History tells of many great leaders humbled by their hubris when leading teams.  Telling a team to produce more when half the staff is dead is like telling a guy with a freshly hacked ankle to break a world sprint record; it makes for an awesome anecdote when it happens but it literally happens once ever.  Telling a guy not to accept reality makes for a neat soundbyte but even the dumbest of people understand basic probabilities. No matter how you aggrandize your profession, be it delivering babies or selling toner cartridges, business is based on probabilities.  If you’re the type of leader who doesn’t constantly adjust your message based on shifting probabilities due to shifting circumstances, you’ll constantly be talking about what was and not what is.

So this is what I say to a young leader:  “Leaders who are most adaptable are not only the most likely to succeed in the long term, they are the most respected.”  Although the goal doesn’t change, your message to your team must when change is appropriate.  People are not stupid and although they might not call out your bullshit to your face, know that ‘go-forward-at-all-costs’ messages are generally received with mild amusement and each time you repeat the same message, your people’s bullshit meter on you rises.  When you ask your team to do something, have proof that you know what the hell you are talking about based on real-world circumstances, not assumptions, conjectures and old war stories which everybody knows is embellished bullshit.  Have proof that you understand the current situation and the vulnerability to admit that your previous plans and targets are no longer valid due to shifting sands. And frankly, if you didn’t notice the sands shifting, you probably do not belong in a leadership position.

Everybody talks a big game when it comes to leadership because it’s such vague concept.  I do not claim to know it nor do I profess to be awesome at it.  I’m like a frog at the bottom of the well, and my world is only as big as the opening above me.  In fact, I openly proclaim that I am a far better #2 than a #1.   And it is in that unique position that I am able to observe how the good leaders succeed and how the bad ones fail.