| The Feiner Points of Leadership |
By Michael Feiner
Genre: Business & Money
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In the early stages of my career as an executive, I felt I needed to direct people to do certain things. I knew I was supposed to be sensitive and allow my people to have a sense of involvement, but all the same I believed that they expected me, as their leader, to tell them or show them what to do-to prescribe a course of action. I was attempting, without fully realizing it, to conform to the "heroic individual" concept of leadership.
So when I took my senior team to Hurricane Island, off the coast of Maine, on a six-day Outward Bound team-building exercise, I carried this concept of leadership with me. I had been successful leading this way and there was no need to fix something that wasn't broken.
The Hurricane Island experience began with a day of land-based exercises. My eight-person team was pumped and ready to go. After a few hours of orientation, we were asked to confront our first challenge: to get the entire team over a fifteen-foot-high wooden wall. We contemplated the wall, each of us thinking about a solution to this puzzle. After a few seconds, people began to volunteer their ideas, each realizing the flaw in the suggested solution the longer he or she explained it. I waited, infinitely patient and super-sensitive leader that I was. After about five minutes, people became quieter, and my moment to lead had arrived.
I presented my analysis of the problem, and laid out the solution I had in mind. The team listened to my instructions carefully. On the first attempt, six of us were able to scale the wall in no time, but we weren't able to get the two remaining members of the team over. I outlined another approach, which again stranded two team members. After a little more deliberation, and then more pushing and shoving, the third plan I suggested ended in pretty much the same way. Fast-forward two hours: We were at Plan N, and it was becoming clear to me that I wasn't moving any closer to getting all of us over the wall. I began to feel desperate-here I was, the captain of the ship, with a crew that expected me to save the day, to solve this problem, and to lead them to success, and we were getting precisely nowhere. It was at this moment that Anita, one of my most trusted subordinates, moved to my side, carefully positioning herself so that the rest of the team couldn't hear what she was saying.
"Mike, try backing off a bit and ask us to think as a team about how to get over this friggin' wall."
I heard this whispered comment, but at first I couldn't process the suggestion. What was she talking about? How could I let my team know I didn't have the answers? How could I turn to the team for advice at this point without their losing respect for my leadership authority? Wasn't I expected to know more? Hell, that's how I'd gotten to be the leader. I looked again at Anita, my desperation mounting. She shot me a reassuring glance. I called a time-out.
"Folks, I'm obviously better at going through walls than over them." The team laughed politely, though tempers at this point were a little frayed. "How about we step back and talk about this for a bit? This is trickier than we thought."
The change was dramatic-and instantaneous. People began to brainstorm, asking rather than telling. "What do you think of this approach ...?" became a common starting point. In a matter of about thirty-five minutes, we-the team-had sorted out the most plausible options and twenty minutes later the entire group was over the wall, the preceding two hours of futility behind us.
But what surprised me most was that, after this episode, people acted no differently toward me even though I had been the living embodiment of the leader who had the answer to every problem (at least, that's how I had seen it). What worked in this situation was not strategy, was not oratory, was not a sense of mission. It was not my following a "heroic individual" approach.
Rather, what worked was stepping back, asking a question, and understanding that I didn't need to single-handedly lead the team out of the wilderness. Most importantly, though, this didn't detract from my leadership. Quite the opposite. In this instance, giving the team a say in the decision enhanced my leadership, and enabled us to succeed.
When it comes to common perceptions of leadership, however, the heroic individual model-what has been called the Myth of the Great Man-has proven remarkably resilient. It holds that a leader is a larger-than-life, heroic individual; a leader is valiant, courageous, and stands alone at the summit of an organization; a leader devises strategy, delivers moving oratory, defines a grand vision. This is the concept of the leader that many of us carry around in our heads, and we continue to do so despite a number of recent attempts by some of the best thinkers in the field to redefine leadership in less swashbuckling terms.
Perhaps the most prominent voice in this movement is that of Warren Bennis. In his groundbreaking book Organizing Genius, Bennis provides six case studies that show leaders achieving success not as individuals, but through their skill at working with their teams. Bennis points out that Steve Jobs, generally assumed to be the lone genius behind the creation of the Apple Macintosh, was not a technical expert (that was his best friend, Steve Wozniak), but was supported by a large team of developers who put in the hundred-hour weeks necessary to the success of the project. Bennis shows us that Walt Disney, hailed as the father of animation, brought a vision of a transformed entertainment industry, but relied on a team of skilled animators to see that vision to fruition (Disney himself, we learn, didn't draw a single frame of his first full-length feature film). And Bennis and Howard Gardner, another assailant of the Great Man Myth, both point to J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project as the classic example of harnessing the talents of others: Oppenheimer led the project to a successful conclusion, despite his reserved demeanor, despite his inexperience leading large groups (twenty-five hundred scientists were recruited to work at Los Alamos), and despite the fact that he was not the most technically able scientist on the team (seven Nobel Prizes were awarded to Manhattan Project physicists later in their careers; Oppenheimer was not among them).
What Bennis and Gardner challenge, in these various examples, is our tendency to attribute successes of human endeavor to a single individual. We often think of Jobs as the father of the Mac, Disney as the father of animation, and Oppenheimer as the father of the atomic age. Did Jobs, Disney, and Oppenheimer possess incredible talents? Of course they did, perhaps even genius.
Yet each only achieved what he did through others. And arguably each would have achieved much less were it not for skills at energizing, motivating, and inspiring people that are greatly removed from the vision-strategy-oratory skills that most of us associate with leadership. The revised thinking encourages us to view leadership not as "an inherently individual phenomenon," where we intertwine leadership with solitary heroics, but rather as a process of harnessing and directing the talents of others. Bennis, in place of the theory of the Great Man, offers us the model of the Great Group.
There is another reason that the Great Man model is nearer myth than reality: If we examine the enormity of the challenge facing the modern leader, it becomes clear that individual leadership is simply not feasible. The world is far too complex for a man or woman to be able to single-handedly resolve the problems of the day. As the march of globalization continues, and as technology places ever more information ever more quickly at our fingertips, it's virtually impossible for a leader to be smart enough or to be able to understand enough of the overall picture to unilaterally resolve every question an organization, large or small, faces every day. Further, organizations and the problems they face are themselves too complex for a person to lead by himself or herself. The human dimension complicates exponentially the rational and logical model of the way these organizations are supposed to work. So complexity-of the world, and of the organizations in it-means that leadership can never be something practiced by an individual in isolation.
But despite these assaults, and despite the impossibilities of individual leadership in the modern world, the Great Man Myth is still alive and kicking. When I ask audiences, whether composed of MBA candidates, experienced managers, or people at any level in between, to name figures, living or dead, who embody great leadership, the lists are always remarkably similar. Winston Churchill, Napoleon Bonaparte, George S. Patton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, and Abraham Lincoln-with an occasional Margaret Thatcher or Michael Jordan or Jack Welch thrown in. When I ask these audiences what the great leaders on their list have in common, their responses usually reflect the concept of leadership as an individual, heroic phenomenon (and, judging by the lists my audiences generate, an almost exclusively male phenomenon at that). Leaders are great speakers, they have a clear vision, they've overcome adversity, they make difficult decisions single-handedly, and so on.
These audiences are generally composed of intelligent people with not insignificant experience in the professional world. Yet this tendency to deify leaders, and to ascribe to them superhuman powers, persists. Why?
Leaders do a huge number of different things each day. Some are visible to us; most are not. When we think of great leaders, we (not surprisingly) think of visible leaders, and of what those leaders do that we see. We then (again, not surprisingly) equate those things that we see these leaders doing with what great leaders do and what we see, primarily, are speeches and articles and interviews about vision and strategy, hence our view of the leader as the orator who single-handedly shapes the future path. But leadership is like an iceberg: Ninety percent of it is hidden below the surface. To form our impressions of leaders based on only their public activities relies on a dangerously biased sampling of what really goes on. Yet this is precisely what most of us do.
This book attempts to set the record straight, by revealing the ninety percent of leadership beneath the tip of the iceberg. We'll see that this ninety percent has comparatively little to do with strategy, oratory, or technical skills, and everything to do with managing relationships up, down, and across an organization. Leadership is the aggregation of hundreds upon hundreds of small interactions-most of which take place out of our sight-projected across layer upon layer of relationships, day in and day out. It is these relationships that form the substance of organizational life-a fact that the Great Man Myth, centered as it is on the power of the individual, largely fails to take into account. Anything that an organization achieves is achieved by a group of people working together: At the simplest level, the leader is a leader because he or she can enable that group to deliver- and the only way to do this is through the relationships that define the group.
Saying that leadership is about managing relationships, however, isn't nearly enough. To see leadership as the ability to achieve great success through others is a critical advance-in that it moves beyond the mythology of individual genius-but this approach still has a key shortcoming. It stops short of offering a visceral understanding of how leaders do what they actually do. We are told that leaders build Great Groups or Hot Teams; we are told that leaders Establish Direction, Align People, and Motivate and Inspire; we are told that leaders have employees who feel empowered. But these are whats, not hows: Understanding them doesn't enable you to go to the office tomorrow and behave differently. This isn't news you can use.
The people I once coached at Pepsi, my current clients, and my MBA students all want to know how they go about dealing with the endless array of leadership challenges. They want the tactical details of how to handle a difficult subordinate or an unreasonable boss, how to manage conflict, or how to lead a change process. What distinguishes truly great leaders-and what is required of any discussion of leadership if it is to be helpful to current or aspiring leaders-is an understanding of these hows. How do you build a great team? How do you motivate and inspire your people? How do you take people with you?
A detailed understanding of the hows of leadership marks what we'll call a High-Performance Leader. It's what enables a leader to tap into something greater than himself or herself. It's what leads to energized employees, effective teams, and enhanced business results. It's also the only way I know of to teach people to become better leaders.
The remainder of this book, then, goes beneath the tip of the iceberg to reveal the invisible ninety percent of leadership, and presents this ninety percent as a series of hows. It provides a basic framework of laws for the High-Performance Leader, which encompass the hows of leading subordinates, bosses, and peers. Because my ego still hasn't quite recovered from the battering it took on Hurricane Island and needs all the help it can get, I call them Feiner's Laws. There aren't seven laws or ten commandments: Leadership isn't that simple. In fact, there are fifty laws in this book, provided to tackle the endless array of challenges we face in organizational life.
We should address two characteristics of the hows of leadership in advance. First, you'll see that High-Performance Leaders achieve much of their success in managing relationships not through distant communications (by memos or speeches or video broadcasts), but through direct, up-close, personal interaction. They challenge, argue with, and persuade people up and down the organization regarding their ideas. They give and solicit feed-back.
They get to know their people and what makes them tick. They coach and mentor. They encourage debate, and the conflict of ideas. They hold people accountable. They tell uncomfortable truths. They dive deep into the details. They build coalitions and alliances. In order to ensure that people in the organization are pulling on the oars in unison, High-Performance Leaders engage in what I call HTHC-Hand-to-Hand Combat. They do this every day, sometimes in formal, scheduled interactions (staff meetings or one-on-ones), but also in informal, unscheduled, and frequent transactions with members of their team. They recognize that leaders can't overcommunicate, and they understand that, in fact, the opposite applies: It's through what feels like overcommunication that people come to embrace the vision or internalize the priorities, and that relationships are fostered and maintained. You'll see these HTHC activities in many of the laws we'll discuss throughout the book.
The second characteristic of the hows of leadership is this: To excel in all of them is far from easy. The laws are surprisingly difficult to implement with any level of consistency. They call for courage, yet it's unbelievably difficult to summon the courage to tell your boss that he or she is making a huge mistake, or to give a peer candid performance feedback. They call for a leader to provide purpose and meaning, yet it's unbelievably difficult to infuse an overriding purpose into every aspect of your team's work. They call for unwavering commitment, yet it's unbelievably difficult to display the sort of commitment to a subordinate that places their own interests ahead of yours when the chips are down. They call for leaders to own outcomes, yet it's unbelievably difficult to do this to such an extent that you never reflexively blame others for problems, but only address what you can do to resolve them. And they call for leaders to uphold values, yet it's unbelievably difficult to stand up for decency, dignity, and honesty when competitors both inside and outside the firm seem to be willing to break all the rules to get ahead. If there's anything heroic about leadership, then, it's this: The ninety percent of it that we don't see demands incredible application, stamina, and dedication. Any effective leader must sustain a huge number of relationships, and this requires heroic (and largely unseen) effort.
Although processes and systems are important tools for leaders, we'll devote very little time to them here. This is not an oversight on my part. While it's true that leaders must leverage all kinds of processes-for decision making, resource allocation, strategy formulation, change, and learning, to name only a few-in order to achieve great results, process skills alone don't make a leader. No matter how well-conceived and well-designed processes are, they're used and implemented by people, not by automatons. If a leader can't manage relationships with his or her people, then, process design talent won't help.
And, lest my argument here seem too simplistic, I'm not suggesting that strategy or technical skills are unimportant. Technical skills are often the price of admission to the leadership game, and there are certainly times when strategy must be front and center of a leader's thinking. But these occasions are much rarer than most people assume, and a new strategy is generally developed by a team of people, not by an all-seeing, all-knowing individual leader. A good example of this is the recent meltdown at AOL Time Warner. When the business model upon which Steve Case and Gerald Levin (both of whom have now left the company) had constructed their merger became invalid, Dick Parsons, the new CEO, needed to build a new strategy-with the help and involvement of his entire team. "I see my job as to make sure that we have the best team on the field," Parsons commented. He could well have added that it's his job to manage the relationships within that team so that they deliver the best result possible.
When you read the laws, you may feel that they're common sense. But if they are common sense, there's very little evidence they're in common use. If they were, organizational life would be much more rewarding than it is for many of us-and we wouldn't be reading in the papers every day about corrupt executives and accounting scandals, which are clearly failures of leadership at a variety of levels.
If the laws are applied, however, magic happens. When a leader summons the commitment to lead as the laws suggest, bosses, peers, and subordinates respond. The laws, because they address the hows of leadership, operate at the immediate, practical level, and the results are likewise immediate and palpable. The laws have been pressure-tested through thirty-five years of corporate and consulting experience. They are built on the conviction that the genius of leadership is a mastery of the details, and that a leadership book, to be truly helpful, must speak to these underlying fundamentals of human relationships. And collectively, they take us beneath the tip of the leadership iceberg.
Excerpted from The Feiner Points of Leadership , by Michael Feiner . Copyright (c) 2004 by Michael Feiner . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top