Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Difference Between a Leader and an Asshole

Ah…retired life can be so liberating. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “asshole” in a title, although it has too frequently been the mental, unspoken caption I’ve applied to individuals entering my life. (And I’m sure I’ve been mistaken or horribly unfair in many cases where I’ve applied the word. There are so many reasons to avoid being judgmental about people, not the least of which is that you are frequently ignorant of the context of their actions.) (I’m also wondering what impact using the word “asshole” in my title will have on the number of visitors to my blog. Clearly some individuals are using search terms on the internet that I don’t normally employ; it always amuses me when, based on my use of a particular word in a tweet, a new cohort of followers emerge, only to drift away as they come to realize I actually write more about philosophers than pornographers. But I digress…)

Anyway, yesterday I was having a fun and productive lunch and my companion noted, wisely, that the qualities that allow individuals to achieve positions of status  and thus titular leadership in an organization are not synonymous with the real qualities of leadership. (Bulletin: another problem with our personnel system has been discovered!!) But the comment got me to think whether we can articulate these two different lists of attributes. Actually, this blog is all about articulating the leadership list, so the task really is to create the “so you want to be a leader” list. But then I remembered one of the bloggers I follow has already created such a list, at least the negative version. Bob Sutton, a business professor at Stanford, has a great blog called Work Matters and a great checklist, developed with Guy Kawasaki, on asshole behavior. Many of the behaviors listed are hard and tough–just the kind of behavior an ambitious person may engage in in the struggle to the top; a sure sign that your organization is either a. immature or b. ossified is if it equates being hard and tough with being a leader. (Which reminds me of one of my pet peeves: leadership courses that force students to watch only WAR MOVIES to learn leadership attributes. But that would be a topic for another post.) In any case, the Sutton/Kawasaki  list is excellent; I’m particularly fond of #8: Card Shark. Individuals who hoard information should be disqualified permanently from leadership positions.

There is a lot of great content on Sutton’s blog. I love his list of “15 things I believe in,” which runs as a side panel. Every one is a gem. Number 15 for example: work is an overrated activity.

Friday Afternoon Edge Taker–2

While in Florida doing the spring training thing, I met one of my college roommate’s fellow ushers at the Washington Nationals ballpark in Viera. This is a new acquaintance for my longstanding friend Susan and as the three of us were having lunch the usher mentioned she had worked in Germany for 30 years as a school nurse in the DOD school system for military dependents. Oh, I had lived in Germany as a kid, I said. I remembered it fondly, particularly my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Fisher, whom I consider the best teacher I ever had. Mrs. Fisher was a Japanese-American and the only other fact I remembered about her personally was that she liked Lana Turner movies.

Susan’s fellow usher said: Mrs. Fisher!! One of my best friends in Germany was a Mrs. Fisher who was a Japanese-American. She had retired and was now living in Chicago.

Could it be? Yes, it could be. I now have Mrs. Fisher’s email and will send her a note reintroducing myself. I hope she remembers me from 44 years ago.

And I got to thinking about the incredibly strange, surprising, scary, and yet at at times incredibly uplifting journey life can be. Of course this is just some 1 in a trillion coincidence. No matter that the previous day I had been thinking about what metric I should employ to decide among the options available to me in my second life. And I had decided, I should choose the option which offers me the greatest opportunity to learn. Nah…it is just a coincidence, I’m sure.

But I’m reminded of the great book I read more than ten years ago, Leadership and the New Science by Meg Wheatley. If you check her website you learn it is now in its third edition. One of the most inspirational statements I ever encountered came from that book’s first edition. In the epilogue, it used to say, but now I think it has been rewritten, that we should live our lives in confidence, knowing each step we take brings us closer to understanding the meaning of our lives.

Leadership Lessons from the Passage of Health Care Reform

I’m sure others will soon, if they haven’t already, write on this topic and I imagine the business schools will take it on as a case study, but the passage of health care reform strikes me as chock full of practical leadership-management lessons. My interest is not in the pros and cons of the legislation, but rather in the approach President Obama took as a leader of the process. Leadership is, after all, a value neutral proposition; history has shown many times over that great leaders can do horrible or wonderful things. Often only the passage of time will reveal which is the case.

Health care reform of course suffered greatly from a dynamic already discussed in this blog–reform efforts are expected to be letter perfect from the get-go, even though the status quo itself evolved unevenly in fits and starts over a very long time period. It is this dynamic that almost always places reform efforts in defensive positions, regardless of their merits. So to lead the effort to pass the legislation, President Obama had to demonstrate great persistence. But it was more than just persistence. The President had to indicate, by his actions not just his words, that passage of the health care reform legislation was his single most important priority (Lesson 10). That’s why it was particularly effective, I thought, at the end when the President postponed and then rescheduled his Asia trip to stay home to continue twisting Democratic appendages. Whether the postponements were genuine or part of a considered strategy hardly matters. Creating drama, after all, is a useful leadership strategy when you’re in a difficult struggle. Battlefield commanders have long known this. (The need to create drama is part of what I’m driving at when I say in Lessons 7 and 8 that Leadership is emotional and corny. If you’re above a little theatrics when something is really important to you then you do not understand fully the high emotional content of leadership and followership.)

Another consequence of Obama’s dramatic personal interventions in the Republican/Democratic congressional death match was that he was able at key moments to reframe the debate. The televised working sessions with Republicans were really about trying to regain control of the context of the legislation. Whenever you’re involved in a change effort, you will find those who don’t agree with you will likely first try passive/aggressive approaches. If those don’t work then they will still, I think, try indirect approaches such as reframing the terms of debate. This you must avoid at all costs. Just think back on the number of times a reform effort you considered worthy was ambushed by issues that were only tangentially related to the central thrust.

By the way another leadership lesson was illustrated by President Obama’s sessions with Republican lawmakers. And that is Lesson 4–conflicted, crunchy meetings are usually a very good thing. In this case I think both sides of the debate gained by discussing the substance of their disagreements, rather than the headlines.

But I think the most important lesson to be illustrated is #12, first articulated to my knowledge by Ron Heifetz of the JFK school: leadership is disappointing your followers at a rate they can tolerate. To get the legislation passed, President Obama had to abandon several goals that were and still are dear to his core followers. He certainly disappointed people and, although he carried these followers  in the health care vote, only the passage of time will reveal whether in the end they will tolerate the disappointment. One of the disappointments these followers carry, no doubt, is the regret that President Obama was not more heroic. What do heroes do? They fall on their swords. But as Lesson 13 states: heroism is not a leadership strategy. Why? Well, you can’t be heroic very often; it does not bear repetition. And in the end, heroism depletes your leadership savings account, leaving you with nothing to call upon to face the next challenge.

And so I’m reminded of Lesson 19: Leaders essentially have bank accounts that contain the deposits of their employees’ trust. Unlike the spending habits of the American public in the last decade, leaders need to draw down upon those trust accounts very carefully. You will gain new deposits when you meet your employee’s expectations but remember more often than not you’re in the business of disappointing them, so make withdrawals carefully. If you don’t you will find that when you most need your employees’ discretionary energy, your trust account is overdrawn.

White Noise

I was in Manhattan this weekend doing the Broadway show thing, staying at a hotel in the 50’s on Lexington Avenue. Great location but the street noise makes it tough to sleep. No matter how high up you are, you can hear what’s going on in the city at that very moment, the sirens, the loud, perhaps somewhat sloppy couples, the trucks in reverse. The second night I tried to create more white noise by turning the thermostat down, forcing the fan to run continuously. It masked the street noise and, at least for me, made it easier to sleep. But it got me to thinking that white noise isn’t just something you create to sleep in a Manhattan hotel room; white noise is a condition of most organizations. White noise is the foreground of regularly scheduled activities and, dare I say it, make-work that mask the sounds of the real work and concerns of the individuals in your organization.

Being a RecoveringFed, I’m familiar with all the white noise we have in government. President Obama appointed Jeffrey Zients to be the government’s Chief Performance Officer in part to whack away at the white noise in government, although to my knowledge he’s never used those terms to describe his mission. So what are some specific examples of the white noise that get in the way of hearing reality:

  • The litany of regularly-scheduled meetings, all with a specific liturgy, from which one could not deviate. Aaaaargh!! Haven’t you been hungry sometimes to discuss what’s really happening–the true truth–at a meeting? Have you ever been the one to try to initiate that conversation? Fun, huh? So instead of admitting, for example, that the workforce doesn’t take seriously the latest edict from up high because it knows from past experience that we have no mechanism to follow-up on compliance, we instead discuss the text of the official announcement. White Noise!!
  • The entire industry of official announcements and organizational newsletters is a classic example of White Noise. Smart employees, i.e. most of them, approach these documents as if they were deconstructonist literary critics, scouring the texts for hidden meanings and what was not said. (This reminds me of my visits to the area of France known as Languedoc where Nostredamus lived off and on. When you tour the region, you visit this one village, Alet les Bains, which legend paints as a town in which Nostredamus lived. Not because he ever wrote about the town (and he wrote extensively of the region) but because he never wrote about the town–a clue to its importance to him. But…..I digress.)
  • Metrics. Measuring the really important–your organization’s progress toward its goals and your staff’s progress toward their personal bests–is a key executive function. But I’ve seen too many metrics that are nothing but make-work, and boy, do they take a lot of work!! How do you know which category your metrics efforts fall into? Has your organization first had a serious conversation, reviewed at least annually, about what specifically it wants to accomplish in a given timeframe and how tactically it plans to get there? Unless you’ve had that conversation, your metrics are almost certainly White Noise.

And the list could go on.

So, how does one break through White Noise? One tool are in fact social networks, which are, at an elementary level, simply trying to make transparent and persistent the sounds of the city, the conversations that are going on anyway among your employees, your customers, your clients, and your colleagues. There is NO WORSE feeling as a manager than to be the last to know. And there is no worse indictment of your performance as a leader. Encouraging a culture in your organization and within your network where people want you to know the truth is one of the most powerful tools you can have as a manager. And as a tactic nothing makes transparency easier than the simple, intuitive platforms with which most of your employees are already familiar.

But it will be hard at first. Senior leaders, and for some reason I think government executives suffer from this more acutely,  flinch when they hear what their employees and customers really think. They would rather, I guess, not hear the sirens, the loud arguments among their staff, or even about the individuals and processes threatening to throw the entire organization into reverse. They live under the delusion that if you don’t hear about it, it’s not really happening. They turn on the White Noise.

Friday Afternoon Edge-taker (One Day Early)

I’m riding the DC metro today and I overhear the following conversation. Scout’s honor.

Two women, in their 40s, probably in the workforce on their lunch break. They’re talking about a television show and the conversation turns to exotic dancers and pole dancing.

Woman 1: Hey did you hear that some people are lobbying to make pole dancing an Olympic sport?
Woman 2: No, but that would be good. It would give exotic dancers another career option.
Woman 1: You know one thing I’ve never understood is where do they put their money.
Woman 2: What do you mean?
Woman 1: Well if they get $1200 in tips where do they put it. I mean if they get 12 $100 bills well I can see how they could tuck that into their G-string but what if they get it all in twenties. Where do they put it.
Woman 2. Well, maybe they have lockers.

In my effort to keep readers educated as to latest trends, here’s a link to a story about the Olympic petition.

From the Swamp of Inertia to the Road to Success

Writing about the Swamp of Inertia this morning made me think of one of my most favorite websites. Strange Maps, and a posting from it last year of a 100-year old or so map of the Road to SuccessThis map deserves careful study. Judging from the outfits individuals are wearing it must come from early in the 20th century. I think it is very sweet that near the pinnacle individuals must pass through the Gate of Ideals. And I just love it that early on people can be waylaid by entering what appears to be the garden of Bohemianism. I have to say I think I would have ended up there myself. Click here to get to the original posting on Strange Maps. Warning: you can get lost in this website for hours and it doesn’t have a map of the way out.

The Swamp of Inertia

This retired life takes a little getting used to, in a good way of course. One important missing factor is the structure you get from work life. You know when you’re supposed to awaken, when to brush your teeth, when to get dressed. When we work a normal 40-hour week, we have these instances scheduled down to the minute because, in the DC area and I imagine most metropolitan areas, it matters dearly in terms of traffic whether you leave the house at 736 am or 747 am.

So I’m using my blog to put a little bit of structure around my mornings. I have an unmanageably long list of blogs and other websites that I would like to check on a regular basis, and every morning I start down that list until I’m waylaid by wanting to share something interesting I’ve read. Both today and yesterday the ambush occurred at Blog Stop #1.

Thinking back on most of the change initiatives with which I’ve been involved, they’re not blocked by some counteroffensive or a better idea. Instead, they usually just sludge to a dead stop in the Swamp of Inertia. In fact, I don’t know anything that bureaucracies are better at than producing swamps of inertia. They’re everywhere. Arlene Goldbard, who writes on culture, politics, and spirituality, describes in her most recent posting the psychological conditions prevalent in these swamps:

…the fear of alignment with a lost cause, of failing or looking foolish; the irrational conviction that we know the future and it’s against us; anger and resentment at indifference to injustice; all of that baked into a pièce de résistance that keeps us from trying—thus fulfilling the proposition that trying isn’t worth the effort.

So what techniques can you use to cross the swamp? One is to detach your ego from the success of your project. This is hard but remember it is usually personal disappointment, anger, and frustration that lead the change advocates to commit professional suicide and/or abandon their ideas–which, intended or not, is the objective of the swamp creatures, uh, I mean creators. Another is to stay as close as you can to the high ground as you maneuver the swamp. One high ground technique is not to advertise your project as a change initiative. I always resisted the idea of giving a project a high-falutin’ name, like Horizons or Tempest or Earthquake. It always struck me this was 1. an ego-trip; 2. an unnecessary bid for attention; and 3. a surefire way of making it easy for people to remember you if the project failed. And a final way to battle the swamp of inertia is persistence. As the great leadership film Galaxy Quest declares: “Never give up!! Never Surrender.”

I know I’ve given the discussion of crossing the swamp short shrift, but, really, I need to go brush my teeth.

(Originally I thought of calling this post the Inertia Swamp. (I know, only someone who spent almost 25 years editing others’ work would fret about the difference.) But I settled on the Swamp of Inertia because it had a better rhythm. This reminded me of the names real estate developers give to their fancy suburbs which, if they want to affect a particularly high tone, always involve a preposition. So in San Antonia, for example, you don’t see Stone Oak Hills, you see the Hills of Stone Oak. The Highlands of Stone Oak.  Or one of my favorites in northern Virgina, L’ambiance of McLean. Obvious bonus points there for using French. But I digress…)

Your Calendar Reflects your Priorities or Lesson 10

On one of my first postings, Lessons from a CIA Manager, I listed 16 lessons I had more or less learned in almost 25 years as a manager there. (I think now we may be up to 18 actually.) Lesson 10 was: Your calendar reflects your priorities. You can talk about x or y issue being important to you, but if it never makes your calendar you’re lying to yourself and, worse, lying to others.

This is so simple and yet often overlooked. By now, almost all federal senior executives have had enough sensitivity training to know at least to talk a good game about issues such as diversity, employee engagement, work-life balance, etc. But it does you no good to tell employees that x, y, and z are priorities for you if you never can make the time to actually attend discussions on diversity, meet regularly with small groups of employees for straight talk, and deal with your own work-life balance issues. Remember that as a senior executive, your ACTIONS ALWAYS speak LOUDER than words. The individuals who work under your leadership pay careful attention to what you do.

I remember at some point at the Agency attending a diversity-related function and being thanked by the organizers for actually staying through the entire event. They marveled that “such a busy person” would have the time. Well, harumph! You can’t be very much of an executive manager if you can’t manage your schedule to do the things you say you care most about.

I also enjoyed blogging while at the Agency and found that to be a very effective way of getting my thoughts out to others. (It is amazing how muddy your message gets as it is translated through the layers of bureaucracy.) People would tell me they too would like to blog but they just couldn’t find the time and I would think, OK, communicating effectively with your employees has got to be one of your most important tasks and yet somehow you can’t carve out 30 minutes on your schedule. Somehow, I didn’t really find the time excuse to be that credible.

Finally one last trick about making yourself accessible as a senior manager. I am a slow walker. I like to ride the escalators–I find it pleasant. I learned from a management consultant–but I don’t remember who exactly–that the pace with which you walk the halls determines whether others find you accessible. People walking slowly are telling others, I have time for you, I can be interrupted. And so people will come up to you in the halls to talk, to tell you something you would not otherwise hear from them in a formal meeting. Fast workers send the exact opposite message.

So it’s not enough to  manage by walking around. You need to manage by walking around VERY SLOWLY.

(I googled the phrase “your calendar reflects your priorities” and hit upon several good pieces. Here’s one on whether your to do list reflects your passions. And another on whether your life reflects your moral compass.)

Personalized Work

David Warlick is a North Carolina-based educator and consultant who keeps a blog, 2 cents worth. His most recent posting describes the transition education is making, as a result of the information, communications, and technology revolution, to personalized learning. As someone who believes work itself will be reconceptualized in the next decade or so, I found many parallels between education’s major transition points and where work is likely to go. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how we could ever take individuals who have learned through the process he describes and then shoe-horn them into jobs as they are currently designed.

His major points are that personalized education:

  • Will be fueled by questions,
  • Provoke conversations,
  • Be responsive, i.e. be interactive
  • Will learn from mistakes, and
  • Will lead to personal investment from the learner and contribute to his/her evolving identity

(I reordered Warlick’s points slightly and did just a little wordsmithing, but I think I’m true to his ideas.)

Personalized work follows along similar lines. What do I mean by personalized work? Most jobs today are still designed according to some archaic position description, this is certainly very common in the government environment. These descriptions are infrequently updated. (I remember at the CIA it was always a very bureaucratically fearful time when the professional job redescribers descended upon your office.) (This makes me think of another post that would be fun to work on: When Bureaucrats are Scared, but I digress.) But if you just think about it, doesn’t it seem nonsensical that in this day and age we would organize the work of our mission around position descriptions that can frequently, I think, be more than a decade old. But it’s not the vintage of the description that’s the real sin, it’s the fact that you could never find a single person who could perfectly perform all the tasks required. So because of the perceived need to order work in ways that the bureaucracy and pay system can best handle, we actually make inefficient use of people, our most important resource as we are often and unattractively reminded.

Is there another way to organize work? YES!! Innovative organizations are beginning to work with new designs that actually allow them to match tasks to the best-suited individual. And they use technology to mash the two up. Every manager needs to visit and become familiar with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. (I’ve made more than forty dollars there so far as a worker, enough to finance my MP3 purchases, but I digress.) At Mechanical Turk, large missions and jobs are being atomized into minute tasks, allowing individuals to self-select the tasks they are both good at and enjoy. What a concept!!!! I actually believe this approach could be applied to many tasks, including some missions of the federal government.

Another approach to personalizing work is to bring the aspects of game design into the work environment. It is an odd phenomenon that millions of individuals, many of whom have important positions in their analog lives, voluntarily and happily spend hundreds of hours a year playing computer games such as World of Warcraft. They solve complicated problems, collaborate and form trust relationships with people they’ve never physically met, and all for very little tangible reward. And yet some, when they come into work, mail it in. What is wrong with this picture? What is it about how work is designed that is demotivating, while game design engages individuals? Could it be factors such as immediate feedback, transparency, personalization? For more on this topic, check out recent books such as Total Engagement for eye-opening discussion on why games are not the opposite of work.

Anyway, this posting is already too long and there’s still much more to say and do on the topic. These changes are fueled by technology, but I don’t in any way consider myself a technology expert. I associate myself with David Warlick’s own description of himself: Technologists get excited by the light. I get excited by what we can shine that light on.

We are Part of the Solution

At my car dealer this morning bringing the old 2001 Mazda in for service. (I need to give a shout out to Rosenthal Mazda in Arlington, VA. They provide free if somewhat poky WIFI. And I guess as a blogger I need to state clearly that Rosenthal Mazda has provided me no financial renumeration. Au contraire!! But I digress…) Anyway I was checking out my Twitter feed for useful leads to interesting information and found William Eggers, who just wrote a great book, If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, about making government better, providing a link to his new website Policy Design for Execution. If you pick up the book or check out the website, government workers will appreciate the  sympathetic analysis of what leads to government disfunction. As the website notes, “policy ideas go straight from the idea stage through the legislature without being subjected to the exacting design process that occurs in the private sector.”

Well, I don’t know that the design process in the private sector is always that exacting, but I think the general point is still true. Government workers are often asked to turn some incompletely (or worse ill) conceived idea into reality, and then get all the blame when it doesn’t work. You can’t even say it doesn’t work as designed, because it WAS NEVER DESIGNED!!! And then, most galling, the very individuals who generated the idea–the legislators–then enjoy beating up the incompetent government workers who can’t get it right. Really, it is time for us govies to stop accepting victim status and join the conversation about out what, other than our own performance, also needs to change to produce better government results.

At the start I mentioned that I checked my Twitter feed. If you don’t twitter and don’t use it specifically to gather a posse of smart people you turn to for advice and ideas, then you are really missing out on one of the real benefits of social networking. At least among the people I follow, Twitter has evolved from idle chatter to focused sharing. For example here’s a link that just popped up to an interesting article in Foreign Policy on the new rules of war: .

Give Twitter a try.