dranthonysblog

November 20, 2013

Leadership in a 1,000 Words

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Leadership is ever-present.  We experience it almost from the time we come into this world until the end.  When we are very young our parents, or guardians, guide, teach, and care for us.  They influence us to achieve common or at least desired goals.  Teachers and coaches do the same, though in a somewhat more detached and less informal way.  The same can be said of supervisors, religious leaders, and various professionals we solicit to assist us.  Friends and colleagues also display leadership as do civil servants, like police officers, firefighters, and military personnel.  Leadership is part of our lives and it would be difficult, if not outright impossible to thrive, or at least survive long, without it.

Leadership can have positive, negative and insignificant influence on our lives, depending upon your perspective.   Similarly, some lessons learned from leaders stay with you for a lifetime, such as the way some address elders as sir or ma’am, while others fade quickly like wearing your clothes a certain way to be perceived as “cool”.

It has been talked and written about since at least the time of the ancient Greeks and very likely much earlier than that.   Some who study leadership will tell you that it is learned from observing and experiencing it.  Others believe that leadership is innate and that we are born with it.  Another group advocates that leadership is some combination of the two.  Formal theories have been devised that range from leadership being explained by a series of rewards and punishments, to personality traits both in-born as well as learned, to situational factors, which give weight to context as well as to individuals.  There are also theories that seek to explain it by relationships, with power being a key ingredient, as well as many hybrid approaches.

Most will agree that great leadership has the ability to inspire, motivate, and transform outcomes from group endeavors of all types.  Many civilizations, nations, corporations, groups, and individuals have benefited from leadership.  Similarly, much damage, destruction, and pain has also been wrought by people exercising leadership for conquest or oppression.  These days, if you desire, you can take classes in leadership and even earn an undergraduate or advanced degree in it.  Innumerable books have been written about leadership, especially in the last few years, and yet we still do not really know much more than we did when we first started wondering about it.

One of my early jobs was as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.  The supervisor was a man named Rick and he led a team of young people like me by being actively involved and often personally teaching us how to complete required tasks.  He did this usually with a smile and was always willing to lend a hand, whenever needed.  The employees, my peers, respected him and the work was also always well done and completed on time.

Many years later, I worked for a boss who knew little about the operation and cared nothing for the staff.  As far as we could tell he spent much of his time simply goofing off in his office.  The decisions that he made were done with little regard for facts and the results were not given any real scrutiny.  The end was predictable and he was soon out of work.

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A leader that I later worked for was very obviously tired and did not want the job.  However, because of the circumstances, he had little choice but to stay.  The staff respected his experience and he obviously worked very hard.  However, he was easily manipulated and many of the employees took advantage of this, which caused great problems for the organization.

Yet another individual I worked with was very successful at her job and made many improvements.  She listened to employees, analyzed issues thoroughly, and quite obviously cared about the organization and those who were employed by it.  She worked hard to enhance organizational performance and challenged everyone to do the same.  She was focused more on the work and less on what was in it for her and the organization prospered under her leadership.

These types of experiences, and many more, combined with my education and training have provided me with a unique vantage point from which to contemplate leadership.   These days, I really do not think any of the theories satisfactorily explain or account for all facets of leadership.  This is because human behavior is complex (any mom, little leaguer, or bartender knows this) and is very likely influenced by both inherited as well as learned factors.  The expression of inherited factors itself is complex and is probably affected by multiple environmental influences, in ways that we do not yet completely understand.

Additionally, the context of any situation contains a multitude of factors that can and likely do alter outcomes.  In this regard, followers themselves also influence leadership through formal and informal means, though this is seldom taken into account when evaluating the effectiveness of leadership.  Similarly, individual definitions of leadership are diverse and not fixed.  So what defines good leadership to one person may be perceived as inadequate, ineffective, or just plain bad to another and both could be evaluated differently by the same person on a different day!  Follower and leader moods and attitudes are also not fixed and these too will affect perceptions and subsequent behavior (i.e., the world looks better when we are happy than when things are not going our way).

Where does this leave us?  At this point, with three thoughts:

  1. Leadership is important
  2. We do not yet really understand leadership
  3. That understanding leadership should be a priority for everyone

It is important to keep these in mind, because there are some who claim to fully understand it and will pass on their knowledge to anyone who will listen, or pay, for the privilege.  Until we fully understand it, which may take a while, keep this in mind and decide for yourself just what constitutes effective leadership!

January 14, 2012

Management by Anger

How many of us have seen, heard, or been on the receiving end of a supervisor, or manager, yelling or losing their temper at work?  Based on my experience working for all types of employers, I am guessing the number is very high.  Since many employers today are more leanly staffed, with correspondingly high workloads, it is probably happening even more now than in the past.

The reason I bring this up is because I do not think it is talked about near as much as it should be.  Yelling or losing your temper at work in many instances probably does little to correct whatever behavior triggered the response and indeed may needlessly create other, likely larger, problems for all concerned.

When someone yells or “goes off” on you, how do you react?  Are you inclined to be more introspective and say or think “gee, I really screwed up and need to correct myself?”  Or is your reaction more likely to be “wow (fill in your bosses name) is really acting like a (fill in your favorite cuss word) today?”  I am guessing that more would agree with the latter than the former.  Since most people have probably figured this out when they were young, why do many of us still use anger when managing others?

Without getting into the psychology of it, which is far better left to those with clinical backgrounds, for whatever reason they are doing it, and it happens a lot!  An example of what I am talking about occurred when a young Army officer became upset with a seasoned subordinate soldier because she failed to follow a process correctly.  The officer yelled at the soldier who became so upset that she cried and he angrily dismissed her.  She left his office, visibly upset, and was called into the Commander’s office as she walked by.  He asked her what was wrong and she said that she just spoke with her supervisor and he yelled at her for something that was done by another soldier. He was so upset that he did not allow her to explain that important detail to him.

The officer ended up being “talked to” by his supervisor, the Commander, which could have been avoided had he simply not allowed his anger to control his actions.  The soldier he yelled at also lost respect for her supervisor, which negatively effected office morale.

Another example of management by anger happened when an assembler in factory accidentally dropped some expensive precision bearings on the ground that he should not have moved in the first place.  The manager yelled at the employee who then yelled right back at his boss!  Unfortunately, for both, the general manager was in the area and overheard much of the exchange.  Both manager and subordinate were severely disciplined as a result!

In another situation, a supervisor in a sales division yelled at an employee for being late the minute he stepped into the office in front of several other staff members.  The employee had already been talked to and disciplined once for the same offense and the supervisor really needed him that morning.  Unfortunately, the employee later told a friend what had happened and he told his neighbor who was at that time considering doing business with the company.  The neighbor decided, in part due to the incident, to take his business to another “more professional” organization.

Unfortunately, I could provide many more examples, but regardless of whether the employee deserved it or not, the majority of the outcomes were negative for the organization as well as the individuals involved.  What truly amazes me is that, though most of us know this, the behavior of managing people by anger continues in organizations everywhere.

In managing employees, the goal should be to simply correct undesired workplace behavior, whenever it happens, and encourage productivity, however that is defined.  Managers and supervisors should not take advantage of an employee’s inappropriate behavior to unload on her or him, however much they feel it is deserved.  Even if it is deserved, and we all know this, the behavior really will not get fixed that way!

When faced with these situations, managers and supervisors who are really upset at an employee should do the following;

  • Be sure to get all the facts before to talking to the employee (this is often not done but can make a big difference in your understanding of the situation!)
  • If it can wait, delay having the conversation until after you have calmed down
  • If it cannot wait, do what it takes to calm yourself down first, or have someone else talk to the employee instead
  • Once you do speak to the employee, ask them to tell you what happened and do not assume, even if you think you have all the facts, that you know why or completely how a certain situation happened (i.e., giving anyone a chance to explain their actions, will almost always help in successfully resolving situations)
  • When they speak be sure to really listen to what they have to say and reserve your judgment until after you have completely heard and understand their explanation
  • If it is a complex situation, take whatever time you need to fully understand it, so you will be able to come up with the best solution
  • Lastly, even the best employee has an off day, so when you are thinking about how to respond to a situation, be sure to take that into consideration as well!

A lot of solid research has been done try to understand human behavior, and misbehavior, especially within organizations.  Nonetheless, the art of managing people in professional organizations is still very much in its infancy, so when you are practicing your particular craft the golden rule still applies!

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