Tag Archives: Executive Leadership

Leading From Behind is Often the Best Way to Be Out Front

Many see “leading from behind” as a sign of leadership weakness, because they don’t understand that it can be the most effective way to build alliances, create consensus and motivate others to do what the leader wants to be done.

There is a general misconception about the type of aura a leader should exhibit in order to be successful. We have been raised and socialized on certain time-honored images of what leadership should look like. Sifted through eons of history, the standard-bearer of leadership is presented as one who is “out front” and visible. We are encouraged to believe that the best leadership is provided when the leader is in the limelight, the focus of rapt attraction by adoring employees. The theory seems to be: followers can’t follow the leader if the leader is not out there in front leading.

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Say Yes To “Doctor No”

Just because everyone always agrees with you, does not mean that you are always right.

After a decade as an insurance agent and agency manager, I was ready (at least I thought so) to take on the corporate world. My first corporate job, at age 32, was in the exalted position of second vice-president of marketing support for a large New England life insurance company. One of the status-perks of being a second VP for this company was to be grouped with other senior executives in the physical center of the headquarters building. This melting pot of corporate power came to be known as “the core.” If you had made it into “the core,” you had made it, and there were those whose singular career ambition was Employeesto gain an office in “the core.” Likewise, if one were ever to be removed from the core it was tough to decide which was considered worse: the humiliation or the end of your career.

Being new to the company and as a neophyte (naïve) corporate power player, having an office in the core meant nothing to me other than the inconvenience of having to walk to the far end of the building to meet with those who were in my department. (Regular workers were never allowed in the core, except by special dispensation.) But the politics of “the core” taught me a great lesson in leadership and management.

As the head of marketing support it was necessary for me to lead various inter-department meetings designed to coordinate new marketing programs. These meetings generally went as well as corporate meetings can go, but as time went on I noticed there was one participant (he did not work in my department) who always seemed to disagree – or at least resist – almost anything being proposed. It seemed that no matter how patient I was or how hard I worked at it, I could never make much headway with him. Due to his penchant for challenging my ideas, I began to refer to him as “Doctor No.” Still, I had to admit that this guy would often raise some good points that caused me to make some adjustments to my thinking and plans.

Let’s Settle This Matter

Frustrated at the end of one rather contentious meeting I invited this provocateur to come by my office later that day. The thought was that one-on-one it would be easier to explain my position and resolve the issues. I gave him my office address (I told you this was a big company) and set the meeting time. Right on time he appeared at my office door and as I invited him to sit down, the very first words out of his mouth were, “I didn’t realize you were in the core.” It was a strange statement, I thought, and it didn’t mean much to me at the time. But surprise! Surprise! From that time forward, until the day I left the company, this guy never ever disagreed with me on any issue.

At first I wanted to believe that this sudden conversion was due to my charismatic personality and the potent power of my ideas. But, of course, I soon recognized that his transformation from challenger to sycophant had nothing to do with my power of persuasion, but was due to the intimidation of corporate political power. Once he discovered that I was in “the core,” he was too intimidated to be honest with me. While it became easier for me to get my ideas accepted, I no longer had the value of someone who would question and challenge these ideas. And, while I may have not recognized it at the time, I soon came to understand that this was a big loss – for me.

Moving on to other jobs and up the corporate ladder I discovered there were fewer and fewer individuals who were willing to offer anything other than hosannas to the greatness of my leadership. (At least to my face.) This may have been soothing to the ego, but it contributed nothing to strategic planning and decision making. If the only ideas and words that echo off others are yours, it’s pretty easy to think you are pretty smart. But it is a trap.

There is a progression in leadership that if not forcefully resisted, can result in the failure of even the strongest leaders. Early in the tenure of leadership there is a willingness to be open to a wide range of ideas and even constructive criticism. But as experience is gained, especially if that experience includes success, there is a tendency for the leader and the system to narrow the opening that allows divergent ideas to get into the mix. The attitude that creeps into the Helmsleythinking of the leader is that he has been there before and knows more than any adviser. This attitude seems to increase in direct proportion to success that has been achieved, and one doesn’t have to become a “Queen of Mean” like New York hotelier Leona Helmsley to demonstrate how this leadership shortfall grows. The disconnect begins small but becomes compounded by the fact that, as the power of the leader increases, there are fewer and fewer people willing into offer unembellished opinions to the leader. So either because they have succumbed to their own feeling of invincibility or the power structure has choked off divergent ideas, the leader becomes more and more isolated with his own thoughts. Experience and success can tempt the leader to believe they have all the answers, but succumbing to that temptation is the ultimate death knell of effective leadership.

The way to avoid falling prey to the false invincibility of “knowing it all” is to make sure that you always have your very own “Doctor No” to keep that bur under you saddle. It was fortunate for me to gain this valuable insight in my very first corporate job. From that time forward I made it a point to have at least one Doctor No among the group of people who worked with me. I used to say to people, “Look I know I’m good. You don’t have to tell me that. What I need from you is to tell me when I am off base.” There is no telling how many bad decisions were avoided, but I do know that having to deal with a Doctor No helped make all the decisions better.

It is important to understand that a true Doctor No is not simply a malcontent or complainer. To the contrary, while the Doctor No may not have ideas of their own – indeed, it works best if there is no personal axe to grind – the effective Doctor No is just as desirous as you to see the project be successful. The value of the Doctor No is to come at the issue from a different perspective and to question and constructively challenge what has been proposed. This forces the leader to consider other approaches and options. At the same time, this allows the leader to see how defensible their own ideas and plans are.

One of the interesting additional benefits gained from being open to a Doctor No is that when others come to understand that the leader is different from others, in that he is open to challenge and criticism, then a real bond of appreciation and loyalty is built. The Doctor No appreciates the opportunity to have their viewpoint heard – without recrimination – and to be seen as offering value in the process. Invariably this creates a loyalty to the leader and a sincere desire to help the leader be successful.

And the Moral of the Story …

The aura of authority and the typical corporate structure creates a “core of power” that by its nature suppresses diversity of ideas, challenge and criticism. Unless the leaders of the organization always know it all – as they often want us to believe – this is a recipe for bureaucracy, stagnation and ultimate failure.

The existence of a Doctor No may at times be frustrating and an irritant by always questioning and challenging the proposals of the leader, but they perform a very important function. You will never know how many bad decisions they will prevent, but they will make all decisions better.

If a leader wants to increase their chances of success, they will embrace and always say yes to having their very own Doctor No.

You Can Walk Like an Egyptian But Don’t Lead Like One

There are a lot of reasons for the fall of Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi, but it all comes down to a fundamental issue: Morsi’s failure to engender trust from followers across the political spectrum.

The monumental international news of the week – other than the intrigue of Edward Snowden hiding in a bathroom in the Moscow airport and the riveting – can’t look away – trial of George Zimmerman – was the Egyptian military’s ouster of the first democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi. This act will cause political reverberations in Egypt and across the world, especially the Mideast. Already the Obama administration, in an effort to avoid labeling the action a military coup d’état, looks like it is playing a giant, contorted Twister game. Soon bushels of books will dissect the crosscurrents of volatility in Egyptian politics. But in the end, there is one simple principle to learn from the fall of Morsi: Trust is the ultimate power for a leader and lack of trust is the ultimate weakness.

Trust is one of the most underrated aspects of leadership. There are far too many in positions of leadership who Morsidiscount the necessity to build trust among followers; believing the power they have negates the need for trust. What they fail to understand is that trust creates power and the absence of trust destroys power.

Trust me, if Morsi had revered and validated the trust that the Egyptian people had placed in him in the election of just a year ago, there is no way the military could have taken the action it did to oust him, suspend the constitution and push back democratic rights, without triggering a violent revolt by the people.

The People Speak

In June 2012, Morsi won what was a surprisingly close presidential election. Despite running against Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of the hated and deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, Morsi received barely 51 percent of the vote. Long identified as the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, an organization dedicated to the implementation of strict Muslim Sharia law, Morsi promised the electorate that in exchange for their vote, he would distance himself from the Muslim Brotherhood and steer a moderate course of action that would respect the multi-cultural, poly-religious, secular culture that make up the majority in Egypt. And he promised to do so by implementing transparent, democratic systems and institutions.

It might be considered naïve to believe that Morsi would change, but the people trusted him, elected him and supported him as he reigned in the army and dismantled many of Mubarak’s oppressive institutions. But rather than continuing down the path of transparent democracy, Morsi began to support and install members of the minority Muslim Brotherhood in positions of power and control. Worse, perhaps, Morsi began to attack the very elements of democracy that  enabled him to gain power.

Not to condone or justify the actions of the Egyptian military (which has a history of supporting repression) but soon after Morsi took office he began to squander the trust the people had placed in him.  Seeking to increase his personal power – even to the point of issuing a decree declaring that he was above the law – and moving to install the Muslim Brotherhood as the dominant and controlling political force in the country, Morsi turned his back on his only real source of power – the trust of the people – virtually inviting and leaving him vulnerable to the actions taken by the military. In an instant, Morsi went from power to prison; with only himself to blame.

A Lesson in Leadership

For those who seek to be leaders at any level, there is an important lesson to learn from the Morsi debacle. For a leader to enjoy the power of trust it boils down to the followers having faith in the leader’s consistency in purpose, words and actions. The secret to earning the trust of followers is being the same today as you were yesterday and will be tomorrow.

This does not mean that a leader has to be liked or that the followers will always agree with actions taken, but it does mean that the followers will respect the leader, because they can count on consistency at the core of the leader’s agenda. This is where Morsi made his mistake and ultimately contributed to his downfall.

Trust is a reservoir of goodwill that empowers a leader to take actions that may not be fully understood, but are accepted by the followers because past experience tells them their trust is justified. But when this trust is violated on the altar of the leader’s personal agenda or by consistent inconsistency, the power to lead quickly evaporates.

What Morsi and many other leaders fail to understand is that building trust is a process not a procedure. True deep-seated trust does not come overnight, it comes over time and it cannot be mandated. Followers are generally willing to give the leader the benefit of the doubt, but the pool of trust begins to drain away after the first time it is broken. The trust levels in an organization or society ultimately validate the simple old axiom, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

The leader begins the process of building trust by setting standards for the organization or group he seeks to lead. These BuildingTruststandards must be clear, concise and rigorously followed – especially by the leader. The standards are really a set of inviolate principles upon which a leader promises to lead. It is the consistency of the leader in setting and implementing these standards that generates trust. And it is this trust that empowers the leader to lead.

The irony is that followers do not have to always agree with the standards to build trust. They only need to know what the standards are and that they will be consistently enforced at all times. This does not mean that the leader must be straightjacketed to inflexibility. On the contrary, trust provides the leader with the flexibility to determine how to do something, but never the flexibility about what to do. When those in position of leadership fail to comprehend the real workings of trust, they may walk like a leader but they will sooner, rather than later, find that they are as powerless.

And the Moral of the Story …

Those placed in the position of leadership should never discount the value of trust; and if they do, it is at their peril. Trust or the lack thereof can be a powerful force. When present, it can free the leader to accomplish great things; when it is missing, it can eat away at the authority of the leader until it paralyzes his efforts and soon, leaves him powerless.

The simple lesson to learn – one that Morsi did not – is that if you want to succeed as a true leader to do great things, you must begin by accumulating, respecting and retaining trust. In short, before one can be an empire builder, they must first become a trust builder.