July 14, 2023 • By Dennis Beaver
Immediately after “How to Fail as a Leader” ran in late May of this year —which was based on my interview with the authors of “Real-Time Leadership,” David Noble and Carol Kauffman — I received dozens of emails and phone calls from appreciative readers.
Their message: “Thanks for listing some of our CEO’s serious flaws. We have been saying the same things to each other, quietly.
“Gail’s stood out: All of us at the head office felt an obligation of bringing it to the CEO’s attention, so we printed a copy, dropped it in company mail so he would not know who it came from. In the envelope we put a small, folding make-up mirror and a note which read, ‘Take a good, long look at yourself and then read the article. Both are you.’
“The next day he called a meeting of upper management, and before everyone, acknowledged having read the article and – close to tears – admitted that he saw himself in it.
“Looking for sympathy,” he acknowledged, “I showed it to my wife. She said, ‘Thank goodness these people care enough about the company and you to take this risk. They want you and I want you to cut the crap and make this business all about them, not you, but them. It is time for you to apologize to the people who have kept this organization alive despite its boss!”
Unprepared and Unqualified
There were many more emails and voice mails that played the same tune – employees and company leaders who saw themselves described by Nobel and Kauffman, one which was a compelling read, from “Kim” in a mid-size Southern town.
It began: “My husband thinks he has the skills to lead his company – to become its CEO – but I am terrified that if he succeeds through politicking and spinning a good line, he will bring it down. You must know of something he can read that might get through his thick skull.
May we please talk?”
Ten minutes later I was into a deep discussion with a woman married to “James.”
She said he plays a great tune, is a convincing, if hollow speaker, having relied on the skills of the people who work with him in telecom sales, but is otherwise clueless about running the entire show. He says, “Well, I’m a manager, and CEO is just a step up where you’ve got to look like a CEO and get paid a lot more, so it’s all show, babe, and all I need is a good No. 2 to tell me what to do.’ But he is right about one thing: He looks like a CEO!
“We both read you in Kiplinger, so I think he will pay attention to your suggestions.”
It is a Lot More Than Looking Good
My call from Kim came within minutes of having concluded an interview with Adam Bryant, author of the upcoming release, The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership. Bryant, the creator and former author of the Corner Office column in the New York Times, makes clear that it’s a lot more than looking like a CEO.
We discussed the major differences between a manager, a leader and the traps that await leaders — the destructive attitudes that will harm both CEO and the organization — what Kim’s husband needs to hear.
A manager waits to be told what to do, and a weak leader, or weak CEO, looks for people who will hand them the playbook rather than come up with the playbook themselves.
A manager is provided with a list of expected outcomes and the resources to deliver them. A strong leader will say, “I know you want these outcomes, but I see these opportunities that you are missing. We should go after them.”
This requires courage.
A weak leader doesn’t follow through on their promises. One of the most telling things about people is their reliability, or their say-to-do ratio. “What percent of the things you say you are going to do, do you actually do?” Bryant says. “Are you reliable, dependable? If you say you’re going to do it, you do it! Do the actions meet the words?
“That is true throughout all of life, but especially so for someone who wants to go from manager to leader.”
A weak leader has poor listening skills. “If you don’t listen,” Bryant says, “you are not going to learn. If you don’t listen, people aren’t going to feel respected, and you will not build that loyalty and followership that you need as a leader. If you don’t listen, people will not tell you what you need to know. You will find yourself embarrassed when there is a crisis that you probably could have avoided, but people on your team decided they can’t bring critical information to your attention because you disregard what they say.”
A weak leader fails to respect the members of their team. People will follow you if they feel that you respect them, and the single most effective way to show people that you respect them is to ask, “What do you think? Please tell me what I am missing here.”
Bryant’s book isn’t a how-to, “Follow the recipe” career guide. Through often touching conversations with CEO’s across the country he tell us what we really need to know.