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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, June 12, 2024
HomeNewsArchivesSource Manager's Journal: Leaders, Leaders, Leaders

Source Manager's Journal: Leaders, Leaders, Leaders

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the demagogue Huey Long rose to power in Louisiana. At one time Long was both governor of the state and a United States senator and was considered a threat to President Franklin Roosevelt. The slogan that he used in his drive to power was “every man a king.” It worked with the rubes in Louisiana and also gained traction nationally. I thought of Huey Long the other day when in sorting the mail, I found that I had received three brochures advertising “leadership” training or development. In America today, it’s not every man a king, it’s every man (and woman) a leader. And if you follow our super 12-step breakthrough, transformational, can’t miss program, you too can be a leader, whatever that means.
It’s all pretty depressing. For starters, if we look at organizations of any kind, there is a clear need for strong leadership, and some of these programs are on target for improving leadership skills. But what we need even more is strong managers, people who can make clear decisions, mobilize teams and working groups and execute strategies and decisions.
But why would I want to be a manager if I can be a leader. Isn’t managing about all of that grubby operations stuff and working with real people? Didn’t everybody tell me since I was in kindergarten that I was the greatest and that everything I did was a “good job?” And how am I going to get rich if I am jus a manager? How would it sound if I said that my career goal was to be a top manager?
A basic requirement of leadership is the presence of willing and committed followers. But that is not what leadership is about in our times. In an increasingly narcissistic culture, being a “leader” is about money, power and celebrity or, at least, public recognition. In a recent survey, some 80 percent of young Americans between the ages of 19 and 25 said that getting rich was very important to them. Today being rich by definition makes one a leader.
The celebrity culture permeates everything, particularly the mass media. Why would anyone want to be a “manager” in such a culture? Being a manager is almost like being a salesman, a teacher, a bus driver or any of the other ordinary jobs that actually make our society work.
As in so many other areas, the Bush Administration provides a negative case study of 21st century “leadership” in our country. The narcissism of the president and his top group is so visible as to be stunning, the willingness to run institutions like the Justice Department, FEMA and World Bank into the ground being just a few of many examples of this “leadership style” in action. The near total incompetence and indifference to getting anything done has produced calamities that we will be digging out from under for many decades. Management, who cares? With a “wartime leader” and Jesus on our side, it’s of minor importance.
I once worked with a Bush cabinet member. We are all a mix of substance and ambition and drive. This person is one of the few that I have ever known who was 100 percent ambition and drive. There was and is no substance, certainly no interest in the management of the important government agency that she oversees. She is a leader for our times and a mirror of her boss the president of the United States: self-absorbed, without substance, willfully ignorant and indifferent to managing or executing anything.
In my work with organizations, I have seen many effective leaders. In all instances, they have understood that you cannot separate leadership and management. That means that they do not separate themselves from the organization that they run. These leader/managers see their role as a function and a responsibility, not as personal property. They do not demean or disrespect the managers who report to them. They do not place their managers in untenable positions for personal or political reasons.
There is a rising tide of disrespect today, the self-centered behaviors of people who think that the titles CEO, Chairman or Secretary exempt them from the usual norms and rules of civility and responsibility to those who work for them. These people do not think in organizational terms. Their only context is “me.”
There is a clear trickle down pattern from business to government and the non-profit sector. The leadership seminar business is just one indication of this development. Bad management is another, a far more important one. As in the private sector, there are now strong pressures in the direction of greater income inequality between executives and the “little people” at the operating level in the non-profit world, as well as executive “bonuses” in the public sector. And as the wealthiest people play increasingly powerful roles on non-profit boards, they are beginning to replicate the poisonous winner-take-all approaches that they have already brought to government.
In their book, What Really Works, William Joyce and Nitin Nohria define the four keys to organizational success: clear strategy, flawless execution, solid basic operating processes and systems, and a culture that rewards performance and finds and retains talent. These are about management! Leadership was a second tier indicator of success in Joyce and Nohria’s findings. The leader/manager guides this process by directing and supporting a group of managers who know how to execute whatever the strategy is. It doesn’t matter whether it is a big corporation, a public agency or a non-profit, managing effectively is the key.
But in our times, management is kind of grubby. It means getting your hands dirty in working through processes and interacting with many of those little people who are seen as replaceable commodities. It means focusing on executing plans and programs. It means guiding and nurturing the management group rather than viewing them as vehicles for transmission of the leader’s orders. It can’t be done from 40,000 feet.
All organizational cultures are a mix of negative and positive norms. A negative one that has regularly popped up over the years is “let’s shoot down the leader.” It is a terrible norm, consisting of behaviors that are intended to undermine and discredit the organization’s or unit’s leader. It violates the values of mutual respect and trust.
Only today, it’s a little harder to argue against it because, in many instances, it is the leaders and “top” managers who are so detached from their own organizations that concerns about mutual respect and trust with those below never even occur to them. In corporate life it is so typical that this paragraph would be considered naïve. The classic examples are the CEO’s and other top leaders who drive down salaries, run the organization into the ground and then walk away with huge bonus or a golden parachute.
It can be found in the non-profit sector as well, the biggest examples being universities and hospitals where top executives identify with their rich business trustees, take huge salaries and benefits packages and proceed to implement “cost cutting” strategies that make the trustees think they are “businesslike.”
A service organization that I am familiar with, one with a well-earned reputation for high quality, has a new CEO. Her predecessor was a hands-on leader and manager who focused on developing and implementing high quality programs. The new leader has no time for such details. She is busy on the outside, planning big events and “networking” with important people. The negative impact has taken less than two years to become visible. Innovation has dried up. Morale in what was a high energy organization is at low ebb. And most important, talent is draining away.
What can be done to turn this situation around? I believe that there is a two-step process, a process that is going to take a long time. Step one is to acknowledge and accurately define the problem and its conseque
nces. Not easy because the new order of things is considered to be the natural order. It is not.
Step two is to once again make clear that managing things and producing successful outcomes are among the most satisfying kinds of work that we can do. When linked to service, they are even more satisfying. Doing this will also not be easy in a society in which more than 80 percent of young people think that getting rich is very important or the most important thing. But it is also achievable. In a very short time, President Kennedy sparked a large scale commitment to service. The challenge now is to rekindle that spark and connect it to the disciplines of managing things. One sign that things are moving in the right direction will be a steady reduction in the number of “leadership” programs being offered.

Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute Inc., a 25-year-old management-consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
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