by Doug Wilson, Columnist & Featured Contributor
I. Shoddy workmanship is a sign of our times
[su_dropcap style=”flat”]W[/su_dropcap]E LIVING IN A WORLD of shoddy workmanship. In 2012 there were more than 650 car safety recalls affecting over 17.8 million vehicles; that number rose to 22 million vehicles in 2013 and today it seems that GM is recalling cars faster than it is making them. This is just the tip of the shoddy workmanship iceberg. 1.2 million tires were recalled; 30,000 boxes of cereal – glass fragments; cycling helmets – head-injury risk; Christmas tree lights – fire hazard; beds – excessive lead levels in paint; cinnamon rolls – plastic pieces in the cinnamon rolls; 8 million toys recalled. The list of shoddy workmanship is almost endless.
II. Shoddy Leadership
Shoddy work is clearly evident in the area of management and leadership (I am using the terms interchangeably). 70% of managers are either not properly developing or are outright depressing their employees. This costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion per year (Gallup). Seven out of ten workers (79 % of Gen Y workers and 67 % of Baby Boomers) admit that they search for jobs as part of their “regular routine” and 35 % say that they start looking for a job within weeks of starting a new position.(CareerBuilder)
Most leaders do not strive to be mediocre or worse and do not consider themselves as marginal. There is a huge blind-spot. (Note: This does not apply to leaders who are bad and do not care. They are a unique breed for whom nothing but senior leadership intervention will help. We are talking about people who are willing but are not effective as leaders).
On LinkedIn we read post after post detailing the symptoms of poor leadership. The tone of most articles affirms the conclusion that leadership is in disrepute. The list of leadership misdemeanors is long: micromanagement; distrust; failure to communicate; unclear expectations; no recognition. If leadership were a company, its reputation would put it out of business. Listing all the different bad leadership practices is an impossible and not very productive task. In doing so we define symptoms, not the root cause of poor leadership. The real question is “what is the underlying issue that creates a “bent” toward good or bad leadership?”
III. Philosophy, Process, or Practice?
In 1960 Douglas McGregor wrote the The Human Side of Enterprise in which he described two philosophical approaches to leadership. The first he called Theory X. This leadership approach had several basic beliefs (think carefully about the leadership implications of each statement):
- The average person dislikes work and will avoid it if he/she can.
- Therefore most people must be forced with the threat of punishment to work towards organizational objectives.
- The average person prefers to be directed; to avoid responsibility; is relatively unambitious, and wants security above all else.
This leader believes people cannot be trusted to perform on their own and require management’s constant oversight to insure success. This leader controls, directs and oversees the workplace to insure that results are produced on time, in sufficient quantity and to the quality level desired.
McGregor called the second leadership philosophy Theory Y. This theory also had certain basic beliefs (think carefully about the leadership implications of each statement):
- Effort in work is as natural as work and play.
- People will apply self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of organizational objectives, without external control or the threat of punishment.
- Commitment to objectives is a function of rewards associated with their achievement.
- People usually accept and often seek responsibility.
- The capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity and creativity in solving organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.
- In industry the intellectual potential of the average person is only partly utilized.
If a leader truly believed this philosophy, he or she would practice a participative and collaborative style. A leader guided by Theory Y would clarify expectations, guide, coach and enable talent to achieve those expectations and goals.
Lesson: Leadership is first and foremost a philosophy (set of beliefs), but those beliefs must be consistently put into practice.Consistency between words and practices is essential for great leadership.
Lesson: Just as in Robert Frost’s poem, leaders must determine which road they will travel.
IV. Two fundamental leadership questions
The problem many people have with McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y is that it lays out two pre-defined choices. It is not important that a person accept one of McGregor’s theories as their own. What is important is that a leader answers two fundamental questions that underlie McGregor’s work. First:
“What do I believe about people and their role in producing significant results? How do people and work interrelate? How should a leader balance the need to achieve high productivity and results with the needs and contributions of people?”
If the first question is all that is answered, it will be an exercise in futility. A second question, equally, if not more, important must be addressed:
“Based on what the leader believes about productivity and people, how do those beliefs translate to how employees are treated and involved in the workplace?’
Lesson: If a leader does not believe that people and productivity mix, then that leader will never consistently practice high achieving leadership/management skills.
V. The Root Cause of Poor Leadership: Which End Do I Believe?
Today most managers and leaders will say that people are important. It is not politically correct to say otherwise. Most leaders are exposed to leadership training and the latest concepts. They can recite leadership slogans and phrases at will. “40 mile marches, point the way, situational or servant leadership, right people on the bus, lead from the heart, people are my most important product, ad nauseam”. Therein lies another problem. Instead of learning how to lead consistently based on an underling philosophical basis, leaders adopt and discard techniques as magic bullets. We have trained our leaders to be able to “talk the talk” without building the basis to “walk the walk”.
It is said that McGregor was discouraged over the fact that his “model” quickly became popular and then trivialized. He felt people used the terms “Theory X and Theory Y” without truly understanding the concept. Douglas McGregor’s discouragement remains with us today. Our problem today is not knowledge. As Peter Bregman writes in his HBR blog article “Why So Many Leadership Programs Ultimately Fail”, “I have never seen a leader fail because he or she didn’t know enough about leadership. In fact, I can’t remember ever meeting a leader who didn’t know enough about leadership.” Then what is the problem? Too many manager/leaders use Theory Y language but practice Theory X behaviors. This inconsistency does more damage than all other leadership failures. The gap between words and deeds speaks loudly. Managers do not understand why they are so criticized when they have expressed verbally that people are important. Employees observe the gaps but they do not understand how a leader can speak one way and act so differently. Trust and respect deteriorate.
Lesson: Like the barking dog with the wagging tail – employees do not know which end to believe!
What Can A Leader Do? The first step on the path to great leadership is taken when the leader does what Douglas McGregor hoped for years ago –think about and honestly answer the questions
what do you believe about people and their role in producing significant results and what practices are necessary to make those beliefs a reality?”
Let me know if you would like to see a copy of my leadership philosophy.
- Part 2: Three shoddy leadership styles
- Part 3: The average leader: A fourth shoddy style
- Part 4: The high-achieving leader
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