5 Great Leadership Tendencies That I've Actually Seen

"People always talk about the difference between management and leadership. I don't buy into that whole idea." -Tom Rabaut, CEO of United Defense and a man widely regarded as a manager.

I used to work for a small bureaucracy that was bought by a big bureaucracy. We went from 5,000 United Defense employees to 45,000 at BAE Systems. The entire management structure started scrambling to figure out how to get ahead in the new company. For what seemed like months everyone would pull out the org chart at every meeting and inform their underlings about how things were developing. They'd throw out names and titles, talk about meetings they'd been in, and in general provide no information of any value to people responsible for producing results.

In the end, the people with the best political skills moved up. By and large they were the least competent people. They were type that lobbied to be put in charge of important work, but then seemed to get themselves reassigned before anyone figured out how badly they had managed the actual execution. People with abject failures on multi-million dollar projects moved up the ladder, in some cases by several rungs.

Well, when I couldn't stand the stench anymore, I left and went to a white-hot Silicon Valley company. Fate smiled on me, and I ended up working for Dan Case. Dan had the most successful team you or I have ever seen. Dan had reached the holy grail of management: a globally-distributed, multi-cultural team that functioned like one person. He had the kind of team that you read about in college text books, but that nobody really believes can be built. He did it without ever managing anything. Dan led his team.

Here are the top 5 leadership tendencies that I learned from Dan and a few other leaders within the company (and from some managers who provided stark contrast to Dan):

1. Leaders don't do what everyone else is doing. Everyone else is jockeying. That means they're doing things like:
  • trying to get face time with the boss
  • putting out fires
  • making their subordinates hate their jobs
  • falling back on the work that they did before they got promoted in order to look busy
  • tripping over dollars to pick up dimes
  • etc.
Instead they lead. If you're doing what all the other managers are doing then you're not a leader. If you're trying to compete with other managers, you're not a leader. But that's ok, because you probably think this post is stupid anyway, and you'll probably be promoted so that you can hurt more people and damage the company in more meaningful ways. Hope you're happy.

2. Leaders lead people. Leaders don't lead budgets or initiatives. They don't lead processes and procedures. They don't lead products or services. They lead people. Products, services, processes, procedures, initiatives, and budgets are results of their having led people. People know whether they are your end or your means. If they're your means, they will never follow you.  You are their customer at best, and their task master at worst. You are not their leader.

One day in the parking lot after work at a new job, I met a tall, slender guy getting into his Prius. We talked for a bit before I realized that he was the founder of the company. I was completely unfazed by the fact because he was so personable and so soothingly articulate. He blew a half-hour on me right there in the parking lot.

The next time I talked to him was at the Christmas party. The CEO was walking around the dinner tables handing out what I termed "complimentary handshakes." He would start to reach for your hand, and as soon as he had target lock he would start looking for the next hand. The whole encounter lasted about a second and a half. Some people gushed at the chance to shake hands with the boss. I wasn't one of them.

Later, though, I ran into the founder again. He was playing the piano. He remembered my name and our conversation. We exchanged a few words to maintain continuity. A few weeks later, he happened into the cafeteria for a late lunch and sat across the table from me. He picked up our conversation where we had left off weeks prior. I was so impressed by the contrast between my encounter with him and my encounter with the CEO that I told him about the complimentary handshake and asked, "What's it like handing your company off to a professional administrator?" He smiled.

3. Leaders make relationships, not rules. Dan Case didn't have rules. True, he would occasionally ask his team to do unavoidable, stupid bureaucratic things for short periods of time, but always apologetically. Other than that, there was only one rule that I ever heard him utter: "If you aren't making mistakes, you aren't trying hard enough." As a result, Dan's team didn't need rules. Each member of the team owned everything related to the team's success. There was no competition, no envy, no strife. Everyone on the team respected and genuinely liked everyone else on the team. Dan went so far as to hire desktop support technicians to be senior network engineers. It worked, because the new hires would apply every ounce of zeal they could summon to their new opportunity, and because the team would make them senior network engineers in short order

It was all done with relationships. Everyone on the team knew that Dan would bleed for them. That everything else would fall into place was an article of faith for Dan. He never wavered on this point because it wasn't a management ploy; it was the foundation of his leadership style.

At one of my jobs I was asked to build a suggestion box for IT. They director with whom I was partnered on the project insisted that we tell everyone, "the suggestion box is a place for constructive feedback, not for complaints." I asked him why we would bother to say that. Do we believe that it will be a problem? Do we want to treat our employees like children? Can we get their honest feedback by constraining them before they even see the suggestion box?

He was a manager, not a leader. He was trying to figure out how to control people. He needed rules.

Dan liberates the creative and productive powers of people. To him, rules are impediments; if he needs them, he has hired the wrong people, but I never saw that happen. People who go to work for Dan become the right people. Fast.

Also, relationships imply trust. Dan trusts everyone on his team with the keys to the kingdom. He will always give them full responsibility while retaining full accountability. Thus, if they make a big mistake, they learn a valuable lesson. If they deliberately take advantage of him, he will deal with it. The thing is, that in four-and-a-half years I only saw one big mistake, and nobody ever cheats Dan. One would sooner cheat one's own grandmother than cheat Dan. Why? Because Dan's team members revere him.

Dan can trust his people completely because he does trust them completely.

4. Leaders don't view "working the system" as the path to success. Leaders are competent and are not afraid to let results speak for themselves. Managers are afraid of their results, so they're always looking for a way to maneuver. (Remarkably, that obsession with maneuvering reduces their ability to generate real results.)

When you go to a leader with a political concern, they look at you straight in the eye and say, "Yeah, whatever." Then they go back to doing something important. Managers start maneuvering.

From a leader's point of view, the org chart is largely horizontal with names of highly competent people in bold. Managers, by contrast, focus on the hierarchy and attach themselves to whatever bosses can help them climb the ladder.

5. Leaders model achievement. Leaders know what kind of results they want, and they teach their subordinates by showing them. George Washington crossed the Potomac River with his men. Dan Case would clean toilets before he would let anyone on his team do it. They would be the cleanest toilets in Silicon Valley when he was done. Then he would give his team credit for the sparkling toilets. If someone on his team ever had to clean a toilet, they would instinctively try to make them cleaner than Dan's toilets because that's the kind of performance that Dan inspires.

Bonus: Leaders have a philosophy. Leaders ponder and contemplate their decisions, their actions, and their beliefs. They hone them over time. Life to them has little to do with quotas, budgets, and presentations. It has more to do with discovering how to better unlock the potential to do good in the people around them. Their values and their practical pursuits go hand in hand and shape them over time. Managers, by contrast, often don't have time for that kind of "nonsense."

Back to BAE. They took an immensely profitable United Defense into their collective and destroyed it. I wonder how often bureaucracy kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. I don't know what it is about people that makes them want to be in charge even if they can't lead, or why their decisions to pursue careers in management don't include personal commitments to become true leaders. That seems to be part of the dark side of human nature. It's a shame that it's so prevalent, but it makes it much easier to compete if you really want to be a leader.


13 Excellent Habits That I've Kind of Learned

I was so mad that I cried. I had built a chair that wouldn't stand up. It had everything a chair needs: 3 legs (albeit of different lengths and positioned randomly), a seat (a square piece of plywood), and a nail to fasten each leg to the seat. I was maybe ten years old.

My mom still mentions that story once every few years. I was a perfectionist back then, before I got lazy and easily satisfied. I was certain that my chair would work, and I had intended to gift it to my dad (as I vaguely recall). Alas it was not meant to be.

I had no idea what I was doing beyond "building a chair." I didn't know the principles involved. Worse yet, I thought that I knew; I brought "second order incompetence" to the table... er... chair. Having failed, I blamed the "stupid chair" and abandoned furniture making forever.

In the end (a) I didn't have a working chair and (b) I was unhappy. The reason? I was not tooled for the job.

Life has turned out to be a lot like that. I turned 18 on my high school graduation day. Both by age and social reckoning I was an adult. Ha! Again I found myself inadequately tooled for the job.

A few years--err--decades later I have figured out a few things. Some of them I have mastered--others I am still working on. (If I left out your favorites, feel free to mention them in the comments.)

1. Be happy. This is supreme. If life has a purpose (and I believe it does) then being happy must be central to it. Being happy is hard for most people. Some confuse happiness with pleasure. Others think happiness is not their lot in life. Most people who are unhappy don't know the root cause. Figuring that out and fixing it should be priority 1. If you're unhappy, get happy as quickly as possible.

Look at me--I'm happy...

2. Eliminate stress. Stress prevents happiness. Not all stress, mind you, but the kind that weakens you or leaves you with dull, pervasive of anxiety. The kind that makes you avoid the solution, only to get more stress. If you have that kind of stress, you can't be happy. That kind of stress doesn't give way to emancipating accomplishments. It just sits in your stomach generating acid. You have to get rid of it to be happy. Get help if you need it.

3. Get sufficient, regular sleep. People don't sleep well for many reasons. Stress (#2), entertainment, work, apnea, insomnia, and physical ailments all threaten sleep. If you don't sleep regularly and sufficiently, you cannot be healthy and you won't be happy. (I know because I tried it during a decade of encroaching sleep apnea, which I finally remedied surgically.) Sleeping well, however, is strong medicine. Some benefits include:

  • losing weight
  • thinking better
  • reducing headaches and other pains
  • preventing or shortening illness
  • reducing stress.
If you aren't getting enough sleep, nothing else will go right. Fix it today.

4. Be healthy and fit. Along with getting enough sleep, being healthy and fit is necessary to be happy and productive. If you've ever gone from being a slob to being healthy and fit, you understand the qualitative difference. (Ask me how I know.) You might feel like you're doing well even though you're overweight, badly nourished, and out of shape, but you're nowhere near your potential. Life with out sore knees, injuries, and root canals is bliss compared to life with them.

5. Fix yourself. Finding the root cause of unhappiness requires being open to the truth. The truth is that you are the reason for most of your unhappiness. Many people see themselves in terms of what others do to them or what happens to them. They fall back on "why me?" Here's the good news: if you're in debt, unemployed, on the verge of divorce, and watching your kids meltdown, congratulations! You might be humble enough to explore yourself honestly. It's not easy. In fact it's brutal. Still, frank introspection during this time will empower you to improve your emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. If you make the most of it, you won't find yourself back in this position again later. For those who haven't hit bottom, don't wait until you get there. If something isn't right in your life, fix yourself. You can't fix the world, and even if you could, you're probably the one who needs fixing anyway.

6. Meditate daily. For life to be meaningful, you need to improve constantly. Maybe you need to develop better character (we all do), be a better spouse or parent, or improve your employment. Perhaps you just need to keep your brain lubricated or understand the world around you better. In any case, make time daily to ponder on the weighty matters of your life. Record your best thoughts and try to act on them. Don't live a static life. You'll regret it later.

7. Don't confuse your ideal with your benchmark. This is where I've been very weak until just a couple of years ago. I have been very into #5 and #6 for over a decade. The problem was that every time I found a solution to some life problem, I started setting goals. (I wrote previously about why this is a bad idea.) I would expect myself suddenly to live according to my new ideal, as if my capacity would magically, instantly increase. When my prevailing habits and weaknesses prevented me from instamagically performing at that new, ideal level, it was like building my chair all over again. Discouragement and frustration would set in, and I would "fail." These days, when I see a life tweak that will make me happier, I factor it into the direction that I've set for myself, so that it will become part of my long-term lifestyle instead of a short-lived goal. If you know where you want to go, give yourself time to walk or run there. Don't insist on tele-porting.

8. Respond rather than react. So if I were Goliath, this would be the stone embedded in my forehead. Reacting involves testosterone, adrenaline, your brain stem, and your major muscle groups. It requires no consideration and is tactical in the extreme. It doesn't factor in everything that needs to be factored in. Trust me, I know. When your pupils have dilated and your heart rate has increased, be quiet and take your hands off of the keyboard. As my grandfather used to say, "Put it in your hat for two weeks." Then, if it's worthwhile, respond. Responding, not reacting, will bring your full analytic and intuitive powers to bear on your situation. You'll win respect and probably get the results you want.

Goliath never perfected "bullet time."

9. Treat everyone the same. Living in Korea has made this more obvious to me. Even more than in the US, people here give great deference to people higher than themselves in the food chain, while neglecting people "beneath" them. You cannot be happy if you don't treat people as people. What goes around will come around. The more attention you get from people north of you, the more attention you should pay to people south of you. Otherwise you're a beggar. You can be a beggar or you can be a benefactor--your choice. If you chose to treat people badly because you think that they're not as important as you are, life will make you pay for it someday. My grandfather used to tell me that in life "there are givers and there are takers." I feel very fortunate to say that I did not learn this the hard way.

10. Read. Spend time reading things that will improve and inform you. My most recent boss, Dan Case, had an evil trick. He would put a book that he thought I needed to read on his desk. When I came into his office, he would be "busy" for a few minutes, so I would have time to rifle through the stuff on his desk. I always ended up "borrowing" the book that he had planted there. Even once I found out what he was up to, I would still go along with it because it was the best mentoring I've ever had. The books he tricked me into reading honed my mind and shaped my character. From him I learned to read as a primary means of fixing myself. (See #5.)

11. Prize the early morning hours. Learn how to go to bed early and capitalize on the hours between 6 am and 9 am. You will be king of all you survey. (Make sure you get enough sleep though--go to bed early. See #3.) My dad told me years ago that these are the productive hours of the day. He was right. Most of my peers work from 9 to whatever, which gives me three hours to get the jump on them. After that, it's the corporate distraction machine.

12. Say and do important things. I learned this from James Lukaszewski's book. (It was one of my boss Dan's cunning plants.) People spend most of their time doing stuff that doesn't matter and then chattering about it. If you say and do important things, you get results and respect. Initially this means you'll be quiet and idle because you're usual agenda is stupid and useless. Then you'll figure out that you have a main event every day that will make you succeed even if you don't do anything else. Focus on that. I talked more about this idea in my review of "The 4-hour Workweek."

13. Embrace "No." Two letters can free you from the Matrix. By learning how to say "no" you can eliminate most or all of your effort that doesn't actually produce value. "No" takes a lot of forms. Sometimes in involves delegation. Other times it involves postponing. Often, though, it just involves saying "no" (in the most appropriate way possible). You can't say and do important things until you learn how to embrace "no." It's better to spend an hour figuring out how to say "no" than it is to spend that same hour doing stupid work. At least you will have developed your ability to say "no." Say "no" to 80 percent of the stuff that comes your way, and you'll be much more successful and have much less stress. (See #2.) Nothing bad will happen as a result. Try it.

So those are some of the tools that I wish I had acquired before I became a "grown-up." They've served me very well to the extent that I've incorporated them into my life. I never have gone back and tried to build a chair. I think I might just do that. With four legs. No nails. Maybe a back.


Top 5 Tips from "The 4-hour Workweek"

I recently read "The 4-Hour Workweek" from Tim Ferriss. It had some really good ideas that I've started using and that seem to be paying off. I'm really only talking about three chapters. The book frankly has a lot of "You too could be lying on a beach in the Bahamas" kind of hype that sells to somebody but not me. That said, it was worth the price just for the information that applied to me.

1. Most of what you do is a waste of time. I can see some people reacting badly to this, but I've always known, even when I've been most productive, that I spend the majority of my time in worthless meetings, yacking with people, and multitasking between stupid email, stupid IMs, and stupid social media.  Tim expresses it in terms of the 80/20 rule--you generate 80 percent of your value in 20 percent of your time.  The other 80 percent? Wasted dealing with stuff that barely matters.

Tim's whole idea is to eliminate that time so that (a) you build a reputation for churning out only high-quality, high-value work and (b) you have the remainder of the time to do with as you please.

He reverses the 80/20 idea as well, encouraging us to eliminate the 20% of stuff that causes 80% of our problems.  To sum up, just get rid of it.

2. Interruptions must be eliminated. He has several good ideas for eliminating interruptions.  Just to list a few:
  • Get rid of inbox notifications of every kind.
  • Put IM on do not disturb or turn it off.
  • When someone calls, tell them you have another call in just a few minutes, and ask them what you can do quickly to help them.
  • Let calls go to voice mail.
Actually I can't remember whether these are all his or whether I added something. In any case, I applied these suggestions liberally and nothing suffered as a result. Almost all interruptions are not time sensitive and most of them are not even important.

3. Block out high-value time in the morning. During the most valuable hours of the morning, put everything on "Do Not Disturb" and turn off alerts and indicators. Use that time to pound out your most valuable contributions. Don't let anything of low value invade that time. Make sure that your highest value job for that day is done when you're finished. Doing this consistently will make you shine as your work is done well and early every time.

4. Artificially constrain your time. This was the most original concept I found in these chapters. Tim reflects on assignments that he's had to complete at the last minute. We've all experienced this: something is due now that requires days of work. Somehow we get it done, complaining and stress not withstanding. How did we get it done? Tim says that we focus only on the critical pieces, throwing out everything that isn't necessary. We don't waste time on tangents, satisfying curiosity, or dilly dallying.

This is important because it is the exact complement of what we are after in the first place. We want to focus on important stuff to save time, but constraining our time helps us focus on important stuff.

I really liked this idea.

5. Dang, I don't have a #5. I accidentally combined two things earlier on. In any case, I recommend the book highly as a fresh way to approach time management and productivity, even if it only means reading a minor portion of the book.

If you've read the book, let me know which of these ideas worked for you.