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.

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