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Are You an Authentic Leader? Figuring Out the Little “L” from the Big “L”

December 16, 2018

I am your servant. I do not come to you as a leader, as one above others.

When you read these words did the person who said them come to mind? Admittedly, the world is adrift in leadership quotations. But what makes these words special is that they were uttered by Nelson Mandela, a man who suffered during his 27 years of incarceration in a South African prison.

This post delves into personal leadership and poses this question: “Am I an authentic leader?”

We’ve heard statements that leaders are born. Others argue that leaders can be developed. Well, how about going back in time to hear from Aristotle:

“From the moment of their birth, some are marked for subjugation, and others for command.”

That may not be all that helpful, especially when the general consensus now is that leaders can be developed.

Here’s one way to look at the issue: I’ve organized the debate over who possesses leadership into two types of leadership: Big L and Little L. My view is that only a few of us will ever have the dynamic leadership behaviours and skills to lead organizations, private, public or non-profit, large or small, or the populace of a country, state or province. Only a few of us have what it takes to be a Big L leader.

What propelled people like Winston Churchill, Mohandas Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Franklin Roosevelt, and Nelson Mandela to be world-class leaders? For those who are sports-minded, consider the great athletes like Bobby Orr, Billy Jean King, Wayne Gretsky, or Mohammed Ali. Or how about such vocalists as Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, or Beverly Sills?

These individuals possessed an innate talent and drive that propelled them to succeed. Why do some children at a very young age show an incredible skill in a certain discipline, yet other children work hard but only attain a modest level of proficiency?

To lead an organization, especially in today’s turbulent world, requires someone with unique abilities. Some of these can be learned. But there needs to be an inner drive and vision that causes that individual to want to lead others. This raises the issue of power and status, for which many people strive in their efforts to rise to the top.

So what about power?

First off, power can be an important component of effective leadership, provided it’s used properly and for the right purposes. When top leaders abuse power by controlling and manipulating their subordinates, then these are not Big L leaders. They may be good managers, but when it comes to inspiring people and leading with integrity, they fall short of achieving this.

Reflect on the following quote by the late Peter Drucker, who called things as he saw them. He believed that leadership must be founded upon a constitution; otherwise, irresponsibility will result:

I am amazed that today’s prominent writers on leadership do not seem to realize that the three most charismatic leaders in all recorded history were named Hitler, Stalin and Mao. I do not believe that there are three men who did more evil and more harm. Leadership has to be grounded in responsibility. It has to be grounded in a constitution. It has to be grounded in accountability. Otherwise, it will lead to tyranny.

Drucker was an advocate for shared leadership. He believed in employee responsibility and the need for a “self-governing community,” where individuals and teams share in many managerial activities. And this brings us to the concept of Little L leadership.

What is Little L leadership?

It’s the leadership we see displayed throughout organizations and community — the day-to-day acts that people at all levels engage. However, there are those who aren’t interested in taking on leadership roles. That’s okay. Some of them will gradually come on board, while others will continue to want to be led by their peers and managers.

This is a key point to remember when reflecting on our personal leadership styles and potentials.

It comes down to each of us being authentic in how we conduct ourselves. We need to strip off the facades we wear and own up to our weaknesses, limitations and warts. When we’re honest and open with ourselves and others, we gain greater confidence and self-respect, plus respect from others. Be true to yourself and others will be true to you.

Here’s a personal example.

When I was in my early 30s I was promoted to manager of a team of economists. I had zero management training. Because of my own insecurities and wanting to do a good job, I became a micro manager. That was until a couple of the young economists straightened me out. It took a while but I learned to eventually let go and share the leadership with my team.I was still the manager, but my team took a lot of initiative and consistently demonstrated leadership in their own ways. There’s no magic formula or cookie cutter approach to this. Each of us has to find our own way. In my case I had to fall on my nose a number of times. 

Here are three questions you may wish to reflect upon when it comes to developing your leadership skills:

1. What are my strengths and weaknesses? (Be honest with yourself)
2. What do I need to do to be more adventurous and risk-taking?
3. How can I inspire others to follow me to work towards a common purpose?

Here’s one piece of advice: If you want to inspire others (an essential part of leadership), you need to be passionate about your cause.

The following true story underlines this advice.

I recall watching a PBS program many years ago that looked at the head surgeon of an emergency room in a large US city. As you can imagine, an ER can be an extremely hectic and stressful place in which to work. People have to know their duties and understand the interdependency of their efforts.

What struck me most about watching the surgeon was his calmness in dealing with highly stressful situations in the midst of chaos. Multiple victims of car accidents and victims with gunshot wounds. As he stated to the journalist: “My staff look at me to keep it together. If I lose it, they lose it.” When his shift finished, where did he go? Home? No, he went to do volunteer work with inner city children. For me, this guy showed exemplary leadership.

Was this man born as a natural leader, or did he develop over time?

Each of us needs to see our personal quest for leadership as one that first starts with the discovery of who each of us really is. We need:

To know ourselves,
To hear ourselves,
To tell the truth to ourselves,
To be honest with ourselves.

Once we address these questions and reexamine our values and beliefs, we’ll be ready to move forward in our leadership journey. Sure, leadership skills can be learned. But the first step is a process in which we look inside ourselves.

This journey is a very personal and private one. We may or may not to wish to share with others along the way. However, one thing needs to be clear and that is every leader must go through it.

Authors Kouzes and Posner (The Leadership Challenge) state:

You can’t elevate others to higher purposes until you’ve first elevated yourself….You can’t lead others until you’ve first led yourself through a struggle with opposing values….A leader with integrity has one self, at home and at work, with family and with colleagues. Such a leader has a unifying set of values that guide choices of action regardless of the situation.

Here are four excellent questions they pose to help facilitate the leadership journey:

• What are my values and beliefs on how people should operate in the organization?
• How strongly am I attached to my values and beliefs?
• How strong is my relationship with those I lead and with whom I work?
• Am I the right one to be leading at the moment?

The last question is especially important. It gets at the heart of the shared leadership issue. Regardless of one’s “position” in the organization, there are times when one steps forward to lead and times when one steps back. As Kouzes and Posner state:

To step out into the unknown, begin with the exploration of the inner territory. With that as a base, we can then discover and unleash the leader within us all.

Hopefully, this post has given you some new information that will spur you on to examine your personal leadership. Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Try to feel things more inclusively instead of exclusively. The more things that can make up the whole—invite that into your life.

– Kevin Eubanks (Jazz guitarist, as told to NPR Music)


Rethinking Teams: Getting Over the Guilt Complex

December 9, 2018


“Teams, teams, teams” has been the mantra since the early nineties when the literature on teams exploded. Everyone needed to be part of a team. To most people working in organizations, the reflex is to refer to one’s ‘team’ when discussing work issues. What’s happened is that the use of the word team has greatly diluted what teamwork is really about. And along the way, the cult of teamwork has created scepticism and mistrust–and even guilt–among employees.

Before you conclude that I’m anti-teamwork, I’ll point out that in addition to spending many years being part of a variety of teams I also designed and delivered dozens of teambuilding workshops. My purpose in this post is to rock the teamwork boat and challenge the conventional wisdom that has emerged over the years. My ultimate aim is to widen your perspective on what constitutes teamwork, that it’s okay to enjoy working independently, and that “teamwork” in reality encompasses a broad range of ways in which people come together to accomplish specific objectives. 

My own experiences in being a part of teams and various assortments of work groups extends back almost 40 years when I first entered the labour market in the late 1970s. When teams became the method of choice for how work should be organized in the early nineties, it was nothing particularly new to me since that was how I had been working for several years in a service branch. However, I recall quite clearly the stress that some of my co-workers in other parts of my organization underwent. On the surface they were all for teams, the message they wished to be heard saying publicly.

However, one-on-one their true feelings were expressed candidly. These were people who preferred working independently, and whose jobs really did not demand the rigours of a team setting. And I confess, too, that as much as I enjoyed working with others, especially initiating projects and bringing people together, I also liked working on my own when the right circumstances prevailed. 

So what am I talking about, working independently in the face of the omnipresent need for teamwork? 

It’s essential that one understand what teamwork entails before defaulting to the mantra of teams, teams, teams! As much as a long list of writers has articulated the characteristics of what constitutes teamwork, at its core are two necessary conditions:

1. Shared common purpose for the team
2. Interdependency of work among the members

Unless both these conditions are present, you cannot have a team. Yes, there are a number of important features of teamwork, including:

 • Size of the team,
• Effective communication,
• Performance goals,
• Respect for one another,
• Mutual accountability,
• Socializing and having fun.

As organizations continue to evolve as a consequence of socio-economic changes, technology, demographics, global markets, etc., so too must their internal structures change. Work still needs to get done, regardless of external and internal changes, and sometimes this is by using formal (intact) teams or some other forms of bringing people together.

Most of us have probably been part of working groups at some point in our careers. I spent a significant amount of time working in this manner. They can be very effective at addressing specific problems and issues with prescribed time durations. However, it’s important to remember that working groups exist to share information, delegate tasks and make decisions. The members of the working group take responsibility for their own results. The focus, therefore, is on individual performance. Consequently, the output of the working group is the sum of the individual members’ contributions. The so-called synergistic effect of teamwork doesn’t take hold in this setting.

When it’s necessary to form a team because the conditions call for this type of work arrangement, the challenge to create effective teamwork can be quite daunting. It’s important, therefore, to understand that teams typically go through four main stages:

1. Forming
This occurs when people are first brought together to form a team. They begin to get to know one another and set out to establish the appropriate rules and behaviours that will govern the team. The members look to the team leader for direction. Interactions among the members are somewhat formal and polite during this phase.

2. Storming
The members are getting comfortable with one another. They start disagreeing and challenging each other. If this stage is missed, the team won’t be as strong because it hasn’t yet learned how to deal with conflict.

3. Norming
The members know each other and have developed rules of conduct. They want the team to be successful. Trust is being established, and the members are having fun.

4. Performing
In this final stage, the team has a clear, common purpose and direction. The members appreciate their diversity and are building on it. Synergy is taking hold.

The lengths to which a team remains at a certain stage vary, depending on the ability of the members to address and resolve issues and to move forward. However, the members must work on developing a clear purpose, goals, and common approach. They must also agree on mutual accountability. 

Given the amount of time, effort, and nurturing that the creation of a truly effective team requires, it’s not surprising when one hears cynical comments about teams. Publicly in organizations employees will say what management wants to hear. However, with co-workers in private another conversation is being held.

One expert on teams who rocks the boat is J. Richard Hackman. He’s been consulted by numerous organizations over the years on work design, leadership development, and team and group performance. His research runs counter to the popular press, finding that work teams are found clustered at both ends of the organizational effectiveness continuum. While some teams succeed well, others flounder. Underlying this is how management approaches work group design. Here are some key points to retain for consideration when thinking about forming teams.

First, management should not push teamwork when certain tasks can be done more effectively by individuals. One good example is preparing reports, which Hackman suggests is better done by one person on behalf of the group. My experience in report writing is aligned with this view. Trying to employ a team to write a report is both inefficient and frustrating, with the result being an inferior product.

A second example, but in the area of executive leadership, is the creation of mission and vision statements. While a democratic approach may appear appropriate, creating a vision statement with a team of managers can be hugely time consuming. I’ve been there, done that, and finally learned that having the CEO, president or the principal leader of the organization write a draft of a vision is much preferred.

Second, when a group of employees needs to be brought together to address an issue, it’s important to define it for what it is (e.g., working group, planning committee) and manage it accordingly. If teamwork is required (remember the two features of interdependency and shared purpose), then management needs to ensure that the necessary resources are available to help the team develop.

Third, when teamwork is determined as the appropriate route the level of authority for the team must be decided. And tied tightly to this are participative management and clearly defined objectives and timeframes. During my career, I saw teams flounder or go off the rails because management did not clearly express its expectations at the outset. In the face of uncertainty and weak managerial oversight teams run the risk of going renegade, producing unnecessary grief for everyone.

Fourth, depending on the maturity of the team and its members (i.e., past experience) the structure supporting it will need varying attention. For example, what should be the size of the team? What are the training needs? Are special physical resources required, as well as budgets? How is leadership within the team to be shared? And how should team learning and knowledge generation be managed?

Fifth, few writers on teamwork address the interdependency among teams. This is a critical aspect of using teams within organizations, but one that is often overlooked. And the issue gains even more significance when self-directed teams are used. 

Without adequate managerial oversight, the danger exists of teams forming their own exclusive walls around themselves, driven by such motives as unique identity and controlling information. When this occurs teamwork at the organizational level begins to break down. Product quality and service may suffer as the guiding light of organizational mission and vision becomes dimmer in the eyes of employees.

The relationship between managerial leadership and the leadership practiced by individuals and within teams, as well as with other assortments of employee groupings, is constantly in flux and being challenged. In effect, there’s a necessary tension between the two. This keeps organizations in the state of constantly learning and evolving. In the absence of this, creativity and innovation will suffer, with the consequence being the onset of organizational sclerosis. In a globalized economy characterized by market turbulence and rapidly changing technology, compounded by the entrance of emerging economies, organizations have increasingly narrow windows within which to make corrections.

As organizations adapt to the pressures and dynamics of globalization and technological change, one key aspect will be how they approach work design. When teams are determined to be the most effective way to accomplish certain objectives, they’ll increasingly be virtual in nature. The use of telework, while being applied currently with varied success in the workforce, will add new challenges for managers. And of significance is the growing use of contingent workers who have no specific affinity for organizations: they move in and out based on organizational needs.

Finally, a rapidly emerging issue that’s beginning to shake up organizations is Generation Y (also referred to as Millennials). Gen Y is especially technologically savvy and possesses a high level of self-confidence. Their approach to work is more fluid, much less hierarchical and virtual-oriented through the use of technology. A major challenge for those in senior managerial positions will be how to organize work efficiently. Teamwork will undoubtedly continue to be an integral part of how organizations function, but the conventional mental model of what constitutes teamwork will increasingly be challenged.

My suggestion to those who are feeling stressed or threatened as a result of the turbulence we’re witnessing in organizations is to follow these simple words: “Be open to outcome, not attached to it.” Maintaining an open mind will enable people to see the opportunities that are part of change and to adapt much faster and more easily.

Good luck!

Fail to honour people and they fail to honour you.
– Taoist principle

Power With vs. Power Over: Where Do YOU Stand?

December 2, 2018


Do you like to be told what to do, to be given orders without being allowed the opportunity to contribute your ideas?

No? Then this post is for you.

Do you prefer to give orders without allowing others to question them or to provide their own ideas and contributions?

Yes? Then this post is REALLY for you.

Command and control, long the domain of those holding the levers of authority and power, is an anachronism in a world characterized by complex, inter-connected events. To believe that the elite few in management have all the answers and possess the key to the correct path to the future is a fool’s game.

One has only to look at the corporate mistakes of the past (e.g., Home Depot, General Motors, Chrysler, Volkswagon, FIFA, Toshiba, Kmart, British Petroleum, Sears, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Sunbeam) to realize that a command and control approach to organizational “leadership” will eventually implode. Some of these organizations limped forward, others disappeared, while some regained their footing.

Leadership is in quotations above because of the reflex by society to refer to anything involving managing as just that: leadership. But leadership requires a followership, willing and committed people who share a common purpose and vision. Management, a vital function in organizations, is the complement to leadership. Both are essential in today’s organizations.

Trying to escape command and control is exceedingly difficult, considering that those in positions of authority today were themselves mentored by individuals who were steeped in this mindset.P

One of Baby Boomers’ primary traits is that of compliance to authority. We’ve competed in a highly competitive and volatile labor market over the decades, and as such developed deference to authority. We learned command and control from our parents and bosses, and in turn often resorted to that management approach in the workplace. It’s about Power-Over with Boomers.

Contrast this to Generation X, which grew up in the Boomers’ looming shadow and which has tried to break free of their influence, one aspect being command and control. Now look at self-confident Generation Y (Millennials), which has no patience for control-style management and which is far more collaborative than Boomers. For Gen Y it’s all about Power-With.

Given that some Boomers will be in the labour market for up to another 10-15 years, the very different values possessed by the generations will create escalating tensions in the workplace. What’s needed is a deep shift in how we perceive and practice the combined art of leadership and management.

The issues and challenges we face are far too complex for the traditional command and control approach. It’s not just a matter of responding to the different value systems held by Gens X and Y. It’s more profound than that.

If those individuals leading organizations truly wish to see extraordinary things accomplished, then Power-Over must be replaced by Power-With. It’s about co-creation, in which people feel part of a bigger picture, where they take initiative, experiment, commit to the organization and rush to work every day wanting to make a difference.

However, this will not happen–cannot happen–when people are treated like dunces, being told what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and where to do it.

Where do YOU stand on Power-Over vs. Power-With? JT

We need to give each other the space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity. We need to give each other space so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing, and inclusion.
– Max DePree


The Five Minds of a Manager: Insights from Mintzberg and Gosling

November 25, 2018

The Five Minds of a Manager is one of those classic pieces that will remain timeless. First published in the Harvard Business Review in November 2003, it’s even more relevant today. The volatility of global markets, advancements in telecommunications, the effects of an ageing population and financial pressures facing public and private sector managers are just some of the trends demanding effective managerial skills. 

Henry Mintzberg (photo below) needs little introduction. As one of the few leadership-management experts who is solidly grounded in empirical research (his PhD dissertation in the early 1970s was on the work of middle managers), Mintzberg continues to rock the boat. His 2009 highly acclaimed book Managing is essential reading for any practicing or aspiring manager-or for anyone trying to get a grasp on the distinction between management and leadership. In characteristic form, Mintzberg states that “organizations have been overled and undermanaged.” Mintzberg continues on as the Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University.

Jonathan Gosling is the director of the Centre for Leadership Studies at the University of Exeter in Exeter, England. He’s widely published in management periodicals, a respected author on leadership and works as a leadership consultant with companies and governments. In 2009, he became Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership Development with INSEAD in France.

First off, Mintzberg and Gosling prefer to talk about “managers” and “management;” they don’t fall into the “leadership” and “leader” trap.

This post highlights their key messages. However, you can download the full article here.

To become an effective manager requires the “deep integration” of what the authors call “mindsets.” Through their combined experiences of many decades, they created a framework consisting of five aspects of the managerial mind. The underlying premise for their framework is their belief of two essential characteristics that form the basis for management: action and reflection.

Making decisions (action) without taking the time to consider options (reflection) is thoughtlessness. The reverse is passiveness. The challenge for every manager is to determine how to merge these two mindsets: “…to function at the points where reflective thinking meets practical doing.”

However, possessing action and reflection only goes so far. To accomplish results means that the manager must enrol people to help. Collaboration. And to further the capacity of people to achieve results is bolstered by understanding the context in which they are collaborating. This requires a mindset that can be called worldly. Finally, to complete the ability of the manager to operate in worldly context, a rational approach is important. This is the analytic mindset.

This is Mintzberg’s and Gosling’s five managerial mindsets, which serve as the foundation for their five module management development program.

1) Reflective Mind-Set: Managing Self
2) Action Mind-set: Managing Change
3) Collaborative Mind-Set: Managing Relationships
4) Worldly Mind-Set: Managing Context
5) Analytical Mind-Set: Managing Organizations

Mintzberg and Gosling caution that their framework is not definitive in explaining the role and functioning of managers. It is not scientifically-based, nor comprehensive. They suggest that the reader view the five mind-sets as an “attitude” that opens up new possibilities.

1) The Reflective Mind-Set
Without an understanding of meaning from one’s experiences, managing becomes a “mindless” exercise. Reflection, as the authors explain, is the “suspended space” between where the manager has had an experience and the explanation for it. This space is where the individual is able to make the linkages, including possible options – call it imagination space.

Organizations do not need managers who see the world through their personal behaviours (“mirror” people) or those who are unable to see beyond immediate situations (“window” people). What they require are managers who are capable of seeing both ways: through their personal reflection they see the world around them. As they put it: “…reflective managers are are able to see behind in order to look ahead.”

2) The Action Mind-Set
The authors use the analogy of wild horses pulling a chariot (the organization). As much as competent managerial ability is needed to move an organization in a new direction, as much skill is required to maintain its course. Corralling the energies, hopes and aspirations (the horses) of people and focusing them towards a common vision is the management challenge. It demands that managers understand the landscape in which their teams are working and collaborating.

Action is critical in this environment; however, it must be accompanied by reflection, especially when managers must know which things need to be changed and which ones must be maintained. This is where action and reflection need to be integrated. As they explain: “Action results from deliberate strategies, carefully planned, that unfold as systematically managed sequences of decisions.”

3) The Collaborative Mind-Set
People are not “detachable human resources” or “assets,” commodities that can be traded. However, this has been – and continues to be – the approach most organizations take with their employees. A collaboration mind-set does not follow this practice. The authors use their work with Japanese colleagues as the example of how a collaboration mind-set involves managing the relationships among people, not managing people.

A true collaborative mind-set entails transcending empowerment, where the conventional belief is that managers must bestow their “blessing” upon their staff. It means building commitment among people through engagement. It means dissolving the “heroic” style of leadership.

Mintzberg and Gosling refer to their Japanese colleagues who talk about “leadership in the background,” tantamount to embracing a shared leadership practice where employees throughout the organization share in the leadership. As they state: “Leaders don’t do most of the things that their organizations get done; they do not even make them get done.”

4) The Worldly Mind-Set
This mind-set has become even more important since the authors wrote their article in 2003. They make a critical distinction between the words “globalization” and “worldly.” The former involves perceiving the world from a distance, contributing to a sense that it is more or less uniform. A worldly view, in contrast, delves into the cultures, habits and customs of peoples living near and far.

The authors point to transnational corporations where operations in countries far away essentially reflect managers portraying the cultures of the home office. They use Shell as a transnational that has successfully created both a global and worldly view within their dispersed operations. Shell tailors and blends its diverse operations based on geography, social, economic and environmental needs.

Shifting from a global to worldly perspective includes:

• From generalizations to specific conditions,
• From global firms not being responsible for local consequences to consequences being a critical performance indicator,
• From the world converging to a common culture, to the world resembling a patchquilt.

5) The Analytical Mind-Set
When using the metaphor of the manager peering downwards from a tall office building to the streets below, the view is one of people being parts of a system. Surrounding that manager are the physical assets, techniques, structures and systems, which cement an analytic mind-set and approach to solving problems.

Mintzberg and Gosling pose the question of how do managers get beyond the superficialities of data and analysis, to the deeper meanings of structures and systems? Complex decision-making involves more than dealing with quantitative data; it requires understanding qualitative (soft) data and the nuances underlying them, such as values. The authors talk about “reflective analysis,” representing the integration of hard and soft data.

Woven Mind-Sets
Mintzberg and Gosling use the metaphor of fabricating cloth, in which the manager is the weaver and the threads are the five mind-sets. “Effective performance” represents how the manager weaves each mind-set in with the others, producing a solid product in the end.

In the context of the mind-sets, this means that the manager must be capable of analyzing, reflecting, acting and collaborating, keeping the big picture in mind. This cycle repeats itself as new insights and opportunities materialize, provoking new reflection, new collaborations, etc. The authors’ final comment is one on which to reflect:

“Effective organizations tailor handsome results out of the woven mind-sets of their managers.”

Please take a moment to share a comment. JT

Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field: Leadership or Bullying?

November 18, 2018

Steve Jobs was a fascinating individual, with both dark and bright sides. He was an incredible visionary with a particular ability for simplicity in design. He was never satisfied with the status quo, and it’s because of his devotion to continuous improvement and innovation that we, as consumers, have benefitted from his quest for perfection.

However, he could be brutal on those close to him, whether at work or in his personal life. He excelled at dishing out verbal abuse and demanding (what appeared initially) as unachievable deadlines. To this latter point, his demanding nature produced Apple’s leaps in innovation.

With that said, it’s important to note that Steve Jobs did not invent the smart phone, something that tends to get distorted by the media and some tech commentators. The first actual “smart phone” was invented in 1992 by IBM and was called the Simon Personal Communicator, 15 years before Apple released its first iPhone. Back then, the Simon costs $899 USD (almost $1,500 in today’s dollars). And then in January 1999, the first Blackberry (later facetiously called the Crackberry) was released by Waterloo, Canada, Research in Motion (RIM).

What Steve Jobs did was make the smart phone smarter. And his successor, the competent Tim Cook, has worked hard at keeping the iPhone, and Apple in general, at the head of the pack in innovation.

Jobs hounded journalist and author Walter Isaacson for over five years to write his biography (which ended up being produced from some 40 interviews with Jobs). It was Jobs’ wife, Laurene, who in 2009 finally laid it out for Isaacson why he needed to start on the biography as soon as possible.

Steve Jobs’ treatment of not just employees but friends and business partners was often appalling. Yet his achievements over 35-plus years (with some intermittent problems) were incredible. This conflicts in a major way with the leadership literature, where treating people with respect and as human beings, not inanimate objects, is a key cornerstone. Jobs, somehow, was able to motivate people (employees and business partners) to produce far beyond what was initially thought possible. And he did this by often berating and belittling them.

Yes, Steve Jobs was a visionary and a perfectionist. We learn a lot about why he became who he was through Isaacson’s recounting of Jobs’ upbringing as an adopted child. However, his detached, often brutal, immature behaviour is still a mystery. Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field, coined for his ability to bend reality in order that his underlings accomplish what he demanded, was demonstrated on numerous occasions when he was told that something was not possible, or could not be done within a short timeframe.

Bud Tribble, a software designer under Jobs, adapted the Reality Distortion Field expression from Star Trek. As Tribble explained to Andy Hertfeld, who had just joined the Macintosh team and who expressed his disbelief with Jobs’ unrealistic product release deadline of January 1982, “Steve has a reality distortion field. In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he’s not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules.”

What’s intriguing is how Jobs broke the so-called leadership rulebook by not inspiring or coaching employees to achieve something, and instead flatly insisting that it could and would be done. Negotiation was out. Failure was not an option. Naysayers were turfed.

Steve Wozniak (aka “Woz” pictured above with Jobs), who co-founded Apple, explains it this way: “[Jobs’] reality distortion is when he has an illogical vision of the future, such as telling me that I could design the Breakout game in just a few days. You realize that it can’t be true, but he somehow makes it true.”

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” (Paul Jobs, adoptive father)

Jobs’ use of foul language and insults were well known. His typical remark to an engineer was “This is shit!” This is clearly not the most desirable way to provide feedback. However, Apple employees (at least some) learned that what Jobs was really trying to say was “Tell me why this is the best way to do it.” What Jobs was attempting was to challenge employees to be creative and to find the optimal way to achieve something – to make something perfect.

Some employees learned to push back, sometimes really hard. Jobs would buckle if presented with a compelling case. Of course this took a lot of courage and self-confidence. As Apple manufacturing manager Debi Coleman, who stood up to Jobs, enthused: “[Jobs] would shout at a meeting, ‘You asshole, you never do anything right.’ It was like an hourly occurrence. Yet I consider myself the absolute luckiest person in the world to have worked for him.”

Steve Jobs’ approach to inspiring his employees was indeed bizarre. Yet as Isaacson states: “It infused Apple employees with an abiding passion to create groundbreaking products and a belief that they could accomplish what seemed impossible. They had T-shirts made that read ’90 hours a week and loving it.’”

Jobs learned from his original Macintosh team that A-plus players preferred to work together and wouldn’t tolerate B-quality work. And to design and create consummate consumer products – his never-ending quest for perfection (ingrained in him by his adoptive father, Paul Jobs) – you needed the best people.

It’s easy for us to question Jobs’ motivational tactics, which were jaw-dropping at times. But then look at how he resuscitated Apple which was on the brink of death in the nineties, and then led it to be the most valuable company in the world. Whether CEO Tim Cook and his executive team can keep propelling Apple forward with the same velocity in the long-term is uncertain, especially given mounting global competition for consumer products.

Rather than smirk at his Reality Distortion Field, perhaps there’s something to learn from how Steve Jobs approached leadership. There are long entrails of visionless CEOs who beat up employees, decimating their organizations, while living for quarter-to-quarter results. And then exiting with golden parachutes.

Steve Jobs was far from perfect. Later in life, towards the end, he shared some of his misgivings with Isaacson, acknowledging his mistakes. He was one of the greatest enigmas as a corporate leader. What he lacked in people skills and empathy, he made up for with a compelling vision for the future and the pursuit of excellence. He clearly has left an indelible mark on society.

Reflect on the following words from Steve Jobs, shared with Walter Isaacson. Keep in perspective that at age 25 Jobs was worth $256 million. In the fall of 2011 his net worth was an estimated $7 billion.

“I never worried about money. I grew up in a middle-class family, so I never thought I would starve. And I learned at Atari that I could be an okay engineer, so I knew I could always get by. I was voluntarily poor when I was in college and India, and I lived a pretty simple life even when I was working. So I went from fairly poor, which was wonderful, because I didn’t have to worry about money, to being incredibly rich, when I also didn’t have to worry about money.

I watched people at Apple who made a lot of money and felt they had to live differently. Some of them bought a Rolls-Royce and various houses, each with a house manager and then someone to manage the house managers. Their wives got plastic surgery and turned into these bizarre people. This was not how I wanted to live. It’s crazy. I made a promise to myself that I’m not going to let this money ruin my life.”

Steve Jobs was about simplicity in life – something from which we could all learn.

Integrating Knowledge Transfer and Organizational Learning: Can You Tango? (Part Four)

November 13, 2018


The past three posts looked at ways to improve the sharing and transfer of knowledge within organizations. This post wraps up the series, stepping back to view the situation through the lens of integrating organizational learning and knowledge transfer.

Two definitions will be provided for KM and OL, concluding with a set of nine principles aimed at helping guide people forward.

Here are two working definitions:

Organizational learning is the dynamic process that enables an organization to adapt readily to change. This process encompasses the generation of new knowledge, skills and behaviours, reinforced by cross-functional sharing and collaborative learning. The two principal outcomes are the creation of a learning culture and a shared future among all employees.

Knowledge transfer plays a vital role in supporting organizational learning because it facilitates the effective sharing of an organization’s collective knowledge. It is the integrated, systematic process to identify, manage and share an organization’s information assets, using the appropriate combination of information technologies and human interaction.

These assets include its databases, documents, policies and procedures. Moreover, it encompasses both the explicit and tacit knowledge possessed by employees, and uses a broad variety of methods to capture, store and share this within an organization.

The following nine principles serve as the foundation for an integrated knowledge management and organizational learning process:

1. Management demonstrates its leadership and commitment to learning and knowledge sharing by modelling the desired behaviours and by recognizing employees who share openly.

2. What people learn is not hoarded but shared openly and without reservation. Trust underlies the open sharing of knowledge.

3. Communities of practice and cross-functional networks support collaborative learning and knowledge generation, both virtually and in-person.

4. Creative problem-solving, innovation, and asking questions are highly valued, and recognized.

5. Reflection and inquiry are valued as critical elements of work processes, both at the individual and team levels.

6. Knowledge is created by people. Technology serves the organization as an enabler, not as a master.

7. Knowledge creation includes spontaneity and the emergence of self-organizing networks.

8. Experimentation (e.g., pilots) is critical to testing knowledge capture, codification and transfer methods, encompassing both quantitative and qualitative measurement processes.

9. Structure is important as part of the process, but care is needed to ensure that spontaneity, creativity and innovation are not suppressed.

Take a moment to share your experiences.

Here are a few questions to help spark your reflection:

1) What methods have you found successful in encouraging information sharing with your co-workers?

2) How does your organization deal with the outgoing flow of corporate know-how when people leave?

3) How does management demonstrate its commitment to learning?

Learning enhances our capacity to increase knowledge through effective action.
  Peter Senge (Author of The Fifth Discipline)

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Words of Wisdom from Abraham Lincoln on Veterans and Remembrance Day

November 9, 2018

220px-Abraham_Lincoln_O-77_matte_collodion_printIn a period of growing political, social and economic division, Americans would do well to reflect on the wise words of President Abraham Lincoln, who saved the less than 90 year-old union through his extraordinary leadership skills.

Yes, the 2018 Midterm elections are just finished, with the Democrats now holding for the majority for the next two years until the federal election (with the Senate still being Republican controlled). However, anyone thinking that the next two years will be more constructive in political discourse and passing more progressive legislation might want to reconsider.

And for Canadians, our own political climate has enough divisions and the potential for a very nasty national election campaign in 2019. So we, too, would benefit from reflecting on Lincoln’s words and reflect on the sacrifices made by those who served in distant wars and in more recent ones.

President Lincoln gave his historical Gettysburg address on November 19, 1863, to dedicate a national cemetery on the battlefield where over 5,000 soldiers from the Union and Confederate armies were slain. The Battle of Gettysburg (Pennsylvania), fought over three days, saw a total of over 28,000 Confederate and 23,000 Union troops killed. The American Civil War (1861-1865) left a mind-numbing 600,000 plus dead soldiers (360,000 Union and 260,000 Confederate).

The numbers of dead from the Civil War are hard to grasp, especially when it was Americans killing Americans. People get upset when they reflect on the 57,000 US soldiers killed during the Vietnam War, or the 5,000 plus in Iraq. In the context of the history of nations the Civil War was only 155 years ago, a mere blink of the eye for ancient countries such as Greece, China and even younger countries like Great Britain.

For those actively involved in the mud slinging, political hyperbole and legislative stalling tactics, they may wish to contemplate their actions after reading Lincoln’s brief yet cogent Gettysberg Address.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

This week, reflect on the sacrifices of the MILLIONS of American soldiers who have died and been wounded while serving their country over the past 200 years. Are the political infighting, backstabbing and growing divisions between political parties something that honours their sacrifices?

May our children and our children’s children to a thousand generations, continue to enjoy the benefits conferred upon us by a united country, and have cause yet to rejoice under those glorious institutions bequeathed us by Washington and his compeers.
(President Abraham Lincoln, October 4, 1862. Speech at Frederick, Maryland)


holisti-leadershipClick here to download a complimentary copy of Jim’s e-book Becoming a Holistic Leader, 3rd Edition.

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