What the hell is happening? We can look back at centuries of what makes good and bad leadership. Our culture is rife with leadership programs, courses, and institutes. Books on leadership rain from the sky. We are obsessed with leadership.
And yet in virtually every industry and institution today we can find numerous examples of absolute horseshit leaders and they only seem to be multiplying. Harassment, abuse, negligence, corruption, and incompetence are commonplace everywhere from Silicon Valley and Wall Street to higher education and government. We can’t shake it. It’s gotten so bad that the current “leader” of the free world exemplifies every one of those problems mentioned above and so, so many more. He is, in fact, a paradigm of a horrible leader. Of course it’s not just the Oval Office. The word “kakistocracy” is becoming a normal part of our lexicon.
How did we get here? 2 big reasons.
Good and ethical leaders want to contribute in a positive way to their community and society. In a plutocracy people in positions of power are self-serving. They have no interest or motivation to help others.
Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money details the rise of an extremist political ideology that greatly advantages the grotesquely wealthy elites. Money buys power, a malignant brand of power that serves no greater good. It’s end goal is only to acquire more power.
While plutocracy refers to a government run by the wealthy elite, it stems directly from a corrupt relationship with the private sector. Quarterly myopia and the race to the bottom shows us just where some corporate leaders’ motives lie—not in long-term progress, stability, and service to community, but in quick accumulation of wealth and power.
Wall Street was once a financial service industry. That is, the financial industry’s mission was to serve the public in order to maintain sustainable growth and productivity. Now it is purely self-serving. The People serve Wall Street so that the industry can accumulate wealth and power at an unimaginable level.
Qualifications, experience, ability, or moral obligation be damned. The name of the game is money, and that means getting people with money in positions of power so that they can acquire more money and power. Again, malignant power, which is a zero-sum game. Someone has got to lose. In this case it’s the general public.
When this happens, the people in positions of power are thieves. They have no incentive to be sound leaders. And because anyone they might report to are of the same mind, there is no accountability. It makes for a highly hospitable environment for horseshit leaders to thrive and multiply.
Sound leaders want to develop other leaders and they seek out potential leaders based on merit. Cronyism cares nothing about who would make a sound leader. It’s all about people in positions of power wanting their own kind around them.
Cronyism goes hand-in-hand with a plutocracy (crony capitalism is plutocracy’s key ingredient), but it can be more insidious. It’s not just macro-cronyism where entire industries like Silicon Valley and Big Pharma grease each other’s palms to strengthen their domination. It’s the cronyism that happens on a smaller scale that is perpetuating bad leadership. Horseshit leaders hire and promote horseshit leaders. Because they are often narcissists, they see what they think is the right stuff in people who resemble themselves, and this results in propagation of lousy leaders.
This is rampant in higher education where people are put in powerful positions with no experience or qualifications for leadership whatsoever. Instead they are deemed leaders based on their academic pedigree and how much they resemble their faculty peers. And once they land in those lofty administrative positions, they are virtually untouchable barring some criminal act.
In all kinds of industries, people regularly get hired into powerful positions and given ungodly amounts of money from VCs to lead new ventures based on things like their association with people in positions of power. (Why in God’s name would anyone in their right mind give money to someone like Jared Kushner?)
If you’ve held a job for more than a couple years, you know how this works. Someone in a leadership position likes the cut of some schmuck’s jib and they’re advanced to the C-suite. Out of cronyism or sheer laziness the people who have no business being leaders become just that. They say, the devil you know is better then the one you don’t, but the problem is he’s still the goddamn devil.
This glut of poor leadership is not unprecedented. Not by long shot. (The early- to mid-20th Century was pretty tough period, for instance.) And there are in fact some inspiring leaders out there today. Knowing that we do sometimes actually learn from history and that good and ethical leaders are more powerful than their lesser counterparts, let’s all hope that the tide will turn. Let’s do more than hope, actually. Let’s work tirelessly to hire, promote, and advance good leaders into powerful roles, expelling horeshit leaders to the margins where they belong.
Photo Credit JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS
I loved the movie The Omega Man when I was a kid. Charlton Heston is seemingly the only man left in the world. He spends his days scavenging the city for goods (sometimes really good goods), and every night he barricades himself inside his fancy house to protect himself from the apocalyptic mutants known as The Family that ravage the Earth. He’s safe outside in the daytime because the mutants cannot tolerate bright light, and at night he lights up his urban castle with klieg lights to keep them away.
I felt like that was a pretty sweet deal. Sure the homicidal monsters outside the fortress walls were a nuisance, but it seemed like a small price to pay to not have to ever deal with other people. It was the ultimate version of locking yourself in your bedroom and putting on headphones when your relatives or parents’ friends came over.
During breakfast, I used to build a less robust fortress around me made out of cereal boxes to block out anyone who might dare try interacting with me during the most miserable meal of the day.
I know what you’re thinking: Sounds like you were a real loser as a kid. But I can assure you, I still am.
I felt the same way about Tom Hanks in Castaway many years later, when I was ostensibly a grown-up. It just goes to show you, I thought, even after a horrible tragedy like that plane crash, something good can happen like being stranded on a deserted island. And your sole companion, Wilson, is so refreshingly unencumbered by speech.
Some people have a hard time interacting with other people and prefer being alone with their thoughts. They are often referred to as introverts when their backs are not turned. Lately they have been getting a fair amount of favorable attention partly, I think, because of the popular book Quiet, and also because of the Internet. (It’s a lovely medium for introverts. You can just scream into the ether then run away and hide.) And while I am all for people extolling the virtues of my people, one should be cautious about excusing away one’s behavior with “That’s just the way I am.” Yes, find the strength in who you are, but beware of complacency.
Growth is hard. It comes from forcing yourself to be uncomfortable. This is true if you want to be really good at math, writing, painting, or making small-talk at a cocktail party. Some people may have an earlier head start with certain disciplines, so it seems to come easily to them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t develop it because it doesn’t come naturally to you. If you want (or need) to be good at something, you have got to put in the time and effort. You’ve got to work at it and build up the skill. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi teaches us, as your skill increases with highly challenging activities, your anxiety decreases and arousal and even joy (or “flow”) increases.
Building a coalition, creating a supportive social network, meeting likeminded and not-likeminded people, even casual interactions are incredibly important not only for professional growth but the human experience in general. It’s comforting behind those cereal boxes, but sometimes being comfortable is not the best thing for us. Believe it or not, generally we all feel better when we’ve had some level of social interaction. It’s important to make the effort to have an exchange of ideas or present your own thoughts and discoveries for the same reason it’s important to grow in other disciplines that will help you make a positive impact and have a fuller life.
The same holds true for extroverts. Although some may not see their aversion to introversion as a shortcoming, it certainly can be. An introvert’s opportunities to develop social acuity are abundant and painfully clear. Extraversion, on the other hand, is often assumed to be everyone’s aspiration. Introversion is perceived as lacking something while extroversion is an abundance of that same thing. What is there to develop when you are what everyone else wants to become? But of course one can just as easily rely too heavily on extraversion: flitting from one meeting to the next, booking lunches every day, constantly being on the phone with someone, and never taking a beat to just stop and think (or not think) on one’s own. There is power and goodness in solitude.
For a kid growing up in Minnesota with dozens of cousins who were talented performers and gregarious (shall we say) orators anxious to bring me into the fold, The Family in The Omega Man resonated with me. After a few decades of perspective, I can see now that while I still may not want to be one of the mutants, there is good in them and putting up barriers (made out of klieg lights and razor wire, cereal boxes and books, or iPhones and video games) is not productive. Reach out. Talk to other people who are not like you. There is life out there to live (on your own and with others).
For several years (a lifetime ago), I tended bar in Madison, Wisconsin. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, but I worked with some of the best people I’ve known and learned some important lessons about life. Many of those lessons have to do with leadership. The tales you collect working in a bar are long and varied, but I recollect just a few below that helped forge what I know about leadership today.
- Sometimes you have to clean the poop out of the sink — Early one evening, a couple of new drinkers (recently turned 21) came into the bar. They ordered some drinks, played some pool, used the restroom, and promptly left. When I checked the restroom, I found that one of them had defecated in one of the sinks. Why would anyone do such a thing? I have no idea. People are weird. Just as I made the discovery, the bouncers arrived. I showed them what had happened, described the violators, and told them to keep an eye out for them. The bouncers then started rolling up their sleeves, getting ready to clean up the mess. I told them that I would clean it up because it happened on my watch. They didn’t argue much. Now this is tricky because as a leader you need to be able to delegate and let go of the operational stuff. Doing so creates capacity and allows you to focus on leading. However, as the leader, once in a while, you need to be the one who cleans the poop out of the sink. Getting your hands dirty and taking on the really hard stuff establishes you as a leader who is also part of the team, and someone to emulate. You earn respect, not demand it. That means doing the hard stuff. Those young men who left that little present in the restroom actually came back that same evening, by the way. But that’s a story for another time.
- It’s the ones you can’t seeing coming that you need to worry about — The funny thing about breaking up fights is that it’s usually really, really easy. A 200-pound, ostensibly enraged man lunging toward his adversary rarely provides much resistance. Why is this so, you ask. Because when people are adept at fighting—when they really want to do some damage—you don’t see them coming. Remember this as a leader. If someone is broadcasting how tough or intimidating they can be, they are likely full of shit. They will buckle with the breeze. Know what you’re talking about, stand your ground, and blowhards will crumble before you. However, there are people out there who will want to take you down, who are willing to do so, and who are fully capable of doing it. I recall a patron who I considered a decent fellow̉—charming demeanor, good tipper̉—smash a rocks glass in another man’s face. That’s the guy you need to be aware of, and it’s going to be your team who saves your ass.
- Wash the fruit — Health code inspectors never made sure that the outside of the lemons, limes, and oranges were washed properly. I guess because you don’t eat the peel. Whole fruit wedges do, however, get dropped into drinks where Lord only knows what kind of disgustingness could get washed off into the drinks. But why wash the fruit if no one’s checking? Because a leader doesn’t do the right thing because someone’s watching or to check it off a list. And here’s the other thing about doing the right thing: when you do, the rest of your team notices. It’s what I now call demonstrating the values of the organization. Washing the fruit sets the tone. It lets the team know what kind of place they’re working in and then they rise to that standard. Leaders have tremendous power in articulating values and it is incumbent upon leaders to apply those values every day in a way that is challenging and undeniable to the team.
- Risk madness now to make things right later — Weekend nights are a non-stop frenzy when you bartend. There is no time for a breather or pausing to reflect. That means a bump can send you and your team reeling. And a series of bumps can be disastrous. One night a glass broke in the ice bin. This is no small thing. In fact, for a bartender on a busy night, it’s the kind of thing nightmares are made of. I had two options. Option one was to close down the station for the remainder of the night, and keep the bartenders focused on helping the customers as best they could. This would have meant bartenders standing around taking turns at other stations and customers piling up, getting angry, and leaving. Option two was to close down the station temporarily while a team meticulously cleaned out the ice bin. And I mean meticulously. This would mean a bartender and a bouncer taken off essential duties for an indeterminate amount of time. Glasses would be piling up throughout the bar. Customers would grow increasingly impatient. The bartenders who were kept on serving drinks would get run raged. What if a fight broke out? A lot could go wrong very quickly. But I chose to clean out the bin. As a leader you have to take the risk that comes along with fixing the problem. Yes, you will likely take on additional burden while key resources focus on the fix, but the alternative is worse. The alternative is that the rest of your team can’t do the jobs they were hired to do, everyone is working with a dysfunctional system, and all your customers see is a bunch of nitwits standing around not doing their job.
- Leadership is a team sport and a long-game OR: It’s all fun and games until someone sprays mace into the ventilation system — When you are on a great team, everyone is a leader. But when things get really bad—and they will—the team inevitably needs to look to one person for the answers. The night someone sprayed mace into the ventilation system was going great up until that point. Everyone was doing what they needed to be doing, having a great time, and taking charge. The mace crept up on us slowly. It was just an odd sensation at the back of our throats. Then the coughing started and kept growing until we realized something was very wrong. We got wet bar rags over everyone’s faces and ushered everyone out ASAP with just a few staying put to make sure the place didn’t get looted. There is no protocol for some things. You just have to figure it out on the fly. Yes, the people working there could have come up with solutions of their own, but there needed to be one person to call the shots because everyone needed to be on the same page. When that happens—when people are looking for someone to provide unified direction—it needs to be clear who that person is and that person damn well better be present. That works right when leadership is played as a long game. Meaning, a leader establishes herself as the go-to person early and often. When the mace hits the fan, your team needs to know instinctively where to look.
- Don’t hit the cash register — Frustrations can run high bartending. Drunk people are not always the kindest or most rational customers. There are also a lot of uncontrollable variables. Freezers break, tap lines get finicky, pool tables get jammed, air conditioning goes out, and so on. One night one of our tills kept jamming for no apparent reason. It started earlier in the night, but I could not figure out why it randomly refused to open. One thing after another kept me distracted from fixing it once and for all, and now, at the peak of Saturday night, as customers were screaming all around us, it seemed to jam for good. I lost my cool and gave that son-of-a-bitch a solid whack with the butt of my right hand. It bit back, opening up a massive gash at the base of my thumb. As you can imagine, an open wound in the service industry will not do, which meant I had to bench myself until I got the situation under control. Which in turn meant the rest of the team had to pick up my slack while I was out. All because I didn’t keep it together. A leader must keep a cool head. Succumbing to frustration will only make matters much worse for the very people who are depending on you. I still have the scar today to remind me of this lesson.
- Assemble the A-team — This one above all else. It is fundamental to leadership. Get your team right, and treat them right, or get out all together. And here’s what you look for in the right team: Aptitude, attitude, adaptability. Experience is nice, but what you really need in a solid team are people with a growth mindset, who switch to a new challenge on a dime, and laugh about it while it’s happening. The bar business is dirty, gross, annoying, difficult, dangerous, and exhausting. Yet, we laughed easily, would step in harm’s way to protect one-another without a second thought, and worked as a highly efficient team. That doesn’t mean people didn’t screw up or have personal problems. But you hire the right people and let them know how much you value them, and the unforeseeable is manageable. Loyalty and camaraderie flourishes when there is a common goal and a shared struggle. As a leader, it’s up to you to make this clear and rewarding to your team.
Developing as a leader is important business. You have to focus on the present and the future while taking care of people (including yourself) and systems. Doing that properly means continuously strengthening core competencies.
This is daunting and there’s no getting around it. However, there is a way to provide some structure. Whether you’re helping someone else develop as a leader, or developing as a leader yourself, getting a handle on the fact that there are simple areas of focus can bring clarity to the development process.
Below is the Leadership Scorecard. It organizes 20 core leadership competences into four categories. In doing so, it helps the developing leader see where she can focus. Is she spending enough time considering the future or is she too preoccupied with the now? Or is it the opposite? Is she doing a great job looking to the future, but only in terms of the organization as a whole and not when it comes to individual people?
You can make these scorecards yourself or get a stack of them here.
The Leadership Scorecard is a great way to contain an otherwise unwieldy (and ongoing) process. 360 assessments are useful tools, but they are often cumbersome and require significant time investment from the subject’s associates. So much time, in fact, that people are often reluctant to ask them for the favor of completing the assessment once much less multiple times. This makes monitoring growth difficult. The Leadership Scorecard takes some of the sting out of that. It’s simple and unintimidating, but provides meaningful information. It can be used in a coaching or mentoring relationship, for a 360 assessment, or in ad hoc situations.
To help evaluators understand the meaning of each competency, below are some questions they can ask about the subject. I recommend giving the evaluators this list with the scorecard. Here’s a printable PDF.
Present State Leadership Competencies
Working with Others
Communication & Listening: How well does the subject get his/her point across? Does he/she take the time to listen during conversations and understand the person he/she is speaking with? Does he/she remain calm during stressful conversations?
Delegating: Is the subject proactive giving clear direction and instruction? Does he/she share his/her workload, and provide learning opportunities to others, and develop their skills by letting them work through difficult assignment? Does he/she provide guidance when needed while at the same time allow others their independence and ownership of projects and assignments?
Mindfulness: Is the subject present in the moment, paying close attention to details and the people around them? Is he/she consciously aware of his/her surrounding, including how people are feeling and behaving? Does he/she stay focused on the situation at hand rather than getting distracted with other matters? Is he/she aware of his/her own strengths and weakness?
Integrity & Ethics: Is the subject honest and trustworthy? Can you depend on him/her to do the right and just thing? Does he/she have a strong sense of right and wrong? Does he/she treat all people with respect and decency? Do his/her actions reflect his/her values?
Team Management: Does the subject attract and retain high performers? Does he/she effectively coordinate tasks and assignments within any given group? Does he/she collaborate well with others?
Dealing with Organizations and Systems
Decision-making: Is the subject deliberate about the process of evaluation? Does he/she carefully think through all options and considerations before taking decisive action?
Self-control: Does the subject stay cool under pressure? How does he/she deal with stressful situations? Does he/she refrain from raising her voice in moments of anger? Is he/she emotionally stable?
Producing Results: Does the subject finish was he/she starts? Is he/she able to realize goals and see projects through to fruition? How well does he/she follow through with a plan and ensure that things get done?
Process & System Management: How well does the subject develop and understand workflow? Does he/she have the aptitude for identifying dysfunction and correcting it? When systems or processes fail, is he/she able to ensure that objectives are still achieved?
Managing Priorities: Is the subject able to balance competing demands? Does he/she carefully consider how to manage resources so they will have the greatest long-term impact? Does he/she keep the big picture in mind while determining which action to take next?
Future State Leadership Competencies
Working with Others
Developing Others: Does the subject encourage other people to develop themselves professionally? Does he/she acknowledge and promote other people’s strengths? Does he/she ensure that other people have capacity in their workload to take advantage of growth opportunities? Does he/she provide resources such as funding to help others take advantage of learning opportunities?
Self-development: Is the subject aware of where he/she has room to grow professionally? Does he/she understand the importance of continuous professional development? Does he/she make the time to learn and grow professionally?
Goal Setting: How well does the subject help others define clear, achievable objectives? Does he/she create goals that help people grow and improve performance? Does he/she appropriately assess people skills and abilities when setting goals? Does he/she set both short-term and long-term goals with a bigger picture in mind?
Political Savvy: Is the subject good at creating and fostering relationships? Is he/she able to see the ramifications of his/her actions that could affect other people, systems, or organizations? Does he/she calculate all the variables in play before acting? Does he/she know the importance of networking, and understand how specific people could aid or stand in the way of the path to success? Does he/she capitalize on other people’s subject matter expertise and connections, while being sure to give credit where credit is due?
Influence & Persuasion: How well does the subject help others commit to his/her ideas or acquire allies in any given endeavor? Does he/she share his/her vision in such a way that others feel strongly about supporting that vision and contributing?
Dealing with Organizations and Systems
Strategic Planning: Does the subject develop detailed plans for how to the future of the organization? Does he/she work with others to determine the best way forward? Are his/her strategies for moving forward both challenging and realistic? Do other people understand the plans for the future and feel committed to those plans?
Continuous Improvement: Is the subject always looking for ways to improve quality? Does he/she understand the importance of positive change? Does he/she dedicate time and resources for exploring ways to improve services and processes? Is he/she knowledgeable about process improvement methods, tools, and techniques?
Visioning: Does the subject have a creative outlook for the future? Is he/she innovative and eager to explore new ideas? Does he/she create an environment where people can comfortably share bold ideas in a compelling and enlightening way?
Change Management: Does the subject effectively communicate the reason for change and keep stakeholders apprised of progress? Does he/she help stakeholders navigate obstacles to success. is he/she aware of the unique struggles that may affect different people? Does he/she keep the process of change organized and structured as much as possible?
Risk Management: Does the subject accept certain levels of failure as essential to learning and growth? Does he/she understand the strategies for transferring, accepting, mitigating, and eliminating risk?
You can get Leadership Scorecards here.
Can you guess the three prominent U.S. organizations that these values belong to?
- People as a competitive advantage
- What’s right for customers
- Diversity and inclusion
- Organization One: Enron
- Organization Two: Veterans Affairs (under Eric K. Shinseki)
- Organization Three: Wells Fargo (under John G. Stumpf)
Yes, the stated core values of organizations are sometimes bullshit. Companies at times make the mistake of thinking of values as just marketing—something to woo shareholders, customers, and investors.
It’s true that values can help the outside world know about your organization (or who you purport to be), but they should be about much more than that. When your team works hard to come up with company values, it’s not just so you can put the values on your website and keep telling everyone that you believe in integrity, excellence, and diversity.
You use values, and you do so regularly. You deliberately apply them to how you do the job, how you do business, how you make decisions. Big decisions like hiring, evaluating performance, taking on new projects and clients, or creating your strategic plan, are weighed against your values. For instance, if one of your values is innovation and someone suggests an extraordinary project, but it’s dismissed as too experimental, you might want to reevaluate those values. Perhaps innovation isn’t actually something you’re willing to live up to. Or if you’re deliberating between buying back shares of your stock to prop of value for shareholders versus increasing wages for support staff, a value like team respect may give you guidance.
Your values should also have a balance. If all of your values are focused on creating a progressive and welcoming workplace, you will be at a loss when you need to make strategic financial decisions. Your values should reflect how your organization functions as a whole (like the balanced scorecard). By doing so, you are setting yourself and your team up for a healthy decision-making process and being realistic about how a business should be run.
It’s not easy. As Greg Satell of Forbes points out, “Values cost something.” When you actually check your actions against your values you will have to sacrifice something else. That can be challenging and could even trigger some soul-searching. But values, when applied, do help you remember your intentions and can keep you from making arbitrary decisions or decisions that are contrary to your character or the best interest of your organization.
As you develop core values, you should be thinking through how you will actually apply your values on a day-to-day basis. Values will help you articulate those issues that are needling you. Consider, for instance, that person who puts in long hours but no one gets along with. It bothers you, but you’re not sure why and and you’re wondering if you should just let it go.
If one of your values is collaboration, however, now you can point to why it is a real issue. You can have a conversation around what that person needs to work on and why. Or better yet, the conversation may not even have been necessary because the values were already understood and practiced by the team.
Values are not easy. They should be hard to come up with and hard to live up to. Organization values challenge everyone and that means constantly pushing everyone to do better and be better. And if they can’t live up to them, either the people are not right for the organization or the values are not right for the organization.
Don’t dismiss values as just a branding or marketing tool. They are powerful and can make all the difference on the kind of institution, company, department, or person you are.