Leadership: Tune In or Forget It

“He doesn’t get people.” That’s how actor Steve Carell describes Michael Scott, the character he plays on The Office, NBC’s wicked comedy about work life. Scott is the boss who is woefully and pitifully out of tune with the people he manages. He constantly crosses the line between professional and personal boundaries and as a result does the inappropriate thing people-wise. Michael Scott criticizes when he should not; micromanages others constantly, and never takes responsibility for any consequences – it’s always someone else’s fault. The conceit of the show is that Scott believes is a great manager, one who leads his people by example when in reality he is a complete fool. Of course, it works as comedy and it is why the series is so popular, here and in Britain where it originated.

A reason for the popularity of The Office is that everyone seems to have worked for or with Michael Scott. Funny yes, but terribly sad and truly indicative of the sorry state of mismanagement in our culture! Sometimes managers are like schoolteachers. We expect so much of them, but we fail to provide them with the education, training and resources they need to succeed. Then we hold them solely accountable for failing schools. Likewise managers by and large do a good job of getting things done, but so often their people skills leave much to be desired and as a result, organizations under-perform. As with under-prepared teachers, we have under-prepared managers.

Senior managers need to do a better job of preparing people to lead other people, not simply to manage. Again and again, the most successful companies, as judged by factors such as revenue, profit, recruitment and retention, are ones that emphasize leadership at every level. Leadership development should not be the sole purview of human resources; it needs to be the responsibility of the senior most people. Yes, this is what General Electric does, but so too does Google, Xerox, Whole Foods, American Express and so many more. These companies have robust leadership development programs, but genuine leadership development does not occur in a program setting; it occurs on the job – manager to manager, colleague to colleague. So how can you cultivate a culture of leadership one on one?

Start with people. Leadership is all about people. The more you develop them the better odds you have for success. Same goes for managing them. Management goes awry when it measures only performance as it relates to task rather than how it relates to others. Yes, a manager needs to get results but she also must do it the right way, that is, with people not in spite of them. When you hold people accountable for their behavior toward others, you demonstrate that people matter. It is not enough to make the numbers; you must also do it with respect for others, and function in a cooperative and collaborative manner with others.

Challenge them. Leaders prove their mettle by taking on challenges. Savvy managers take their high-potentials and put them in situations that stretch their abilities. This leadership model is borrowed from military training, but it applies to the corporate side when you give people stretch goals related to their jobs. Challenging them also means supporting them with advice as well as resources. Without support you set people up for failure, which is also a good way to alienate good people.

Debrief and reflect. No job is complete without a review. Look at what went right as well as what went wrong. Often you learn more from mistakes that successes. Why? Sometimes success happens in spite of itself; good team, good product, good results. Failure, however, can occur with those things but by making poor decisions. Reflecting on the pluses and minuses is critical. Equally critical is the understanding that failure is not grounds for dismissal.

Leadership is not a nice to have; it is a must have. If organizations are not developing people to lead, then their business proposition will not last long term. Your company may succeed for awhile, but in time, incompetent managers will triumph. They will drive the good people away leaving only the incompetent remaining. People want to work for bosses who treat them as contributors, not simply as doers. Employees will put up with management shortcomings for awhile, but when something better comes along, they are gone.

Steve Carell remembers something that Ricky Gervais who created the series in Britain and serves as an executive producer for the NBC version, told him: “If you don’t know Michael Scott, you are Michael Scott.” Let that serve as a lesson to anyone of us in management. Be in tune with what’s going on around you.

Source:Terry Gross “Interview with Steve Carell” Fresh Air WHYY/NPR 10.24.07

John Baldoni • Leadership Expert: Executive Coach/Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • www.johnbaldoni.com

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