Following to lead

{Note: I time box my writing and this post filled up my time box.  I do plan on revisiting and enhancing with more info eventually. I apologize if detail is missing, send all complaints to my time box.}


I have always been curious about leadership books.  Personally, I can’t read them as I find them to be hundreds of pages of advertisement for the person who wrote the book.  No, the part I find curious about the books is the people who read the books. In the classic sense of the word, leader means “a person or thing that leads”  The person who is reading the book, I imagine, is interested in learning new techniques about leadership.  All fine but … doesn’t that turn the reader into a follower, i.e. not a leader?  In terms of developing leadership practices and processes, yes, the reader is now a follower; however, the reader is still leading the thing they are suppose to lead … or are they?

Leadership, IMO, has three simple components: knowing where to go , ability to clearly communicate to a large percentage of the group where they are going, and listening.  Pretty high level but everything that a leader does can be put into one of these buckets … except for reading leadership books. In fact, reading leadership books detracts from the most important component of leadership: listening.  Listening helps set context and informs how leadership principles are applied.

In my experience, some of my best acts of leadership arose out of listening to the group I was leading.  Hearing about what works well, what doesn’t work well, other potential destinations and anything else the group wants to communicate provides all the data necessary to become a better leader.  Your processes are better informed, opportunities appear in focus and you, the leader, are connected to the group and, therefore, better able to lead.  You are in context.  So why does reading leadership books become the detractor to listening?  The reader of these books is no longer listening to the group they are leading but listening to a voice outside of the group that is in now way connected to the group.  The leadership thoughts are out of context.

I’m sure most people who have read this far are aware of John F “Jack” Welch and the books he has written about management and leadership.  These books have informed a large amount of “leaders” in Silicon Valley.  One of the leadership chestnuts that spread like a virus throughout the valley (and other tech heavy areas) was the concept of managing employee performance through the usage of a curve, i.e. 10% of the employees are stars, 25% are pretty darn good, 50% are doing there job just fine, 10% are lagging behind and 5% are getting it done and need to go.  The percentages are illustrative and change, I’m sure, from company to company.  In the context of Mr. Welch’s leadership opportunity, running one of the largest manufacturing companies in the world with over 100,00 employees, the performance curve is a viable paradigm as the marginal cost to replace a manufacturing employee is minimal and the potential to hire a better employee is a probable event.  Silicon Valley “leaders” who read Mr. Welch’s books quickly implemented this paradigm for their companies … without listening to the group they were leading.  This is an example of out of context leadership that harms the ability of a leader to lead a group.

A technology company is typically ~95% knowledge workers, i.e. people who are creating virtual products and the remaining 5% are GA type workers, i.e. finance, admins, workplace resources, HR.  The knowledge workers are, generally, highly educated and, especially for the top tier technology companies, from the top of the class from top schools.  Tech leadership followed Mr. Welch’s book and instituted curve based performance management.  Curve based employee management works well when you sample the entire curve of employees available as detailed earlier; however, when you are only sampling the top 5% of the employee curve, it fails.  The following is a gedankenexperiment to illustrate why the curve based approach is out of context when it comes to knowledge based workers in technology companies.

My experiment will use the the simple mathematical principle of exploring how a system reacts as you take the limit to the extreme.  Imagine I am the leader of a very fortunate group that employs the 20 best knowledge workers on the planet.  It is time to for employee performance management and my company has a  10/25/50/10/5 performance curve.  In addition, the people in the bottom 5% are required to be let go and replaced.  In my super group, the 20th best knowledge worker in the world has to be let go and replaced with … the 21st best knowledge worker in the world (if available!)  In this instance, the curve based employee performance management tool is hurting the quality of my group by forcing me to replace a superior employee with an inferior employee and seriously messing with the morale of the remaining people who weren’t ranked in the top 10%.  Imagine how fun the conversation is with the 3rd best knowledge worker in the world when you tell her that she’s pretty good but not a star.  Pretty ridiculous sounding in the context of this extreme example. For the previous thought gedankenexperiment, if I, the leader, instead of reading a leadership book, listened to the data pouring out from my team I could have gone a different route in my performance management and avoided some unnecessary hardship and detuning of a high powered team.

I am not against leadership books or the people who write them nor am I against the people who read the books and practice leadership.  I just find the people who read the books and enact what they learn out of context as very curious.  In the leadership book  readers attempt to become better leaders, they are actually becoming better followers.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s