Continuing last week’s discussion on leadership and on the dreaded CLS, or crippled leader syndrome.
Imagine you are the owner of your own business. In the beginning you were the go-to guy for everything, because you were the only guy. As the company grew you delegated, but the key decisions — the really hard stuff — always rested on your shoulders. Even as the company has matured, your vision is still the guiding light. If you are out and the troops have to make a decision without you, the key becomes trying to figure out what the fearless leader would do, if only he were here.
As our column last week pointed out, the heroic leader model can lead to some serious institutional dysfunction when the hero leader is taken ill.
And as Inc. magazine notes in the June issue, the heroic leader model has its downside, even when the heroic leader is hale and hearty. The article, entitled "Why Leadership is the Most Dangerous Idea in American Business," contends that all the current nattering about leadership in business is based on the heroic or charismatic model:
"The charismatic approach is in play (whatever the personality of the organization’s leader) as long as an organization is set up to be fueled by the personal energy and vision of a single individual, a larger-than-life figure. Charismatic leadership is leadership attempted or executed by force of personality and inspiration. It’s the kind in which the leader is counted on to be tireless, indomitable, never out of answers. Do you know any companies like that? Thought you might."
The author of the Inc. article, Michael S. Hopkins, cites a few dramatic examples of heroic leaders who eventually burned and crashed. Charismatic leadership, he writes, "demands of leaders far more than it gives back. For entrepreneurs, it’s toxic. Watch it at work in an entrepreneurial business and you begin to see why so many company builders find it so hard to get their organizations to get things done — even the most mundane things."
What’s called for, Hopkins argues, is "antiheroic leadership." This kind of leader begins "by understanding his or her own dreams and imagining the kind of company that can help realize them, by assessing and accepting his or her own strengths and weaknesses, by respecting his or her own needs. . . Instead of asking `How can I do that?’ the antiheroic leader asks `Who can do that?’ `Who knows how to do that?’ `Who can help me get that done?’"
And so here at U.S. 1, our case of CLS could be viewed as a terminal institutional disease, or as an opportunity for others to take on some of the roles previously reserved for our "hero" boss.
Of course the transformation turns out to be a process, not an event, and the process is not always easy. Decisions that once could only be made by the company founder now are thrust into the lap of another person.
People around here now get to see how the sausage is made: In our case the sausage is the size of the newspaper, and the number of pages allocated to the Preview, Survival Guide, and Life in the Fast Lane sections. One memorable Friday several of us all agreed on an allocation. The next Monday the allocation had been changed. "Why did you tell us it had to be so many pages on Friday if you knew you were going to change it anyhow?" the novitiates asked. The answer was that the Friday guess was the best any of us could do. On Sunday, 12 hard hours of work later for me, I discovered that the initial configuration was off by four pages and had to be reset. The scary truth: The hero-leader’s great vision was actually just a guess and the final wisdom was arrived at by 12 hours of laborious trial and error. No wonder hero-leaders eventually burn out.
For the first 17 years or so of running this business, I viewed "communication skills" as one of my great shortcomings. How can I communicate better with my people? But the angioplasty of 2002 pushed us into an anti-heroic leadership model. Now the question is not simply "what did the boss fail to communicate this time?" It’s also how can the people who fell out of the loop get back into the loop.
One of our people recently attended a seminar on management, and returned with some useful notes, including the observation that people don’t want to be "managed" by a "boss" — they prefer to be "led" by a "leader." Good point. But the antiheroic model goes one step further and asks the members of the organization to share in the leadership, "to imagine meaningful ways they can help form the vision and make it real." In so doing "you attract people who aren’t followers, who aren’t looking for the kind of leader who will save them from the anxiety of responsibility."
Like all good deals, the antiheroic leadership model promises to be win-win. People other than the company owner get to have their on the tiller, and experience the nervous rush when the ship keels hard in one direction or another. And the company owner, no matter how healthy, gets to be one of the crew.