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Five ingredients of a successful leader

How the boss behaves has a profound effect on how other managers perform - and thus on the performance of the entire outfit.

That's a self-evident truth, acknowledged by most people. But few bosses acknowledge the corollary: that inferior performance is partly their fault.

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If you believe the late W. Edwards Deming, a genius in these matters, 'partly' comes close to wholly. He attributed 85% of all failure to failed management. People work within the system established by the boss class. The system's defects limit people's ability to perform.

Personal characteristics also affect the outcome. A very successful high-technology boss was asked recently to explain his success. His recipe had five ingredients, none of which rank high in the technology of management. He started with nothing more complex than a lot of common sense.

Next on the list was trust in people, which should probably be placed first. 'The economic loss from fear', wrote Deming, 'is appalling'. In failing to trust, managers fear being let down, while those who aren't trusted are afraid of failing. That's a huge, self-imposed handicap on everybody.

Third, said the high-tech boss, don't ask others to do anything you wouldn't do yourself. Fourth, you need the ability to work with and through others. Fifth, total dedication to the task is required: nothing less will do - and anything less will be reflected in the commitment of others.

A high-ranking subordinate added three other qualities possessed by his boss (with an apology for what the Americans call 'apple-polishing' - the Brits have a ruder phrase). The extra three were a great deal of energy, no office politics and total loyalty to his colleagues.

None of the eight attributes should present any difficulty. Would any boss admit to the reverse characteristics? 'I haven't got much common sense, I distrust everybody, I play office politics like mad, I am disloyal to those who work for me, I'm not committed to the job, etc.?'

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No doubt, everybody has had the misfortune, at one time or another, to work for just such a creature. But on their own assessment, the vast majority of company leaders would pass muster. To prove it, they need to understand their responsibility for the performance of others - Deming's 85% rule.

It seems easier to fire under-performing failures. But one boss disagrees: 'If we don't understand why a manager consistently underperforms, we promote him. In 74% of cases, performance improves immediately.' That apparent eccentric is none other than the chairman of the mighty Mitsubishi.

He's supported by the no less mighty Akio Morita of Sony: 'When I find an employee who turns out to be wrong for the job, I feel it is my fault, because I made the decision to hire him. Generally, I would invest in additional training, education, or a change of duty.'

Like the Mitsubishi man, Morita found investment in the failed fellow to be profitable: 'As a result, he will usually turn out to be an asset in the long run.' You may think that what works in Japan won't work here. Promoting a flop stands the hire-and-fire culture on its head - but standing on your head can sometimes work wonders.

For instance, what if the boss, instead of automatically being the head at all meetings, surrenders the chair and its powers to subordinates, who take the top spot in turns? That's equally offensive to normal Western practice, but a wholly Western example provides fascinating insights.

In one department of that high-tech boss's firm, an underboss did precisely that with a committee set up to raise efficiency. He became just one of the boys (or girls), and found to his delight that people lost their fear of exposing problems. Being temporary boss, moreover, faced them with the necessity to take and implement decisions.

The permanent boss must accept as part of this deal that the team decision - reached by consensus - must prevail. But the results in this case were marvellous. The same small number of people now handle a workload that has multiplied almost eight times in the last few years. And if people perform that productively by bossing themselves, they must have a marvellous boss.

Robert Heller

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