Recently, I had a very interesting conversation with some old friends, some of whom were my past managers and some that worked for me. The question came up as to “if there is only one thing that you can suggest to someone to be more successful as a leader, what would be it?”.
There were many answers – and none were bad. My own take was “Don’t be a jerk”.
I am a pretty easy going guy – I don’t take offense at the drop of the hat. And while I don’t forget easily, I readily forgive. And knowing how many times I screw up, I ask for forgiveness readily too ( does not mean I get forgiven very easily all the time though :) ). I have fond memories of every manager and leader I ever worked for – except one. And that one dude was a jerk, and I will happily starve to death than work for him one more time. You cannot believe the speed at which I walked out of that job.
Respect for the individual is at the core of leadership – and yet, traditional management lingo completely ignores it. People are not resources or capital that are to be optimized by a manager like inventory. Nothing agitates me more than people referring to others as resources. So if you are new to leadership, or are trying to find how to improve – start with “respect for the individual”.
Organizations mostly assume that process trumps people when scale is required. This is true – as long as people play along. And people won’t play along unless they see value in what they do as part of the process. The moment you fail to explain the value of their work is when you start donning the jerk costume. For you to explain, first you need to take time to understand and think through it. Trust me – it is time well spent.
Jerks thrive on secrecy. Don’t get me wrong – a lot that happens in the company needs to be held secret for good reasons. But over doing the whole “it’s a big secret” thing is terrible and it erodes trust rapidly. If you feel you are hoarding information and handing it out in chunks to your employees all the time – stop and reflect on it and fix it if needed. I have seen many managers suffer because someone above them realized first that the manager in question is just not giving enough information to their teams. If you recognize it before others, you win. If you don’t – you lose (now or in future, and it is fairly irreversible after the fact).
A version of secrecy is access control to superiors. The best managers I know of have always facilitated access for me to their managers. And I try my best to do that to people I manage. I once had a colleague email me that went “can you send me the status of your project so that I can send it to the big boss?”. I responded with the status of the project with a cc to the big boss asking “hey, is this the big boss you mentioned?”. I never had another incidence like that after that.
Jerks tend to blindside their employees. I firmly believe that a manager should reach out to the lowest rungs of the hierarchy directly on occasion and get a first hand pulse check. However, this should be done as an exception and not as a rule. Once you undermine the authority of your chain of command downwards – they won’t trust you anymore and you would have successfully earned the “jerk” title. Remember – authority and responsibility should go hand in hand. If you hold someone responsible, make sure she has the authority to do what you want to be accomplished. Otherwise you are setting her up to fail.
One final thought before my next call starts – these things alone don’t make you a jerk or prevent your from being successful necessarily . You can get away with most of these bad behaviors as long as your team knows that they won’t be punished for calling you on your bad ideas discretely in private. It is not ideal, but many managers that I think of as jerks succeed because they listen when someone tells them privately afterwards, and then they do something about it.
Be a good human being – and respect people around you.
And that is an order, damn it , you human resource :)