What Masquerades as Leadership (but is Not)

In trying to understand leadership, it is a good idea to take a brief look at some negative motivational techniques so that we understand what leadership is not. This list is by no means comprehensive; but it does include some of the most common offences:

o Leadership is not the absence of guidance. Ken Blanchard has a great description for this; He calls it “leave alone, zap.” It describes many managers who provide their staff with absolutely no guidance; then they criticize them the moment that they do not meet an un-communicated set of expectations or they transgress over an invisible line that they had not been told about.

This is often caused by a manager who does not really know what s/he wants or what her/his expectations are. S/He can’t clearly articulate what s/he wants in advance. S/He can only criticize when something is done and it doesn’t “feel” right or when her/his incompetent supervisor does the same thing to him.

o Leadership is not a control freak. Control freak management is the art of not letting a team member do anything, almost to the point of breathing, without permission. Then no matter what the employee does, even with permission, it will be criticized. Control freaks feel they must have direct authority and be in command of absolutely everything. They have a need to criticize; almost compulsively. Even when their staff performs a task exactly the way they were told to do the previous time they will still find opportunities criticism. The work will never meet approval; therefore praise and encouragement is never given.

Control freaks typically have three attributes in common:

1. They genuinely believe that they are doing what is best for the people they are controlling. Take note of this for yourself. Don’t make the mistake of believing that you are not over controlling because you have good intentions or that your controlling nature is justified because of your good intentions.

2. They are insecure. They feel that they have short comings and that the rest of the world is judging them. In order to protect themselves from such judgments they resort to controlling their environment and everyone/everything in it.

3. Control freaks focus on others and their performance so that do not have to acknowledge and address their own issues.

I once had a manager who criticized me if I got up from my desk to attend a meeting two minutes before it was about to start because I was wasting time. However she would also come to my desk at one minute before a meeting and exclaim, “Aren’t you coming to the meeting? What are you waiting for?” No matter what I did, she criticized it. She was the classic example of someone who had to compulsively maintain control and it was mainly done through constant disapproval.

The control freak is someone who is very insecure. S/He is terrified that people will realize her/his level of incompetence and judge her/him (this is often imagined or magnified by their insecurities). S/He will strive to control everything around her/him so this does not happen. For the control freak, all of this happens at a sub-conscious level; the only conscious aspect of it is “a knowledge” that the staff member is incompetent and needs constant supervision in order to protect her/him for her/his own good.

o Leadership is not setting up staff to take the blame for failure. Many managers meticulously document their staffs’ errors so that they have evidence to prove that any problems were a team member’s fault and not their own. In fact, a good leader does two things that we will expand on further; they look for people doing things right, not wrong, so that they can praise them and they (generally) accept the responsibility for failures and problems.

o Leadership is not lying about future incentives. This is the carrot and stick approach with emphasis on the carrot. You can get people to stretch themselves in the short term by offering them some incentives (such as bonuses, salary increases, or promotions); however, if those incentives are not delivered when they are earned, all credibility, both present and future, will be lost. You have just used the employee and s/he will know it. He will know that the employer/employee relationship is not one of trust and he will never go beyond the core job requirements again.

I was once made aware of a company that made a big deal out of the large bonuses that they paid each year (and were planning for the current year). Unfortunately for the team members those bonuses mysteriously shrank at the end of each year. The company’s executives were extremely creative at justifying reductions in bonuses. At the same time they were unable to understand why the big bonus promises were less motivating year after year and morale in the organization was low.

o Leadership is not threatening. More of the carrot and stick philosophy of motivation with special emphasis on the stick. The thought process goes along the line of, “If I threaten someone with the one thing that they are terrified of, it will motivate them to work harder than they have ever done.” The threat is usually along the lines of whether the employee will have a future with the company or career opportunities within it.

This thought process just does not work. People are not motivated by the threat of negative repercussions; instead they subconsciously avoid the situation that the threat arose as part of. So if I were to threaten an employee with termination because of a poor job s/he is more likely to avoid the task that was done poorly rather than improve the performance.

If you want someone to avoid his job, threaten him about it.

In one extreme case that I learned about, the president of a large company threatened to slit the throat of an information technology team member who was not “fixing his computer fast enough.” Now do you suppose that this threat motivated the IT person to work harder or faster, or did it just frighten or upset him causing him to focus on the threat instead of on the computer problem? Even if he was not afraid of the physical violence it was still very insulting and de-motivating for the president to treat him this way (not to mention a criminal act by threatening death).

This company president was one of the most pathetic excuses for a leader that I have ever had the experience of meeting. He was a man who thrived on absolute power by controlling and instilling fear in employees.

o Leadership is not playing political games. Save the politics for the leadership of countries. True leadership does not manipulate people or situations in order to win favour with others. Politics occurs when hidden agendas collide and the individuals behind those agendas behave in a subversive manner. A person will claim that he is fighting for the good of the company but really it’s her/his own career path that s/he is most concerned about. As indicated earlier doing a good job as a leader is the way to get ahead, not politics.

o Leadership is not craving authority. Although authority is tied to position, leadership often is not. It is not the position that inspires people, it is the character of the person doing the leading that either inspires or detracts.

o Leadership is not a power trip. There are some individuals who strive for authority to stroke their own egos (the previously mentioned president was such an individual). They may make themselves feel good, but they are not going to be motivating anyone else while doing so. They are usually transparent in their motive and not respected or appreciated.

I once had a director who liked to call 2 hour long “emergency” staff meetings at 4:30 pm on Fridays. They turned out to be nothing more than long status meetings that involved her rambling on for a couple of hours while she placed employees’ weekends on hold. She obviously loved the feeling of power she got from it.

She did not realize that this behaviour cause her to lose her staff’s respect. She quickly lost her opportunity to motivate them in a positive manner.

This is just a sampling of some of the worst ways you can try to motivate someone. Obviously, if you do not want to stagnate your career and alienate your staff you should avoid using any of these techniques.

If you want to excel in your career and positively motivate your staff then break out of your comfort zone and start putting the leadership skills you learn into practice.

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