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Leaders of People: Some are Wonderful, Some are Clueless. The Rest are Somewhere In Between
by Peter R. Scholtes

I have been an observer of managers for about 45 years. I've been a student of the species for over 30 years and a consultant to them for over 25 years. Some managers have been wonderful: respectful of their people, knowledgeable about their business, dedicated to their customers and conveying a clear sense of direction and focus. These leaders have been a joy to work with.
And then there were others. I call them the clueless. Whatever they are tuned in to, it has little to do with leadership.
What I offer here are a few observations about the two ends of the management continuum, some comments on some of the differences between the wonderful and the clueless.

1. External Focus vs. Internal Focus

Wonderful managers keep their people focused on the world outside the organization. Their people have a deep, daily understanding of customers and their needs.
Clueless managers keep their people focused internally. Their people direct their attention upward, having a deep daily understanding of the bosses and their needs. These employees are also looking laterally at one another, measuring their individual competence by contrasting themselves with their peers. Employees of the clueless pay a lot of attention to their immediate superiors. (That word itself says a lot about the expected relationship. An employee, introducing his manager to a visitor was asked by the visitor "Is this your superior?" "No", he replied "this is my boss!".)
One way managers encourage "internal focus" is by encouraging employees to compete with one another for rewards, recognition, ratings and rankings.

2. Regard for Others

The sincere belief of the wonderful manager: "If I'm a good manager, it is partly because I work with good people." The clueless manager sincerely believes : "If I seem inadequate as a manager, it is because I work with inadequate people."
What should we conclude from these variant beliefs? Perhaps each type of manager - somehow or other - attracts very different subspecies of the human workforce. Or perhaps the wonderful manager has learned how to help ordinary people do everyday work extraordinarily well. How is this done? By focusing everyone on the systems, processes and methods of work that are best suited to reliably and consistently assure that the customers get what they need and need what they get.

This will happen when leaders view the workers as colleagues working in the systems together on behalf of outside customers. This will not happen when managers see workers as potential problems needing to be controlled.


3. Real, Everyday, Face-to-Face Relationships

Viewing workers as potential adversaries and future problems describes a manager who has no real, everyday, face-to-face, one-on-one, person-to-person relationships with his or her people. This, perhaps, is the most important factor separating wonderful managers from clueless managers: relationships. The clueless manager exercises a remote control approach to people:

· Don't socialize with them. Don't get too close. Don't trust them or at least manage with a premise of their untrustworthiness.

· Manipulate and Coopt: Talk about teamwork and say such things as: "we are like a family here!" Talk about your people as your "greatest assets". Have "employee recognition days" and employee of the month plaques on the wall and a reserved parking space. Have H.R. send each employee a birthday card and, above all, "empower" them. At the same time - without any sense of incongruence - "downsize' the organization laying off scores or hundreds or thousands of your "empowered", "awarded", "recognized", "greatest assets" and "family members".

· Remote control management is an approach to people that treats them like machines that can be made to work if you use the right settings and push the right buttons. The beliefs behind remote control management were described by Douglas McGregor as Theory X assumptions: People don't really want to work or do a good job. Therefore management must coerce or "motivate" workers to do their job. (The Human Side of Enterprise 1985, 1960, McGraw Hill, New York)

· Managers who know little or nothing about psychology continue to act - unknowingly - on the basis of ideas described by psychologist, B.F. Skinner, whose theories about human behavior are increasingly being attacked and discredited. Skinnerian approaches have insinuated themselves into our schools and workplaces and adhere with the tenacity of a horror movie virus. In effect Skinner would have us treat people as conditioned - or conditional - responders. We should train them to do what we want by offering an appropriate combination of rewards (or promises of rewards) or punishments (or threats of punishments). We involve ourselves with people not through one to one relationship but by manipulating the carrots and sticks, the leverage points of behavior modification and control. To learn more about Skinner and how he got us wrong, read Punished by Rewards (Alfie Kohn, 1993, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.)

What's missing for the clueless manager are relationships with people. In the absence of relationships we view people as extensions of the mechanism, however humanistic our rhetoric may be.

The Wonderful Manager thrives on relationships with people both inside and outside the organization. The Wonderful Manager encourages the fostering of one to one relationships with the organization. The Wonderful Manager relates to people with trust, respect, and a willingness to hear their stories.


One of my manager heroes was Pete Gillespie. Pete was president and CEO of a Chicago paper merchant, buying paper from paper mills and selling it to users. I knew Pete when I had a summer job in his warehouse. Pete had a spare office next to his work office and it contained a barber chair and hair cutting supplies. One way Pete kept in touch with the men in his company was to give them free haircuts. He was a good barber, though he apparently never learned to cut women's hair. Everyone- managers, sales personnel, hourly workers, and even the summer-time warehouse help would make an appointment to have their hair cut by the CEO. And during the haircut, Pete Gillespie chatted and got to know his people.

The lesson here is not that managers should become barbers, but that managers should find ways - appropriate to them - to keep in touch with their people.

What to Do?

For the clueless to transform themselves into wonderful managers will probably take a "road to Damascus" type personal transformation...a "metanoia". We're talking long-shot here. But I am an incurable optimist. So let me try a few suggestions I consider to be some of the secrets of wonderful managers.
The following might not transform the clueless, but they may help the not-yet-quite-wonderful move in the right direction.

1. Question Your Assumptions About People

We all act on the basis of some premises about people. What are yours? You may need someone's help in finding out what yours are. For instance, do you believe that people cannot be trusted? That they don't want to do a good job? That as a manager you must "motivate" (i.e. bribe or threaten) them? Find out why you believe these things. When did you learn these assumptions and from whom? Read McGregor, Herzberg and Kohn to learn a different set of beliefs about people. (Herzberg, One More Time: How do you Motivate Employees? Harvard Business Review-Feb. 1968. McGregor and Kohn, OP. CIT.)

2. Work with Your People - and Help Them Work with Each Other

Help them work together to (a) understand your customers and (b) understand and improve your systems processes and methods. This is the path to excitement and accomplishment: to do good work for customers.

3. Find Ways to Get to Know Your People One On One.

Listen to the "stories" of at least 100 of your people per year. Make sure everyone in your organization has his or her story listened to.

4. Be Honest with People and Speak Plainly.

Tell them the good news and bad news and keep them informed about how things are going. Avoid double talk, acronyms, techno speak, and management babble. Stop sounding like a Dilbert cartoon. Swear off expressions like "empowered", "self directed", "high performance", "reinventing" and "re-engineering".
This is just a start. It is certainly not an exhaustive treatment of the subject. But these concepts and approaches would have helped about 80% of the managers I have known to be better for their people, their organizations, and their customers.
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