Directions in Leadership — Turning the wheel or tapping the rudder

Directions in Leadership

I have interesting clients.

Not “interesting” as in some Sigmund Freud shrink, scratching his chin and saying “Hmmm, interesting,” as we lie on the couch droning on and on about the deeply-rooted events of our drama-filled childhood… more like “interesting” as opposed to dull, routine and boring.

As much as I hold myself out as an accomplished coach, consultant, and something of a leadership expert, I learn from these interesting clients each and every time I interact with them.

For example…

I was speaking with a client senior exec regarding his impact on the team. As all strong leaders tell me, he said, “Kevin, my job’s not hard, anyone could do it.” Not true, of course, and I said so. I reminded him that his job may seem easy to him, and may look easy to others, but is, in fact, the manifestation of myriad skills, behaviors and competencies.

I then added that he needed to set the right vision, develop the appropriate team, and influence others to pursue their own growth and development.

To which, he sighed and said, “I simply tap the rudders behind the ship.”

Wow. One short sentence conjures up a plethora of images in my head. Like this lonely dude in a rowboat, tied behind this massive ship, occasionally tapping the rudders to stay on course.

A bit funny, but also damned true.

Now certainly, there’s a ton of front-end work to do, processes to establish, people to hire, teams to build, cultures to develop, even hard and fast rules to create.

But in the end leading a team is about tapping the rudders. It’s about minor corrections or affirmations as they charge full-speed ahead, eyes on the horizon.

You aren’t the helmsman, turning the wheel to adjust for major course corrections. You aren’t the engineer, responding dutifully to “All ahead full!” on the intercom. As a senior exec, you aren’t even the executive officer on the bridge, coordinating regular activities.

You’re following, in tow, making small, nuance course corrections to a fast-steaming vessel.

Simply tapping the rudders.

Less “Steer course to 230 degrees” and more “Out there… thataway.” (unabashed Star Trek reference)

“I Have a Great Job!” …said almost no one ever.

I Have a Great Job

A really short read for some of you today: Everyone who has a great job, raise your hand.

Okay, the three of you with your hands up can go back to checking your email. Everyone else should keep reading.

If you’re not in a great job, how about those of you with a good job?

That’s more of you but still disappointingly few. Now, bonus points if you can articulate what makes it a good job.

Is it the money? Do you like it because you’re good at it? And they recognize you for it? Do you have the autonomy you want? Or is it because you like the people you work with?

Some or all of the above? Those are certainly the most common responses to the question.

Or maybe you like your job simply because you feel secure in being employed for the foreseeable future and it’s one less thing you have to worry about in life.

Regardless of how you feel about your job, how often do you engage those who work for – and with – you in an effort to make their jobs better for them? That’s our job as leaders, after all.

I can hear your eyes rolling. Geez, Kev, why don’t we just pay them a lot of money and don’t ask them to do very much?

I had a job like that once. It sucked.

This may come as a surprise to some, but work is something you do, not somewhere you go. And it doesn’t have to be a grind.

And this isn’t some squishy, get-in-touch-with-your-feelings leadership. You know me better than that. If we want to be effective leaders, we have to care about what people think about their jobs because it directly impacts their performance and retention. And, as important, what individuals collectively think affects morale, culture, and recruiting across the entire organization.

And there’s the rub: We have to care about individuals.

See, it’s not the job itself; it’s the personal experience in the job that makes it good fit or not. It’s how they feel about the work they do that keeps them coming back day after day… or looking for another job.

The naysayers will disagree (of course) and declare work is transactional. Go to work, do the job, get paid, go home. We call those people managers, the jobs mind-numbing, and the talent pool wide but shallow.

I started asking people I led how I could make their jobs better almost out of desperation – not because they were leaving but because we were really short-handed, and I needed to get the best out of them. It was a hard habit to get into, but it paid big dividends in job satisfaction and productivity.

Literally, I tried to wrap up our encounters by asking, “So what can I do to make your job better?” Initially, responses were predictable: pay me more and work me less (see above). Over time, real suggestions came out. Some I couldn’t change, some we could fix together, and some I could empower them to fix themselves.

But even small changes made their efforts more successful (which made me look more successful), and it eventually produced a climate where people believed their boss was open to suggestions and not mired in that’s the way we’ve always done it.

So, I tried the practice with my peers – and occasionally with my boss – and was surprised at how little effort it took to build a climate of collaboration for making improvements that benefited the organization as a whole.

For the naysayers (again): this isn’t a new concept! There isn’t anything new under the leadership sun and there hasn’t been for a few millennia. It’s just another way of getting feedback and removing some of the (often self-imposed) hurdles keeping your team from being more successful.

Think of it this way: Many of you are fans – and understand the importance – of helping your teams understand the WHY. The importance of leaders understanding the WHY of their followers should make sense to you, also.

And making the effort is free!

Back to the basics here: people want to feel valued doing worthy work. A leader’s job is to find out what makes them feel valued and what makes their work worth doing. That doesn’t mean we’re their friends; it means we’re working for them and not them for us. They still need adequate instruction (training), to understand our priorities and our non-negotiables, to be empowered to accomplish their jobs successfully without micromanagement, and to be fairly compensated for their efforts.

But it doesn’t hurt if, while we’re doing all that, we find out what they think would make their job better. It might end up making them feel like they have a great job.

It’s up to you, leaders.

Clueless is as Clueless Does …Dunning-Kruger vs Johari

Clueless is as Clueless Does

I’m going to catch shit for this by leadership academics, but I catch shit for a lot of things I write, so…

The big news from last month that isn’t surprising describes how a mathematician proved the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t really a good reflection of human cognition. Before you get bored by scientific-sounding jargon, enjoy John Cleese’s version of the effect: “If you are really, really stupid, then it’s impossible to know that you are really, really stupid.”

For the non-academics, Dunning-Kruger says everyone thinks they’re above average, but people who are above average tend to think they’re less above average than they actually are, and people who are below average tend to think they’re more above average than they actually are.

It doesn’t take a mathematician poking holes in a generalization or psychology professors testing whether incompetent people are unaware of their incompetence to prove or disprove what a good comedian already handily described.

In short, clueless people don’t know they’re clueless.

And I’ve certainly known my fair share of clueless people, although I prefer to describe their cluelessness as a giant Johari Window blind spot. Mostly to describe my daughters’ boyfriends.

Speaking of Johari, it has its fair share of critics, too. They say the tool is only useful if its users are honest when taking the survey(s) and are willing to apply the results to improving communication and relationships.

But guess what? Some people don’t always present their authentic selves to others.

Shocking, right?

In the leadership development field, it doesn’t really matter which personality trait/type tool you prefer, there are just as many critics who laugh at you for things like making employees wear colored badges around the office as there are to support your development efforts. What we sometimes forget is that all of the tools are just generalizations about human nature – which hasn’t changed recently as far as I can tell.

“All generalizations are false, including this one.” Mark Twain

So I’ll finally get to my point(s). First, if the critics of the tools would spend as much time applying them to their own behavior as they do bashing them, it would be more enjoyable to be in the same room with them. That applies to most chronically critical people, by the way.

Second, we (assumably as leaders) are supposed to help clueless people improve so they’re not so clueless.

But get this: We aren’t supposed to help them because they’re clueless, we’re supposed to help them improve both because their behavior is disruptive in the workplace and it’s keeping them from being as successful as they can in your organization. That’s what leaders do. Provide feedback that will help clueless people grow and improve.

Okay, I’ll stop calling them clueless. How about unaware?

And I’ll freely admit that there were times in my career I was oblivious to how I was coming across to my coworkers. Just like there were times I was very aware… but pretended to be oblivious (see EQ as a Superpower). Real office jerks know they’re being a jerk.

My question is: “What are you doing to help them improve?” How do you help the one who feels like they always have to give input, relevant or not? How do you help the disruptive one who rubs everyone the wrong way or who spends their spare time disrupting those who are actually working?

Even harder, how do you help your boss not be the one no one else wants to be in the same room with?

First, make sure they actually lack self-awareness and aren’t just behaving badly. And then make sure it’s not you. Could the tension be mutual? Could coworkers be contributing to the effect of the offending behavior? Could the root problem be solved by a simple suggestion?

If they really lack self-awareness, they’re not aware of their shortcomings and don’t know that to become a better team member, they need to grow and improve. This is where a leader’s skill at providing effective feedback comes in (see link above).

Focus on the behavior, keep it private, put yourself in their shoes first, and be careful not to make them feel like it’s a personal attack. And put hard thought into possible roots of their lack of self-awareness – not therapy level, but things like need for recognition, insecurity, emotional awkwardness, perfectionism, procrastination, etc. You know, those things a lot of people struggle with but don’t know how to mask them behind a thin veneer of confidence.

Remember, it’s the behavior you’re trying to change. If the person wants to and changes in the process, all the better.

Then offer some alternatives to the offending behavior.

Maybe consider the merits of both sides before… Maybe you could try… Maybe next time… Maybe resist… Or even next time I see it, I’ll…

This is about them, not you, and if they leave the encounter feeling belittled and without your support, you haven’t done a leader’s job.

Finally, don’t let HR dictate the tools you have to use to help your team grow and improve. Stick to the leadership basics and model the behaviors you’d like others to have.

But that’s up to you, leaders.

The 5 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership — and they’re non-negotiable, folks!

The 5 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

Leaders, new and old, sometimes lose sight of the most fundamental tenets of leadership. Here’s a reminder…

I frequently tell executives that leadership – its concepts, theory, and core applications – haven’t changed in a millennium. Some our demographics may have changed, forcing us to use alternative applications of those concepts, but the basic concepts and theory remain.

So, why don’t we “just do it?” Sometimes we aren’t motivated; sometimes the “time” just doesn’t seem right. Maybe we simply forgot some of the basics… hence this article.

I use the following rules as a guide for newly promoted managers/leaders, as well as a constant reminder for every level of leadership – some good things to not forget.

So, here goes…

Law #1. Never delay or abrogate a decision that must be made. Make it and move on. You may have to immediately make another decision; this doesn’t mean your first one was wrong, merely that your second one had the benefit of additional knowledge.

When in the military, I worked for General Lawrence Boese, who would frequently tell me, “If 25% of your decisions aren’t wrong, you just aren’t making enough decisions.” And his favorite, “Shirt (that’s another article), there aren’t many “wrong” decisions; it’s just sometimes we have to make another decision right after the first one.”

Some truth to that…

Law #2. If you want something specific done, say so specifically, using clear, plain language. Employees, generally, have some difficulty doing their basic jobs; adding “mind-reading” to their description is just plain unfair.

No hints, implications, or innuendos. Say what you want, and use English! Directness counts.

Law #3. If you always answer employee’s every question, you’ll forever be answering employees’ every question. Questions are teaching moments — don’t rob employees of the opportunity.

Sounds trite, and I don’t mean it to. If an employee is asking because they’re an unteachable moron, get rid of the employee. If they are a decent employee asking because they do not know, then teach them; they’ll know next time, and you’ll both be better for it.

Law #4. Make your expectations clear, then back up a bit and give employees room to do their job. That doesn’t mean “never look back;” to inspect what you expect isn’t micro-management, it’s just good-management.

Employees – even top performers – need clear expectations. In fact, especially top performers. Give ‘em a target, provide resources and guidance, remove obstacles when necessary, then let them do their job. Check back later, since you still have management accountability.

Law #5. Employees need their managers to be leaders; they don’t need a shoulder, a buddy, a sympatico, or a commiserator.

If you want a friend, buy a dog.

We struggle with this. Everyone wants to be liked, and it always seems difficult to decline a beer after work, or something similar. I’m not advocating a monk-like existence, disallowing any personal contact with your folks; merely reminding you that they would like to have a friend, but they need a leader if they are to be successful.

You do want them to be successful, don’t you?

These laws are fairly intuitive, and certainly not rocket science… or brain surgery… or rocket surgery. They are simple management and leadership axioms that have passed the test of time.

Print these out, laminate, and put in your top desk drawer… and don’t forget them; your employees will not.

Recognize Recognition — And it shouldn’t be the exception!

Recognize Recognition

People have often heard me say, “I’m not trying to make happy employees.”

It’s true. Now, I’m plenty happy if they are happy, but their happiness isn’t the goal. Their engagement and satisfaction are. And though similar, they aren’t the same thing.

Happiness is fleeting, determined by current situations, and frankly, it’s flaky. People get happy and or sad/angry at the snap of a finger. Sometimes for good reason, other times just because.

Engagement and job satisfaction are developed over time, and generally not subject to hormonal, societal, or mood whims. In other words, kind of like luck over skill in golf; engagement and job satisfaction are more predictable and more dependable.

So, how then, do we get there? Well, there are certainly myriad inputs, including culture, values, development, etc. But instead of looking at these bigger picture, organizational glaciers trying to move the needle, let’s focus on what we as leaders can do.


Enter: Recognition.

Studies from HBR and others, show that recognition directly and positively impacts morale, engagement and job satisfaction. I only offer that in case you’re either a slug or playing intentionally obtuse to not recognize that obviosity.

Recognition matters. And it works. And it’s almost entirely free.

I’m looking for a down-side here and having difficulty finding one.

Recognition is easy and impactful. That’s the good news. It’s also short-lived. That’s the bad news. It just means you need to do it on a regular basis. Continuous, in fact. Monthly at the very least, for you detail-types. Schedule it if you must.

Now, for some “how-to” pointers. And we’re just talking about the recognition that can occur as a normal course of daily efforts. You’ll still need to consider things like bonuses, promotions, fancy titles, and the like. This isn’t that.

These are things you can do now. Today. Right after you finish reading this article. And though there may be 100 of these things to offer, we’re going to keep things simple here (I like simple). I’ll offer just three.

  1. Personal communications. Handwritten notes, in-person visits and/or phone calls. Zoom is so over-used in some organizations as to be impersonal, so don’t include that (unless it’s a rarity in your house).

Write a note (yes, using a pen and paper), walk down the hall or pick up the phone.

And begin these conversations or notes with “I wanted to personally thank you.” Jobs well done mostly benefit the larger organization; showing personal gratitude shows the impact their efforts had on you.

  1. Public gratitude. Speaking of gratitude… instead of staff meeting eye-rollers like “I wanted to say good job to the Accounting team…,” use something like “I’d like to take a moment to offer a warm ‘thanks’ to Alyssa and her folks – they rocked it with last month’s closing!”

Personal leadership gratitude… it matters. Subtle difference, but a difference, nonetheless.

  1. Send it down, bump it up! I created a video for this if you’d prefer to watch over reading (don’t worry, it’s less than 3 minutes).

This recognition technique is fast and far-reaching.

You receive an email from someone that works for you. They let you know they finished something, completed a project, or maybe achieved a particular result. Instead of simply responding with “thanks,” you send it down and bump it up!

You send it down by responding to that email with a 2-3 sentence uniquely worded “thank you” (gratitude again), copying all those on the team or contributing to that success.

Then you bump it up, by putting your boss on the cc: line (not bcc). Everyone gets to see that (a) you thanked them and (b) you also showed your boss what they did.

Then your boss, after receiving the email, must send it down with relevant gratitude, and make the decision whether to bump it up to her boss.

Rinse and repeat.

Recognition isn’t difficult, time-consuming, or costly. In fact, there’s no good reason we don’t do it all the time.

So, do it all the time.

I Don’t Want Your Advice … until I ask for it!

I Don’t Want Your Advice

Unsolicited advice or feedback is always for the benefit of the giver, not the receiver.


Think about it. How did you react the last time someone gave you unsolicited advice or feedback – in the office or out in the big mean world – that started with “You should…” or “You need to…” or “Have you tried…”  or “Did you think about…” or “If you just…” ad infinitum?

Did you immediately think “What a great idea! Why didn’t I think of that?” Or did it sting a little bit and you wished the other person would keep their opinions to themselves?

I’m in the latter category but am trying to get better at remembering the giver is only trying to help.

You see, giving the advice makes the giver feel better about themselves because they’re trying to help us (or tear us down because they’re a jerk). Either way, they feel better, and we generally feel worse.

In life, it’s usually our mothers who are full of unsolicited advice.

But at work, we’re surrounded by people who are pretty sure they could help by offering an unasked-for suggestion. Thankfully, only those at or above our level on the food chain have the gonads to speak up and give us advice or feedback they think we’ll follow.

And the funny thing is, while most people are perfectly willing and able to give unsolicited feedback at the drop of a hat, when we honestly want some feedback about self-improvement or advice on overcoming a roadblock we’ve run into, getting solicited, constructive feedback or suggestions is like pulling teeth.

Ok, it’s look in the mirror time, folks. If you identify with either the giver or receiver of unsolicited feedback, read on.

If you’re perfectly happy shooting advice from the hip and taking pot shots from your boss and coworkers (or your mother), you need a kind of help I can’t offer.

First of all, I recognize that feedback and advice (aka helpful suggestion) aren’t the same thing. One is information and the other is a recommendation. Both should be intended to be helpful, but the delivery is often so badly mangled, the receiver gets no benefit.

Look, feedback is not a four-letter word. We shouldn’t dread giving or receiving it, and there are some best practices for both that you already know. What we tend to forget is giving and receiving effective feedback are leadership skills that have to be honed and practiced intentionally.

For starters, go back and read Kevin B’s Effective Feedback in Today’s Crazy Times in February’s At C-Level. Kevin reminds us, “Feedback is [simply] information provided to another person to help him or her grow and improve.” And the feedback you’re giving has to be either requested or expected for it to be useful. Unsolicited and unexpected feedback or suggestions almost always generate negative emotions in the receiver, and when that happens, you’ve lost your audience.

I’m only trying to help” is not a justification (or excuse) for blindsiding someone.

Helpful suggestions follow the same pattern. If the advice hasn’t been requested (effective leaders actually do ask for feedback from others), then the only way it will be received in an ‘expected’ way is if you preface what you want to say with something like: I have some ideas; would you like to hear them? If the answer is no, zip it and walk away.

And don’t think disguising your unsolicited helpful suggestions as feedback sandwiches makes them more palatable. Feedback sandwiches are an idea whose time is long past. Receivers who don’t recognize a feedback sandwich usually miss the important information in the middle and leave the conversation focused on the bread. Those who recognize the sandwich dismiss the bread as fluff and interpret the meat in the middle as criticism.

Hardly the intention of the giver.

So, let’s stop with the unsolicited advice. When we’re about to open our mouths with some “helpful” information, let’s pause to consider how the message is going to be received. Let’s remember how it feels to be the recipient of unasked-for (and usually unwanted) suggestions.

That’s a leadership skill that has to be practiced.

But that’s up to you, leader.

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