I am a big Superman fan, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the new movie.
But the whole Superman concept got me thinking – how would you feel if you worked for a hero? Or what if you were a policeman in Superman’s adopted home of Metropolis? Work would probably be easier, because Superman would always be around to solve your problems at a moment’s notice.
But is that a good thing? I’m not so sure.
Looking for a leader with super skills
If we develop leaders who, at the first sign of trouble, pull their underwear over their trousers and fly in to take control, we risk disempowering everyone else. After all, if we depend on leaders to do all of the heavy lifting for us, what’s left for the rest of us? We also risk creating an environment that psychologists call “learned helplessness,” where people passively wait for others to step in and solve their problems.
When I ask people in our matrix management training courses what they want from a leader, they come up with a large list of criteria. They want someone who is charismatic, clear, flexible, caring and emotionally intelligent. They’re also looking for empathy, energy, vision and humility.
If we could find people who match all of these expectations, they would probably be running a major corporation and a world religion at the same time! Sounds like a superhero, indeed.
Individuals that possess strategic gifts like being a technology visionary or an expert in corporate turnarounds are frequently lauded by the media and in books on management. We hear about their heroic feats – that they only sleep four hours a night, are workaholics and that they know their businesses like the back of their hand.
In my experience, these leaders are usually a disaster for their organizations because they micromanage their operations, disempower their subordinates and create a culture of centralization where everything is deferred to the ultimate, all-knowing authority at the top.
In the eyes of many, leaders are expected to know everything that is going on in their operations. For example, if there is a problem with a supplier 10,000 miles away, the CEO is expected to know about it and be accountable for any failures. If a purchasing manager somewhere fails to comply with regulations or the law, some would argue that the CEO should have been on top of the situation.
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If we expect our most senior leaders to take on this level of accountability, then what behavior will ensue? Do we want our leaders to spend all of their time reviewing the actions of their people – in effect, doing the work twice? Do we want them to be involved in every decision?
Of course not. Such a setting will add costs, increase delays and disempower and demotivate individuals. In an organization with many employees the ideal environment will be one in which people are empowered to make decisions quickly and act on their own.
I was lucky enough to work in in manufacturing when we introduced Japanese quality control techniques in the 1980s. Before this, we used to send finished products to quality assurance, but they could only tell us later whether or not there was a problem.
When we instituted the total quality approach, we learned how to give production operators the knowledge, skills and authority to make decisions affecting the quality of their own production lines. Once we did that, quality improved and costs fell because excess decision-making was removed.
So here’s the takeaway: Let’s focus less on creating perfect leaders and more on creating a culture of distributed leadership. The best organizations are ones in which people are able to make decisions and manage activities at the appropriate levels without constant escalation.
We also need to give our leaders a break. Yes, we should have high expectations, but let’s concentrate on getting our leaders to focus on the areas where they can provide valuable contributions rather than expecting them to spend their time micromanaging and trying to be all things to all people.