Technically brilliant, socially abrasive

Mark Twain is attributed with saying, “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did.  I said I didn’t know.”

The fastest and most effective way to attract followers is to be an authentic leader.  Have you ever heard anyone get excited about following a know it all?

Being bright will earn you respect, but it doesn’t guarantee success. I’ve heard it said of partners and managers, “he is very smart, but he is so abrupt and difficult to work with no one wants to be around him.”  Technically brilliant, socially abrasive.  A recipe for disaster.

Jim is a very successful partner in one of the Big Four accounting firms who will retire this year.  Jim has a very high IQ and holds multiple Masters degrees.  When he first began his career he realized that he was not very effective with people.  He said, “I usually had a quick response and knew the answer to most problems.  As a result, I would shut down dialogue when in a team meeting and people began to withdraw and just wait for me to give them the answer.”

By the time Jim became a manager, he learned to “play dumb”, as he called it.  He taught himself to ask others to help him figure problems out and would tell them he wasn’t sure if his approach was accurate.  Jim said an amazing thing happened.  People would jump right in and began to help him figure things out.  Over the years, this technique became an authentic practice for Jim and he became an esteemed partner and leader with many followers.

It takes a disciplined, self-confident and humble person to play dumb and ask questions even when he or she knows the answer. In my mid-twenties I met Jeanette Groepper, a wise teacher and business owner.  She would always ask questions that you knew she knew the answers to.  This was her way of learning a persons thought level and understanding of a situation.  I’ve observed many leaders who just can’t restrain themselves when it comes to flaunting their intelligence.  This will hinder them from becoming the leader they might have been.

Knowledge must be tempered with wisdom if you hope to attract talented followers.  Don’t be too smart.


Political Animals

Alan C. Greenberg describes the culture of Bear Stearns as one of mutual loyalty, to each other and the firm, in The Rise And Fall of Bear Stearns. And yet, the demise of the firm can be largely attributed to a leader, one who did not share those values, rising to the highest levels of leadership.  Greenberg, reflecting on this leader, his successor, in the early years writes, “He constantly pushed for advancement, but I felt that signified a welcome competitiveness…It escaped no one that he was a political animal, but it took a long time before that characteristic seemed to me to be a liablity”.

My teacher, Monty Sholund, said, “He who seeks to be the leader disqualifies himself.”

It is easy to be impressed by and attracted to charismatic, competitive, confident producers.  Who doesn’t want this type of winner in their organization.  But, the Bear Stearns story demonstrates that if such people are not held accountable to the firms values and are allowed to promote themselves over the interests of the firm, it won’t be easy to recover from the losses.  For Bear Stearns recovery was not possible.

When it comes to selecting leadership, you cannot be too deliberate or discerning.  Give yourself time, get information from those who know the nominees and use proven selection processes and tools.  It’s easy to put people in leadership roles, but it’s hard to remove them. Do the easy part well and you may avoid having to do the hard stuff.


Delegating and self-reliance

Competent professionals have a tendency toward doing everything themselves.

Over a decade ago, David Maister estimated that half of the productive capacity of the typical professional service firm is consumed with a higher-priced person performing lower-level tasks.  This statistic has improved very little, if any, in most firms in the last ten years.

Self-reliance is viewed as a positive trait by most.  This trait is especially characteristic of professionals.  But, there comes a time when high self-reliance becomes a hinderance to leadership effectiveness and productivity.

Jeff, a managing partner, had a reputation for continuing to work on projects after assigning them to his team members.  He delegated the task, but could not bring himself to stop working on it.  So he would secretly work on the project.  In the end, his team stopped taking delegated assignments seriously because they knew that he would continue to work on them and have his own presentation or research documents.

The problem with most professionals is that they are just too competent. They are convinced that no one can do as good a job as them.  This is one of the most limiting characteristics you can possess.  It can render the most competent of professionals unproductive.

When it comes to self-reliance, it’s best to become a moderate.  No matter how capable you are, learn to depend on your team appropriately.  Never do what your people are fully capable of doing.