Years ago I read a Wall Street Journal article that estimated about 80% of managers are unqualified. With life’s experience, I think they were wrong. I think the number is much higher. The unfortunate reality is that most people make bad leaders and managers.
I bet you’ve noticed the same thing. But why is that true?
I suppose it has to do with human nature. Most of us have enough trouble just managing our own affairs, let alone those of others. But we also have a tendency to overrate ourselves. When you add that delusion to the fact that many people in leadership roles won’t tolerate good advice, you get exactly what we get most of the time.
When I left the organizational world 10 years ago, I convinced myself that bad leadership was in my past.
I was wrong. It’s all around us.
A Recent Example of Bad Leadership
Last Thursday we got our first major snowstorm. But just before it hit, we got an email from the management company of our condo informing us we were no longer able to park on an access road on the side of the neighborhood during snow cleanups.
Now our development has very limited additional parking as it is. There are just 12 guest parking spaces for the 40 units in the neighborhood. Simple math tells you that as many as 80 vehicles are not going to be able to squeeze into a guest parking area designed for 12. And parking on the street is illegal and subject to towing.
I responded to the management company email, and followed that up with a phone call to our HOA president. My simple question: If we’re not allowed to park where we have been for the past several years, exactly where do we park?
Now I know I’m biased, but I think that was a perfectly reasonable question. However, neither the property manager nor the HOA president offered anything other than restating the parking restrictions.
Here’s my fundamental objection: While acknowledging that there may be rules we have to obey, if you’re going to tell us what we can’t do, you also need to suggest reasonable alternatives.
The leadership in our little beehive neighborhood didn’t think that was a reasonable request.
The all too common moral of this story: Leaders see their job as telling us what we can’t do or what we must do (that we ordinarily wouldn’t), but sense no need to provide reasonable alternatives.
I’ve seen this same routine played out in companies and government. People in authority savor power, but hold themselves responsible for nothing.
Most People Mistake Leadership for Dictatorship
After witnessing similar scenarios playing out in various organizations, I’m convinced the average person equates leadership with dictatorship.
A true leader is one who leads people to a better place. That might be better running the government, making people more successful in their jobs, and certainly in the case of an HOA, representing and recommending the best interests of the residents.
Instead, when people get into positions of authority, the power goes to their heads.
And as we all know…
History has produced a depressing number of power obsessed leaders, from Nero and Caligula to Hitler and Stalin, who used their authority to annihilate millions of people.
While we like to think of these people as anomalies, that’s hardly the case. Giving people authority over others is bad enough. But when they have absolute power, as in power over life and death, death is a common outcome. Unchecked by either a moral compass or any meaningful legal constraints, their primitive instincts take over and they declare war on all enemies, real and (mostly) imagined.
Managers and politicians may not be killing people, but they often engage in either mismanaging, complicating work flows, and firing or otherwise financially impairing a lot of people.
Part of what makes leaders and managers so bad is pure paranoia. Once in a position of authority, the obsession to retain that position takes over. That creates a combination of two typical outcomes:
- The leader is on constant alert for challenges from the ranks.
- The leader is hesitant to implement positive change out of fear of failure and demotion.
The end result is a continuation of the status quo, with periodic beat-downs and purges of the rank and file. In the end, maintaining a dysfunctional system is deemed the safer strategy.
In this way, innovation from the leadership ranks is highly overrated.
The Wrong People Usually End up in Leadership Roles
Perhaps it isn’t that most people make bad leaders and managers, but rather that the wrong people usually ascend to the top.
This is a valid observation. Some people aspire to move up in the ranks. Others are content to do a good job, and hope to be left alone to do it.
The problem is those who aspire to positions of power are often not particularly good at what they do. Attaining a position of rank becomes an important self-validation. Eventually, that person may achieve a sufficient level of authority that actual ability becomes irrelevant. As well, most will assume he or she rose up through the ranks based on ability. But it may be that that person’s highest and best ability is being able to navigate upward in the power structure.
That may be good for the person who aspires to power, but it’s almost never good for those under his authority.
Doug Casey gives what I think is an outstanding personality profile of politicians. He describes what motivates them, and why they behave in ways that are contrary to both their constituents and their campaign promises. He asserts that most people in politics are sociopaths by nature. His argument is persuasive, and goes a long way toward explaining both the current level of political conflict, and the inability of the political system to solve even our simplest problems.
Based on personal experience, I think homeowner’s association boards attract similar personality types. But it may be true of corporate leadership as well. The people who aspire to leadership seem to be wired differently from the rest of us. And in most cases, that wiring doesn’t produce positive results.
Servant Leadership: The Better Way
There is a better way to be a leader or manager, but most people in those positions simply won’t go there. The Bible – increasingly one of the most widely ignored books in the 21st Century – gives us that better way. Jesus referred to it as servant leadership, and even demonstrated it to his disciples by washing their feet (John 17).
Can you imagine any leaders or managers doing that today?
He healed the sick and washed the feet of his disciples to demonstrate to his followers the real meaning of leadership.
He also told them the following:
“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25 – 28)
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.” (Matthew 23:2 – 8)
Notice the two versus in the second quote that I highlighted. The first is a perfect description of typical human leadership. The second requires that leaders display humility, and recognize their equality with those they lead (hence the use of “brothers”).
The Real Job of a Leader and Managers
Maybe I’m just not that smart, but I think the real job of a leader or manager in any capacity is to empower those who are under his authority.
A true leader is one who knows how to make best use of resources, particularly people. She should layout the goals of the organization, then do everything possible to help those under her authority achieve those goals.
Not only will that make the achievement of organizational goals more doable, but the sense of empowerment is bound to generate loyalty among the rank and file. Ruling by threats and punishment achieves the opposite.
A recent article in Forbes described five motivations: power, achievement, affiliation, security and adventure. I remember studying something similar in a college management course.
But it’s clear those with a strong power motivation are going to be more drawn to leadership and management. That may go a long way toward explaining why most people make bad leaders and managers. If an obsession with power is a prerequisite, the end result will be predictable.
Have you seen similar results with leaders and managers? Or do you see the situation in a different way?