Friday, February 24, 2006

Problems with authority?

One of the things that a subordinate who cannot work with a boss is sometimes told, "you have problems dealing with authority figues", or that "you don't know how to take orders."

The problem is not dealing with authority figures or taking orders. The problem is WHO you take orders from. If you've elected someone, you're more likely to take orders from that person.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Wolves in sheep's clothing

The worst bosses are, in my opinion, not the ones who are conspicuously autocratic, abusive or loud. Because with them, you know where you stand. The worst ones are those that Sally talks about her book, The Stone Age company. She describes them as, "very autocratic, but in a gracious, gentlemanly way." Such a boss is, "a wolf in sheep's clothing."

Why are these bosses the worst kind? Because you think you can offer your opinions or be proactive. And after you take action, you find out that the boss really doesn't like the fact that you have a mind. After that, all hell can break loose - you can be ostracised or even lose your job.

Given this reality, this has terrible consequences for the company. Sally lists several, including the fact that people stop thinking for themselves and that they stop bringing new ideas. But most destructive of all (for the company), employees "spend their time on activities that will please the boss, instead of on things that will please the customer." (emphasis mine).

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Bosses can be like abusive parents

In her excellent book The Stone Age Company, Sally Bibb makes a point that hits home to anyone who's had a terrible boss. She says, "It is like living with an abusive parent or husband; there are periods of calm where they are happy and not picking on you, but you always know that at some point it will start again. The price of putting up with it is high, and it is constant."

Sally makes the other point that HR is of no help either: "It is a commonly held fallacy that if you have a problem with your boss you can go to HR and they can help. Most focus on policy and policing, and the majority haven’t got the courage to stand up to badly behaved bosses."

This echoes what I read somewhere: That HR is designed to protect your boss from people like you!

More on Sally's book later.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

A big thank you to ChangeThis

In the space of just three months after my manifesto was published on ChangeThis, there have been over 4,800 downloads of my manifesto. I've received emails from people as far apart as Norway, South Africa, Australia, the US and the UK. I doubt if this would have happened as quickly through the traditional route of getting a book published.

Before I wrote the manifesto, I planned to write a book on dictator bosses. But there were several obstacles:

1. I was a first-time author
2. I needed to find a literary agent
3. Although my aim wasn't to make money, the money is in fiction (think Harry Potter), not non-fiction. Hence, literary agents specialising in non-fiction business books are few and far between.
4. The literary agent needed to sell the idea to a publisher
5. There is too much legal stuff involved
6. You may not believe this, but some agents and publishers still insist on interacting by regular snail mail (ie proposal and manuscripts have to be sent in hard copy!).
7. You have to spend a significant amount of time and energy marketing your book.
8. Most of all, according to one book on getting your book published, the time-scales involved are 'geological'.

Obviously, there are tons of business books that are published. But for the effort involved, I wasn't sure if it was the right route for me. Since my aim was not to make money from the book but spread an idea, I wondered what to do. Luckily, I discovered ChangeThis, via a link on Tom Peters blog.

While I would still love to have a book published, ChangeThis offers a fantastic route to people who want to spread an idea. In that sense, ChangeThis perfectly achieves Seth Godin's goal.

Hence, I'd like to publicly say a big Thank You to the folks at ChangeThis (and 800-CEO-READ who own ChangeThis). To anyone contemplating writing a manifesto, I can't recommend ChangeThis strongly enough.

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Ideas on implementation (2)

Dave Ellison writes:

"First and foremost, while many governments have already proven the success of the concept, there must be experimentation within the business world with successful, breakthrough results. In other words, just as software vendors typically provide a 'proof of concept' prior to winning any large corporate contracts, so must this idea of elected leadership in business be proven. The best opportunity to do this would be to either create a small, privately funded company, or target non-conservative industry leaders who control smaller (perhaps struggling) subsidiary companies to 'pilot' the idea.

"Once an understanding of the existing system and functions are known, the new model can be developed. As is the case with various different democracies around the world, each business would have to have a unique model that best supports their culture and values. That said, each system would have to include something comparable to a Constitution, a base set of irrevocable laws/rules/principles that govern the fundamental process, created by representative groups and approved by the majority. Additionally, there would have to be some set of controls around corruption. Not to say that corruption isn't present in corporate dictators today, but this will be likely be a primary fear of the business owner(s)."

Thanks Dave.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Dilbert cartoon - spot on!

If you haven't already, take a look at this Dilbert cartoon. It perfectly describes the dictatorship system behaviours of bosses - and colleagues!

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Patients die because junior doctors are too scared of their bosses

This article says that 98,000 people die in the US each year "from medical mistakes caused by cultural and systemic problems. In many cases a junior member of staff saw the error being committed but was too afraid to speak up. Bullying by consultants is rife in health services, many of whom fit the Guru profile. [Examples: #1 #2 #3 #4 #5]"

It's frightening to see that people are dying in such large numbers simply because subordinates are scared of their bosses.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Ideas on implementation (1)

Scott Brenner writes:

"A well-defined set of steps an organization can follow to put a new team structure in place would help avoid a lot of false starts and urges to go back to the way things were.

"Second, some proven successes using the new system. Organizations are more likely to adopt a new way of thinking if they can see proof from a "guinea pig" who's gone before them. Nothing breeds success like success."

I think this is the way to go - start with baby steps, and then take things from there. Doubtless, issues will arise, and we can't predict what those issues are in advance. Hence, it's going to be more of a guided missile approach as opposed to a 'ready, aim, fire' approach.

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Being a King vs being a leader

I just want to emphasise a line from Don Blohowiak's post (that refers to my manifesto), a line that perfectly describes the human lust for power, vs the need for effectiveness:

"It’s good to be King. It may well be more effective to be elected Leader."

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Tom Peters "sayings" on leadership

Tom Peters is someone I admire greatly, and I read his blog every day. However, it seems to me that his ideas of leadership are defined in the usual terms.

In a recent post on his blog, he says he was asked to provide some sayings on leadership. So he gave several such as "Dream. The Only Worthwhile Reality.""Beware Those Who Agree With You." "Seek Dissidents. Nurture Dissidents. Cherish Dissidents."Enthusiasm, the Ultimate Virus." "Technicolor Times Demand Technicolor Actions." However, Tom doesn't say anything about leaders being elected. The closest he get is, "Leaders 'do' People. Period." (you can get the full list from his blog,

Tom asked readers of his blog to provide their sayings, and most responses were along the lines above. This is a common perception everywhere - that leaders are people with a bunch of certain skills/attitudes. In short, when you ask "who is a leader?", you get the answer to a different question, ie, "what skills/attitudes should a leader have?". The answer to "who is a leader" is simple: a person who's been elected.

The problem is, with the current mis-perception of leadership simply being a bunch of skills and attributes, we get less of real 'leadership' and more of real 'dictatorship'.

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Wishful thinking?

"Dr Yoshio Maruta, CEO of Japan's Kao Corporation, says that if your finger gets cut, every organ in your body than can provide support to it would automatically do so, immediately. That is what is needed in an organization. Whenever one unit or an individual faces an opportunity, a problem or an issue, anybody in the company who can help must do so without having to be asked. "

- Quoted in the book Managing Radical Change (Sumantra Ghoshal, Christopher Bartlett and Gita Piramal)

In the current system, what are the chances that your organization or team are going to help you in the manner described above?

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

"Buy Your Boss?"

Don Blohowiak of the Lead Well Institute asks, "Would you willingly pay your boss -- out of your own pocket - for the help that he or she provides you?" (read his article here)

Don also says, "If you aren't sure if your colleagues value you so much they'd gladly pay for your services, ask them. And listen closely to the answer. If they say they would pay you, ask why -- understand the value you deliver. And if they would not, ask what help you could deliver that would be worth paying for."

I think the underlying question is even more profound: do 'leaders' at work even consider themselves people who provide a service? In most cases, they see themselves as people in power over subordinates, rather than people in power to HELP subordinates.

Again, as I've said earlier, we need to take a systems view, so that leaders ask these questions of themselves automatically. And if they don't, subordinates are automatically empowered to ask their leaders these questions.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

"Why Employees Should Lead Themselves"

In a sense, leadership is about people having a say in leadership itself - ie, that they have a voice. This interesting article says,

The result is a sense of ownership that delivers the biggest benefit of all: a collective mind and spirit that comes through in the music. "

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'Leadership potential'

One of the things that many companies look for - and MBA programmes - is something called 'leadership potential'. Exactly what is this? No one asking for 'leadership potential' defines it clearly. Leadership, even today, is somewhat of an abstract term - everyone has his/her own views of what it should be, but there's no generally accepted definition.

If I was looking for leadership potential, I would simply ask the candidate - how many times have you been elected to positions? And how many times have you been re-elected? In all other cases, rather than 'leadership potential', they're looking for dictatorship potential.

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Empowerment and other fallacies

One of the things that companies - and bosses - say often is that they 'empower' their employees. It sounds fine in theory.

The problem is that the extent of empowerment depends on individual bosses. And even then, you never know to what extent you are really empowered - you might go off and do something thinking you've been empowered, only to find yourself in deep trouble. Hence, you don't often know where you really stand - do you actually take intiatives, or make the right noises but do nothing? In some ways, you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

In some ways, it's better to have an explicit dictatorial culture. You do what the boss says. That way, there's no scope for misinterpretation. But unfortunately, what we have is a half-way house - not explicitly dictatorial, yet not explicitly free.

I'm sure NASA employees have been told that they're empowered. But as we've seen, that's really not the case.

The only way out: change the system, so empowerment becomes inevitable - it's not in the hands of the boss.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

More on the space shuttle...

Astronaut Mike Mullane (referred to in an earlier post) has distanced himself from the article that called the shuttle a 'deathtrap', stating he was misquoted. That said, he re-inforced his comment that NASA culture discouraged freedom.

I mentioned in an earlier post that astronauts worry about things like job security. I was wrong, because Mike says they don't. He says it goes way beyond job security - it goes into the very heart of who they are, the very reason for their existence. In that sense, the stakes are even higher and hence, astronauts are even less likely to say what they feel. Here's what Mike had to say (taken from a discussion thread at

(Excerpt from Riding Rockets, The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, Scribner, copyright 2006 by Mike Mullane.) “Astronaut concerns about the shuttle’s “operational” label, the lack of an escape system and the passenger program should have been heard by every key manager, from Abbey to the JSC Center Director to the NASA Administrator. But they were not. We were terrified of saying anything that might jeopardize our place in the line into space. We were not like normal men and women who worried about the financial aspects of losing a job, of not being able to make the mortgage payment or pay the kids’ tuition. We feared losing a dream, of losing the very thing that made us us. When it came to our careers, we were risk adverse in the extreme. Effective leaders would have done everything possible to eradicate that fear. George Abbey, the JSC Director and the NASA Administrator all should have been frequent visitors to the astronaut office actively polling our concerns and each visit should have started with these or similarly empowering words, “There is nothing you can say to me that will jeopardize your place in the mission line. Nothing! If you think I’m doing something crazy, I want to hear it.” I had experienced this form of leadership many times in my Air Force career. I saw it during an F-4 mission with a General officer. I was a 1st Lieutenant—and terrified. I had never flown with a Flag officer before. But this man was a leader who understood how fear could jeopardize the team and did his best to eliminate it. As my foot touched the cockpit ladder, the General stopped me and said, “See these stars,” and pointed to his shoulder. “If I make a mistake they won’t save our lives. If you see anything that doesn’t look right on this flight, tell me. There’s no rank in this jet. Flying is dangerous enough as it is without having crewmembers afraid to speak up.” It was an empowering moment. The astronaut office desperately needed the same empowering moments, but they never came. Fear ruled—a fear rooted in Abbey’s continuing secrecy on all things associated with flight assignments. We kept our mouths shut.” [sentences in bold - emphasis mine].

Mike states that he is not criticising the current NASA administration, but the pre-challenger one. The tragic part is that it took two shuttle disasters to get NASA to sit up and take notice. Again, as I keep stating, the system needs to change. Otherwise, we're going to get more disasters, until we get that message.

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