'Leaders' and Blarney: You Can Hear, But Don't Listen

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 07-08-2005
In my previous column, I explained how large organizations tend to accumulate people who believe that leadership is a critical talent in senior executives, qualifying them to have power even if they have no ability to actually manage. I also talked about how ridiculous that is and how unhealthy the results can be.

Click here to check out the column, "Leadership Myth Hides Need for Solid Managers."

Is there a way to test for how healthy an organization is in this area? Yes.

As I mentioned, a common pushback from the leadership-without-management-ability enthusiasts is the argument that the set of business skills that lead to success in a convenience-store assistant manager are somehow not a required subset for executives.

I also hear vague but unspecified contentions that the roles are so different that basic management skills are irrelevant to an executive. In any group you're likely to hear one or two people who cough up this kind of cognitive pet rock.

But the assistant-manager test does more than vet a job candidate. If the pushback favoring a lack of management skill carries the day, the organization—or at least this part of it—is already in deep trouble.

It's one thing for someone to believe the fallacy; it's another when the network of people who have decision-making ability allows it to be acted on.

I also promised to point out a most dangerous sub-species of the leader-not-manager and how to spot them before their abject functional incompetence implodes your competitiveness:

I call this type the Alchemists—named after the well-meaning but ultimately wrong-headed cadre of gentlemen who invested lifetimes trying to make gold out of lead (among other things).

They weren't bunco artists. They just believed that if they kept pursuing the same goal—despite having failed utterly in every experiment—that they could make this transformation happen because they believed in it so strongly that they convinced themselves that it had to be inevitable.

In a parallel way, the non-managing leaders I call today's Alchemists are frequently well-meaning and intense about their wishful thinking.

They've gotten to their position largely through that intensity and optimism, and honestly want to contribute, despite their ignorance of the basics of how to operate a company.

They come to believe that, because they have achieved a high position without having acquired a specific skill set, the skills must not matter much. Further, since those skills don't matter, whatever elements the Alchemist does bring to the mix must therefore be of value. They're very "in touch with their feelings," but their feelings don't correspond well with the realities outside their heads.

Alchemists are wonderfully visionary, and a tiny handful are lucky enough to have gotten themselves teamed with enablers who will tweak their vision and supply the underlying structure to allow its implementation (most frequently without telling the Alchemist, sparing him or her the lost face, but also the opportunity to learn lessons).

Most Alchemists, though, wreak persistent and expensive havoc on the organizations that deploy them. And what's really scary is that Alchemists, with their metaphysical bent, are one of the managerial types least likely to learn from their mistakes. So, they tend to do the same or a similar thing next time, but just try harder or throw more resources at it.

Because their master plan is worthy and they feel their approach can't fail, they don't bother to ask the tough questions of themselves. The tough answers tend to immolate the others who depend on the Alchemist's initiatives.

So, how do you spot one before you get burnt at the stake next to him?

Alchemists almost always give themselves away with a MBWT (Management by Wishful Thinking) response to a perfectly reasonable but tough question. I described in an earlier column on management by wishful thinking the very clever entrepreneur running a software company describing the super-fast, QA-free development cycles he was holding his team to.

I asked him about his testing plan, and he said, "Sometimes you just have to build the airplane while you're flying it."

This, of course, is not just MBWT; it's spitting in the face of reality. There's not a single airplane manufacturer, no matter how innovative, who builds a plane while it's airborne. I won't insist it's impossible, just infeasible and wasteful.

As people who persistently prefer the utopian worlds that exist in their own lovely imaginations to the necessities of making something function in the real world, Alchemists tend to give themselves away with the overblown, unrealistic phrases they use to advocate for their own approach.

Anyone who uses an analogy that contradicts reality is very likely an Alchemist.

Simplistic dualities imposed on complex systems are another warning sign. Alchemists tend to see things as either/or, with nuance usually missing from their visions.

Even if you are not in a position to ask tough questions, you can spot these destructive incompetents through their cutesy sayings or analogies.

My favorite recent example was from that fantasist and wishful-thinking aficionado, Thomas L. Friedman. The title of his most recent Panglossian pro-globalization piece in The New York Times gives him away: "Follow the Leapin' Leprechaun" (I'm not kidding).

He kicks off an argument about the ultimate success of a difficult economic approach by invoking a fairy whose only existence is the result of wishful thinking.

On second thought, that might not be so inappropriate. Mugging a leprechaun to make him give you his pot of gold is an apt analogy for the something-for-nothing world view of the radical globalizers.

Friedman gives himself away as an Alchemist in the title. He argues, without providing anything in the way of evidence, that economies have only two choices: an Irish model few countries use, or the currently common Franco-German version.

He creates a fake duality between a highly socialist country on one side and a pair of highly socialist countries on the other. He never describes why these are the only two choices, and why exactly two models, both of which have been in existence for a handful of years and in constant evolution through that time, are the only choices.

It's pure prairie league, Panglossian advocacy for something Friedman desperately wants to come to pass because it seems beautiful to him.

Beware of Alchemists who talk about untested future trends in absolute terms such as "inevitability." Don't risk your career on a visionary without any practical life experience beyond being a caddy at the country club when he was in high school or grad school.

Follow leprechauns if you want. But if you're counting on a pot of gold at the end of the trip, be sure the only risk involved is your own.

Jeff Angus is a management consultant and has been working with IT since 1974. He has held IT management positions in user interface design, marketing, operations and testing/analysis. Look for his book, "Management by Baseball: A Pocket Reader." Jeff's columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun. He can be reached at jeff.angus@comcast.net.