THE BLOG

Ten Things That Are Not Leadership

11/06/2012 06:52 pm ET | Updated Jan 06, 2013

Some dude called me today and yammered for 10 minutes about a product he wanted me to write about. The product is a software application that lets employers track their employees' movements online, in case anyone is goofing off by spending too long on eBay or ESPN.

"It's a leadership tool," said the guy, while I almost choked on my own apoplectic spit. "Have you ever read one of my stories?" I asked him. "No," he said.

"So why would you think I would write about your product, other than to vilify it in the strongest terms?"

"Because you write about the workplace," said the guy. I don't know if he knows what 'vilify' means, and I don't care. I wished him a pleasant weekend and got off the phone wicked fast.

Somehow, over the years, "you write about the workplace" has become synonymous with "so you must be dying to write about the latest ways employers abuse their employees." This horrifying, not-househunting-again-are-you-Louise? software application is not a management tool, unless treating people like children and setting up systems to snoop on teammates is considered leadership.

It isn't leadership in my book: it's an infantile activity that is almost precisely the opposite of leadership. It's what people do when they're supposed to be managing -- inspiring and coaching and galvanizing a team around a vision and taking away obstacles that could impede the team on its way to greatness -- but they don't know how to lead, or they're afraid to try.

Tracking your employees' keystrokes and their visits to websites (to avoid that dreadful curse of management: Theft of Time) is not leadership. When you get out in front of a team and whip the team up about possibilities, that is leadership. When you're honest and human and forthright with people, that is leadership.

Here are nine more things that do not constitute leadership in any way, shape or form.

Boxing People Into Cubbyholes
When you tell an employee, "Here's the big idea about your job -- I need you to look out over the horizon at opportunities A and B, and watch out for emerging challenges like C and D. The mission is to get to A and B and rock them without getting squashed by C and D along the way. Go for it. Let me know how I can help," you are a leader. When you give a person a formal job description and tell him "Don't veer outside the items specified on that form" you are not leading squat. When you constrain people because you're afraid of what they might come up with on their own, you're not a leader in any sense.

Keeping People in the Dark
Information is power, and that is the sad thing about it, because lousy managers love to drip out droplets of vital information in order to keep their people waiting (and begging) for it. That's pathological. Business should be all about information moving fast and freely to the people who need it. HR people talk about a Need to Know basis when they're dealing with sexual harassment and discrimination, and that makes sense when sensitive topics are involved. When someone wants to know the launch schedule for a new product or how much a certain customer bought last year, only a non-leader would ask "Why do you want to know?"

Treating People Like Children
Unless you run a talent agency, you only hire adults, so why would you ever treat them like children? People shouldn't need a hall pass to go to the bathroom or need a doctor's note when they're out sick for three days. (What is the doctor supposed to do for your flu, which could last two weeks?) We don't need to track the hours of salaried employees or write stitch-level dress codes. People treated like adults will rise to the occasion.

Disrespecting People's Personal Lives
If you want to see leadership in action, watch a true leader when someone on his or her team has a crisis at home. Leaders say "Let me know how we can help, and take care of yourself and your family." They don't hesitate for two seconds, because the human response is obvious. Non-leaders whinge and ask "How long will you be out?" before they've even inquired about the welfare of the employee or his/her family. What compensation package could justify working for a toad like that?

Lying to People
There are all sorts of traits we look for in a leader, but if a person can tell the truth, we can forgive a lot of other less-than-sensational leadership qualities. By the same token, if a person can't tell the truth or just doesn't tell the truth to the team, it doesn't matter how smart or politically well-favored the non-leader is; run away.

Controlling People through Fear
About ten years ago my sister called me one day to tell me that her boss had threatened her. "He told me 'Our regional manager is coming into town, and you need to be very afraid.'" "What a loser!" I said, and my sister asked "What did he mean?" "He meant that he's a weenie and he fears the regional manager will like you better than him," I answered, and that turned out to be the dealio. Toad managers (we won't call them leaders) are always transparent like that -- you just have to step out of fear mode yourself in order to see it.

Ignoring Looming Crises
It looks like a train wreck, it sounds like a train wreck, it smells like a train wreck, but your manager asks "What do you mean, train wreck?" Life is too short to spend a second more than necessary among people who deny the existence of reality, including problems at work that won't go away by themselves as much as the non-leader hopes and prays they will. Leave these people to their delusions, and find a place where the execs are rooted in the plane of existence we call Actual Things That Happen.

Measuring People Like Apples
If you want to do forced-ranking in your company, rank people by some dimension along which people are truly rankable, like height in bare feet or longest fingernails. Any other so-called objective metric ("You are the forty-fourth most awesome employee in the group, out of 67!") is completely absurd and insulting. People don't slice and dice according to goofy yardsticks like that. We don't need to poke and prod our employees to measure them upside down, anyway. When we build teams that trust one another, we can lose those fear-based milestones and measurement schemes. Ethical adults miraculously never need them.

Using People
Moral and upright people don't use other people as means to their ends, and that goes double for anyone in a leadership role. We treat people as valued collaborators, and not as pawns in someone else's game. If we don't trust people well enough to allow them to bring themselves to work all the way, we have to ask ourselves "Well then, why did we hire them?"

After that, we have to ask "Why don't I trust myself to hire people who trust themselves and one another?" along with "Why don't I trust myself enough to lead with my heart?" If we can answer those questions, we won't worry about the goofy practices and out-of-step management rules anymore. We'll be too busy making expansive, inspiring goals and blowing past them. Who wouldn't rather work that way?