Micromanagers are like Vampires – They Drain Your Company of its Lifeblood

Kevin P. Dincher

In its 2013 State of the Global Workforce report, Gallup called engaged workers “the lifeblood of their organizations.”  Companies with the highest levels of employee engagement have significantly higher productivity, profitability and customer ratings, much lower turnover and absenteeism, and fewer safety incidents than their peers and competitors.  If that is true—and who am I to argue with Gallup?—then one of the ways to drain your company of its lifeblood is to micromanage your workers.

Lately I have been hearing quite a bit of  chatter—complaining, really—about managers who micromanage.  Apparently, people do not like being micromanaged.  Top executives and star performers find it insulting, and anyone with any sort of a positive work ethic finds it stifling.  Being micromanaged tells them that their managers do not trust their work or judgment—so they shut down.  They stop making suggestions, and they stop doing their best work.  They put in time but little else.  Moreover, their apathy is contagious, affecting not only their own productivity but also that of their colleagues.  Micromanaged employees easily become disengaged.

In CEOs:  Beware of Micromanaging I borrowed six questions from The Consequences of Micromanaging that managers can ask themselves to get a sense that they might be micromanagers.

  1. Do I spend a considerable amount of time telling employees how to do a job correctly and specifically telling them what to do?
  2. Do I devote a lot of time to overseeing the projects of my subordinates?
  3. Am I irritated when subordinates make decisions without consulting me first?
  4. Do I sometimes wish I were back in my previous lower-level job?
  5. Am I the one who signs the checks?
  6. Am I spending more time with operations then planning my company’s strategy and growth?

If you answer YES to two of these questions, then you are probably micromanaging your employees and may need some help to get out of the micromanaging trap.  But let’s take this mini-assessment a little further.

autonomyLevels of Management and Autonomy

Like many things in life, micromanaging is not all-or-nothing; it is not a case of either you micromanage or you don’t.  There are levels of micromanagement.  Another way to think of micromanagement is the degree of autonomy (and the power and authority that go along with autonomy) that your employees have to do their work.  At one end (Level 1) is total micromanagement; employees have no autonomy at all.  At the other end (Level 5) employees have the highest level of autonomy.

Assess Your Level of Micromanagement

Think of just one routine project that you tasked a staff member or work group with recently.  Do not pick an unusual situation that necessarily demanded a higher than routine level of involvement from you—like work you assigned an intern or a new and inexperienced hire.  And don’t pick some out of the ordinary and highly critical situation.  Stick to something routine.

Now, thinking about just this one routine project, read the descriptions of the degree of management and autonomy operating at each level combination of management and autonomy — and identify which level explains your management of that project.

Level 1

Level 1 is pretty much the zenith of micromanagement. Employees have no autonomy at all. You keep all the power and authority, and you control all aspects of the project. You assign the project, and tell your workers what to do and how to do it. The employees may (or may not) be tasked with doing some research on the project—but they do not make any decisions or have any input into what will be done They report their research to you so that you can identify possible alternative courses of action, decide what will be done, and tell them how the work will be done. You monitor every aspect and detail.

Level 2

Level 2 is slightly, but significantly, different from Level 1. You still hold the power and authority to make all decisions.  You monitor and control all aspects of the project.  However, you allow your employees some input into the decisions you make. The employees do the needed research, identify alternative courses of action and maybe even suggest a preferred one for implementation. You decide which one to implement and how.

Level 3

There is a significant difference between Level 2 and Level 3. At Level 2 employees have input, but at Level 3 they also have power and authority to make decisions.  You, however, retain the power and authority to approve or disapprove any and all decisions before they can act. The employees do the research, and they decide which course of action they intend to take. They report to you—and wait for your approval before taking any action.

Level 4

At Level 4 you take a major step away from micromanaging. At Level 4 you hand over real decision-making power and authority to employees—but you hold on to the power to “put on the breaks” at any time. The employees do the research, report what they intend to do—and move forward unless at some point you say “no” or “stop.”  Of course, things can get very tricky here: your employees need to know ahead of time what might cause you to say, “no” or “stop” as the project moves forward so they don’t find themselves wasting time, energy and resources heading down a blind alley. Better work on those communication skills if you are going to ease up on the micromanaging!

 Level 5

Level 5 is where you really stop micromanaging. You communicate the desired goals and outcomes, the time constraints and the available resources—and then let the employees run with the project. They do the research, develop a plan, take action, and periodically update you on progress. They get help from you when they have questions or when they run into obstacles (because good managers remove obstacles). They give you progress updates, but the project is in their hands. Level 5 is the point where employees feel they have “arrived”. They work on their own and take full responsibility and ownership for their work and projects. They feel that they have earned your trust. They do their best work and are at their most creative and innovative.

One Swallow does not a Summer Make

So, where did the project you were thinking about fall on the scale of 1 to 5? Since you should never assume something is true just because you have seen one piece of evidence for it, select three or four other projects and do the same assessment.  (And, of course, if you are truly serious about getting a handle on your micromanagement, ask some of the people who work for you to do the same assessment from the perspective of the level of autonomy they feel they have when you give them work to do!)

Is there a pattern in your assessment?  Are you generally somewhere in the range of Level 4 and Level 5?  If so, then you are doing pretty well when it comes to micromanaging– and just need to learn who to be more consistently at Level 5.  However, if you are generally in the range of Levels 1, 2 and 3 – well, you need to consider that you may be standing in your employees’ way and need to take a step back so your company can move forward.


Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

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CEOs: Beware of Micromanaging

Kevin P. Dincher

A marketing consultant I know posted on his Facebook page today:  “Always wonder why some CEOs would rather diddle with things on a web page or other marketing minutia than deal with really important business strategy issues or building a company team.”  While I know this was more an expression of his current frustration with a client than a real question, it got me thinking—and I suspect the answer may be relatively simple:  Entrepreneurs stay in startup mode too long.

Entrepreneurs are by nature doers, and while in startup mode they are directly involved in just about every aspect of their companies.  That is how their companies are born, succeed and grow.  As a company grows, however, its leadership needs change, and some entrepreneurs have trouble shifting gears.  They find it difficult to shift from doing to leading, and so they become stuck micromanaging.  The problem is that micromanaging by a CEO can mean the downfall of a young company.

Micromanaging Kills

When CEOs micromanage their staff and subordinates, productivity and creativity suffer.

  • Having control makes people happy; but employees who are micromanaged rarely feel they have control over their work. Unhappy employees are less productive and less creative than are happy employees.
  • Micromanagement tells employees that you do not trust their work and judgment. When they realize that you are not listening to them, they shut down, stop making suggestions, and stop being straight with you.
  • Micromanaged employees become disengaged. They resent your role as manager and do not become proficient at doing their jobs. They lose the willingness to make sacrifices; they put in time but little else. Their apathy is contagious, affecting not only their own productivity but also that of their colleagues. Micromanaged employees become confused and angry, and they suddenly quit, going work for another company.

Additionally, the more that CEOs micromanage, the less time and energy they have to give to the critical work of a CEO.  If a CEO focuses on tactics, then no one is attending to vision, direction and strategy.  If a CEO keeps busy with day-to-day operations, then no one is taking the long-range perspective.  If a CEO is spending time telling employees exactly how to do their jobs, then no one is inspiring and motivating them or building a company team.

Are You a Micromanaging CEO? 

Ask yourself six questions (The Consequences of Micromanaging).

  1. Do I spend a considerable amount of time telling employees how to do a job correctly and specifically telling them what to do?
  2. Do I devote a lot of time to overseeing the projects of my subordinates?
  3. Am I irritated when subordinates make decisions without consulting me first?
  4. Do I sometimes wish I were back in my previous lower-level job?
  5. Am I the one who signs the checks?
  6. Am I spending more time with operations then planning my company’s strategy and growth?

If you answered YES to two of these questions, then you are probably micromanaging your employees.

One Antidote to Micromanaging:  Delegating

One antidote to micromanaging is learning to delegate.  Delegation is a critical skill both for personal success and for the success of the company you lead, and I have written before about the importance of delegating and about what delegating is and what it isn’t (Are You a Work Hoarder; The Beginning Delegator; and Know Why You are Delegating).  Like any other leadership skill, you can’t acquire it by reading a book (Leadership is Like Skiing:  You Can’t Learn It by Reading a Book).  You might intellectually understand delegating after reading a book or an article, but that doesn’t mean you can do it. You have to unlearn old habits, default reactions, and assumptions about human nature in order to adopt new and different choices and behaviors.  That takes time and effort—and you may need someone to help you.

Some Things to Start Doing Now

Even though it may take some time for you to develop your delegating skills, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything you can do in the meanwhile.  Here are three simple (but still challenging) things you can do to start curtailing your micromanaging.

  • Pick your battles. Let go of the minutia. There are more important things for you to obsess over than a logo, the colors on your website, or how many power outlets you need in your booth at a trade show. When you are hunting big game, don’t swat mosquitoes.
  • Stop making purchasing decisions. Obviously, controlling costs is essential to the success of any business—but a quick and easy way to alienate your employees is to micromanage purchasing decisions. Instead, figure out what dollar amount you’re comfortable with for a particular project and allow team members to make financial decisions on their own as long as they stay within the budget.
  • Let people meet—without you. Often micromanaging CEOs aren’t comfortable with their people meeting without them. Rather than just attending strategic meetings, micromanaging CEOs sit in on (and control) tactical meetings. Let your people meet without you—and without needing to get permission from you to meet. Instead, get a weekly briefing from department heads or project leaders.

Related Posts

Micromanagers are like Vampires – They Drain Your Company of its Lifeblood

So You do Micromanage – At Least Sometimes

Are You a Work Hoarder?

The Beginning Delegator

Know Why You are Delegating

Leadership is Like Skiing:  You Can’t Learn It by Reading a Book


Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

 

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Things to Know Before Putting Your Kids on the Payroll

Kevin P. Dincher

Americans like the idea of starting a family business. According to the US Small Business Administration, 90% of the 21 million small businesses in the US are family owned—and 62% of employed Americans work for family owned companies. The success rate of family owned small businesses, however, is amazingly low: 7 out of 10 of family owned businesses fail before the second generation gets a chance to take over.

There are many complex reasons behind the family business’ low success rate—and so there is no simple (the-one-thing-to-do) solution. One of the common traps that family businesses fall into, however, is thinking of themselves as, well, as family businesses and ignoring the importance of hiring the right people—and not hanging on to the wrong ones.

The Wrong Help is Worse than no Help

You need a top-notch team to do your best work, and so the most important thing you decide is who to hire and who to fire. Making good decisions about who is and who is not on the payroll is critical to your company’s success—and your own success. The wrong help is worse than no help—and hiring the wrong person is costly. You need to take time to really think about each and every hire you make and not settle for a warm body—not even if it is a family member. In hiring any employee, whether family or not, the goal is the same: a high performing employee who meets your needs and is a good fit for your company and team.

Family First?

Some parents make their children feel obligated to join the company and then automatically put their offspring in important positions even though they have no interest in being there. Some children and siblings feel entitled to a position in the company—and to a position at a level that reflects their status as family members—regardless of their experience, skills and abilities. Sometimes a position in the family business is a fallback solution for family members who have failed in other business ventures or who have spent their 20s and 30s as aspiring athletes or musicians before settling into the family business as unprepared 40-somethings.  Because of their family connections, these family members often rise to leadership positions despite their lack of interest, experience or skill. A crop of managers and decision-makers who are either not interested in (much less enthusiastic about) the success of your company or who lack the ability to succeed in leadership positions only increases the chances of your company failing.

Neither an Obligation nor an Entitlement

In a family business it is normal to want family members to join. But a job in the family company should be neither a requirement nor an entitlement. It is a good idea to expose young family members to the company at an early age so that they can make their own decisions about whether or not to pursue a career there—but then those who do want to join your company should receive no special accommodations.

  •  Identify your need. Don’t create a position around your desire to bring a family member into the company or because a family member wants to join the company. Bring family members into the company based upon their ability to meet your company’s needs, not on the basis of familial relationship.
  • Put it in writing. Once you identify your needs, write a job description with desired qualifications with as much detail as possible. A family member who wants to work in your company should meet the same requirements for education, experience and skills as a non-family member applying for that position.
  • Standardize you application process. Family members should follow the same process of applying for open positions as non-family applicants—and in competition with non-family applicants. And if a non-family member proves to be the better candidate? Hire the non-family member.
  • Develop a formal and rigorous employee development process. And implement it—for everyone—family and non-family—at all levels in the company. No matter how big or small your company is, one of your critical tasks (and biggest challenges) as a leader is to nurture and grow talent within your company. But let’s face it: even when we have a formal development process in place we tend to avoid doing it. And we certainly don’t like doing it with family members. But your family members are no different from other people in the company. They have talents that need to be developed and gaps in their skills and experience that need to be filled. You do them and your company a disservice when you ignore that.

Never lose sight of the ultimate goal: a high performing employee who meets your needs and is a good fit for your company and team. Don’t ignore the importance of hiring the right people (and not hanging on to the wrong ones).  Not even when it involves family members.


Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

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Leadership is Like Skiing: You Can’t Learn it by Reading a Book

Kevin P. Dincher

I may be wrong about this, but from my reading and conversations with colleagues and clients, I get the impression that relatively few supervisors and managers and even fewer C-level executives, entrepreneurs and board members actively pursue disciplined professional leadership development. They read books, articles and blogs about leadership, and they attend workshops and seminars—so they know about leadership. There is, however, a world of difference between knowing about leadership and becoming an effective leader.

“Born Leaders” and “Made Leaders”

Leadership coach and author Erika Andersen (Leading So People Follow) writes that like most human capabilities, leadership capability falls along a bell curve.  There’s the 10-15% at the top of the bell curve; they are “born leaders” who start out good and tend to get better.  At the bottom of the curve are the 10-15% of people who are never going to be very good leaders no matter how hard they try; they simply do not have the innate wiring.  In the middle of the curve is the vast majority of us; most of us have some degree of innate leadership capability that can be developed. This is where the real potential for “made leaders” lies.

Most of the people in the middle of the curve can actually become very good leaders—and even great leaders. Over time, they can acquire new leadership skills. They are not, however, likely to acquire and perfect those skills simply from reading books or attending an occasional seminar.

Leadership Can be Taught and Learned—but Reading Isn’t Learning

Harold D. Stolovitch and Erica J. Keep’s book title ” target=”_blank”>Telling Ain’t Training has become an axiom in the learning field. The goal of training is not simply to pass on information; it is to teach new skills and change behavior. When you tell people about leadership or they read about leadership, they might intellectually understand what you want them to know, but that doesn’t mean that they have acquired any new skills. 

Think about learning to ski. Let’s say someone explains to you how it is done, shows you a video, and provides you with a how-to manual to read. Are you ready to head off to Aspen, strap on some skis and hurl yourself down the advanced slopes? There is a world of difference between knowing about skiing and having the skill to ski. Most people need someone to help them practice new skills (like how to stop) on the bunny slope. They need to practice—and they need someone to work with them on the slopes.

Leadership development works the same way:  we need to practice—and we need someone to work with us in the field so the leadership skills we learn become firmly ingrained and habitual.

You Can’t Learn Leadership Alone 

Many leadership lessons, however, are not just about acquiring new skills. Many leadership lessons are about unlearning old habits, default reactions, and assumptions about human nature in order to adopt new and different choices and behaviors.  The key to this unlearning—and the becoming a good leader—is self-awareness.

By becoming self-aware I don’t mean becoming self-absorbed. I’ve worked with far too many “it’s-all-about-me leaders” who are way too focused on themselves, on their own evolution, on their own  drama to ever become really great leaders. Becoming truly self-aware means to cultivate an accurate sense of how you stand in the world—and includes such things as:

  • Knowing your real strengths and weaknesses not only as a leader but also as a person.
  • Having an accurate picture of the impact that you have on others.
  • Knowing what you most care about.
  • Having a moral compass and using it as a guidance system.
  • Knowing how your actions line up with your promises.

This kind of self-awareness will never be found in a book or achieved in a 3-day seminar. You need someone to challenge you when you say you think you have great relationship-building skills but people actually find you somewhat insensitive and overbearing. You need someone who can agree that you have excellent communication skills—and then ask you what keeps you from speaking up and using them.  And you need someone who can give you a “thumbs up” when you nail it!   None of us can really see ourselves with total clarity without assistance. As Andersen says, it’s like trying to know what you look like without having a mirror.

If you want to be an effective leader, you need to learn certain skills through practice and coaching—but you also need to have an accurate picture of how you operate in the world. To get that picture you need someone (or perhaps even a group of people) who knows you well, wants what is best for you, and is willing to be drop-dead honest with you in the service of that.


Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

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Improve Your Communication – Send Fewer Emails!

Kevin P. Dincher

Communicating effectively is a major workplace challenge, and technology has made it possible to communicate quickly with anyone anywhere any time. But “communicating quickly 24/7” is not the same as “communicating effectively”—and so every once in a while, I tell my clients that email is insidious and possibly downright evil. I don’t really think so—but it gets their attention.

The Volume Problem

The immense volume of email that many of us receive each day can make email seem like an unbeatable adversary in a battle between responding to messages and getting the work done that we had planned. Our days easily feel more reactive than productive. One friend’s day is so dominated by email that her FaceBook posts are regular updates on progress in cleaning out her inbox. Only very rarely does she get to post “Inbox Zero!” It is always a bit impressive, therefore, when people come up with a system for dealing with email overload that actually works for them. For instance, both Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner have developed their own systems for handling email and staying productive rather than email being a constant, nagging drag on his day. Their systems won’t work for everyone, but they are good examples of taking a systematic approach to email—and not making “Inbox Zero” your goal.

It’s Not Just a Problem of Volume

Not all problems with email communication are volume related. Because email is so pervasive and so immediate, it seems like we should use it for everything. There are, however, things that we shouldn’t do by email.

Keep it Short and Simple

Email is at its best when sharing simple, specific information. If you have a quick question or are providing a short update on a project, email is the way to go. Email is perfect for sending out a brief request, simple instructions or a clear to do list. It is also a great way to get information to multiple people that they need to read, process and refer back to (for example, agenda topics for an upcoming meeting). When the message is simple, straightforward information that doesn’t require much (if any) discussion, explanation or deliberation, then email is the way to go.

As the communication becomes more complex, however, consider picking up the phone or scheduling some face-to-face time rather than defaulting to email.

  • Don’t use email for complicated instructions that are likely to generate questions or require further explanation.
  • Avoid long, complex emails. When the message is lengthy, difficult and complicated, email can make a mess of it. If you find yourself taking a long time to write and edit an email, then you probably shouldn’t be using email.
  • People are less likely to read a message that is more than a brief paragraph or two. Just think how often you’ve received a long email and said, “I’ll read that one later,” and later never comes.
  • Don’t use email for solving complex problems or problem solving that involves multiple people. You are more likely to produce a jumble of increasingly confusing email threads than workable solutions.

When Time is Critical, Pick up the Phone

When time is critical, pick up the phone to get the information or the action you need when you need it. Even though electronic media moves a message from Point A to Point B in an instant, it doesn’t guarantee that a message gets from Person A to Person B in an instant.

We have all experienced the frustration of sending an email asking for information that we need now—and waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Be realistic:  even in today’s always-connected world, I may not get your message in time to be helpful to you. Additionally, writing styles don’t always convey the same sense of urgency; I may not pick up that your need is any more critical than that of the other 50 emails I received in the last 10 minutes. The best way to deal with urgency is by phone or face-to-face.

Strong Emotions or Sensitive Information? Stay Away from the SEND Button!

Don’t use email when you need to communicate bad news, complaints, criticism or negative feedback—or anything that is sensitive or controversial. Misunderstandings and hurt feelings result more easily without the benefit of paralanguage—facial expressions, intonation and body language—and strong emotions are more likely to escalate.

Additionally, always remember that the FORWARD button is very easy to use—and incredibly tempting when people are upset or when the information is just too good (or too bad) not to share. Don’t use email when information is extremely sensitive, when the message is confidential or if you do not want to have a permanent record of the message. Once you send an email, you can never get it back, and you lose all control of what happens to it. You simply have no way of knowing where an email message will end up. A good rule of thumb:  never put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper!


Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

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Do You Know Where and How Customers Learn about your Company?

Charlie Born

Re-posted from Growth Insights for CEOs by Chief Outsiders

Over the last two years, there has been a growing awareness in the business press that B2B selling has evolved from general concepts of solution selling to the ‘buyers journey’ a customer journey driven by the large amount of information available online. A new sales and marketing reality is rapidly emerging as the internet plays an increasing role in buyer research. Too many B2B CEOs are ignoring this new reality as just a social media phenomenon about Facebook and that is has nothing to do with their businesses.  But I’ve seen the impact of this in my own sales and marketing work, and I and the industry at large, now strongly believe we are experiencing important changes to the conventional marketing and sales wisdom of the past. CEOs and their businesses can no longer ignore this reality.

Studies are consistently showing that B2B customer buying habits are shifting, and most agree that buyers are now 60-70% of the way through the buying cycle before they initially reach out to your company for a sales representative. By the time your sales representatives are called in to talk with a buyer, there is less of a requirement to follow traditional solution selling techniques. In the new ‘buyer’s journey’, the buyers believe that based on their own research (the buyers journey), they have figured out what they need.  Thus, when they decide to contact your sales team, they have most likely decided you are one of their top three choices (you are 1 of 3 as I call it).

Maybe this sounds like good news to you. But studies show that most often the buyer views all three choices as equally acceptable, and the final decision comes down to features and functions, support—and price, price, price.  Exceptional sales representatives might be able to overcome this ‘1 of 3’ syndrome, but this is the antithesis of where you want to be for your business.

In this new selling environment your biggest hurdles aren’t your competitors; they are (1) the ability of buyers to learn on their own, and (2) how your company participates in that learning process. Think back to recent history.   Buyers had few options other than to approach you directly as a potential vendor early on in the purchase process. In addition to learning through sales presentations, they attended trade shows, spoke to industry analysts and read industry print publications so that they could gather as much information as possible about solutions to their problems. In this traditional process of gathering information, marketing and sales could establish credibility, position solutions around specific pain points, and create brand differentiation and value in the mind of the buyer around their pain points. Today, with the explosion of the information on the internet and the advent of social media, that is no longer the case.

So where do B2B buyers learn in your market space? Is it the internet and online communities or other sources? Do you know? If you’re going to win this new marketing and sales war, you need to give buyers new and important information about your business that they might not learn on their own. If you’re not prepared to challenge their thinking, you need to be prepared to accept their terms. If you’re experiencing this phenomenon and you have seen sales decrease or sales cycles increase, do you understand where your customers journey to your business?


Charlie Born, a member of Chief Outsiders, helps growth and mid-sized companies ($10M – $200M+) grow by providing his executive marketing experience on a fractional or part-time basis. Charles Born has a 30-year track record of success in the development and implementation of marketing strategies and business models that grow sales revenues for fast growth and Fortune 1000 global companies alike.

LinkedIn: charlesborn
Twitter:  chazborn

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Leadership: Get to Know Yourself – and Then Realize It’s Not About You

Kevin P. Dincher

Did you see Star Trek into Darkness? It’s an enjoyable and entertaining movie—which is the most I expect from the crew of the Enterprise. A moment early in the film, however, made me sit up. Spock is in a volcano trying to abort an eruption. [Vulcan in a volcano? Someone been reading Roman mythology?] Although the mission is successful, it violates Star Fleet’s Prime Directive against interfering with the development of alien civilizations, and Kirk is demoted. His mentor, Commander Pike, summarizes the problem:  “There’s greatness in you, but there’s not an ounce of humility.”

Humility carries a great deal of negative baggage. Humility evokes timidity, indecisiveness and weakness. Humility smells of pretense; under the guise of humility, people portray themselves as less than they really believe themselves to be—and in the extreme become like Dickens’ Uriah Heap:  obsequious, insincere and the ultimate “yes man.” In addition, there is a long history of equating humility with self-deprecation and embracing a negative self-image; such “humility” is self-hatred and not conducive to developing exemplary leaders.

Consequently, despite research (e.g., Jim Collins, Good to Great) and claims that “humility in leadership is back on the executive conference room table” (Executive Ethics: Ethical Dilemmas and Challenges for the C-suite), we don’t often talk about humility and leadership—except for religious leaders.  Remember how after the election of Pope Frances the media hyped his every action as signs of humility? Of the dozen leadership books on my bookshelf only one mentions humility—and it devotes barely a page to something the authors say is characteristic of exemplary leaders. Additionally, they present humility merely as an antidote to excessive ego rather a value itself:  you’ll be a better leader if you recognize you aren’t infallible. True enough. But is that there is to humility?

Humility is Self-Knowledge 

The word humility comes from the Latin humus, meaning ground or earth—which was sometimes used in the sense of being grounded. To be humble is to be grounded in reality with a strong and healthy sense of self.”   Humble leaders know their real talents and accomplishments—and are comfortable enough in their own skins to talk about those talents and accomplishments honestly. They have no need to inflate themselves, to brag or to be competitive. On the other hand, they don’t deflate themselves either. If you are smart, you are lying—not being humble—if you act as though you are not.  Humble leaders also know and acknowledge the reality of their weaknesses, biases and blind spots. We all have them—although successes can make us forget that, and fear of failure can keep us from admitting it. This is not beating up yourself, and it is not seeing yourself as less talented than you are. Humility is honestly knowing yourself and becoming comfortable in your own skin.

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Self-Knowledge is Strength

Grounded in the reality of genuine talents, humble leaders start from a position of strength. They know what they are good at and can tap into those talents and abilities effectively. With a deflated self-image, people start from a position of weakness; seeing themselves as less talented than they are, they deny their talents and gifts—and can’t access them or use them effectively. An inflated self-image also weakens people. They struggle to access talents and skills they only think they possess. And with even a modicum of self-awareness, in the back of their minds they keep Oz saying, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” All that smoke-and-mirrors is stressful and wastes energy.

A Creative Environment

Paradoxically, humility’s strength also comes from being grounded in the reality of our own shortcomings—and being comfortable with not being perfect. Humble leaders know that they can’t do it alone—and aren’t threatened by other talented people. Consequently, they don’t surround themselves with people who are exactly like themselves or who think exactly as they do. They select talented, self-confident people who complement their own strengths and weakness, who have different personalities, backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, and who are willing to question and challenge them. They don’t micromanage people into acting exactly as they would; they trust people to succeed by doing things their own way. This diversity of personalities, perspectives and skills generate a dynamic, creative, learning environment. level5It’s Not About You.  Strength also comes from knowing it’s not about you. Leadership is never about you. If it is, you’re not a leader—you’re a narcissist. One hallmark of exemplary leaders is selflessness. George Bradt, who writes for Forbes.com, explains:  “One of the most fundamental lessons of leadership is that if you’re a leader, it’s not about you. It’s about the people following you. The best leaders devote almost all of their energy to inspiring and enabling others. Taking care of them is a big part of this.” In Good to Great, Jim Collins describes the leader who combines personal humility with professional will as a “Level 5 Leader”— the top of his leadership hierarchy. In 1996, Collins began researching what makes a great company. He started with 1,435 companies and ended up selecting 11 truly great ones, all headed by “Level 5 Leaders.” What these leaders had in common was an it’s-not-about-me mindset. They focused on others. They shared credit for success easily—and readily accepted responsibility for mistakes. They were not threatened by other’s success; instead, mentoring and molding other leaders energized them. As a result, people followed them because they wanted to.

In short, humility gives strength through growing self-knowledge, supporting creative environment and focusing on others. Humble leaders desire success so that their organizations and people can thrive. I am not sure humility is really back on the executive conference room table, but it never should have been off the table—even for those of us not likely to captain a starship or become pope.


moonKevin P Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.  Kevin currently provide services to non-profit organizations through a partnership with Professionals in Philanthropy.

LinkedIn: kevindincher           Twitter:  kdincher

 

Posted in Leadership, Organization Development (OD). Tags: , , , , . Comments Off on Leadership: Get to Know Yourself – and Then Realize It’s Not About You
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