Myth­buster

small ef­forts = big im­pact

The Smart Manager - - Contents - Shawn Hunter, au­thor of Small Acts of Lead­er­ship, busts a few lead­er­ship myths.

Shawn Hunter, au­thor of Small Acts of Lead­er­ship, dis­pels cer­tain lead­er­ship myths.

01 great lead­ers pos­sess great con­fi­dence 02 mid­dle man­age­ment is be­com­ing ir­rel­e­vant 03 lead­ers can al­ways rec­og­nize wrong­ful be­hav­ior

As one of the most revered col­lege bas­ket­ball coaches in Amer­i­can his­tory, John Wooden coached his Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia bas­ket­ball team to an un­prece­dented ten na­tional cham­pi­onship ti­tles in twelve years. This re­mark­able win­ning streak in­cluded an as­ton­ish­ing run of 88 un­de­feated games in a row, and back-to-back 30-0 sea­sons.

If you had been lucky enough to play bas­ket­ball for him in the 1960s and early 1970s, you would have been sur­prised on your first day of prac­tice. In­stead of the op­por­tu­nity to show your pass­ing, shoot­ing, and drib­bling skills in front of the es­teemed coach, your first lesson at your first prac­tice would have been to learn to put on your socks and lace, and tie your shoes prop­erly.

At the first prac­tice of ev­ery sea­son, Wooden would ask his play­ers to take off their shoes and socks—ex­plain­ing that these were the most im­por­tant pieces of equip­ment each player pos­sessed on the court. Wooden taught his play­ers how to care­fully pull on each sock, mak­ing sure there were no wrin­kles, particularly around the heel and toes, which might cause a blis­ter.

Then, ad­vis­ing each player to hold his socks up firmly while lac­ing his shoes, he told the play­ers to pull the laces se­curely from each eye­let, not sim­ply yank the laces from the top. And al­ways, al­ways, dou­ble-knot the laces, Wooden said, hav­ing no tol­er­ance for shoes that be­came un­tied dur­ing a prac­tice or a game.

Lead­er­ship is not about how to put on your shoes and socks, but it is about do­ing lit­tle things that can lead to big im­pact. Small, con­sis­tent ef­forts, prac­ticed over time, can yield big re­sults for you, and the peo­ple around you.

Here are three of the big­gest myths of lead­er­ship that sim­ply are not true, yet are con­stantly shared and re­it­er­ated over and over.

01 great lead­ers pos­sess great con­fi­dence

Stan­ford Univer­sity is one of the great­est aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions in the world, and ev­ery year it pro­duces some of the finest lead­ers. To get into Stan­ford re­quires not only good grades, but also a record of demon­strat­ing lead­er­ship, in­ge­nu­ity, com­mu­nity ser­vice, and an ap­ti­tude for con­tin­u­ous learn­ing.

Each year, Olivia Fox Ca­bane, who teaches at Stan­ford, asks her in­com­ing group of fresh­man, “How many of you feel that you are the one mis­take that the ad­mis­sions com­mit­tee made?” Each year, more than two-thirds of the stu­dents raise their hands.

Meryl Streep has been nom­i­nated for more Academy and Golden Globe awards than any other ac­tor in his­tory. She told doc­u­men­tary film­maker Ken Burns, “You think, ‘why would any­one want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act any­way, so why am I do­ing this?’”

Great lead­ers come un­der pres­sure con­stantly. Pres­sure of­ten cre­ates stress. In a typ­i­cal stress re­sponse, heart rate and breath­ing in­crease and blood vessels con­strict. But those who rise to chal­lenges with the be­lief that stress is a pos­i­tive op­por­tu­nity have an op­po­site phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­sponse: the blood vessels open and re­lax as if they were in a state of ela­tion or prepa­ra­tion for a phys­i­cal test.

Em­brac­ing ad­ver­sity and chal­lenge with a pos­i­tive mind­set is an­other way of say­ing that you trust your­self; it is an­other ges­ture of con­fi­dence. And that con­fi­dence and re­solve will make you much more re­silient for what­ever chal­lenges arise. The first se­cret of great lead­er­ship is the abil­ity to re­lax and turn neg­a­tive stress into pos­i­tive pres­sure.

02 mid­dle man­age­ment is be­com­ing ir­rel­e­vant

This myth has been prop­a­gated as re­cently as April 2016 by Josh Bersin who writes: “One of the se­nior ex­ecs I talked with the other day told me ‘I don’t have time for mid-level man­agers any more. I can get the in­for­ma­tion I need to run

my busi­ness through our dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion sys­tems. If our lead­ers aren’t hands-on ex­perts in their busi­ness ar­eas, I don’t re­ally need them.’”

I dis­agree. Mid­dle man­agers are the cul­tural lifeblood of or­ga­ni­za­tions. They guide the mood of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, at­tract and re­tain top talent in their in­dus­try, and be­come the lens through which ev­ery em­ployee sees the com­pany. They also serve as a bridge be­tween in­di­vid­ual con­trib­u­tors and ex­ec­u­tives. If they are good, man­agers pro­vide con­text, tone, and cul­tural glue.

Tom DiDonato, Se­nior Vice Pres­i­dent for Hu­man Re­sources for Lear, a global tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion com­pany, told me: “Ul­ti­mately, peo­ple view the com­pany through the lens of the per­son they work for. They don’t say ‘I work for Com­pany XYZ, and even though my boss, and their boss, aren’t role mod­els for me, I re­ally love the com­pany.’ I doubt you will ever hear that... If you view your boss as a role model, you prob­a­bly think re­ally well of the com­pany. I be­lieve that to my core. That’s the one thing you don’t have to tweak... Keep get­ting great lead­ers. Keep de­vel­op­ing great lead­ers. Keep hav­ing those peo­ple in your com­pany that oth­ers view as role mod­els, and you’ll have that sus­tain­able cul­ture that at­tracts the kind of talent that ev­ery­body is vy­ing for.”

03 lead­ers can al­ways rec­og­nize wrong­ful be­hav­ior

The term ‘de­viance’ has long been as­so­ci­ated with be­hav­ior that is harm­ful, dan­ger­ous, or per­haps im­moral, such as ly­ing, cheat­ing, steal­ing, and other dis­hon­or­able acts. But some­times or­ga­ni­za­tions slip into un­eth­i­cal be­hav­ior, and go­ing against the norm in a pos­i­tive way, through ‘pos­i­tive de­viance’, may be more hon­or­able be­hav­ior.

“The cul­ture of any or­ga­ni­za­tion is shaped by the worst be­hav­ior the leader is will­ing to tol­er­ate.” - Steve Gruen­ert and Todd Whi­taker

Early in 2016, fall­out from the Volk­swa­gen de­ceit reached global pro­por­tions. The sys­temic de­cep­tion by Volk­swa­gen has been called the ‘diesel dupe.’ As a BBC news ar­ti­cle ex­plains, Volk­swa­gen was found to have in­stalled a de­vice that de­feated emis­sions test­ing, ef­fec­tively chang­ing the per­for­mance re­sults of the emis­sions tests on its diesel ve­hi­cles. This ‘de­feat de­vice’ was ac­tu­ally a

piece of soft­ware de­signed to rec­og­nize when the ve­hi­cle was un­der­go­ing emis­sions test­ing by rec­og­niz­ing test cir­cum­stances. VW has admitted to in­stalling this de­vice on eleven mil­lion cars world­wide.

Be­yond the me­chan­ics of the de­ceit and the pol­i­tics of the scan­dal lies the ques­tion, ‘How could the peo­ple and the cul­ture within Volk­swa­gen have per­mit­ted this?’ The de­vice was too in­te­grated and so­phis­ti­cated to have been a mis­take pro­duced by lack of over­sight, con­fu­sion, or even in­ep­ti­tude. The de­vice, and the de­ceit, had to be care­fully en­gi­neered and in­ten­tional. But were the en­gi­neers work­ing on the soft­ware truly aware that they were com­mit­ting an un­eth­i­cal act?

Daniel Dono­van, an in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy en­gi­neer in Auburn Hills, Michi­gan did rec­og­nize that Volk­swa­gen was do­ing some­thing very wrong, and he filed a law­suit against the com­pany af­ter they ter­mi­nated him for at­tempt­ing to re­veal the truth.

Diane Vaughan is a so­cial sci­en­tist who coined the term ‘nor­mal­iza­tion of de­viance’ to de­scribe the way or­ga­ni­za­tional cul­tures can be­gin to drift morally and ra­tio­nal­ize that drift over such a slow-time hori­zon that they are not even aware of it them­selves. Rather than be­ing pos­i­tive, this kind of de­viance is de­struc­tive.

As she wrote about in her book The Chal­lenger Launch De­ci­sion, Vaughan stud­ied the in­fa­mous 1986 Chal­lenger space shut­tle ex­plo­sion and dis­cov­ered that faulty O-rings, linked to the dis­as­ter, were iden­ti­fied as fal­li­ble long be­fore the dis­as­ter oc­curred, they were sim­ply tol­er­ated as an ac­cept­able flaw in the de­sign.

“No fun­da­men­tal de­ci­sion was made at NASA to do evil,” Vaughan wrote. “Rather, a se­ries of seem­ingly harm­less de­ci­sions were made that in­cre­men­tally moved the space agency to­ward a cat­a­strophic out­come.”

The O-ring dam­age ob­served af­ter each launch was nor­mal. The cul­ture had sim­ply drifted to a state in which that con­di­tion was also con­sid­ered ac­cept­able.

In the NASA ex­am­ple, the ex­is­tence of the dam­aged O-rings af­ter each launch was deemed ac­cept­able. It be­came an im­plicit, and ac­cepted, rule that ev­ery­one sim­ply tol­er­ated and be­lieved to be quite nor­mal. But if we step back for a mo­ment and study the sit­u­a­tion, as Vaughan did in her anal­y­sis, that ac­cep­tance of dam­aged O-rings seems pretty crazy.

Only a day be­fore the fa­tal launch of Space Shut­tle Chal­lenger, en­gi­neers Bob Ebel­ing and Roger Boisjoly stren­u­ously ar­gued to NASA of­fi­cials that the O-rings could stiffen and fail to prop­erly seal the joints of the booster rock­ets be­cause of the cold Jan­uary tem­per­a­tures. These ar­gu­ments were not per­sua­sive to NASA of­fi­cials be­cause, af­ter all, they had the orig­i­nal de­tailed en­gi­neer­ing re­port stat­ing that the risk was ac­cept­able.

The lesson is that the great­est lead­ers know that they do not know it all, and seek out the truth from all cor­ners of the or­ga­ni­za­tion. ■

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