Leadership Is Easy If No People Are Involved

My friend Jack just got a new job.

"Do you love the job?" I asked him.

"It's great," he said, "but the big thing is, I'm never going to be caught behind the eight ball again."

"What do you mean?" I asked him.

"I'm staying on my game and ready to bail, at any point," he said. "That's my new motto."

Of course, Jack is right. From this moment forward, any working person who thinks, "Well, I have a job; I'll turn my attention to other matters," is missing the boat. We can't afford to go to sleep in our careers. We have to get altitude, stay alert, know our value and our saleable talents, and create options for ourselves all the time.

How Job-Hunting Starts

Here's why Jack left his old job: They cut his pay 30 percent, without changing anything else in his agreement.

"I guess I'll start taking Friday afternoons off," Jack said to his boss, when the word about the one-third pay cut came down.

"No, you can't do that," his boss said. "We need you to work even more hours, in fact." Jack started job-hunting that day.

"I'm dying to know the expression on your boss's face when he told you that you couldn't take Friday afternoons off, after the pay-cut message," I said.

"He looked stony," Jack replied.

"Apologetic?" I asked.

"Nix," said Jack.

"O.K., how about regretful?" I parried.

"Not regretful, not remorseful, not abashed, neither humble nor sympathetic," said Jack. "Liz, you have to understand. The guy doesn't give a fig about me or anyone else in our department."

"O.K.," I said, "forget empathy. What about plain old business? Surely he expected you to start job-hunting once he slashed your paycheck?"

"He might have expected me to leave," said Jack, "but he certainly never inquired about that or expressed the hope that I'd stick around and help the company recover." (By the way, six months down the line, the business hasn't recovered.)

Just the Speadsheets, Please

Jack's story jolted me into a realization: Leadership is a snap if you don't worry about people.

Managers in every state in the U.S. and around the world are evaluated on their results. Here's the key question: Which results move the needle on managers' raises, bonuses, and promotion opportunities? In most organizations, it's the "business" results that matter. I've put "business" in quotation marks because in the twisted, people-aren't-part-of-it view of the world, "business" results are financial results, whereas people results are a totally separate, much less important category. If people care about work, respect the boss, learn on the job, are recognized for their efforts, and trust one another, that's awesome, but it's awesome gravy. It's nice to have, but not essential, in the spreadsheet-first-people-last view of the world.

Until we evaluate our leaders on how they actually lead—on the trust and respect and forthright communication and teamwork they engender—we can expect the same outcomes we're getting now, namely apathy, turnover, and cynicism. We can expect those things and stop pretending to be surprised when people dash out the door at 5 p.m. or feel unable to care about their managers' highest priorities.

I talk with managers all day long, and for me they fall into two buckets. One type of manager says, "Do you have any tips for motivating my team?"

"What can you do for them if they perform?" I ask.

"I can't pay them a fortune, but I can bring them into decision-making, give them some flexibility in work time and place, recommend them for promotions, and let my bosses know what they're capable of," these human-centered managers say. Bosses like that have a chance of getting people to care and to work hard.

The second group of managers also asks, "Do you have any tips for motivating my team?"

When I ask, "What can you do for them if they perform?" the answer is, "Do for them? As in, bend the policies? No way—I can't take that risk. My job is on the bubble itself."

Leadership means taking responsibility. A leader doesn't say, "My employees are losers," because to say that is to say, "I hire losers. I must be King Loser myself." Leadership is a pain in the neck, but it produces the best results on the spreadsheet and in real life, too. Fake leadership, the kind where people don't enter into the equation, is easy. That must be why so many people find themselves sucked into it.

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