Losers and Leaders from 2010: the Good, the Bad, and the Bungled

In honor of the closing days of 2010, it is only fitting for me to reflect on some of the leadership lessons learned from the daily news this past year. Here are my seven picks for notable “leaders” and “losers” for the past 12 months.

Please let me know your picks in either category, and if your recommendation is chosen for an update in 2011, you’ll get a copy of my book “The 8 Greatest Mistakes New Managers Make“ and your contribution will be featured in an upcoming edition of “Leaderslips & Tips: the Good, the Bad, and the Bungled(sign up here).

Leader – Chilean Miner and Shift Supervisor Luis Urzua for organizing, mobilizing, and supporting his fellow miners for more than 70 days after the collapse of the San Jose copper and gold mine near Copiapo, Chile. The disaster trapped 33 miners nearly half a mile underground, with meager resources, and little chance of being found or rescued. Mr. Urzua assigned tasks, rationed supplies, instilled discipline, and maintained morale under impossible odds. In short, he combined key principles of leadership in an unprecedented situation to help achieve a successful result.

Loser – Golf legend Tiger Woods for his tardy, emotionless and incongruent “apology conference” in February. Mistakes are expected and forgivable offenses; however, misdeeds (like Mr. Woods’) call for consequences and contrition. Tiger’s apologies came so late in the game that they appeared pragmatic, like a box that needed checking before he could get back to golf. His delivery was stilted and rehearsed, and the setting was contrived for publicity purposes.

Leader – Former Chancellor of Washington, D.C., Public Schools Michelle Rhea for her personal and relentless commitment to educational excellence. Ms. Rhea has been called “woman warrior” for taking bold and unpopular action to fix one of the nation’s most troubled school systems and improve test scores in the process. Featured on the cover of Time magazine and in the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” she also attracted critics and made enemies, as bold leaders often do. She resigned in November when one of those critics became her boss after the election, refused high-paying job offers as a result of her notoriety, and began a larger initiative to catalyze education reform nationwide.

Loser – Former BP CEO Tony Hayward for his wayward public relations and icy demeanor in the aftermath of the deadly Gulf rig explosion and oil spill. He coolly minimized the event, was haughty before Congress, and appeared largely detached from the unfolding tragedy. In a pivotal television interview, he stated sullenly, “We’re sorry” a few times but reversed any chance of empathy by adding sharply, “…you know I’d like my life back.” Staunchly supported by BP’s Board of Directors for most of the crisis, Hayward was quietly replaced by a subordinate in July.

Leader – Former CEO of Accurate Background Checks Lola Gonzalez for her unique and unselfish departure as head of her company. Her Florida-based business was suffering from the tough economy, and she felt forced to cut jobs to help it stay afloat. Instead of starting at the bottom or making across-the-board job cuts, however, she began at the top, downsizing herself out of a job and putting control in the hands of her associates. Stating that the company was staffed with smart people who could carry on without her, she turned over the keys to them in November.

Loser – Former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards for his betrayal of trust and lack of values-based leadership. After a series of revelations about his misdeeds during and after his presidential campaign in 2008, Mr. Edwards finally admitted in 2010 that he fathered a child with a former campaign worker, even while his wife stoically battled cancer. His charming persona had contributed to his success to a point, but his behavior and above-the-law arrogance was finally revealed and reviled.

Leader – Panama City School Board Member Ginger Littleton for her spontaneous act of courage in the face of overwhelming odds, force, and fire power. On December 15, Clay Duke emerged from the audience, painted an ominous symbol on the courtroom wall, and started threatening Ms. Littleton and the rest of the board with a handgun. Even though she was dismissed by the would-be assassin, Ms. Littleton only pretended to leave the room, snuck up behind the killer, and struck at him with her purse, hoping to dislodge the weapon and save her colleagues. While the rest of the board sat motionless, she put her life on the line to save theirs. She is a leader for her decisiveness, valor, and selfless values.

Please let me know what you think of these and what your picks would be for 2010. Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!

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When the Lame Duck Leader is You

Since 1940, there have been 16 “lame duck” sessions of Congress like the one we are experiencing right now. Lawmakers who were voted out of office in November are still in power, creating some unusual dysfunction and animosity. Their short-timer status sets up strained relationships and a caustic work environment among lawmakers, at least until January 3 when newly elected lawmakers are sworn in. After that, we can look forward to returning to a normal degree of dysfunction and animosity.

But don’t think for a minute that it’s a good thing you and your business don’t have to operate this way. You do!

In the normal course of business, you are likely to find yourself as a lame duck leader whenever you are succeeded in your role as a manager. Unless the changeover is instantaneous, leadership succession puts managers into the same kind of ambiguous gap of time known between the announcement of promotions and the time that successors step in.  Like lame duck representatives in Congress, the leader will still be in the current role for a time, but they will be suddenly impacted by the temporary nature of the job. Unlike Congress, once your lame duck status is revealed, your new job is to make your successor successful. To do that, you must:

  1. Stay focused on your current job. There is a natural tendency to mentally “check out” of your soon-to-be-vacated job because the upcoming role appears more interesting, exciting, and permanent. But you owe it to your employer, your team, and your successor to maintain high standards and strong results during the transition period. Make it clear to your team that everyone needs to stay focused on their jobs while preparing for a smooth transition. If you’re spending more than 10% of your time preparing for your new role, you are taking too much time away from your current job.
  2. Make the transition swift. Once it becomes apparent that you will no longer be their leader, your team will be restless and ready to move on in a very short time. While they may defer to your leadership on routine matters, anything of consequence is likely to be sidetracked or shelved until the succession is complete. As a result, you must do all you can to speed the transition; help find and prepare a suitable replacement as quickly as possible.
  3. Make the transition smooth. No matter what the circumstances of the changeover, your successor and work team deserve a smooth hand-off, so prepare a well-organized briefing and orientation period that includes information about the following: (a) mission, vision, goals, strategies, policies and procedures you have been using, including what has worked and what needs improvement; (b) a summary of the people on your team, including roles, goals, skill summaries, performance notes and development plans; (c) proper introductions to all major internal and external stakeholders.

Not only does your employer deserve the best possible transition, the way you manage during this critical time will add to or detract from your reputation as a leader. Your managers will pay close attention to how well you handle your responsibilities at this time, and their future recommendations will affect your next leadership succession. While there’s not much you can do about Congress’ approval rating, you can still maximize yours when you’re the lame duck leader. It’s your legacy, and it’s your job.

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The Congressional Conundrum and Yours as a New Manager: Decide how to decide to keep your approval ratings higher than theirs

Congress and the president are currently locked in a now-urgent struggle to decide whether or how to extend the “Bush tax cuts,” which are due to expire at the end of the year, and all sides are taking heat for the compromise currently in the works. Feeling the pressure that everyone in Congress helped to create, the president characterized the situation as being “held hostage.” To keep your management decisions from being called “odious,” leaders need to decide how to decide and communicate that approach early and often.

By definition, a compromise occurs when each party in a negotiation gives up something of value in order for an agreement to be reached in a timely manner. While neither side of the aisle is getting everything it wants, a congressional decision had to be reached, even if it was to let the tax cuts expire. With all the rhetoric about being “bi-partisan,” particularly after the mid-term elections, why is compromise (a characteristically “win-win” decision-making method) being seen as such a “lose-lose” proposition?

Because it is not the normal or expected decision-making method and the stakes are especially high and unusually visible.

Earmarks” aside, the normal decision-making method in Congress is the “up or down vote,” by definition a “win-lose” arrangement. Majority rule defines the winner as the side with the most votes, thereby “disenfranchising” the losing side of the debate. While this method is also odious to the losers, this decision-making method is the expected approach for this organization — public compromise is the aberration.

The sudden incongruity of Congress’ decision-making method is the upsetting factor, not the method itself. And the inconsistency of your decision-making can cause similar dissention on your team. This is not to say that one decision-making method should be employed – it should not. This is to say that your choice of decision-making methods should be made clear from the outset.

One of the biggest mistakes new (and experienced) managers make is not explicitly deciding how to decide. In one situation, the manager calls people together to get diverse opinions then makes a solitary one. In another case, the manager chooses a course of action without asking for input at all. Yet in another circumstance, the same manager might delegate a decision to a task force or take months to reach consensus.

To properly balance quality, expediency, and ownership for execution, versatile leaders must employ a range of decision-making methods in the workplace, including: directive, consultative, consensus, majority rule, and delegation. But even then, undue consternation can erupt when stakeholders don’t know which decision-making method is being employed.

For example, if associates are expecting to give input but are not consulted, they can easily feel discounted in their opinions. When they have normally been delegated to and they are told what to do and how to do it, they feel micromanaged. And when they think a consensus is in the making and a unilateral decision is made, don’t bother asking for their opinions again!

Like Congress, you might find yourself with the lowest approval rating in your history if you don’t decide how to decide and let people know what that is ahead of time. Take a lesson from Congress. It’s a conundrum you can avoid, and as a leader, it’s your job.


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Lola Gonzalez demonstrates steward leadership at the top

When Lola Gonzalez was fired from her job as the CEO of Accurate Background Checks, it was not a penalty but a reward – for her employees. The tough economy had put such a squeeze on company profits that she realized staff had to be cut for the business to survive, and that made her mad. So to save her team from downsizing and to keep the business afloat, the headcount she cut was her own.

Leadership roles are constantly turning over because of downsizing, promotions, career decisions, and changes in strategy. Competent leaders like Ms. Gonzalez surround themselves with the best possible talent, not only to perform their current functions but to prepare future leaders to take over and maintain success. No matter what team or organization you lead, your job is a temporary one, so you need to start preparing for the transition from the first day. It’s part of being a steward leader.

While not all leaders get to choose the time of their departure, Ms. Gonzalez was ready when her moment arrived, and she was confident in her team. After delivering the surprising news to her staff, her employees asked who was going to run the place, and she replied, “You are, and I trust you.”

Do you trust your staff to immediately take over your role if necessary? Have you prepared them for this responsibility in advance? Do you have the mindset of a steward leader? If not, you are unwittingly putting your team, your organization, and even your own career at risk. With her management skills and leadership perspectives, Ms. Gonzalez will have little difficulty finding her next role, and if you develop these competencies, the same will be true of you.


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