The Commandments of “Unleadership”

Leadership has been studied in depth for almost a century.  Yet there exist no unequivocal or definitive prescriptions as to its essence. Plug the word into Google and, in a split second, you get 463 million responses. Warren Bennis, an acknowledged guru on the subject, has noted that there are more than 850 distinct definitions of what constitutes leadership. His favourite, and perhaps most often quoted, is that “Managers do things right; leaders do the right things.” 

While nothing of great consequence is achieved without leadership,  defining the concept is not easy. It is perhaps akin to efforts given to precisely define love, jazz, or pornography: you know when you are in the presence of someone you love, you know when you hear good jazz and you know pornography when you see it. But, in each case, you still may not know exactly what it is.

While we often regret the absence of leadership,  just as frequently we fail to articulate its presence. And to generalize about anything is to lose grasp of what we’re seeking to understand. In consequence, leadership has joined a list of 21st century words – like the related notions of “excellence” and “quality” – with meanings that have become substantially debased and thus misunderstood by overuse, if not also abuse.

Perhaps, a better understanding of leadership lies in the application of a useful principle of advertising  – the one that suggests we can more quickly comprehend a complicated idea by describing what it isn’t. The rationale here being that it’s easier to start with, and then build upon, one’s current level of knowledge rather than by trying to fathom a completely novel concept.

This longstanding communications tactic was used successfully by Henry Ford  when he introduced his first-ever Model T to an uninformed marketplace as a “horseless carriage.” The term “unleaded gasoline” quickly enabled drivers to know an important but essential difference at the pump – the fuel has no lead added – rather than having to understand the purpose and consequences of catalytic converters. Seven-Up was promoted for years as the “Uncola”, thereby substantially increasing its market share against the category leader. Such is the power of “un”.

Maybe the essence of leadership is best understood by appreciating what it’s not.  By discovering what to do to become a terrible leader, one may stand a better chance of becoming a terrific leader. A counterintuitive notion to be sure but, in today’s complex discontinuous world, it’s also one that merits consideration as a simple heuristic for learning what it takes to lead others.

If so, here are ten commandments worth emulating for anyone aspiring to become a really bad leader – Thou shalt:

1. Never take risks – you will only increase the chance of making a lot of mistakes. And that will make your followers believe you are fallible.

2. Never let your emotions show – especially your passion or enthusiasm for your work. People will think you’re a wuss.

3. Avoid professional development opportunities  and discourage the desire in others to do so – you’ll save the company a lot of money. And that will make your shareholders very happy.

4. Always have a good excuse handy – the more complicated the better – and never take the blame for anything. It’s important that you exude a strong presence as commander-in-chief.

5. Always point out the faults in others  (in as scathing and biting a way as is humanly possible such that they will never forget your richly deserved dressing down). After all, your fundamental purpose as leader is to improve performance and that means people must know what behaviours need correcting.

6. Never share your knowledge or wisdom  with subordinates – they will inevitably use it to undermine your authority and then seek to replace you at the top. Your tenure will be short so why make it even shorter?

7. Never ask a question you cannot answer yourself – people will think you are incompetent if you don’t know what to do. After all, isn’t telling people what needs to be done the essence of leadership today? 

8. Always micro-manage the really important projects – that way you’ll get done exactly what you want done. And your staff will greatly appreciate your help.

9. Always assume your organization’s competitive advantage is permanent – there’s no use worrying about the things you cannot control.

10. Always endeavour to appear unapproachable – this will save you a lot of time as people will be forced to deal with their own problems. Isn’t that how people learn to become better problem solvers? (And time is, after all, your most precious asset.)

Learning and practising these ten commandments on a regular basis  will ensure that, despite your intelligence, talent, skills and motivation, your current actions are always sabotaging your leadership prospects.

Followers, not leaders, determine what are the truly important behaviors  within the organization and all of these commandments focus on undermining what ought to be a robust, respectful and synergistic relationship between the two. Leaders can set the good examples but its followers that decide whom they will follow.

So the really important question you must now answer for yourself  is this one: Which of these commandments do you already do quite well?

This article was written for and published in The Bottom Line, June 2013.