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Tim Strehle’s links and thoughts on Web apps, managing software development and Digital Asset Management, since 2002.

The idealist’s guide to leadership in the real world

Are you an idealist? Then you’re probably daydreaming of getting a say in how your organization is run. Once you have access to the decision makers, your great ideas will be heard, and you’re going to change the world together!

Well – unless you’re working for an exceptional organization, you’ll soon find out that the movers and shakers spend most of their time debating rather mundane details. The really important discussions are postponed or don’t result in decisions or actions. Yes, your great ideas will be heard but not much is going to come out of them. Everything will seem to move very slowly. (Except for the occasional surprising move that must have been decided upon when you were not in the room.)

What’s going on? This group of people could change almost everything for the better, yet nothing much happens. What about their passion, creativity, dreams and visions? Or at least, what about the pressing problems that call for swift and strong action?

Here’s what I learned about leadership realities from repeatedly failing to make a difference in “leadership teams” (as the idealistic but powerless guy):

Who said it matters. A lot. As the expert from the lower ranks, you often won’t be taken seriously. They can ignore you just fine regardless of what you said. The words of the powerful inevitably have a lot more weight.

They’re here for the quick wins. This quarter’s project, this year’s money matters. Soft targets like culture or customer satisfaction are less important than hard money and an easy to calculate ROI.

“Best practices” don’t matter. You might be enthusiastic because you finally found the perfect book or article: proof that what you’ve been talking about all along works great for others! Sorry, you will still have a hard time getting people to even think about it.

Facts don’t matter as much as you think: Your well-researched data can easily be dismissed with some anecdotal evidence or inapt metaphor. Because:

People aren’t rational. Most of the time, feeling right is more important to humans than actually being right. (My theory is that engineers are more likely to reflect and analyze rationally because that’s an important part of their job.)

Everyone believes their own lies and exaggerations – the stories they’re telling themselves. People get into the habit of bending the truth a little (it’s done, we have a great company culture, our customers are loving it) because they’ve got to sell something, and soon start living in their own made-up universe.

You cannot convince a group of a dissenting opinion. No matter how well-reasoned your opinion, it needs time to sink in, and groups reinforce the majority’s belief (“group think”). Changing people’s minds is hard.

They don’t really want to know because they’re afraid of change and discomfort. No-one’s intentionally blind, but they'd rather look elsewhere than face an inconvenient truth.

Priorities can kill anything. Often they won’t say you’re wrong: They’ll say you’re right but there’s more urgent problems, so let’s take care of this later. (Later, of course, there’ll be new high priority issues…)

“We’ve got to do something” doesn’t mean it gets done. Even if they agree on doing something, decisions and actions will be postponed whenever possible. Minimal or fake action (scheduling a follow-up meeting, promising to write a concept) is enough to make everyone feel the problem has been addressed.

People don't understand other people’s jobs, and don’t bother trying to. The CEO probably doesn’t know what the QA guy is doing all day, and that’s fine with him.

Some are doing work they don’t love and aren’t passionate about many aspects of their work. Yes, even in upper management.

They’re only striving for “good enough”, not for perfection, so what they get is mediocrity and they’re either fine with that (as long as it makes money) or telling themselves they’re great.

The real values will eventually surface. Honesty. Humility. Empathy. Taking responsibility. Trusting and developing and empowering others. Genuinely caring for customers and employees. Is that really our leaders? (For example, most people are okay with lies as long as it’s them who’s lying.) Sooner or later, you’ll find out.

Do I sound bitter? I don’t mean to. Just needed to write this down so I don’t forget the lessons I learned. (And I’m noticing I’m guilty of some of the above as well…)

I’d love to hear from you: Please teach us your tricks if you succeeded in hacking leadership. (I’m not giving any advice here because I failed at it…) Don’t stop being idealistic, keep changing your part of the world for the better!

(Inspired by the German article Mist im Management by Klaus Schuster, and many other gems linked to from this blog.)

Update (2016-10-20): Ricardo Semler – How to run a company with (almost) no rules: “Almost nobody who is in control is ready to take leaps of faith. It will have to come from kids and other people who are starting companies in a different way.”

Mon, 28 Apr 2014 20:13:02 +0000