Send OUT the Clowns…

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“Put your tray on the belt when you are finished with it and slide it back through.”

No response from the intended target of the shouting.

“PUT your tray on the belt when you are finished with it and slide it back through, Sir.”

Still no response from the guy. This is going to get interesting, I thought as stood watching events unfold as I put back on my belt, shoes, watch, jacket and started to pack my laptop back into my carry-on bag.

“Are you DEAF, huh?”

The intended target finally looks up. “Are you talking to me?” he said with all the menace that Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro) used as he stared into the mirror in the movie Taxi Driver.

“I’m looking at you aren’t I?” snapped back the Airport Security guy in as equally nasty tone.

“No offence, mate,” began the passenger whilst shaking his head, “but it’s way too early in the morning to be taking any orders from a jumped up rent-a-cop like you . . .you put the tray back through if you like because I won’t be doing it. . .anyway, it doesn’t seem as if you have a who lot else to do. And don’t be shouting at me.”

“Wha…? Who do you think you are. . . is this your bag here? I’ll need to check that before you move on, Sir.”

“Like hell you will, I have a flight to catch.”

“You won’t be catching any flight with that attitude, I’m telling you…”

I didn’t have time to stick around to see how it all ended as my own flight was being called and I had to dash to the gate, but I was totally with my fellow passenger on this one. It was super early, everyone was tired, and this security guy was just standing around barking at people; moments earlier, as I waited to go through the screening machine, he had literally snapped at a poor elderly lady because she had forgotten about the bottle of water in her handbag. Everyone in the queue watched as he lectured someone old enough to be his grandmother. He was nothing but a jumped up thug as far as I was concerned, clearly unhappy in his job and definitely one of those people who should never be given a uniform of any kind unless it comprised giant yellow shoes, a twirling dickie-bow and an oversize multi-coloured coat.

In contrast, not less than half an hour later I was 15,000 meters or so up in the air and being asked in a pleasant friendly tone whether I wanted tea or coffee with my breakfast by a no-doubt equally tired but super-professional member of the cabin crew on the flight. Chalk and cheese.

Anyway, the two incidents got me thinking about leadership and especially about the different styles we need to apply depending upon the individuals involved, or the situation faced and so on. Sure, as a general rule managers today should be empowering their people and using participative styles for as much of the time as possible, but there are times when certain individuals need to be reined in big time; like that clown of a security guard for example; he was definitely one individual who needed his wings clipped.

Okay, you might argue that I only witnessed a snapshot of his behaviour, but I’m long enough in the tooth to know that it was likely not an exception but the norm: you could tell by his sanctimonious attitude that this was par for the course for him – and the fact that one of his colleagues threw his eyes to heaven in resignation as the altercation with the passenger ensued proved, to me at least, that this sort of behaviour was not a one-off. This guy obviously lived an unfulfilled work-life, where clearly he believed that the travelling public, i.e. the customer, were at his beck and call and that he called all the shots. Sure, he has a job to do, and an important one at that, but I’ll wager that nowhere in his Job Description does it say he must act like a complete jerk whilst doing it, hassle little old ladies, or give some guy a hard time because he didn’t send his tray back; nor does it likely say in the said Job Description that when there are two guards standing around with nothing to do, that neither of them should lift a finger to help but rather they must bark at customers to do their work for them. . .okay, okay I’ll stop now before I lose the run of myself.

Anyway, as I said, encountering two contrasting employees did get me thinking about leadership and as you well know there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can work in every given situation, for every employee. Flexibility is the key of course, but that’s easier said than done because we all have preferred styles of leadership, or we can ‘lose it’ on occasion which means that we adopt aggressive approaches which achieve little. Before I talk a bit more about the different styles that can be adopted, let’s provide a bit of context for this particular subject and to do that I need to take you on a quick trip down memory lane.

You may remember something called Theory X and Theory Y from your past college days, or from some development course you may have attended. As a brief reminder, the idea was first mooted by Douglas McGregor in his 1960s book “The Human Side of Enterprise”. Essentially his X/Y model emphasised the following: Theory X assumed that individuals are lazy by nature, work-shy and need to be constantly driven to do their jobs. Theory Y, on the other hand believed that people go to work of their own accord, because work is the only way in which they have a chance of satisfying their need for achievement and self-respect; people will therefore work without the need to be coerced into it. In terms of management styles, Theory X required an authoritarian approach where the focus is on productivity and results; managers must exercise high control to overcome people’s natural aversion to work. In contrast, Theory Y is a participative style of management which believes that by involving and empowering employees delivers the best results.

It was very much an either/or scenario and as we all know management life is rarely that clear and actually requires a mix of X/Y at times, although the predominant management theories and approaches these days can be said to be Theory Y-based. However, the X/Y model was one of those seminal moments which, along with others, served to spawn the ‘leadership model industry’ that has grown up since, whereby various models tried to encapsulate the best way to lead – in reality, all were based on some form of scale or matrix which ranged from a ‘tell’ (X Theory) approach to a ‘sell’ (Y Theory) style, or some variant on that theme. Yet, for all the models and theories out there, when you talk to managers today – even experienced ones – they frequently say that they find the ‘style’ issue to be one of their greatest challenges; and when you meet clowns and great employees in the same morning, it is a reminder of just how big a challenge it is to be flexible in your approach.

I begin with the reference to Theory X/Y because I want to make the point that for all the developments in leadership thinking over the decades, my encounters during that recent trip back to Geneva reminded me that there are those who need to be what I would call ‘managed’ and others who need to be ‘led’. Now, I don’t pretend to be the expert on leadership styles but I have spent a lot of time considering how best to portray what is required in terms of how to deal with the variety of people and situations you encounter, so I thought I would share it with you today. And I’ll begin this section of the article with a quote:

“You are here to fight. This is an active theater of   war. Ahead of you lies battle. That means just one thing. You can’t afford to   be a goddamned fool, because, in battle, fools mean dead men. It is   inevitable for men to be killed and wounded in battle. But there is no reason   why such losses should be increased because of the incompetence and   carelessness of some stupid son-of-a-bitch. I don’t tolerate such men on my   staff.”

These words, spoken by General George S. Patton, give a good insight into the man and quickly let us know that he was a tough, inflexible and single-minded individual – and a  military hero to boot. Old Blood and Guts, as he was known, is one of the most successful and notorious military leaders in history and played a significant part in the defeat of the Germans in World War II. Patton had an uncompromising leadership style which never changed and he was known to be direct and stubborn throughout his military career – to all comers.  His bluntness and intolerance, was undoubtedly an advantage on the battlefield, but it got him into trouble off it on more than one occasion during his career and nobody earned his wrath more than men he viewed as cowards. In one highly publicised incident, which occurred whilst he was visiting patients in hospital, he was reprimanded for slapping a soldier who, when asked what was wrong with him, had responded in words to the effect that he was too afraid to fight.

The poor old General probably wouldn’t survive for too long in the modern organisation, I fear. Nor should he be expected to I suppose, because leadership is all about context. Whereas, his rigid and inflexible approach served him well in battle, something more subtle is necessary in the world of work today. Organisations are not about life and death, so as managers we must all have greater flexibility in our approach if we are to handle the nuances and complexities of the work environment. And that means having the capacity to deftly adjust your approach in response to different people and situations.

In terms of trying to define a practical framework to depict the leadership styles you should consider, the start point is to strip everything back to the fundamentals and recognise that management, leadership, call it what you will is ultimately about juggling often opposing forces, namely getting the job done to the standard required (process) in order to deliver the expected results (performance) and recognising that the work is done by your employees (people). In juggling these forces, you are then faced with some key questions:

Ultimately any leadership style you could ever apply would be based on the interrelationship between the levels of direction and control you exercise versus the amount of involvement and autonomy you allow your employees. No single style, or narrow range of styles, is going to get that balance right; only flexibility can do it. And as mentioned earlier, the style you will adopt may depend upon factors such as:

Employee Engagement Levels: How engaged your employees are will influence your style of leadership generally.
Individual Performance: the ability and/or willingness of a particular individual to deliver what is expected of them will always determine how you respond in terms of style.
Situations/events/problems: different situations, events and problems will require different responses

In my view, you could say that there are three main styles of leadership that you can adopt:

Now, these are not styles that you jump in and out of, but it is more a matter of a continuum, or sliding scale which you subtly shift back and forth along depending on what you feel will work best. You might well use all of these styles in any given hour depending upon what they are faced with:

Steering: At times, such as if you were dealing with Bozo the Security Guard, you would need to exercise high direction and control over employees; you would need to ‘steer’ him in the direction you want him to go i.e. in his case, to stop being a jerk. The steering style is essential when faced with individual or collective underperformance, when quick decisions or action is required or indeed when decisions must be implemented which are not open to debate. However, and this point is critical, steering does not mean being aggressive – aggression should never form any part of your approach. But that is not to say you won’t be firm and direct with people as required.

Engaging: on other occasions, the best approach is to reduce direction and control and increase involvement and autonomy because you should recognise that a failure to do will eventually create employees who act like robots – they will not use their own initiative but will instead wait to be ‘told’ everything. You might apply this style in simple ways by including people in decision making or in allowing them to propose solutions to given problems. For most of the time, you should try to adopt the engaging style because by its very nature it helps to build the engagement levels of your employees.

Facilitating: On other occasions, particularly with high performing teams or individuals, you should be willing to give them high levels of involvement and autonomy. As a leader, you essentially take a big step backwards and trust your people to make the right moves. You are still in charge of course but you recognise that your people, or at least some of them, are ready to be essentially self-managing. At the same time, Low control does not mean NO control.

The real challenge for any manager, and one that as I said concerns every leader, is having the ability to be flexible; and to do that you need to have a range of attributes and skills which underpin effective leadership such as empathy, assertiveness, communication skills etc., and probably most necessary of all in this context, self-control. If you are the type of manager who loses your temper frequently, then you will continuously struggle to apply flexible styles because when the red mist descends, you will likely go the aggression route. You should always be assertive not aggressive regardless of what particular style or approach you are adopting.

Apart from aggression, though, there are many ways that managers can mess up on the style issue and it’s worth considering one or two of those instances now. Some managers, usually those who lack confidence, can tend to overdo the direction and control for far too much of the time. At their worst, they move beyond the Steering approach to one that could be described as a Micro-Managing style of leadership:

Even when they loosen up a little bit, the Micro-Manager rarely shifts beyond steering or low engaging styles and in general, their insecurity and desire to control everything limits their ability to be more adaptable. Certainly, they rarely get to high engaging or facilitation styles for to do so would be bad for their blood pressure. Working for such managers, unless you like to be controlled that is, is entirely frustrating for most people and top performing employees won’t suffer such individuals for too long.

At the other extreme, there are some managers who are leaders in name only because they never give enough direction or control and rather than allow involvement and autonomy, they essentially leave people to their own devices a lot of them time, so in essence their predominant style could be described as Abdicating:

Although a rarity in commercial enterprises, I have seen a few abdicators floating around the Public Sector in my time.

Now, no doubt you’re thinking that there is a bit of ‘putting-people-in-boxes’ going on here and, yes, to some extent there probably is; and there has to be in order to explain the various styles that can be adopted and particularly the risks associated with getting your leadership style wrong. As one manager memorably put it to me, ‘I am a bit like a chameleon and try to adapt my style to fit the situation I am faced with’. And that’s a good way of describing it – it’s about having the confidence and skill to be able to quickly guage what you are faced with and then respond with the appropriate style. Of course, from time to time you will get it wrong, that just makes you human, but some managers consistently fall down when it comes to leadership style and in that sense they are more like charlatans than chameleons.

That is not to say that if you were Bozo the Security Guard’s superior that you wouldn’t be tempted to go ballistic on him, but although that might give you some short term pleasure, it would cause you more harm than good in the longer term, because for nothing else you would have given him the satisfaction of knowing that he had wound you up. As a result, he would then know where one of your buttons is. And, he would probably continue to push it at every opportunity.

Oh, and he would probably honk his horn, or set his tie on fire every time he did so.

Enjoy your day!

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