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Leader Killers – Who to Fire, and Why

Michael is a superb leader of his 240 person organization.  He communicates mission with clarity and vision and purpose.  He provides guidance and light during the darkest changes.  When uncertainty arises, he implements a calm, clear, and focused plan for his team to follow.  He knows where his company is going and how to get them there.  He is absolutely admired by everyone who knows him.  Michael is a pillar; a guidepost; a true servant.  His every action would be textbook perfect except for one thing:  Michael’s company is dying.  He is losing his best and brightest performers and they are taking the clients with them.

One of my VPs asked me why I gave more of my personal time and attention to a baggage handler than I did to him.  I told him, “That’s easy – he’s more important than you are!”  ~ Herb Kelleher (Co-Founder and Former Chairman and CEO – Southwest Airlines)

In organizations the size of his, Michael is making a classic mistake:  He is forgetting that the real leaders in his organization are his managers.  He forgot that for all his vision and enthusiasm – he is NOT the most important leader on the team.  People’s happiness at work lives and dies at the hands of the people they work for directly.  It is the front line manager that matters most, and a real leader’s #1 job is to know exactly how well those managers are admired and respected.  Listening to those they manage – the front line – is the only way to find out.  Because a bad manager is a killer of great leader.  To blindly trust them without verification can undo everything you have worked to create.

In a his blog post at Corridor Conversations, Singapore businessman Jamshed Wadia pins down seven things to look for in managers (and ourselves) when evaluating team management performance.

Walking the Talk: Good managers dig in with their teams when asking for extra effort.  They display the work ethic they expect.  Managers who allow the team to work harder than they do never keep the respect of the front line and always create dissent.

Credit Where It’s Due: “Nothing kills the motivation of a person more than someone stealing his or her credit. We all need appreciation and kudos for the work we do and it’s probably one of the basic expectations that anyone has from their manager.”, Wadia writes.  As a leader, you must beware of the manager that brags without mentioning the names of her people.  By default a manager’s job is to turn talent into performance, so claiming credit for actual work is a key indication that a manager just doesn’t get it.  Managers should be in your face about recognition; just never for themselves.

Adding Value: It seems simple, but it is amazing how many managers can be replaced with the auto-forward function for their email account.  Your managers should be questioning your orders.  They should be suggesting other ways to do things.  Your managers should be telling you, “No.”  Nothing is quite as frustrating as working for the blindly loyal when its clear that the leader (you) haven’t considered the particulars of your new great plan.  Your managers should be adding value to the conversation by staying in your face about the things that won’t work – especially where their corners of the organization are concerned. Yes-Managers fail to be the “guardians” of their people best interest – and that can (will) cost the organization.

No Gatekeepers: The baggage handler should feel completely welcome to talk to the CEO.  Herb Kelleher gets it.  So does Howard Shultz of Starbucks.  Access to you should never be restricted.  You are NOT too busy to talk to anyone in the organization about anything, and managers who try to act like your press agent and keep “the small stuff” off your desk should be sent packing. Hint: It is ALL small stuff. The guy under the manager IS way more important than the manager.  If someone is standing in the door – holding anyone back – fire the idiot in the door.

Holding Back: Be on the look out for managers who think anyone under them is “too valuable”.  Unless they are fighting for a raise to keep them on the team – the “too valuable” label is almost always about holding them back.  Managers should be encouraging growth, opportunity, and advancement for those under them that have potential.

Honest Feedback: Do your managers evaluations come as a surprise to the people on the team?  They shouldn’t.  Evaluations should be timely, and relevant, and most of all – expected.  Unscheduled praise is one thing, but an negative critiques on performance that come without warning are often about keeping people in their place.  An often present trait in gatekeepers, sniping evaluations are delivered by those with security and esteem issues that are poisonous to the team.

Balance in The Force: I’ve never been a big fan of the “work-life balance” concept – but Wadia has a good point, in that balance needs to be practiced if it is preached.  Managers can’t be duplicitous in this, or any other area, of their personal lives.  They can’t reach morality where none exists in themselves, they can’t preach rest while working the overtime like a martyr, and they can’t pass judgment on those who value their lives outside the organization.   Even if they have issues with the private lives of the people on the team – the good ones will never vent to you about it.  Good managers are the watchdogs of their people’s best interests (remember) and wont seek your opinion on things they can work out on their own.

Taking your vision as the leader of your team and forcing it backwards every now an then is vital to mission success.  Actively looking for the Leader Killers that may be in your midst is just as important as checking your compass for direction.  For all the leadership hype of the last decade – never be fooled that leadership and management are terribly different things.  When they work together, miracles can happen.  When they don’t, the managers will win the fight and you’ll lose the battle every time.   Because managers are the real leaders on your team.  They ARE the company to the front line and who they have to live and deal with every day.  If they are doing a bad job – get them gone; get them replaced; and you’ll see moral and performance improve.

About the author

Mario Vittone Mario Vittone has eighteen years of combined military service in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. His writing has appeared in Yachting Magazine, SaltWater Sportsman, Lifelines, and Reader's Digest. He has lectured extensively to business leaders, educators, and the military on team motivation, performance, mission focus, and generational diversity.

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