DON’T follow the leader

Thoughtless leadership comes with a price. From top to bottom, it hurts the morale and success of a team. It negatively impacts business metrics. It can destroy a brand. Those were the thoughts that ran through my head as I read about a boneheaded leader eliminating one half of the talent pool in their organization. I wondered, “Is there a time when we should not follow the leader?” I believe there is.

First, a word about my state of mind. I purposefully do not blog about religion, race, politics, sexuality, or anything that tends to separate people. I am a rugged individualist; when I work with clients, I’m interested in their success and dreams – I don’t care what they look like, where they were born, what God they believe in, whom they voted for, or whom they love. These topics are irrelevant in a discussion about talent. Their personal beliefs may fuel their talent – and that is important – but they are they are not the source of their talent.

I am violating my own rule, because this blog is about the behavior of a religious person. However, I am reviewing said behavior in the context of organizational and corporate leadership. Ineffective leadership is unproductive, no matter where it makes its home.

It was with disbelief that I read a small paragraph in the Detroit News which announced that a religious leader in San Francisco had eliminated the use of young ladies serving as altar girls. The leader states that serving on the altar is a “training ground” (my words) for religious leaders, and these leaders must be male. That’s annoying, yet not unexpected in this organization. But, his next point absolutely stopped me in my tracks. This leader claims that the introduction of altar girls has caused the boys to lose interest because the “girls generally do a better job.” His leadership response? Eliminate the girls.

We can learn from this misguided “person in positional power” (I can’t bring myself to call him a leader) because people like him exist in all aspects of society, including corporations.

Let’s dissect his messages.

  1. You’ll never be CEO! So what? Does that make the girls chopped liver? It does not. Beyond the obvious gender bias, why is this dumb? It is dumb because girls with the talent and passion to participate are eliminated from the system from the beginning. Maybe at “this place of business,” girls will never enter the upper echelons of the corporation, but one doesn’t need to be a senior vice president to be a happy, high contributor delivering tremendous value. Maybe they don’t even want to be CEO. High individual contributors are the foundation of success in an organization because they often do most of the real work. This “person in positional power” has just reduced their potential contribution to zero. Is this company is so rich and successful that they do not need to retain high performers? Hmm… In addition, the young ladies are robbed of the personal development and self-actualization that serving as an altar girl might offer them. Perhaps they might go on to serve AIDS patients in Africa, or fight drug addiction in the inner city. Serving in a community often launches a servant leader. We need more of those.
  2. Excellence is Irrelevant! This “person in positional power” is responding to the disengagement of the low performers by firing the high performers. Seriously? You don’t want the girls who are interested in the job and have the talent to do it well because they don’t match the square peg created by your HR team? Maybe someone should focus on why some girls like the role AND why some boys are losing interest. Maybe recruitment for the role isn’t on target. Maybe the altar boys don’t feel supported, or feel pressured to “rise in the ranks”. The lack of interest demonstrated by the boys may have nothing to do with the performance of the girls. If that is true, this “person in positional power” is in grave danger of solving a problem that doesn’t exist. How many companies have gone out of business by barreling blindly down that path? Let’s check back in a year and measure the engagement of the altar boys after those pesky, high-performing female teammates have been sent to the curb for recycling. My bet is that it will remain relatively low.
  3. My way or the highway! Some companies behave in a manner that indicates that your experience with them matters less than their dogma.   In the face of such incidents as described above, current and future customers vote with their feet (and where the feet go, the wallet follows). They may not even bother to tell you they are leaving and never coming back. In this case, how do you think the young ladies feel? Can you envision them being lifelong customers of a business that shuns them? How many times will they share this story as they grow up? What about the parents? The aunts and uncles? The siblings? There is always a domino effect in business. Serve clients well, clients will spread the word and return. Serve clients in a poor and unreasonable manner, clients will REALLY spread the word and you’ll never see them again.

When it’s done right, business is a Win/Win/Win proposition. Companies win. Employees win. Clients Win. This drives success & growth. If any group repeatedly loses, the formula fails, sometimes with disastrous results. Most businesses and leaders understand this. Others never will.

This story is a great example of a “person in positional power” who believes that he knows best, who is operating with no sense of reality of what it’s like to be a low-ranking member of his team, who is making poor decisions that undermine the employee and client experience, and is oblivious to the causal relationship between his behavior and the long-term success of the organization.

If you find yourself in a corporate culture that serves the select few differently than they serve the rest (and the select few make the rules on who is selected), pay attention. How does that feel? Who is winning and who is losing? What are the human costs to employees, customers and stakeholders? What untapped talent is left on the table? Is there peer pressure to keep your thoughts to yourself? Who will hold the leader accountable? Should you stay? Should you leave? There are no easy answers, and we each must decide for ourselves, but ignoring the reality won’t send the problem away.

A “have versus have not’s” culture survives on a bottomless tolerance for pain within those residing in the “have not” category. Beware the allegiance trap; the leaders are banking on you to silently remain loyal to them, no matter the price.

To follow, or not to follow? Empower (as Mr. Gates advises) or diminish?  What do you think?

Maureen (Ideation . Strategic . Learner . Achiever . Individualization . Maximizer)

4 thoughts on “DON’T follow the leader

  1. Well said Maureen. I could not agree more with your perspective on leadership. Sometimes, your ‘loyalty’ can be misplaced and then it is known as foolishness. Lemme share a story. In 2003, I completed my graduation and stated preparing for my MBA (as my parents wanted me to). While studying, I picked up a part time job, at a walkable distance away, small time office. While I worked there for 3 months, I became really engrossed, engaged and dedicated towards my manager, whom I thought always thought in my best interest. I was loyal. In the mean time, I got an offer from a big MNC, full time role, however needed me to move away from my city and parents. I spoke with him and he said I should NOT consider it. He gave a list of reasons why I should not move to a new city. I did not.

    But after a few months, he did! He moved to the same city I would have. I could not believe.

    I am not reading too much into the story but I felt cheated. We should be careful to put our loyalty in the hands of people who ‘really’ care. Else, be ready to be ‘manipulated’ by people.

    • Hi Khalid! As always, you bring a real world example to help us deeper understand the ramifications. That “leader” (person in a position of power) was not looking out for your best interests though you had placed your trust in him. And look at the trust withdrawal he created. All relationships are built on trust – and EVERY SINGLE INTERACTION between two people either invests in the trust bank or removes trust. It is never neutral. He proved himself someone that could not be trusted with your well-being or success. His well-being/success was more important than yours. And look how long that has stuck with you – your example is from 2003. 15, 16 years. “People have a long memory for poor treatment.”
      Thanks for jumping in!!

  2. Maureen…great analysis of a “leadership” situation. I’ve found that I can always learn something from my boss or leader, and sometimes it is what NOT to do. This is a perfect example.

    • HI Janet! Thanks for coming out and sharing your point of view. You know what I think of you as a leader (ie ROCK STAR) for how you empower and support your team – and yes, the what NOT to do can be helpful, both in how the individual chooses to behave (perhaps losing command of themselves) and the resulting impact it has on the team. If you look at what happened (this was a church in San Francisco called Star of the Sea), one of the girls (a 7th grader) “felt insulted” and multiple folks have left the church. It is one thing for a “leader” to do something dumb and then see no consequences. It’s another thing altogether to watch the dominoes fall… Thanks again, Janet!

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