Learning to Lead

I apologise if you have read this before, but some of you haven’t. I write for a website in Switzerland called Brodard about matters of work – mainly because I am an opinionated git and secondly I did work within a corporate metropolis for a large chunk of my career so I have some weight behind my ‘pions. I am still kicking the addiction to Flavia coffee (quite possibly the most evil brew masquerading as coffee that has ever passed my lips) and BC’ing people. Anyway, I am going to randomly publish them on Mrshev.com because they are a large reason why I am not posting on here as much as I should.

I spent a long swathe of my working life within a media leviathon that shall remain nameless (but if you were to attach two rodent ears to your head and prance around in a princess castle you could hazard a guess). I managed a department and as a consequence I was sent on a sucession of management training courses. They came in many flavours – and some I got to taste more than once – such as Time Management, Conflict Resolution, Motivation and Reward Strategies, Recruitment and Retention Techniques. They were organised as a series of modules, like Lego, so that you could potentially build your skillset to eventually become a Lego Star Wars: Death Star of management, stalking the hallways like Darth Vader using merely a flick of your finger to get some minions to do your bidding.

The Problem is is that it’s not as easy as that.

If management were as easy as learning a few simple Jedi powers (notice how glibly I throw that statement around…) then anyone could do it. I would glance around the conference room (possibly the worst environment to train anyone in anything but how to make a conference call or to use furniture polish) and knew that at least a third of them were terrible managers, another third were merely ineffective and the rest didn’t really want to be managers in the first place…but a couple of people – because I knew staff who worked within their department – I knew were very, very good indeed.

So, what set them apart? Was it because, like me, they had mastered Module #12 – Breeding a Culture of Success? Did they crib up on Module #8 – Motivation and Reward Strategies transforming their once benign abilities into evil, Sith powers of mind control? No, I don’t think so.

Another company I worked for found further ways of humiliating it’s staff by sending them on ‘management retreats.’ I will let you mentally chew upon that sentence for a bit, because it really is as bad as it sounds. A melange of managers (from different companies and market sectors) got the dubious pleasure of completing an outward bounds course with quasi military management ‘gurus’ observing our every decision and then having impromptu ‘appraisal hunker-downs’ (I truly wish I was making this up). Activities would include building a shelter or traversing a river with nothing more than oil drums, ropes and a couple of planks of wood. In one memorable episode, one appointed leader decided that two members of our squad would have to stay on one side of the river and ‘take one for the team.’ Words fail me.

Being good at management is not about learning a module or reading a book or even being able to build a bivouac out of a pair of underpants and some polyurethane; it is an ongoing development, an evolving role that changes and improves. Being respected takes time and effort and should be a reward for excellence and aptitude. Sure, you can refine it and improve upon what you already have, but like Star Wars not everyone can become a Jedi.

But what if you don’t want to be just (!) a Jedi, what if you want to lead the Jedi council?

That, I think, is something more primal; like a loose strand of RNA lurking around within us. If you think you can lead then you’re probably doing it already, and reading this is like reading the dishwasher manual as the machine completes it’s cycle in the background. Leadership is something unteachable; a unholy mash-up of charisma, strength, intuitiveness, intelligence and honest-to-goodness instinctiveness. I worked under some good – and some not so good – leaders in my time and there was nothing obvious that set them apart from us lesser mortals. It was never limited by sex, race, height or even experience – it just was. Some you were willing to follow to the brink and some you weren’t. A CEO once said to me that making the decision was the hardest part – whether that decision was right or wrong – but once you made that decision leadership was about whether you could rely upon everyone to follow you no matter what the consequences.

Finally, I bet you’re all wanting to know what kind of manager I was. Well, I ran a productive department that was loyal and committed and I was respected and even liked. Was I a good leader though? No.

Maybe I watched too much Star Wars.

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4 thoughts on “Learning to Lead

  1. Okay, this is one of the best posts you have written! It brings to mind something that happened to one near and dear to me. He received an email from work in which he was “cordially invited to a mandatory weekend strategy seminar.” Which left me dazed and confused…..I mean if it is an invite then one presumedly can decline? However the mandatory part leaves all polite protocol at the door! Why not just say we need all hands on deck people, no ifs, ands or buts!

  2. And only Jedi get to use cool stuff like the light sabre, surely the best weapon ever devised. You are so right about leaders. Maybe it’s all about fear. If you don’t fear, you can lead. If you waver your minions will sniff out your insecurities and defect to the Death Star (that’s from Star Wars too, right?). ‘Management retreats’? Even the wording is wrong. Retreating is the last thing management should be doing. I know someone who was so keen to make an impression during a management weekend that he went for broke during the ‘non-obligatory (yeah right)’ five-km run, fainted at the end, and came to in an ambulance. Jedi or non-Jedi behaviour, do you think?

    1. 100% for effort though. I used to hate management training…really, really hate it. I thought it was pointless and largely a waste of time.

      Darth Vader is obviously the leader everyone aspires to be.

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