Don’t Step in the Leadership


April 2000

Don’t Step in the Leadership


We often learn best from example-good and bad. As I’ve written elsewhere, leadership is not a gift or talent; leadership is a set of learned skills that one can polish up all the time. Although we find it edifying and uplifting to see the good examples in books like The Leadership Challenge, Leadership is an Art, and so on, often we need a horrible example to show us our darker side.

Scott Adams provides us with our daily dose of real world behavior-sometimes, perhaps, exaggerated. Nevertheless, I know that those characters and behaviors have lurked behind cubicle walls where I used to work. And, even if we interact daily with models of courtesy, respect, and concern, we hear about the other kind when we get home at night.

In the introduction, Adams offers us his theory of leadership:

Everyone says there’s a lack of leadership in the world these days. I think we should all be thankful, because the only reason for leadership is to convince people to do things that are either dangerous (like invading another country) or stupid (working extra hard without extra pay).

Obviously you don’t need any leadership to lead you to, for example, eat a warm cookie. But you need a lot of leadership to convince you to march through a desert and shoot strangers. Generally speaking, whenever there is leadership there is lots of hollering and very few warm cookies. Let’s enjoy the lack of leadership while we have it.

Perhaps this statement feels a tad cynical, but does it represent one facet of leadership? Well, unfortunately, yes, it does. A person who is leaving the company hires Dogbert to act as his stand-in at the exit interview. When listing the pointy-haired manager’s habits, he notes: “Now let’s talk about your stellar leadership. Your inspirational motto is…If I want you to do something that’s a waste of time, it’s my prerogative!”

How many times has some boss said this to you? Offhand, I can think at least 17.5 times. Unfortunately, I can also recall a few times when those words have popped out of my mouth when confronted by employees who didn’t want to do something my boss was making me make them do, and I had to “own” the policy. In my book, though, this is the reverse of leadership-it is, in fact, risk avoidance…but that is a another story.

Don’t Step in the Leadership takes a number of potshots at several corporate functions as well. Human Resources, in the person of Catbert, the Evil HR Director, does his best to set policy. In one memo, he writes: “Consistent with our effort to eliminate privacy and dignity…employees must share hotel rooms on all business trips.”

Pleased with this email, he considers his next edict, “After they get used to this, I’ll introduce the tandem showering policy.” What is particularly nice about Catbert is that he lays his motivations out on the table for all to see; he avoids the institutional passive and makes the intent of the policy clear to all. This technique actually models an effective leadership trait-tell people the agenda behind the direction; otherwise they will fill the void with the worst possible interpretation.

Perhaps when Adams grows tired of making zillions of dollars showing us the world as it unhappily exists in some places, he would consider starting his own high tech firm-one where ideas like shortening business meetings through “the invention of special chairs that heat up ten degrees for every minute the occupant talks. If you can make your point in one minute, you get a nicely warmed chair. But if you ramble on for forty minutes, you’ll burst into flames to the delight and applause of the other attendees.”

Where do I send my resume? I might consider doing dangerous and stupid things for a guy like this. To get even more of Scott Adams than you find in your newspaper, look at CIDMIconNewsletter