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Which refuge?

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When it comes to leadership, coercion is the first refuge of the lazy.

Last week’s column put forth this modest little aphorism, and its proof:

  • In healthy organizations, excellent employees, individually and working in teams, presented with a terrific idea and a well-thought-out plan for implementing it, will want to make it real and will work hard to do so.
  • Therefore, in healthy organizations, coercion, threats, and punishments are, at best, superfluous.
  • Therefore, if employees who are presented with an idea and a plan don’t want to make it real and/or aren’t willing to work hard to do so … if, in other words, coercion, threats, and punishments are necessary … then the organization is unhealthy in one or more of these respects:
    • The employees are not individually excellent.
    • Employees’ sense of teamwork is inadequate.
    • The idea is less than terrific.
    • The plan won’t work.

In response, several correspondents pointed out that while this might be the case in an idealized organization, most managers inherit their teams — they don’t build them from scratch. Beyond that, excellent leaders are demonstrably able to achieve superior results with mediocre team members.

The world is generally more complicated than the idealized space within which geometricians construct their proofs.

Nonetheless, the proofs are important. So here’s a quasi-geometrical analysis to clarify the situation, this time in the form of a matrix:


Excellent leaders can achieve strong results with less-than excellent teams. They also take responsibility for the quality of their teams, developing employees who have more potential than ability, and replacing those who aren’t doing their part and clearly never will.

Adequate leaders might not add much to an excellent team’s ability to deliver results, but they do generally have enough sense to stay out of the way. The team knows what it has to do, and gets the job done.

Until, that is, the situation changes, and what the team knows no longer fits. Then, a team’s strength becomes its weakness. It takes strong leadership to steer an excellent team in a new direction. Merely adequate leaders will either fail to recognize the need for change, won’t understand how to adapt to the change, or will be unable to get their teams to buy into the new program.

That leaves poor leaders. If it isn’t obvious: No matter how strong a team they inherit, poor leaders will eventually deliver dismal results, because they’ll drive out strong team members and hobble everyone else.

Those who lead scientists, engineers, and other technical professionals have an especially tough challenge. They must be excellent leaders, and also can’t escape the need to be literate in their fields. Among the reasons, these three stand out:

First, leaders have to be in a position to assess the strength of the individuals and teams who report to them. The more abstruse the field, the less likely it is that a generic leader will figure this out with any degree of accuracy. If you don’t know who’s strong and who isn’t, the teams reporting to you won’t improve because you won’t know what “improve” looks like.

Second, leaders have to set direction, and to recognize when a change in context demands a change in direction. They have to know, for example, when it’s time to abandon object-oriented analysis and design in favor of a services model.

Okay, that’s a bad example, since nobody seems to have a clear idea of what the actual differences are, if in fact there any differences other than OO’s link-time binding vs SOA’s run-time binding … but the principle still holds. Anyway …

Third, leaders then have to allocate assignments to achieve the organization’s goals. If they don’t know the trade, the assignments they hand out will be reasonable only by accident.

What will happen when those receiving the assignment to, say, build a perpetual motion machine object because they’d need to violate the laws of physics?

Answer: The leader, unable to evaluate their objection on its merits, and unwilling to back down for fear of being judged weak, will be forced to rely on coercion (by, for example, firing the complainers).

Which means that in addition to being the first refuge of the lazy, coercion is also a refuge of the ignorant.

Comments (4)

  • OK, Bob.
    You’ve described the upper-level management of at least three Fortune 5 companies I grew up knowing. (As stated, my father was in one of them, he sold the paint for the four other’s cars). The issue here is that as I understood the problems, management operates in guess and by golly mode most of the time, thus making them appear weak (in mind, if not resolve) most of the time.
    Now that I’m a creditor of the biggest (at the time) and they wouldn’t listen then, I just may be able to make them listen now.
    Nah, they’re no brighter now.
    See if you can buy enough Toyota to offset the lost money in taxes when the whole plan sinks.

  • I’ve definitely lived through an environment like this.  This, coupled with your previous post on “holding people accountable”, definitely describes an organization in turmoil or trouble.  What’s most interesting is that these organizations appear to be able to persist, even with these problems, for years or decades.  Which raises the corollary question:  at what point does one simply get out instead of trying to change the organization?

  • Looking at your table, I would say that an excellent leader should train (or retrain as the case may be) the poor team, and only replace persistently bad employees.  A greater investment in training will pay off in the long run, as it will provide superior morale as well as higher quality employees.  Given time, truly excellent leaders should be able to move their staff up the chart, from poor to adequate and from adequate to excellent.

  • Not sure about moving many employees from poor to excellent, no matter how much time and energy the leader invests. Truly poor employees will need parenting, not leadership, and the time needed for such a risky investment would be better spent acquiring better raw material.
    No question: Lousy leadership will drive even the best employees down the chart. Excellent employees won’t let a bad manager drive them down very far, though.
    – Bob

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