Op-Ed in Management Today: Real leaders need to lose the ego

Real leaders need to lose the ego

By Isaac Getz,   Management Today, 13 Feb 2019

“The biggest shortage in the world is not oil or food. It’s leadership without ego.” So said Bob Davids, who has successfully led six companies in diverse industries for 40 years, including a leading high-tech toymaker Radica and world-famous winery Sea Smoke Cellars.

Davids’ claim is explained by former General Foods CEO Clarence Francis: “You can buy a man’s time, you can buy a man’s physical presence at a certain place … but you cannot buy enthusiasm, you cannot buy initiative, you cannot buy loyalty, you cannot buy the devotion of hearts, minds, and souls. You have to earn these things.”

Of course, if a CEO has a big ego, if they think they are the smartest person on the block and show it permanently, they won’t earn devotion — in other words, engagement. However, ego is not only the CEO’s behaviour. It’s also embodied in organisational structure and practices. The bigger the ego and the steeper the hierarchy, the more controlling the organisational procedures and motivational — carrots and sticks — practices.

Hence, employee engagement requires a radical transformation of the command-and-control organisation. This starts with the CEO letting go of ego. I have never seen a successful organisational transformation without the leader’s personal transformation.
SHRINK THE LEADER

The power of any country or organisation resides with its people.  When people see that their leader respects them and uses the power they granted him or her for their good, they give the leader even more power. They show loyalty and engage. But when they see their leader hoarding the power they granted, acting with contempt, they begin to withhold that power. They stop following the leader and start resisting his or her measures. Ultimately, they may pull the CEO down.

I met some leaders who did not have an ego to begin with. Their personal history shaped their humbleness, which hasn’t been altered by growing responsibilities. Most leaders though, needed several months of executive coaching. Then, a few needed a psychoanalyst, which is a good thing.

This idea of shrinking a leader’s actions turns our common conceptions about leadership upside down, but it isn’t a new thought. Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, wrote in the 6th century B.C. of this type of leadership he called Wu Wei. One transformational business leader Jean-François Zobrist described Wu Wei thus: “To act without acting is a laissez-faire that does not mean doing nothing, but means creating conditions in which things happen by themselves.”

Yet, the idea that effective leadership could mean getting out of the way — going fishing instead of dealing with pressing business issues — still feels paradoxical. It feels like anti-leadership, and so we ignore it as an alternative.

FIVE LESSONS FROM BOB DAVIDS

Bob Davids is among those whose actions and track record exemplifies this radically different leadership concept. He is not some superhuman leader. Such leaders, despite occasional successes, make their organisations permanently fragile — at the mercy of their departure or some surprise. Davids’ achievements have come thanks to being a very human leader, who refrained from acting when others might have found it irresistible.

Here are just five edited excerpts from more than one hundred hours of recorded interviews with Davids.

1. “Management is controlling the things you can. There are only three things that you can control in business: time, money, and quality. Note that there is no mention of people. You can’t control people, you can only lead people.”

2. “Micromanagement sends the message to the people that they are idiots. And as long as you think they are idiots, they will be idiots. In fact, you’re making them idiots. The people that go out and make you money, you think they’re idiots. Why do you keep them if they’re idiots?”

3. “As a CEO you should not want to be loved or even liked, but if you can’t earn the respect of every single person, you should quit. As leader, you are a failure.”

4. “Authority is not leadership. You can be the owner, chairman, or even CEO and not be a leader. Conversely, a supervisor or foreman can be a leader. It’s not authority that makes a leader, it’s whether people want to follow.”

5. “You’re in trouble with the CEO when he thinks that money is more important than people. If the people, environment, culture, and morale are correct, you have the opportunity to make money. If you focus on money, the lack of morale, the lack of culture will bring you down as a leader. The people in the organisation will find a way to get you out. They will.”

Isaac Getz is professor at ESCP Europe business school and co-author with B. Davids & B. Carney of “Leadership without Ego” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019).

“Leadership without Ego” gems — Week V

Here is the 5th group of five little exceprts from Leadership without Ego by B. Davids, B. Carney & I. Getz (Palgrave MacMillan) in print Jan 2019.

“The fun of a business is inversely linear to the size of the company. The bigger you get, the less fun you have and more headache, and the culture starts to fall apart. When you get past 200 people, then you have to have another level of management–the vice-presidents, aka, the fun killers.”

“I’m not sure growing a company just to grow is good. I think the quality of product and the quality of life is something to go after. Size doesn’t always matter.”

“The more power you get, the less you can use because as soon as you use the power incorrectly, you lose it all. The power lies in the organization, not within you. It’s like the wall. There are the bricks and the mortar. And in the mortar there are gypsum, water, sand, and the smallest component of all: lime. So, as the CEO, I’m the lime, that little trace of adhesive that holds the wall together.”

“If employees are primarily after material needs, it means that they are in bad environments, with bad leaders who cater to these material needs, hoping to motivate people. I think it is anti-human. If people are put into the right environments, they can motivate themselves.”

“A leader needs to be looking at month to year and beyond. All minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, week to week, month to month stuff—the people you hired should be dealing with those. If you’re doing one single thing of them you are mismanaging your business.”

“Leadership without Ego” gems — Week IV

Here is the 4th group of five little exceprts from Leadership without Ego by B. Davids, B. Carney & I. Getz (Palgrave MacMillan) in print Jan 2019.

“As the No. 2 person in your organization you have no chance to build the culture and lead the ‘fun.’ That is always the responsibility of the CEO. You can add fun in a major/minor way which will make you friends, but the No. 1 can kill a culture and fun with a single bad policy.”

“Sometimes I was embarrassed to be called CEO (hated being called boss as it implies dictatorship). When someone would call me the CEO, I would quip, ‘Yes, Chief Entertainment Officer’—building the culture and leading the ‘fun’.

“The CEO’s N°1 job is not protecting the business assets. It’s not profitability. It’s a human issue, which comes under auspices of morale: to build the culture that allows people to have freedom, work together and communicate together. That creates an environment where people can enjoy their own success and want to be there.”

“As a CEO, I would write to Robert Townsend—a Radica Games board member and chairman of the compensation committee—three documents every year: my resignation letter, executive compensation plan, and succession plan. I would give him my resignation letter and add, ‘All you have to do is take it out of your pocket and tell me you accept it.’”

“The last document Townsend demanded every year was a written succession plan: ‘If your airplane crashes, don’t make the board guess what we should do. Prepare it writing, one page. If you can’t put it in one page, you don’t understand the problem.’ I told him that if the problems were many I would add a second page. He said, ‘Put the important stuff on page one—I will not read page two.’”

“Leadership without Ego” gems — Week III

Here is the 3rd group of five little exceprts from Leadership without Ego by B. Davids, B. Carney & I. Getz (Palgrave MacMillan) in print Jan 2019.

“Candidates have to have the job skills to be interviewed, but the interview is really about whether they fit our culture. Cultures are built one person at a time.”

“If you focus on what you can’t do, you overlook what you can do. Rules tell you what you cannot do. Rules are handcuffs. If you have the right culture, then people are free to think. Rules limit the thinking.”

“As a CEO you should not want to be loved or even liked, but if you can’t earn the respect of every single person, you should quit. As leader, you are a failure.”

“The more things you do wrong, the faster you learn. But if you refuse to acknowledge that it was wrong, you refuse to learn. Is that what you want? The key is to not make the same mistake twice.”

“One human being cannot motivate another human being; motivation comes from within; people can only motivate themselves. All the CEO can do as a leader is to create an environment whereby people motivate themselves”.

“Leadership without Ego” gems — Week II

Here is the 2nd group of five little exceprts from Leadership without Ego by B. Davids, B. Carney & I. Getz (Palgrave MacMillan) in print Jan 2019.

“If I stack a chain on the table and then push it, what direction will it go? The correct answer is, ‘I do not know.’ If I pull the end of the chain which way will it go? It will follow you.” General Dwight Eisenhower.

“Micromanagement sends the message to the people that they are idiots. And as long as you think they are idiots, they will be idiots. In fact, you’re making them idiots. The people that go out and make you money, you think they’re idiots. Why do you keep them if they’re idiots?”

“If you think you’re special, you are not. You can be more educated or more talented but you aren’t more special. In order to collaborate and make decisions together as a team, we need to be on an equal footing with each other. That’s the only way, everyone will trust one another.”

“I see so many people who, when they were given the opportunity to receive power, they took it. They have a special office, a special desk, a special car. That’s the road to evil. When you apply a different standard to yourself from the people you’re leading, then you are no longer a leader.”

“Vice-Presidents are fun killers. They can be an obstacle to a great culture because they think they can ‘manage’ morale. In reality, it is the CEO, who controls morale. The VPs add a layer of management that insulates the CEO from the people”.

“Leadership without Ego” gems — Week I

Here are the first five little exceprts from Leadership without Ego by B. Davids, B. Carney & I. Getz (Palgrave MacMillan) in print Jan 2019.

“The biggest shortage in the world is not oil or food—it’s leadership without ego.”

“A superior skill-set makes you better in that discipline. It doesn’t make you any better as a human being, superior to others. The more unique your skill set, the more subordinate you must become. Don’t let your ego grow on account of your superior skills.”

“Leadership is not authority. You can be the owner, chairman, or even CEO and not be a leader. Conversely, a supervisor or foreman can be a leader. It’s not authority that makes a leader, it’s whether people want to follow.”

“Management is controlling the things you can. There are only three things that you can control in business: time, money, and quality. Note that there is no mention of people. You can’t control people, you can only lead.

“Decisions need to be pushed down to lowest level possible. A poorly led company allows decisions to go up to the next management level. Eventually, the CEO winds up swamped and ineffective.”