Sabotage?

We’ve all seen the World War II movies where U.S. soldiers crept behind enemy lines and blew up bridges, tunnels and other elements of infrastructure. We hold our breath as our boys used cunning and guile to defeat the Germans at every turn. This was classic sabotage at its finest.

Would you believe that entrepreneurial leaders can sometimes be saboteurs too? Are you wondering how? Consider this. Nathan owns an internet marketing company with 24 employees. He has a couple of up-and-comers on the team. Nathan is a strong, hard-charging Type-A personality and is quite a taskmaster. He seldom expresses his gratitude to his rising stars. Instead, he can be hypercritical at times. Nathan claims that he is simply trying to push his best and brightest to excel. Because of his sense of urgency he tends to issue instructions in a rapid-fire manner. When mistakes are made, Nathan becomes impatient and can even unleash a tirade that is directed in a very personal manner. His colleagues do not want to bring him bad news – it’s not that they don’t want to let him down, but because they fear his wrath and tantrums. On the other hand he can be witty and charming. And his company has achieved enormous success.

By contrast, Amanda started a consumer products research firm while she was in college and has watched it grow over the past five years to 35 employees. Amanda is also a high-achiever and a similar Type-A personality. She sets lofty expectations for her team and they respond by meeting or beating their goals every quarter. While it’s clear that she’s the boss, team members love Amanda’s collaborative style. Even when a mistake is made she remains positive and upbeat while counseling the errant employee. Amanda never berates anyone and is always supportive. She’s no pushover either – if certain employees continue to underperform she will show them the door. During a 360 review, the most common statement made about Amanda is, “I always feel that she values my contribution.”

The difference in leadership styles between Nathan and Amanda is very stark. They are both generating eye-popping results, but their paths are totally divergent. Nathan is a saboteur and is succeeding in spite of his approach . . . for now. But like a Roman candle that pierces the night sky, eventually it flames out and disintegrates. Nathan’s company is always in a state of upheaval. Drama is occurring at every turn. Employee turnover is high and if it weren’t for his two blossoming lieutenants keeping everything together, the whole enterprise would blow up. When the boss constantly undermines his team the implosion clock is ticking.

Strong leadership – the kind demonstrated by Amanda – begins and ends with positive encouragement. A calm sense of urgency replaces the chaos, and team members do not fear for their sanity (or safety!) when a failure is experienced. The basic premise is pretty easy to understand. Are people more motivated to succeed in an upbeat and encouraging environment, or one that is negative and subjects people to personal embarrassment?

The legendary Steve Jobs of Apple fame was an awful boss. Ramon Henson, an instructor of Management and Global Business at Rutgers Business School wrote this about Jobs in 2011. “It is well-known that Steve Jobs could be arrogant, dictatorial, and mean-spirited.  Despite the observations of some about Mr. Jobs’ arrogant style, I believe that he had at least three qualities that great executive leaders have: a clear vision, a passion for the company and its people, and an ability to inspire trust.  This is what I would consider his leadership character. In fact, Mr. Jobs not only had a vision, he made sure that everyone in the company bought into that vision, and this created a ‘higher purpose’ for the company that really excited Apple employees. Of course, his passion for the company and its products is legendary. And employees trusted Mr. Jobs – not because he founded the company but because he showed time and again his competence in many areas, especially product design and marketing.  And because employees saw – through his behavior – that Mr. Jobs was not driven by his own ego or by some self-interested needs (like the outrageous pay packages of some executives), they trusted him. So if Mr. Jobs was at times arrogant, even nasty, employees viewed these behaviors in the context of these underlying qualities.”

I believe Steve Jobs was an anomaly as a leader. That Apple achieved great results while enduring his leadership style is a testament to this outlier notion. In other words, “don’t try this at home.” The probability of success is exponentially higher when creating an environment of positive encouragement than one of daily sabotage.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 58 – The Really Big Bus.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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