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Obey me or else?!

November 20, 2014 Mark Hannum

The Nixon tantrum…

I’ve watched several scenarios develop right in front of my eyes over the past few weeks that reminded me of Richard Nixon’s famous “I am the Vice President” rant. For those of you who may not remember, long before Nixon was President, he was considered–abused, dissed, joked about–a do-nothing politician. With that reputation he, of course, assumed the role of Vice President, a role with no authority, power, or leverage. It was the perfect combination of person and role for the comics, comedians, and quick-witted politicians of the opposite persuasion.

And when no one took him seriously, he screamed, “I am the Vice President,” as if that meant something to people and that they should instantly obey.

…happens in businesses, too

In the last seven work days, I’ve seen three corporate vice presidents pull the exact same rant out of their pockets.

The first VP was brand-new to the powerful job. On and on he went about how he was going to make things right, improve the business, force people to follow the rules the organization had established (except the rules he personally did not like–those he was going to change). When people yawned, he escalated into a narcissistic tirade that pretty much sealed his fate as a leader.

The second leader listened to a very promising change in organization process, then basically said yes with a condition–that all the resources for the effort needed to be approved by him. He quietly laid out the conditions under which he would “allow” change to occur in the organization. When the other leaders around the table protested that this would kill the change, he countered, “I am responsible for this company’s results. The buck stops with me. I’m the COO.” The rest of the table hung their heads. Game over.

In the third instance, the VP of human resources made a decision to cut off information to all peers, effectively keeping them from key data that would have helped them lead their divisions more effectively. The excuse? “It’s my data. I get to decide how it’s used in this organization. They wouldn’t know how to interpret it even if they did have it.”

Obeying is not following

These three examples are fundamentally about positional power–the power of the individual’s title or role in the organization. My baby-boomer disrespect for authority aside, I don’t follow titles or roles. I don’t follow people who wield authority to make themselves feel good. I don’t follow power trippers. And I’m not alone. No one follows these types of leaders. We may obey them, but we don’t follow them. It is a distinctly different dynamic.

The leadership slope

In mathematical terms, the imposition of authority or title by leadership on employee performance generally results in a negative slope, and at best, a linear relationship. The inverse–leadership that is inspirational–generally results in exponential gains in employee performance; we see the discretionary effort from employees that we actually want to see. Leaders who impose their titles on others are living in the mechanical world of Sir Isaac Newton. I believe that I learned in high school that the world has moved past Mr. Newton.

Followers look for inspiration–inspiring leaders, inspiring visions and missions, challenging goals. Followers know the difference.

Have you suffered under an obey-me-or-else leader? How did that affect your effectiveness, productivity, and morale? Share with us in the comments below.




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