22 March 2011


I keep coming back to my post titled The Effectiveness Of Signs. It's one of my favorite posts on this blog. I like the way it blends design principles with an important aspect of leadership - namely, doing stuff.

Now, the topic of Leadership-with-a-capital-L generally turns me off (I blame John Maxwell's horrible books for that - and no I'm not linking to them). But this blog is titled Rogue Project Leader, so I guess I'm not completely against the topic.

Anyway, several years ago I sat in the office of a very high ranking person. In the course of our conversation, he expressed his frustration over his inability to get the people who ostensibly worked for him to do what he asked them to do. I was part of a small  bureaucratic spetsnaz team that he had put together for the purpose of undermining the Defenders Of The Status Quo who were ignoring his direction. That conversation, and his frustration, have haunted the back of my mind ever since.

Now, with the perspective of some years, I wonder if maybe he was a bit like the sign maker in my earlier post. His sign was clear and unambiguous... but still the trashcan was not where it was "supposed to be." It's not a perfect analogy - I'm not saying he posted his sign behind the door or was asking anyone to put the trashcan in an inconvenient place. But clearly there were divergent priorities and interests. And just like with the trashcan story, the power lay in the person who actually moved the can.


Phil said...

@Dan...I think some day you may revisit your thoughts on Maxwell. Until then, I heard a twist on "leadership is influence" at school this year that should resonate with you...essentially, leadership is influence derived from one's values. that supports your argument that Hitler wasn't a leader (because his influence was not based on positive values). thoughts? as for your haunting memory, sometimes a leader needs to recognize what he can't change. then he either needs to change himself or leave.

The Dan Ward said...

@Phil - No doubt Mr. Maxwell has some nuggets of good content in his books, but I had a hard time seeing them through the haze of his arrogant self-congratulations and dogmatic, closed-minded approach (i.e. "no matter what anyone else tells you, I'm irrefutably right").

Plus, when he said the law of magnetism is "like attracts like," um, I had to object that when we're talking about magnets, like charges actually repel. :) Anyway...

I can definitely get behind the concept of leadership being influence derived from values... but my recollection is that Maxwell says leadership is "influence, nothing more, nothing less." And this is irrefutable. That definition may have some merit but it fails to distinguish between a leader and a dictator. I think you and I agree that we need to go beyond influence in order to understand what leadership really is...

I think you're definitely onto something though about leaders needing to change. Self-awareness is pretty crucial. So is a willingness to leave when the time comes.

JG Hansen said...

Dan. I am new here (attended your session at USCG last week), but I have strong opinions about leadership and its importance.

Great leaders develop a vision of where the organization needs to go (how clean the space needs to be), help others to understand and buy into that vision (agree with the concept of trash can utilization), equip them with the tools to carry out the vision ("Here's a can. Put it where you think it needs to be"), and most importantly, keep asking them if they need anything to carry out that task perfectly. (They might even say "Let me put up a sign!")

Freeing people to use their own initiative in the fulfillment of the vision should be the leader's highest priority. That's a lot different than telling them what to do, or where to put the trash can.

The Dan Ward said...

@JG - welcome to RPL & thanks for the comment!

I like your definition of how great leaders function. Very well stated! You're right of course that it's about so much more than just telling people what to do. In a sense, the leader in the trashcan story was the Can Mover, not the Sign Maker.

It's funny how often people equate organizational authority with leadership, when in fact (as you pointed out) leadership is realy about equipping people to get things done.