Are We Flawed as Followers?

With so many corporate leaders in disrepute, what can be done about bad leadership? Perhaps some of today’s leaders get away with various and sundry peccadilloes because their followers fail to demand accountability.

“Leading in America has never been easy,” writes Barbara Kellerman in The End of Leadership. “But now it is more difficult than ever—not only because we have too many bad leaders, but because we have too many bad followers.”

As followers, many of us are too timid, disengaged, fearful or alienated to speak up, making it easy for corporate leaders to do what they want—and what’s best for their bank accounts.

The leadership-development industry has become huge, with $50 billion a year spent on corporate training. Shouldn’t the curriculum include elements of followership or creating cultures of trust? Everyone, including the CEO, has to answer to someone, be it a board, stockholders or a senior team.

Question These Assumptions

Kellerman asks those in charge of leadership-development programs to question the assumptions the industry promotes:

  • Leadership can be learned by most. Leaders matter more than anyone else.
  • Context is tertiary.

She also suggests several important mindset shifts based on these assumptions:

  1. We cannot stop or slow bad leadership by changing human nature. No amount of preaching or sermonizing—no exhortations to virtuous conduct, uplifting thoughts or wholesome habits—will obviate the fact that our nature is constant (even when our behaviors change).
  2. We cannot stop or slow bad leadership without stopping and slowing bad followership. Leaders and followers are always interdependent.
  3. We cannot stop or slow bad leadership by sticking our heads in the sand. Amnesia, wishful thinking, the lies we tell as individuals and organizations, and all of the other mind games we play to deny or distort reality get us nowhere. Avoidance inures us to the costs and casualties of bad leadership, allowing them to fester.

What do you think about Kellerman’s observations on bad leadership? Are we being naively optimistic to think that followers in organizations can speak up and stop bad leadership? Tell me what your opinion is.

The Leadership Trust Gap

How much do you trust your boss?

In a perfect organizational world, we would be blessed with transformational servant leaders who are intrinsically motivated to provide benefits to their followers. But in the real world, bosses are rarely that accommodating. We nevertheless expect our leaders to make things better for both the business and our careers.

Corporate leadership is simultaneously envied and disdained. We are in awe of strong personalities  who take charge and earn big compensation packages, bonuses and perks. At the same time, we cannot deny that the gap between the rich and poor has been steadily increasing for decades, and the middle class has declined.

Furthermore, the financial crisis—the worst since the Great Depression—has been slow to recover. Many blame executives at our top financial institutions for eroding trust in leadership. We are left with an impression of widespread corporate corruption that continues to be amply rewarded, even when CEOs are dismissed for poor performance.

A 2011 Gallup poll confirmed that corporate America’s reputation is in tatters, with 62% affirming they want major corporations to have less influence in the future—a figure that increased 10% in a decade. A whopping 67% of those polled said they resent big business’ influence.

A survey of Fox News’ right-of-center viewers found that most overwhelmingly believe (a 6:1 margin) that corporate leaders have done more to hurt than help the economy.

Income: The Great Divide

Most of us expect our leaders to be paid more than we receive. We recognize that they work long and hard, are intelligent and experienced, and shoulder responsibilities and risks most of us wouldn’t want.

But has the economic and lifestyle gap grown absurdly large?

Between 2002 and 2007, the bottom 99% of American incomes grew only 1.3% a year, compared to a 10% bump in compensation for the top 1%.

Let’s look at a few examples of CEOs’ annual compensation:

  • In 2008, Oracle’s Larry Ellison received nearly $193 million
  • Countrywide Financial’s Anthony Mozilo: $102.84 million
  • Aflac’s Daniel Amos: $75 million
  • Safeway’s Steven Burd: $67 million

The median pay for top executives at 200 big companies in 2010 was $10.8 million, a 23% jump from 2009.

These examples contribute to our dislike and distrust of those at the helm. These leaders seem to grow excessively rich as the average American struggles to make ends meet.

What do you think? What do you and your colleagues say about trust in today’s leaders? Can leaders learn to be more trustworthy? I’d love to hear from you.

Leadership’s Devolution

Until only recently, we presumed that leaders should dominate and followers must do as they’re told. But after several revolutions, labor movements, human-rights legislation and the spread of democracy, the world has radically changed.


Power, authority and influence are in scarce supply for even the most charismatic CEOs, and continuing to devolve. Workers in the middle and at the bottom of the hierarchy have an expanded sense of entitlement, but they’re demanding more and giving less. Technology has helped level the playing field.

The majority of workers are often indifferent, disengaged or outright resistant. There are only two reasons they’ll follow a leader:

  1. They have to.
  2. They want to.

The end of the 20th century marked the demise of command-and-control leadership, although some bosses stubbornly insist on trying to make it work. In its place, leaders are advised to become more participatory—to lead by cooperation and collaboration.

Leadership success  is judged on three criteria:

  • Is the leader ethical?
  • Is he/she effective?
  • Does the business make money and provide jobs?

In the workplace, however, followers judge their leaders and ask:

  1. Does my boss have my best interests in mind (and does he/she even know what they are)?
  2. Is my boss looking out for the company’s best interests?
  3. Why should I believe, follow and trust this person?

Like most other animals, humans tend to look to strong males to provide what’s most important: safety and security. We’re just like apes and baboons, we like deferring to males whose strength and capacity to lead have been tested. And of course we like to think that’s changing to a more gender diverse arena, but change is slow.

There is no leadership without followership. Good leadership requires good followers, who may be passive or active (depending on context). But followers have generally been slow to embrace empowerment and participate in the leader/follower tango for various reasons. Few trainings or coaching services specifically target the development of creating cultures of trust that would begin to address some of these concerns.

What do you think about this?

Accountability for Bad Leadership

Leaders everywhere are in disrepute. What can we do to end bad leadership when our jobs depend on putting up with incompetent or even unethical bosses?

“Being a leader has become a mantra. It is a presumed path to money and power; a medium for achievement, both individual and institutional; and a mechanism for creating change sometimesalthough hardly alwaysfor the common good.” ~ Barbara Kellerman, The End of Leadership

Hardly a day goes by without news of corporate ethical violations, financial fudging and CEO failures.

Corporate leaders are being pushed out in record numbers. In 2002, 100 CEOs from the world’s 2,500 largest companies were replaced—almost four times the number in 1995.

What is happening to our efforts to develop good leaders? In spite of the billions spent annually to train high-potential candidates, why do those promoted to positions of power, with critical responsibilities, continue to fail?

Harvard Business School Professor Barbara Kellerman criticizes the leadership-development industry in her new book, The End of Leadership (HarperBusiness, April 2012). She asserts:

  • Leaders at every level, across all industries, are failing the people who depend on them.
  • Leadership programs have done an inadequate job of producing effective and ethical leaders.
  • We don’t really know how to grow good leaders, and we know even less about how to stop or slow the bad ones.
  • Today’s business environment is rapidly changing in ways leaders are unable or unwilling to grasp.
  • Followers are disappointed and disillusioned, even though they are more empowered, emboldened and entitled than ever before.

It seems to me that leaders and owners of smaller businesses get it right: they can’t afford to fail. Their actions are immediately reflected in the bottom line. At least that’s what’s apparent to me in the work I do with executives.

Maybe there’s too much emphasis on the importance of leadership and an absence of developing smart followers. If we learned to question more, challenge assumptions, and step up to the plate with collaborative discussions, followers would exercise more empowerment.

Just my opinion, of course, and I know that in some companies, with some bosses, that’s easy to say and hard to do. What about you, what do you think?

Meeting Leaders: Make Your Next Meeting Great

Some people believe their role as meeting leader gives them a license to dominate, while others approach the job as “schoolteacher” or “scoutmaster.” Committing any of these meeting “crimes” guarantees you’ll turn off—even offend—attendees.


With the didactic approach, you’re probably intent on getting others to do what you determine to be the best course of action. With the scoutmaster approach, you’re likely trying to gain group satisfaction, without appropriate emphasis on action or results.


In reality, the chair should be more servant than master, judiciously dealing with the two key components of successful meetings: topics and attendees.


Dealing with Topics


As I mentioned in my previous two posts here and here, clearly state the meeting’s goal at the outset. Listen carefully to attendee comments so you can keep meetings focused on the objective. It’s your job to ensure that participants:


  • Stick to the defined topics
  • Have the required information
  • Understand the issues


Be on the lookout for points that can be emphasized during an interim summary. You can summarize each time you need to move on to the next item on the agenda.


Know when to close a discussion and move on. Perhaps a topic cannot be resolved because more facts are required, other people need to be present, more time is needed or issues can be settled outside the meeting. Don’t postpone decisions, however, just because they’re difficult, likely to be disputed or unpopular.


Provide a clear, brief summary before adjourning. Reiterate action steps and attendees’ specific commitments.


Dealing with Attendees


Encourage a clash of ideas, but not a clash of personalities. There will always be people who dominate meetings, while others remain passive and silent.


Reframe complaints as challenges or opportunities for improvement. Use humor appropriately, and keep the discussion moving toward its objectives.


Above all, don’t allow energy to fizzle. Seize opportunities to inspire people with questions and challenges. Don’t waste people’s time with meetings that go nowhere nor schedule them when you’ve already achieved consensus.


Don’t be afraid to stir things up when a little jolt is required; you cannot achieve the meeting’s objectives without engaging attendees’ full participation.

What are your useful tips for getting more out of meetings? I’d love to hear from you, leave a comment, or share this post with others.

Prior Planning: The Key To Avoiding Meeting Failure

Not all meetings are productive or energizing. Difficult interpersonal dynamics,  office politics, power struggles, stonewalling and competitive drives that override the collective good can cause meetings to go off track and fail.


Unless you’re very clear about specific goals, you run the risk of wasting everyone’s time. While it should be obvious, and it may be to you, not everyone is aware of the key issues you want them to bring to your meeting.


In the work I do, I hear about a variety of assumptions people make about meetings, many of which are unsubstantiated because questions aren’t asked.


A meeting should have at least one of four key objectives:


  1. Informational. If the purpose is purely factual, consider a more streamlined approach to disseminating information.
  2. Constructive and creative. Meetings are ideal for brainstorming and developing better processes.
  3. Clarifying. Meetings are often necessary when people are confused about their roles, responsibilities, collaboration and commitments.
  4. Legislative. Consider a meeting when you need to establish frameworks for rules, routines and procedures.


Prepare an Agenda


A finely tuned agenda allows you to outline your expectations and objectives. It can also speed up a meeting (unless, of course, the agenda is too brief or vague).


Before calling a meeting, determine whether your agenda is “for information,” “for discussion,” or “for decision,” so each participant understands the goal.


The following tips will help you plan your agenda:


  • The early part of a meeting tends to have more energy and can be the most creative. Put items requiring more mental energy and ideas at the top of the agenda.


  • Some agenda items will unite committee members, while others may divide them into factions with conflicting opinions. It’s often smart to end on an item that will be unifying.


  • Dwelling too long on trivial items is a common error. Deal with the more urgent long-term issues at the beginning of the meeting.


  • Limit the meeting’s length, and state the stop time on the agenda. Start and end on time. If you schedule your meeting right before lunch or quitting time, people may be more motivated to stick to the agenda.


  • Whenever possible, circulate background information on key issues in advance so participants are prepared and well informed. Keep these papers brief or people won’t read them.


  • Identify all agenda items before the meeting. If you allow people to add “other business,” you’ve essentially issued an invitation to waste time. You can, however, structure time for discussion before the meeting’s close.


What are your thoughts about these suggestions? I’d love to hear from you.

Meetings: Are Yours Productive?

Meetings, like death and taxes, are an inevitable fact of business life. Many, unfortunately, turn out to be a huge waste of time. Instead of generating ideas, engagement and commitment, meetings often zap team members’ energy, replacing it with apathy and boredom.


In the work I do, I hear the complaints from people working in a variety of businesses. It’s a constant source of frustration for people.


Meetings become counterproductive when they lose focus, go on too long, dilute authority, diffuse responsibility and delay decisions. Routinely referring a matter to a meeting may satisfy those who are cautious and analytical, but this bad habit frustrates action-oriented risk takers.


Humans are a social species, and meetings fulfill an innate need. Loyalty increases when we participate in teams and meetings—as long as we perceive them to have purpose, value and meaning.


What can you do to ensure your meetings are productive and useful—not just socially satisfying?


Meeting Functions


  1. A meeting defines the team, group or department. It specifies a purpose, outlines steps to achieve goals and identifies desired outcomes. Attendees gain a sense of identity and belonging.


  1. Participants share knowledge, add to each other’s experiences, and pool their strengths to produce better ideas and plans.


  1. A focused, productive meeting affirms participants’ commitment to decisions and objectives. Such meetings set the stage for accountability plans. Well-prepared leaders are catalysts for engagement, energy and enthusiasm.


  1. Meetings pose opportunities for team members and leaders to demonstrate strengths, talents and collaborative abilities.


Most meetings will fall into one of these four categories of functions. If you aren’t clear about why you’re meeting, perhaps it’s time to get focused and purposeful. Don’t assume that gathering everyone in a room for a meeting will solve problems and issues.


Unless you know what you want to accomplish and set a clear agenda, you risk wasting everyone’s time and causing more problems than you solve.


What’s your opinion? How effective are the meetings in your company? I’d love to hear from you.

4 Steps to Powerful Conversations

Power listening—the art of probing and challenging the information garnered from others to improve its quality and quantity—is the key to building a knowledge base that generates fresh insights,” ~ Bernard T. Ferrari, author of Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All (Portfolio Hardcover, 2012).

It’s not easy learning to be a better listener. We think faster than we can hear. While we’re waiting for someone to finish their sentence, we’ve already figured out what they’re going to say.

So in the meantime, most of us are thinking about other things, like what we’re going to say next. But then we miss opportunities to challenge assumptions. And we lose focus.

Bernard T. Ferrari suggests four steps that form a good listening foundation:

  1. Show respect
  2. Keep quiet
  3. Challenge assumptions
  4. Maintain focus

In my previous post, I mentioned that the ability to really listen is the most overlooked and undervalued skill. We rarely practice doing it better. Here’s more about the last two steps, #3: Challenging assumptions and #4: Maintaining focus, both essential to building power listening skills.

3.      Challenge assumptions. Too many high-caliber professionals inadvertently act like know-it-alls, remaining closed to anything that undermines or would expand their beliefs. Good listeners seek to understand—and challenge—the assumptions that lie below the surface of every conversation. Holding tight onto these assumptions is the biggest roadblock to power listening.

It’s admittedly hard to scrutinize preconceived notions and shake up our thinking. We must be willing to reevaluate what we know and welcome what we don’t (or can’t) know. Shift your mind-set to embrace ambiguity and uncover what each conversation partner needs from the interaction.

4.  Maintain focus. Power listening requires you to help your conversation partner isolate the problem, issue or decision at hand. Discard extraneous details or emotions that interfere with homing in on what truly matters.

Create a focused, productive conversation by reducing external and internal background noise. Ask questions that highlight key issues and minimize the urge to stray from them.

Recognize that all conversations have intellectual and emotional components. It’s important to “decouple” the two, according to Ferrari, as several emotions are guaranteed to hinder communication:

  1. Impatience
  2. Resentment and envy
  3. Fear and feeling threatened
  4. Fatigue and frustration
  5. Positive emotions and overexcitement

As with anger and fear, excitement can also distract you from asking the right questions and challenging underlying assumptions.

“The most exciting part is that, once you get good at listening, you will be able to do it easily, almost effortlessly, without even thinking about it,” Ferrari writes.

Practice his four power-listening steps to become the kind of listener others seek as a conversation partner. You’ll build valuable relationships, build trust, become more informed, make better decisions and come up with new innovative ideas.

If you’d like to discuss how coaching can help you become a better listener, give me a call.

4 Steps to Better Listening

In my previous post I mentioned that the ability to really listen is the most overlooked and undervalued skill in both business and personal life. We rarely take time to practice doing it better.

In Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All (Portfolio Hardcover, 2012), Bernard T. Ferrari suggests four steps that form a good listening foundation:

  1. Show respect
  2. Keep quiet
  3. Challenge assumptions
  4. Maintain focus

This sounds simple and straight forward, for sure. But most of us fail to complete all four steps adequately to achieve “power listening.” I see this in the work I do with some pretty smart professionals.

Many people show respect, but have a hard time keeping quiet. Yet keeping quiet is key to respecting what a person is saying. While some of my clients are pretty good at challenging assumptions, they also tend to redirect the conversation to their own ideas and point of view, failing to maintain the focus. If we truly want to “hear” what our conversation partners are saying, we’ll need to do better.

Here are Ferrari’s ideas for the first two steps, and I’ll write my next post on the last two steps.

  1. Show respect.Our conversation partners often have the know-how to develop effective solutions. Part of being a good listener is helping them pinpoint critical information and see it in a new light. To harness the power of these ideas, you must fight the urge to be “helpful” by providing immediate solutions. Learn to respect your partner’s ability to identify them.Being respectful doesn’t mean avoiding tough questions. Good listeners routinely ask provocative questions to uncover the information needed to make better decisions. The goal of power listening is to ensure the free and open flow of information and ideas.

2.      Keep quiet. Get out of the way of your conversations so you can listen deeply to what’s important. Don’t hog the spotlight, try to prove yourself or emphasize how much you care. Speak only to underscore your conversation partner’s points. Your partner should speak 80 percent of the time, with you filling the remaining 20 percent. Make your speaking time count by spending most of it asking questions, rather than having your say.

This may be easier said than done, as most of us are naturally inclined to speak our minds. Still, you can’t really listen if you’re too busy thinking about what you are going to say or talking. We’ve all spent time with lousy listeners who treat conversations as opportunities to broadcast their status or ideas. They spend more time formulating their next response than listening to the conversation.

What’s been your experience as a conversation partner? I’d love to hear about the times when you felt you were really being listened to… as well as your experiences when you felt not heard. As a listener, see what you can do this week in your conversations to extend your “keeping quiet” times.

Power Listening: The Secret to Successful Conversations

I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions. ~ Lee Iacocca

In my experience working with successful leaders Listening  may be the most important, yet underdeveloped, skill for personal and professional success, especially in today’s fast-paced business climate.

To be honest, most of us take listening for granted. In fact, our brains love to try to multi-task: we assume we know what the person’s going to say, so we let our minds wander, at the same time filtering it for similar experiences we’ve had, all the while formulating a response.

The problem is that while we are doing all that, we’re not listening well, and we often risk subtle clues to important issues. This tendency to multi-task is almost universal. I see it with many of the clients I work with.

Good listening skills can help you:

  • Develop/create a culture of trust
  • Develop innovative ideas
  • Facilitate the right alliances
  • Find out what you don’t know
  • Make the right decisions
  • Foster team alignment
  • Create healthy personal relationships
  • Secure a promotion or great assignment

Most people are not mindful of listening, focusing instead on how to articulate their own views or how they are going to respond more effectively. This approach is misguided.

“Power listening—the art of probing and challenging the information garnered from others to improve its quality and quantity—is the key to building a knowledge base that generates fresh insights,” according to author Bernard T. Ferrari in his book, Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All (Portfolio Hardcover, 2012).

Unfortunately, business schools or leadership courses fail to teach power listening. Of the nearly 300 communications courses the American Management Association offers, only two deal directly with listening skills. Professionals must nonetheless write and speak more persuasively, so it’s essential to improve one’s listening capabilities.

One of the more effective ways to improve your listening skills is to work one-on-one with an executive coach. As you can imagine, learning about it in a book won’t give you the real-world practice you’ll need to develop your power listening skills.