Implicit throughout virtually anything published here on Adam Smith, Esq. is leadership. As an issue, a challenge, a conundrum, and even a definitional challenge (what is “leadership”?).
Because it’s pregnant in most everything, and because it’s perhaps the single topic leading most writers in business theory and management into recursive quagmires of tautologies and into bromides which are vacuous or self-evident or both, I have by design written about leadership per se almost never.
But as publisher I invoke the prerogative of changing settled practice. Herewith an article on leadership.
From a survey of leading management literature on leadership, here are some topics commonly if not universally addressed, and the confidently asserted and solemnly shared advice for how to deal, ideally, with each:
- Capitalize on your strengths
- Work on improving your weaknesses
- Seek consensus
- Lead from the top
- Rely on input from a wide variety of advisors
- Trust few if any
- Embrace disruption in your industry
- Stay true to your firm’s heritage
- Worry about your peer competitors
- Worry about disruptive upstarts
- Put the right incentives in place and the organization will follow
- Put the right values in place and the organization will follow
- Trust your gut
- Crunch the numbers
- Strategy trumps everything
- Culture trumps everything
- Athenian democracies win
- Command and control wins
Furthest from my mind is for this to seem a facetious exercise. This is what I read every week, in some of the most highly esteemed business publications out there. Hence my reticence to announce that a column might be about leadership. Looking at the contradictions, one is reminded of the title of Jimmy Breslin’s immortal book on the first season of the New York Mets, “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?”
But I’m still going to try.
My theory of leadership begins from the premise that many forms can work, according to time, place, and circumstance, and that attempting to generalize across locales and contexts in terms of actions or styles of leadership is a fool’s errand. It’s not just that different leadership techniques are called for by different firms, but that the same firm requires different leadership styles at different times in its life. As Bill Voge, successor-to-be to the legendary Bob Dell at Latham, recently remarked in nicely self-deprecating style (I paraphrase), “I can’t be another Bob Dell; I expect to underwhelm.”
The longer I study, meet with, advise, and deal with law firms of all sizes and shapes, the more I’m coming to believe in the power of stewardship: The core belief that most of us walked into an institution created by our forebears and which we have an obligation to hand down to the next generation stronger, more powerful, and more vibrant than we found it.
You would assume talking about his makes people uncomfortable, but my experience has been that when you bring it up there’s a vast exhalation of relief and a welcoming assent that now we’re getting down to what really matters. (If you have a different experience at your firm, then we really need to talk, urgently.)
What does this have to do with leadership?
Last week, Harvard Business Review published a very short piece that packed a remarkable punch: “Why You Lead Determines How Well You Lead,” by Tom Kolditz. It condenses a study, “massive in scale, track[ing] more than 10,000 Army leaders from their entrance into West Point, through graduation, and well into their careers. For perspective, the sample represents approximately 20% of the living graduates of West Point.” This is a particularly rich dataset because the annual Army performance appraisals are designed to compare officers’ performance to the Army’s leadership framework and gauge the officer’s potential to lead at a higher level. Not a bad start.
Here’s the key finding:
As one might predict, we found that those with internal, intrinsic motives performed better than those with external, instrumental rationales for their service—a common finding in studies of motivation. We were surprised to find, however, that those with both internal and external rationales proved to be worse investments as leaders than those with fewer, but predominantly internal, motivations. Adding external motives didn’t make leaders perform better—additional motivations reduced the selection to top leadership by more than 20%. Thus, external motivations, even atop strong internal motivations, were leadership poison.
Backing up for a moment: The difference between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivations is actually pretty easy to determine. Just ask the leader why they’re in it. Answers range from a sense of identity, purpose, and obligation to the people they serve (intrinsic) to career progression and pay (extrinsic) or, perhaps most strongly intrinsic of all, sheer obligation to serve.
One of the longstanding dichotomies in the field of leader development is whether to teach leadership as skills that lead to higher performance (a competency-based model that is relatively easy to metric), or to teach leadership as a complex moral relationship between the leader and the led (a values-based model that is challenging to metric). Our study demonstrates that those who led primarily from values-based motivations, which are inherently internal, outperform those who lead with additional instrumental outcomes and rewards.
The implications of this study for leader development—and practice—are profound.
Perhaps we have, then, at last, something that is true, not obvious, and actually quite powerful, to say about leadership. Only it has nothing to do with style or technique, strategy or circumstance: It all has to do with stewardship and the “Why?”
Let me leave you with this thought experiment.
If you are leading in a firm you did not found—most of you are—think back to the people whose names are on the door. If you did found your firm, think back to your younger self and the early days of that venture. In either case, you will be gazing at people who have a vision of how the world could be different and want to bring others along with them to help fulfill that vision and live it out. People who aren’t risk-averse, aren’t ceaselessly asking, “Who else is doing this?”, and are not remotely in it for themselves. These are people who can look at the hard steel of reality and choose to forge something new out of it. They have no time for congratulatory pride and know that self-aggrandizement tends to end badly.
Think about on those people, or that prior self.
Now: Why are you leading, again?