Hopefully no one’s idea of what a great leader should be.

As I prepare to deliver a new round of our Leadership Choices course in a couple of weeks, by sheer accident I happen to be reading Robert Service’s biography of Joseph Stalin.


Surprisingly enough, I am learning a lot about leadership in reading Stalin’s biography, most of it falling in the “how not to do it” category. One of the most fundamentally evil leaders in history, Stalin would certainly fail any sane person’s gut-check level test on quality leadership. It’s therefore interesting that one could make the case that Stalin might have scored reasonably well on a survey measuring him against the five key leadership practices defined by Kouzes and Posner:

  • Challenging the Process: He entirely transformed both the government and the society. He refused to believe that experts had all the answers and constantly challenged existing assumptions.
  • Inspiring a Shared Vision: While he certainly didn’t bother to develop a consensus, he had a very clear and articulate vision of what he wanted the Soviet Union to become.
  • Enabling Others to Act: He ensured that thousands of workers were promoted into management positions.
  • Modeling the Way: He worked hard, dressed simply and rarely indulged himself in luxury.
  • Encouraging the Heart: He sent congratulations to artists, scientists and bureaucrats for work performed on behalf of the nation.

While all of this is true, it’s also superficial nonsense. Stalin never allowed anyone to challenge his processes, and any deviation from what he thought was the best course resulted in execution or a long stay in a gulag. His vision was singular and imposed upon millions of innocent people by brute force. He was a supreme control freak, paranoid to the extreme, trusted no one and gave specific instructions to even senior-level people that he expected to be carried out to the letter. He was secretive, manipulative and achieved most of his goals through terror and violence. He sent hundreds of thousands of people to labor camps and millions to their deaths.

Yes, Stalin got the job done. Not particularly efficiently, but effectively. He had a very clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish and allowed nothing and no one to stand in his way. In other words, he had qualities that people in business often say they admire, especially when they fail to look beneath the surface qualities of leadership.

Stalin’s story is an extreme example of why, in the end, the belief that “results are all that matter” is fundamentally absurd. How leaders achieve results is often more important than what they achieve, for while reporting periods and the quarterly conference call pass into history, how one leads has lasting effects on the culture. If a leader achieves results through unethical or immoral practices, through unbridled egotism or through an at-all-costs approach, he or she destroys trust throughout the organization and strips the work of any meaning. Much of my work in organizational development involves trying to help organizations where trust has been shattered by a leader who cared only about the bottom line and had no interest in the people or the culture.

People matter. Values matter. Ethics matter. Kouzes and Posner stress this in every one of their five leadership practices, if you read more deeply into their explanations of those practices. The why and the how matter as much as the what, and truly great leaders are those who never forget that.

Instructional designers and training professionals use some common models and philosophies to design learning experiences for adults. ADDIE is the one that corporate professionals know; Bloom’s Taxonomy is found more often in classic educational institutions.

There are significant problems with both approaches. They completely ignore the artistic considerations that make any training program worth sitting through and the design process fun. The thinking behind both is linear instead of holistic. The structure of both emphasizes categorization and definition, which creates a great deal of stress in those whose Myers-Briggs type falls clearly on the feeling, intuitive and perception poles instead of the thinking, sensing, judging poles.

As one of those types (ENFP), I find working with either ADDIE or Bloom to be a time-consuming, tedious drag. Yes, I think needs analysis is important (the first ADDIE step), but the truth is many people don’t know what they need and neither does anyone else in the organization. Training objectives (Bloom’s big contribution and a part of phase two in ADDIE) are important, and yes, I care about what people will learn by the end of a class, but I also care how people feel at the end of a class and whether or not they had a good time.

In a world where people now have access to very compelling entertainment on the iPhones they peek at during training sessions, you had better make sure that you give them a good time.

I also want to raise consciousness whenever I do a leadership program, a goal that eludes the behavioral emphasis of the classic approaches. I want people to meet the behavioral objectives and I want to give them plenty to think about after the class is over.

The process I use is non-linear and hard to structure in a series of steps. Sometimes it begins with a needs analysis, but one that is far more open-ended than the one you use in ADDIE. ADDIE assumes that people know or can divine the “desired behavioral outcome,” but any study of successful leaders will tell you that there are many possible “behavioral outcomes” that can be effective, depending on the circumstances. In fact, I want there to be many possible behavioral outcomes because the act of leadership is never effective unless it is genuine, and you can’t engage in genuine behavior unless you personalize it.

Once I figure out what the people in an organization really need, I immerse myself in the topic from as many angles as possible. Using the subject of leadership as an example, I might re-read the obvious choices like The Leadership Challenge, Principle-Centered Leadership and Now Discover Your Strengths and the like, but I’d also find different biographies of famous leaders throughout history and assimilate those lessons into my thinking. I’d also check business and political sites for current material on successful and unsuccessful manifestations of leadership. The point of doing this is that if I’m going to be in a room with twelve intelligent adults for several hours, I better know my stuff and that knowledge has to go deeper than the model I’m presenting . . . because no one’s reality ever fits perfectly into any model. This immersion is equally important in the design stage, for it adds a richness and depth that I’d miss through a linear approach.

Once I’m ready to design, my approach is more like music composition than classic instructional design. I identify the key themes and make sure those themes are echoed throughout the program. I pay due attention to the techniques of build-up, modulating highs and lows and resolution of tension: the core elements that make music interesting and memorable. All of this happens while I’m simultaneously working with slides, exercises, multiple forms of media and engaging in a back-and-forth internal dialogue with the objectives I’m trying to achieve. While I never stray far from the objectives, I’m always open to the possibility that the objectives can be improved as I go and find more powerful ways to express the intent of the program.

The end result I’m trying to achieve is shared engagement in the world of leadership. It’s important for me to be passionate about helping leaders and it’s important that the participants feel that passion. My “process” may not be the standard approach to training design, but it has worked for me and for the participants in the programs I have designed . . . many of whom still call me years later to bounce around ideas and discuss leadership challenges.

Kouzes and Posner said, “No one can teach you how to lead. You have to write your own book on leadership.” I feel the same way about training design. Don’t limit yourself to what the experts define as proper design procedure. You have a heart, a mind and imagination that you can put to good use for the people you serve.

Photo Credit: © Orangeline | Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos

Our political leaders seem to have have one thing in common: they all lack centers. By that, I mean they all lack a clear sense of identity and purpose.

Some of them seem clear because they talk tough and stick to dogma. At first blush, it makes them appear as if they are strong leaders with confidence. Once you start asking “Why?” they stumble, mumble, attack, defend and spout out more clichés. They don’t know why. You can’t know why unless you have a center.

I’ve worked for and coached several centerless business leaders and the experience is consistently stressful. Priorities change daily, often for no reason at all. They filter everything they hear through personal biases and agendas. They tend to classify people as either good people and bad people. The good people are those who agree, who do what they’re told, who don’t ask questions and above all, who avoid giving the leader any feedback that might expose the truth that they have no center. The bad people are the people dumb enough to give the leader honest feedback or dare to disagree. It follows that these leaders create teams of fearful people who speculate about which members are in or out, an activity that consumes most of their energy and damages team trust.

The worst was a CEO who was terrified of the Board of Directors primarily because the little voiceinside his head told him he was over his head. To quiet that voice, he devoted all of his energies to giving the Board exactly what they wanted. He bent over backwards to please them. If the Board wanted to cut costs, he cut costs. If the Board didn’t like one of his direct reports he got rid of the person. He was probably hired because the Board sensed that he would serve them obediently, do what he was told and tell them what they wanted to hear: a perfect conspiracy.

All of us who had the misfortune to report to this leader experienced stress, confusion and profound job dissatisfaction. He would call at unexpected intervals and ask out-of-the-blue questions without background or context in a very demanding tone. “Why are we spending so much on X?” for example. Because most of the team members were afraid to ask why he was asking the question, they responded with garbled answers contaminated with fear and anxiety. When they tried to expand on the answer with a more thoughtful response, he would cut them off and run with the assumption he had already made before he placed the call. He never wanted to hear about the past, about history or about the numerous variables that led to a certain outcome. He was a highly selective listener who filtered out anything that did not have to do with achieving his personal agenda.

He also had the annoying habit of asking for feedback at the end of every one-on-one, probably a tactic he picked up in management training to make him appear as if he were really interested in open, honest communication. I was dumb enough to give him honest feedback once. The next week, he reorganized my group and took an entire department away from me. I made two decisions: one, to never give the guy feedback or tell him anything unpleasant; and two, to develop a crash program designed to get me the hell out of that company.

Eventually, a trickle of turnover turned into a flood. The Board pretended to be shocked that he was such a horrible, alienating leader and got rid of him. Then they hired a replacement who also had no center, but was better at disguising the emptiness inside.

Many centerless leaders look good, dress right and have a can-do attitude that Americans fall in love with. When you pierce the facade, you find that the makers of this chocolate truffle forgot the filling.

When I look at leaders today, I’m amazed at how many of them are empty chocolate truffles. They talk a good game and may even appear to be successful for a while. Eventually, the truth catches up with their self-promotion techniques and they become fallen idols.

How do we avoid surrendering our organizations to these empty suits? Focus on hiring for competencies over impressive credentials or powerful connections. Design a tough interview process that requires candidates to interview with people at all levels of the organization so you can truly see if this leader can connect with people and communicate an engaging vision. Implement honest skip-level meetings where people can feel free to communicate frustration with a leader without putting their own jobs at risk and where leaders translate that feedback into actions designed to improve the leader’s effectiveness, if possible. Require every leader in the organization to attend leadership training every year and choose a course that focuses more on developing self-and-other awareness than stroking egos. Make the art of leadership a constant point of discussion and debate in the organization, so that leaders realize that the practice of leading people to achieve their potential is as important as the financial statement. Effective leaders understand that goals are achieved through cooperative effort, and that a company is more likely to make money when everyone is working in unison towards common goals.

After all, what good is it to make money if no one’s having a good time doing it? It’s more than possible to do both with leaders who have confidence in themselves and in the people they lead.