Monday, April 19, 2021

Managerial Delusions: "I hire people brighter than me and then I get out of their way”

Lee Iacocca, the CEO of Chrysler during the 1980s, has an extremely popular quote: "I hire people brighter than me and then I get out of their way." He is one of the most famous leaders in corporate history, and business owners the world over have been attempting to emulate his management style ever since he rose to fame. 

When you read his famous quote, an image of leadership emerges. We have a benevolent leader whose skill in finding talent is his key attribute. Much like the religious deist's Watchmaker, he puts all the pieces into place, then sits back as the entire system naturally synchs into beautiful lockstep. Outcomes are achieved, visions realized, work completed. He does not need to meddle because he has found the right people and put them in the right place.

There is just one problem. That does not describe Lee Iacocca's leadership at all. Iacocca was, in fact, a very tough person to work for. He was a master at applying pressure to those under him, pushing them to just short of their breaking point. He was involved enough in the details of their work to redirect them from disaster and pick up their spirits if they failed. When his people succeeded in meeting his high standards, the sense of accomplishment endeared them to him and solidified their loyalty. Not exactly a "get out of the way" leadership style.

Beware pithy inspirational quotes. These quotes have power. They are a shorthand, a reminder of the direction we should travel or an ideal state we should strive to achieve. Too many of them sound good but encourage a disastrous leadership practice. 

Before you throw your lot behind a good-sounding inspirational quote, ask yourself what advice is beneath its surface. Examine the underlying assumptions it makes about how you should manage or lead. Often, even the person who said it would recoil at the natural interpretation of their words. 

Instead, find quotes that encapsulate ideals that you do want to achieve. Here is one I keep in mind: "Too many bosses are so focused on becoming great leaders that they fail to be good managers."

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