Friday, September 14, 2012

Humble management

There’s a form of knowledge withholding perpetrated by the professional management cadre.  It’s a good thing to have a sharp mind, but if you are in a position of authority, it’s extremely impolite to poke people with it.  It’s a pet peeve of mine when I see folks attempt to withhold knowledge from others or bully them by refusing to speak plainly.  I’m not referring to the professional engaging in a dialog with another specialist, a form of mental sparring that serves to elicit an understanding of each other’s capabilities.  I’m referring to the instances I’ve seen where a supervisor has intentionally withheld information from subordinates in order to derive power from it.

My own experience with this occurred several years after transitioning out of the military.   I was asked to take over as program manager on a large contract (88 employees).  Being young, a technologist, and my basis of leadership and management being in the military; I admittedly did not know as much about business as I should.  Some people I respected had confidence in me.  To my surprise, immediately several people attempted to intimidate me and asked me to back down and not take the job.  Ultimately it was unsuccessful because my self-confidence had been forged in much tougher circumstances. I took it more as a lesson in human behavior than wasting time worrying about it. The overt aggression came primarily from those who’s entire career was “managing”.  They were also the same folks who I feel derived their self validation from having authority over other people and they routinely used terms like “work for me”.  That term has since become a red flag in my mind.  In my opinion, nobody works for anybody.  People contribute to your project because you are compensating them.  In some circumstances, such as volunteer work or compelling projects, people show up because they enjoy doing it (key word "enjoy" as in self-serving).  With very few exceptions, your only true authority is derived from your employees desire to serve themselves and their ambitions.  The other type of authority is derived from threat of violence, such as when you have to obey the police (or they will put you in jail against your will).  I might write more on that on a future post, I'll try and keep this one to project management.

I feel that anyone who seeks out management roles as a way to make themselves feel exceptional in any way should probably not be entrusted with the responsibilities that come with it.  A perfectly executed role of a manager is to recognize the environmental factors that are influencing the project and take actions on the decisions that are practically being made for you.  An environmental factor might be employees leaving, so we increase their compensation or provide opportunities that reduce the risk.  If the risk is running out of money, the opposite action might need to happen.  It wasn’t some virtue of the manager that inspired them to do that.  They were just able to see what the right thing to do was and took action on it.  The right thing to do is always to empower those around you and maintain a level of transparency with your actions.  When making decisions regarding the outcome of a project we are the humble stewards of resources: human, financial, and physical.

In contrast to management, leadership is the empowering of the spirits and confidence of those around you.  Study after study has indicated that employee ownership and motivation are the most influential factor in performance by a large margin.  If you’re not a servant leader that highlights employee accomplishments and motivates them, you are negatively affecting the outcome of the projects which you have responsibility for.  I even hesitate to engage in these dialogs because it is a self-correcting behavior.  With very rare exception, those managers with self serving ego will spend their entire careers only being moderately successful. The biblical verse of Mathew 5:5 was the one that said something along the lines of “the meek shall inherit the earth”.  This, I believe unfortunately, has been the translation of the verse that has been popularized.  Other translations word it like this "God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth."  Meekness implies things that humility does not.  A person can, and should, be both humble and energetic; aggressively pursue good endeavors, but receive and hold the accomplishments with humility and grace.  If you're not inclined to dive into the Bible right now, here are some other quotes from important people  throughout history.  Humble leaders are more successful. h/t to Businessinsider for this compilation of quotes (

Ancient China:  “The great leader speaks little.  He works without self-interest and leaves no trace.  When all is finished, the people say: ‘we did it ourselves.’”  Lao-Tzu

Ancient Greece:  The Ancient Greeks had a word for the loss of humility and the triumph of the ego: hubris.  Hubris is the outrageous arrogance where a person in power overestimates his or her own competence and capabilities, gradually loses touch with reality, and (in Greek tragedies) succumbs to a tragic fall.

Ancient Rome:  “To conquer one’s spirit, abandon anger, and be modest in victory… whoever can do this I compare not to the greatest of men but to a god.”  Cicero

Mongol World around 1200:  “The key to leadership is self-control: primarily, the mastery of pride, which is more difficult to subdue than a wild lion.”  Genghis Khan 

Louis XIV France: “Louis’s greatest gift was to maintain his quality of common sense in the midst of constant flattery.  Throughout, the king demanded respect and obedience, not flattery.”  Louis XIV biographer, Olivier Bernier

18th Century Austria: To keep herself humble and ensure that she did what was right and best for the Austria-Hungarian Empire, the Archduchess Maria Teresa employed one advisor as her official critic.  It was the formal job of Emmanuel Count Sylva-Tarouca to tell Maria Teresa all of her mistakes.

20th Century America: “To possess self-confidence and humility at the same time is called maturity.”  Jack Welch

What comes before the fall?  Pride.  Walking the line of maintaining humility and confidence at the same time is a fine one.  When you’re certain you’re humble is the only time you can be certain you’re not.  It’s my aspiration to always empower those around me and always attempt to act with humility and transparency.