So long and thanks for all the fish

As I’ve mentioned, I’m pursuing a doctorate in Organizational Leadership.  This is involving WAY more work than I anticipated, and much of that work is writing.   The long and the short of it is that I need to say “so long” for now…  I need to focus on my school work.

Thanks for reading.


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Good News – You can give them the Starbucks card.

I just read an interesting article in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory.   And by “interesting” I mean “I was so bored I was ready to kill myself but then I found something that made me change my mind.”

The authors proposed a series of five hypotheses which looked at the applicability of Transformational Leadership in governmental organizations which are often viewed as bureaucratic.  My summary of their work is that although we all know that transformational leadership is effective when used, the question becomes “are some organizations so screwed up that you can’t use transformational leadership?”  My less formal summary is this: are city governments rightfully crying “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up?”

Their fourth of five hypotheses, which they cleverly named “H4”, read as follows:

The more an organization’s structure impedes the establishment of extrinsic reward-performance contingencies (here measured as human resource red tape), the higher the reported practice of transformational leadership behaviors.

Oh, sorry for that – let me translate:

If you tell managers they can’t offer rewards like days off or Starbucks Cards, you’re more likely to have transformational leadership.

Ok, really?  They thought that?  Well, several of you know that I’m now pursuing formal education in Leadership Studies.  When I read this kind of article I am encouraged by my chances of success, if you know what I mean.

But the good news is that the process worked.  They found this to be false (gosh, who would have guessed that).  It turns out that fun little rewards (Starbucks cards, small cash bonuses, days off) can be an integral part of a transformational leadership approach.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to suggest we switch to a transactional mode where it’s all about “meet the goal get the bonus”.  But I am going to suggest that fun rewards are very compatible with your transformational approach.

So go ahead and give your people Starbucks cards, unless you are my boss: I prefer Peets.


In case you’re wondering, here is my attempt to reference the the article using APA format.   The probability that I have correctly followed the APA guidlines is approximately 3%.
Wright, B.E & Pandey, S.K., (2009). Transformational Leadership in the Public Sector: Does Structure Matter? Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 20, 75-89, doi:10.1093/jopart/mup003.


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Controlling Temperature

My boss said something to me the other day that struck me as absolutely brilliant – “as managers we need to be like Thermostats not Thermometers.”   Thermometers merely tell you what the temperature is.   Managers who are thermometers just reflect the attitudes of their people; when their people are upset, they are upset.  These kinds of leaders seem to see value in voicing the frustration of their people throughout the company.

But thermostats are fundamentally different that thermometers; a thermostat will control your A/C and heater to create the temperature you want.  Thermostat leaders are like that with their people.  When their people start getting emotional, they are the leaders that help them regain their focus.  And that’s good, because in the long run, all a leader does by being a thermometer is forfeit their referent power with those they “report the temperature to”.  Before long people are thinking, then eventually saying, things like “there he goes again”.  And before you know it, he’s the kind of leader that no one wants to work for.

It turns out that there is good theoretical underpinning for this idea.  Edgar Schein, who teaches at the MIT Sloan School Business wrote a great book called “Organizational Culture and Leadership”.  In it, he identifies 12 things that allow a leader to change organizational culture.   Schein presents the list in two groups – six things that work well and six that aren’t all that effective but do have a measurable effect.  Number two on the “A” list is “how you react to circumstances and events”.  Sometimes the most important thing we do as leaders trying to influence our company’s culture is just remaining calm and helping others remain calm.

It seems like everybody is talking about wanting to alter the culture at their workplace.  In fact, a few months ago the producers of Med Dev San Diego 2013 asked me to speak this year on that very topic!  Maybe the best place for us to start is by making a commitment to be a thermostat instead of a thermometer.


P.S.  At Med Dev San Diego 2013, on Thursday, September 26, I’m the “Day 1 Chairperson” and “Master of Ceremonies”.  On Friday, September, 27, I’ll be speaking on Control Your Culture or It Will Control You at 3:30 PM.

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Leadership versus Management

I first encountered the idea that Leadership and Management are not the same about 20 years ago.  That was a pretty important paradigm shift for me.  This idea brought into focus for me the idea that most of the managers at the company I worked at were so consumed with being managers that they weren’t being leaders.

There’s a quote commonly attributed to Peter Drucker that goes something like this:  “Managers are concerned with doing things right, whereas Leaders are concerned with doing the right things.”

Peter Northouse presents a nice summary of the differences as adapted from J.P. Kotter’s book A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs From Management.

Management produces order and consistency.

1.  Managers are concerned with Planning and Budgeting

  • Establish Agendas
  • Set Timetables
  • Allocate Resources

2. Managers are concerned with Organizing and Staffing

  • Provide Structure
  • Make Job Placements
  • Establish rules and procedures

3. Managers are concerned with Controlling and Problem Solving

  • Develop Incentives
  • Generate creative solutions
  • Take corrective action

Leadership produces change and movement.

1. Leaders are concerned with Establishing Direction

  • Create a Vision
  • Clarify Big Picture
  • Set Strategies

2. Leaders are concerned with Aligning People

  • Communicate Goals
  • Seek Commitment
  • Build Teams and Coalitions

3. Leaders are concerned with Motivating and Inspiring

  • Inspire and Energize
  • Empower Subordinates
  • Satisfy Unmet Needs

I’d like to encourage you to read those lists carefully.  If you are currently in an engineering leadership role you probably don’t have much choice regarding the responsibilities of a manager – most companies are pretty good about making sure you do those things;  there’s probably an army of MBAs that are making sure you do those things.

But based on my experience, it’s unlikely anyone will every ask about the tasks of leadership.  That army of MBAs is probably so busy calculating Return on Investment they can be bothered with actually leading.

The bottom line is this:  you can’t wait until someone asks you to do the things leaders do – it will probably never happen.  But that’s ok – just do it.  Don’t wait – be a leader and start leading.

I dare you carve out a couple of hours of your schedule THIS WEEK to start doing the things leaders do.   Don’t put this one off – there’s just too much of a leadership vacuum in the world to put this off.  We don’t need another manager who doesn’t lead.



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Twin engine aircraft flying with one engine out.

Two blogs ago I introduced the terms expert power and referent power.  You may recall that those are the two that distinguish great engineering leaders from mere bullies and bureaucrats.  If you haven’t read that blog – I suggest you do so now – it’s the one called “Leadership and Power”.

My observation regarding expert power and referent power is that there are two common errors.  On the one hand, many would-be engineering managers believe that engineering expertise is all you need to manage.  On the other hand, other would-be engineering managers (and most of HR) seem to think expertise isn’t important at all – they seem to believe you just need management and leadership skills to be an engineering manager.

So here’s the deal using language from high school math:  Expertise is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for being a great engineering manager.

To the first group I say this:  Leadership is first and foremost about relationships – referent power.  Yes, you need to be a good engineer – but you also have to have – wait for it – people skills.

It came as a horrible shock when I first realized this.  In high school I used to tell people I want to be an engineer so I won’t have to deal with people.  Turns out, not only do I have to work with people, I have to work with the worst kind of people – people like me: engineers.

So let me say that again – engineering leadership is about people, and having people skills.   Your career as an engineering manager will be severely limited by a lack of people skills.  Without people skills, referent power is unavailable to you and you’re a twin engine airplane flying with one engine out.

Ok, so what about that second group?  Are people skills all I need?  No: expertise IS a necessary condition.

The problem is this: if you don’t have real expertise, the power base of Expert Power is unavailable, and you’re at a profound disadvantage.  Again, you’re a twin engine airplane flying with one engine out.  The truth is, without expert power, you might end up like the pointy haired boss in Dilbert – obeyed by people who do not respect you.  Hopefully you find that unacceptable.

The best advice I’ve ever received in this regard was from my father-in-law, a successful engineering manager himself.  When I finished graduate school 30 years ago he sat me down and told me to resist all pulls toward management until I had at least 10 years of experience as an individual contributor.   He never heard of leadership studies, but intuitively he got that right.  It comes down to respect – if you want your team to respect you, you need to be a very strong engineer.

By the way, a few years back I mentored a young engineer who I think has remarkable people skills appropriate for leadership.  I was thinking he would someday be my boss.  Then he told me that he’s already a little bored with engineering – and he was barely three years out of engineering school.  He was already looking to make the leap to management because he was tired of doing engineering.  I have bad news for him – he has no business being an engineering manager.  Engineering expertise is a necessary condition.

So, all you would-be engineering managers, please allow me to ask you two very important questions:

1.  What are you doing to continue to develop your engineering skills so that when you become a manager you have access to expert power?

2.  What are you doing to continue to develop your people skills so that when you become a manager you have access to referent power?

I guess in the final analysis it is this:  if you’re serious about being a leader of engineers, you better get serious about both engineering AND people skills.

There’s no sense flying a twin engine aircraft with one engine out.


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What about Charisma?

In my previous post I listed the bases of power.  The obvious omission is charisma.  Intuitively we know that there is power that comes with charisma.  So why isn’t it on the list?

First of all, it wasn’t like the leadership studies community didn’t know about charisma.  In fact, the 1980’s and 1990’s, the journals were on fire with articles about the role of charisma in leadership.   Charisma, it was believed, was the key element.  Then reality struck and its shallow nature became clear to the community.  In my mind, the death blow for the excitement about charisma was dealt by Jean Lipman-Blumen (Claremont McKenna School of Business).  There’s a great iTunesU video of George Reed (University of San Diego) interviewing her at USD.   “Don’t talk to me about Charisma” Lipman-Blumen proclaims.

To fully understand the implications of her pronouncement, you must understand the back story here.  Lipman-Blumen and  Reed are the two leading scholars in America on the topic of Toxic Leadership.    They, of all people, appreciate the dark side of charisma.   Hitler was charismatic, Saddan Hussein was charismatic, Osama bin Laden was charismatic.  Yes, Charisma is real, but it is not necessarily good.

Now please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that charisma is inherently evil – it is not.  I think it’s like a surgeon’s scalpel – a surgeon can use it to save lives, and a thug can use it for murder.

So where does Charisma fit into Northouse’s list of five bases of power?   My view is that it falls under Referent Power.  I think of it as a transient.  With charisma, a leader gets a free bolus of referent power.  It might takes months for a non-charismatic leader to reach the same initial level.   But note well – it is a transient.   A charismatic leader who does not follow up with real relationship will find that the effect of charisma fades.  In fact, as it wears, it can go negative as the followers realize it was just a show and no real relationship will be established.

Having said that, it is true that charisma can play an important role in forming the real relationships, so in a very real sense having charisma is a significant advantage for a leader.  It’s just not all it was thought to be in the 1980’s.

So where does that leave us?  My view is this:  suppose two leaders, Charismatic Charley and Plain Paul, are hired on the same day in equivalent roles.  Further suppose that Charley spends little time on building relationships and Paul makes it his focus.   On day two, Charley’s stockpile of referent power will profoundly exceed that of Paul’s   But by the end of the third month, the opposite will be true.

Charisma gives you a transient.  Relationship gives you your steady state condition.


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Leadership and Power

Peter Northouse has a great book called “Leadership: Theory and Practice”.  He does a nice job summarizing both the major ideas from the field of Leadership Studies as well as all of the major leadership theories.  If you read only one academic book on leadership, this one ought to be it.

One of the things he writes about in the book is power.  I have to confess that there is something in me that cringes when we start talking about power.  It feels like we’re talking dirty – it feels like we ought to be able to lead without sinking into power struggles.

But after some reflection on the matter, I think the issue is that we need to be clear on the concept of coercive power.   Let me put that another way; we want to have the kind of power which results in people following us because they want to, not because they have to.  Intuitively we see that decent people are usually drawn to the idea that leaders who lead by coercion are not the kind of leaders they want to work for.  Maybe I can put that yet another way – we want leaders that we want to follow.

So how does power work?  Northouse summarizes the research by identifying five types of power:

  • Referent
  • Expert
  • Legitimate
  • Reward
  • Coercive

Of those five, the last three are really a result of a position you occupy.  If you have a title like “Vice President”, you have some degree of legitimate power.  If you’re able to hand out raises and promotions, you’ve got some degree of reward power.  And of course, if you’ve just lead a coup in South America, your stockpile of AK-47s give you a certain about of coercive power.  Of course, you’ve also got coercive power if you have “hire/fire” authority at work.

But those last three are generally uninteresting to me.  If you’re the kind of leader who relies on only those three, I’ve got some really bad news for you: everyone who works for you wishes he/she worked for someone else.

Ok, so that gets us back to the first two:  referent power and expert power.  These are the two that distinguish great engineering leaders.

Referent power is power based on relationship.  Northouse  uses the example of a beloved former teacher – perhaps a high school English teach who took an interest in you and profoundly encouraged you along the way.  You might be 20 years out of high school, but if that teach called you up today and asked for a favor, you’d agree to it, and you’d probably be thrilled to do it.  That teacher has referent power.  It’s all about the relationship; and it’s something they earned over time.  And they earned it by giving to you; giving you their time, their encouragement, and their ear.

Expert power is based on knowledge.  There is a cultural anthropologist named Sherwood Lingenfelter who uses the example of a tribe of people who live isolated on an island.  Suppose there is only one guy on the island who knows how to make canoes.  That guy has a tremendous amount of expert power.  He has critical knowledge no one else does, hence he has expert power.

As engineers, we relate to this.  In my team at Tandem, our two software architects have expert power to a remarkable degree.  When they speak, everyone is on board.  There is no arm twisting, there are no threats or bullying.   Everyone on the team has figured out the degree to which these two understand our system and our software.  Everyone is happy to follow the leadership of these two.

So here is your homework assignment for the week:  spend some time thinking about how the ideas of referent and expert power affect your workplace.

I suspect I’ll be blogging one those two topics soon.


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Not again…

It happened again today.  I met a person who describes himself as an executive.  Out came my standard three part question:

Part A: “How much of your job involves leading?”
Part B: “How do you define leadership?”
Part C:  ”What have you done in to improve both your understanding of leadership and your ability to lead?”

His answer:
Part A:  “Lots”
Part B:  “Giving Directions”
Part C:  ”I don’t have time to attend seminars on leadership.  I send people who work for me to those seminars.”


What’s with leaders who don’t see a need to develop their own leadership skills?  Can you imagine an engineer who isn’t interested in improving his own skills?  Ok, I give – yes, we all work with those guys – those are your B and C players – they exist.  But hopefully we aren’t selecting B and C players for leadership.

But this is absolutely crazy – you take an engineer who has an engineering degree, and who wouldn’t recommend hiring an engineer without formal training.  Then we put them in leadership, something they have no training in and NOW they decide training isn’t needed?  So, they believe they need additional training for things they have a degree in (engineering), but when they become a leader, all of a sudden it’s “nah, I got this”.

Now please don’t get me wrong – I don’t think it’s like you can’t lead without training – lots of people have proven that.  My point is that I don’t get the attitude – the attitude that we don’t need training in something so very far from our training.

I guess at the end of the day I’m just flabbergasted by the arrogance.


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The Upper Right Quadrant

Back in the 1940’s, the prevailing idea among the few scholars that studied management was that every leader needs to make a fundamental choice – whose side are you on?  The perception was that there was a one dimensional line, and you had to stake out your spot.  Imagine a line 4 inches long, with the left end labeled “Company Orientation” and the right end labeled “Employee Orientation”.  You had to choose, and most scholars observed that really you only got to choose one end or another – the middle points just never seemed to work out.

The scholars were mostly at the University of Michigan – and that makes sense.  Detroit is in Michigan and Detroit is where they make cars, and car companies are one place unions are rampant.  And so you had two categories of leaders – the heartless company men who cared only about profits and the union bosses who cared only about the employees.

And then a researcher at Ohio State University named Ralph Stogdill asked a simple question:  is it really just one dimensional?  And with that question, the academic field of Leadership Studies was born.

What if it was a two dimensional choice?  What is the X-axis was “employee orientation” and the Y-axis was “company orientation”.  What if you got to choose both?   The idea was simple – we all know that what companies most need are great employees, and what if we developed a commitment to develop the employees?   Wouldn’t that look an awful lot like “employee orientation” for the sake of “company orientation”?

That rings true to me, and more importantly, that is born out in the research.   It’s not just anecdote, it’s data.  And by the way, data is not the plural of anecdote.

So how does that look?  We already relate to the upper left quadrant – that’s the heartless company man.  And might I say, a lot of engineering managers inhabit that quadrant.  About 20 years ago I worked in an organization where the VP of Engineering was often heard saying “I’m not trying to run a popularity contest here”.  That was his way of saying “I’m a upper lefter – I don’t give a damn about you”.

And then there’s the lower right quadrant – that’s the union boss.  But I’ve also known my share of new engineering managers who try to live there.  Some time later one of my co-workers went and got himself an MBA and took a job elsewhere as a manager.  The story I heard was that a few months into the job he decided that all of his engineers were underpaid, and told them so.  Then he marched into a VP’s office and demanded a large raise for all his people.  The VP agreed to a modest raise for all, but our lower righter held out for the raise he told his people they were due.  A week later he was unemployed. Too bad he moved 1200 miles to take that job. My advice to him is simple – grow a conscience.  The legitimacy for being employee oriented is ultimately because it’s good for the company.  So why do I mention conscience?  Because when you’re a manager, you’re accepting money from the company under the premise that you will first and foremost represent the company.  Did he learn his lesson?  I recently crossed paths with him and he’s working as an individual contributor – far from leadership and management.  I hope he didn’t spend too much money on that MBA.

And so we need to live in the upper right quadrant – developing people because it’s ultimately the right thing to do, and it’s what the company pays you to do – to act on behalf the company for the company’s benefit.

But what about that lonely lower left quadrant?  No one would live there, would they?  I mean that doesn’t even make sense – oriented toward neither company nor employee.  But my observation is that this is actually the quadrant that most engineers turned manager occupy.  They seem to accept the position because of either the pay or the prestige, but clearly they buy into neither the need to represent the company nor the need to develop the employees.  It seems to me like they view being in management merely as the opportunity to get their own way.  After years of working for a manager they didn’t like, now they get to be that guy no one likes.  Wow, that’s pathetic, but that is really, really common.

So where are you?  Have you consciously made a decision to act in the company’s best interest?  Have you also made a commitment to develop your people?  If not, I’ve got some bad news for you – you might just be the worst of engineering management – a lower lefter.


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Fundamental Attribution Error

Recently I’ve started taking Psychology classes on iTuneU.  So far I’ve completed classes from three different colleges, including MIT.  One thing that all three professors talked about was a phenomenon called the “Fundamental Attribution Error”.

This is a phenomenon observed in most people.  It goes something like this:  When we observe a negative behavior in others we tend to attribute it to character; it’s proof that they are a bad person.  But when we observe a negative behavior in ourselves, we tend to attribute it to circumstances; we’re just a victim.

For example, suppose Engineer Bob makes a false statement about a complex issue, perhaps a temperature limit under some conditions.  If it comes to light that the statement was false, others around him will tend to assume it is proof that engineer Bob has an integrity problem.  Bob himself, however, will see it as evidence that the issue is complex and perhaps that someone explained it poorly to him.  The others assume the issue is character;  Bob will assume the issue is only situation.

Simply put, we assume the other guy is a dirtbag while we are just a victim.

And of course, even before we all knew this phenomenon had a formal name, we all were, to various degrees, aware of this.  We all have trouble taking leaders seriously when they do this sort of thing flagrantly.  Yet somehow, we don’t seem to be bothered by it when we do it ourselves.

And so it appears to be recursive; engineering managers often commit a fundamental attribution error about other leaders committing a fundamental attribution error.

No wonder we have trouble being taken seriously.


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