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Leaders Too Remote to Relate

Superstar abilities can be a hindrance in leading

IF YOU ARE a leader, you are not “average.” It’s common for someone in authority to have more knowledge, experience, and skill than subordinates. That’s not a revelation; it’s usually an assumption. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in that position in the first place.

However, many highly intelligent and experienced leaders stumble when they try to relate to people who aren’t as gifted, knowledgeable, or experienced as they are. Their resulting frustration proceeds to hinder their efforts at leading and managing.

I call it the Superstar Syndrome.

The superstar who didn’t get it

Ted Williams was one of the greatest baseball players ever. His batting records are so outstanding that discussions about who was the greatest hitter of all time usually begin by comparing him and Babe Ruth.

Nine years after his retirement in 1960, Williams surprised the baseball world by accepting the job of manager for the woeful Washington Senators. He managed them for four seasons, including a final one after they moved to Texas and became the Rangers.

The Senators/Rangers were … how shall I put it? Terrible is a kind word. Game after game, Williams watched his team from the dugout, wondering how any professional ballplayers could be so inept.

I once heard one of those players describe a day Williams was watching batting practice. Grinding his teeth over each weak grounder after popup after after lazy fly ball, Williams finally couldn’t take it anymore.

“!@#*%!” he blurted. “Somebody give me a #@* bat!” The 50-something manager went into the batting cage and took his stance.

Crack! Line drive.

Crack! Liner off the outfield wall.

Crack! Over the fence.

Crack! Another over the fence.

Williams threw down the bat violently. That’s how you do it!” he shouted and stomped off.

The players standing around the cage stared at each other silently. All were thinking the same thing: “But you’re Ted Williams!”

There’s a reason why baseball superstars have seldom become successful managers. It’s because they can’t relate to players with “ordinary” major league skills. On the other hand, many benchwarmers with mediocre careers have become Hall of Fame managers. They were able to relate to and communicate with average ballplayers. Most importantly, they could teach.

Trouble relating to ordinary people

I’ve observed some of the same dynamics in the business world. If you are a leader at a significant level, you are assumed to be knowledgeable and skilled at what you do. Especially from the standpoint of your strengths, you are above and beyond the average person. Add the fact that we tend to judge others harshly when we view them through our strengths, and you have a potential cocktail for a bad attitude.

Jan was an Executive Director who had worked her way up the ladder. She vented to me the anger she felt toward her managers who were struggling to juggle the many complicated aspects of their role. I believed the expectations for office managers in that company were unrealistic and a set-up for failure, and told her so. Jan wouldn’t hear of it. When I pressed her on that point, she snapped, I can do it!” That’s the Superstar Syndrome.

If there’s anything that can suck the power out of a leader’s influence, it’s when he or she gives in to an attitude of frustration. Leading requires being able to relate to others, see things through their eyes, and optimism. Those qualities are the polar opposite of frustration. You simply cannot indulge frustration with people and at the same time lead them effectively.

A realistic view of human beings

In his book, The Effective Executive, management guru Peter Drucker raised this issue and warned:

“We are not going to breed a new race of supermen. We will have to run our organizations with men as they are.”

A very small organization might be entirely staffed by extremely gifted people, but not a whole corporation. Drucker comments further:

“If we required saints, poets, or even first-rate scholars to staff our knowledge positions, the large-scale organization would be impossible.”

Therefore, he said, the effective executive

“knows that the test of organization is not genius. It is its capacity to make common people achieve uncommon performance.”

How? is the big question. How can a leader stimulate common people to achieve uncommon performance? Researcher Robert Fulmer studied companies that have excelled at developing leaders. He writes,

“One of our key findings was that leaders who teach are more effective than those who tell.”

Becoming a leader who teaches requires a change of mindset. Instead of viewing their role as merely making sure things get done, effective leaders view themselves as being in the people-development business. While they are in the action focusing on results, they simultaneously view everyday activities as opportunities to grow their people and teams.

What you can do

There is an alternative to managerial frustration. To multiply your influence:

1. Adopt a coaching mindset

Professional literature on management has been saying this for many years now. Modern managing has transitioned from the old command-and-control puppet-master philosophy to a mentoring, coaching, servant-leader model. That’s the kind of leadership needed by the knowledge workers of today. Embrace your role to be an educator and people-developer.

2. Invest time in teaching your people

It does take time, yes, but it is well worth the effort. This requires three further things:

  • Slowing down

One of the biggest hindrances to people-development is simply SPEED on the part of leaders. They’re constantly moving targets. You have to make space for conversations to take place.

  • Speaking plain English

The more knowledge and experience leaders have, the more they tend to speak in “Expertese” and assume too much knowledge on others’ part. The real proof that you understand a subject is not the specialized jargon you can rattle off; it’s the ability to explain it to ordinary people in terms they can understand. You must bridge the gap.

  • Sharing clear expectations

People can be empowered to take initiative to solve their own problems when they have a clear understanding of the desired outcome. As General Patton said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they’ll surprise you with their ingenuity.” During the process, you remain available to provide help and resources as they need them.

3. Make sure systems and lines of authority are rational and understandable

A large number of “problems with employees” are not really people problems at all. They’re system problems. The systems staff members are expected to work within are often unclear, illogical, or inefficient. Lines of authority and accountability can also become tangled and multiplied. The result is confusion and paralyzed inaction. Where there’s a persistent recurring problem, don’t just knee-jerk react and blame the person. Investigate the system and fix it, or clarify reporting relationships and who has authority to make a decision.

Being a people-developer ─ playing a significant role in people’s personal and professional development ─ is extremely rewarding. Once you do this and experience the results, you’ll never go back, and you’ll never again be satisfied with being a mere superstar performer. Li

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