(About a 9 minute read)
In high school, I won the popularity contest for next year’s student council president by an overwhelming landslide. There were only two dissenting votes out of about 500 cast. The dissenters were my opponent and her best friend.
That summer, I completely rewrote the council’s constitution in order to make both the council and the office of president more influential. I won’t use the word “power” here, because that would be misleading. Neither the council nor its president had anything approaching real power.
That is, we could not force or compel anyone to do anything. All we could do was attempt to persuade the students and staff to do our bidding. Nothing more than that.
And so perhaps the very first lesson I learned my senior year was that even a powerless person or entity could influence people through persuasion alone.
That lesson would stand me in good stead through to this very day. Had I even a drop of power, I would not have been forced to learn it so well.
My right hand was Glenn. He was smarter than me, and almost as politically insightful. But he was not nearly as driven as me. I was the kid who was picked last for any team, whose opinions were never adopted by anyone, and who was out to prove himself by becoming the most important student in the school — if not socially, then politically.
Glenn was quite popular and therefore too satiated to obsess on how to get things done. But me? Well, outwardly I was friendly, honest, and caring, but the demon of Machiavelli sat on my right and my left shoulders both. If there had even been an angel on one of them, someone had murdered him the day I was elected. Good riddance! I didn’t need him anyway.
Diane was Glenn’s younger sister, and the woman who had opposed me. When I rewrote the constitution, I expanded the number of representatives from each class from four to five. Diane took the bait and ran for the Junior class slot, as I wanted her to do. This time no one ran against her and she won. Things were falling into place.
Please don’t mistake me. I didn’t support Diane because I felt sorry for her loss to me, nor even because she was Glenn’s sister. I did it because she had three traits I wanted. She was highly intelligent (albeit a bit too ethical), she was extremely hard-working, and I sensed she was loyal and thus would follow me.
I needed someone — another hand besides Glenn — that I could assign things to, confident they’d get done to my satisfaction.
I had gotten into a bit of trouble during my sophomore year and had a bad reputation with many of the adults in town. About half a year into my presidency, I heard that someone had complained to one of the veteran teachers about me.
Surprisingly, she’d stuck up for me, saying that the council was more dynamic and accomplishing more than it had in 20 years. Indeed, that year we changed a handful of key school policies — something that, again, I heard had not been done in 20 years.
We got permission to hold dances again after they had been banned due to violence. We fought and won the right of students to vote for who would be on the cheerleader squad. We got a soda machine installed in the school with exclusive use of the profits. We issued a number of student accomplishment awards. Briefly published an “underground” newspaper that spoke freely and critically of some school policies. And even once censored a teacher! Among other things.
All of that was accomplished without a rat’s fart worth of power.
Which brings me to my first point: If you happen to be reading this to learn something, rather than merely to entertain (nothing wrong with entertainment, though), then consider relying on persuasion as your primary, or even in most cases, sole means of influencing people. Bring out the gun only as a last resort.
I say that for more reasons than merely because persuasion can be effective. I also say it because it causes the least resentment, hatred, and rebellion. Furthermore, I believe most of us instinctively dislike power even when we agree that it is being exercised in our own best interests, or that the powerful person at least has a right to impose it upon us.
Somewhere in the Tao Teh Ching is a passage that goes something like this, “The worse ruler is feared by the people. The second worse ruler is loved by the people. But the least worse ruler is not even understood by the people to be their ruler.”
Most people might take that passage as being idealistic — especially the bit about the least worse ruler. I don’t quite see it that way, and one of the reasons I don’t is because I have had a lifetime of experience “ruling” via unobtrusive persuasion, rather than through the exercise of power.
In America, I think, we tend to make a fetish of power. Whether we know it or not, we agree with Mao, “All power ultimately proceeds out of the barrel of a gun”. As perhaps a direct consequence, so many of our supervisors and managers honestly suck. They get no where near the performance they could get out of people.
Simply ask yourself. Are you more likely to follow not only the letter, but the spirit, of an order if your boss tells you, “Do this or else”, or if your boss takes the time to show you why and how it is in your own best interests to follow the order?
When I was a salesperson, I use to get riled up at the people they’d install over us as managers. Salespeople by the nature of their jobs cannot compel or force their customers to buy. You might think, then, that sales managers — often having risen up from salespeople — would instinctively motivate their sales forces through persuasion rather than through threat force.
You’d be wrong. At least in my experience the odds would not favor your bet. Most sales managers I’ve either worked for, or have observe closely, were naive about the effectiveness of power, and extensively relied on it even when persuasion would have done the trick.
They subscribed, it seems to the “commonsense” notion that the right thing to employ was both a carrot and a stick.
But I know from my own years in management that you only need the stick if you’ve for one reason or another failed as a persuader. Most of the time, you needn’t even hint that it’s there.
If you would like now to learn more about persuasion — the single most effective way to go about it — I have blogged on that very subject here. It’s about a four minute read.
Honestly, my problem as a boss has not been that I’ve failed to be persuasive enough, it’s been that I have too often been too persuasive. I have motivate people to come in sick because — and this is a true statement — “I feel better at work than I do at home when I’m sick.” Come in sick and infect the rest of the team.
Or — more commonly — I’ve had both men and women fall in love with me, which can be every bit as disruptive as you might imagine. Worse, it can be dangerous! Once a young man abruptly showed up at my work. He was the boyfriend of one of my top producers. And he was nearly belligerent in demanding to know, “Why Amy comes home from work so tired and so happy she can only be having an affair.”
I actually got rude with him. Told him off a bit. But fortunately, I didn’t get too rude. About 45 minutes into our “conversation” I was alarmed to grasp that the bulge in his coat pocket was most likely a pistol!
Now most of what I’ve learned over the decades I’ve learned the hard way — I’ve made my fair share of mistakes — but one thing I have instinctively known even as far back as in high school, is that a leader is not there to be served, but to serve.
I’ve even taken that to extremes, fetching coffee for my employees so they would not need to interrupt their work — and thus I lose an extra sale or two for the day. But beyond that, my real work begins.
A lot of the job of a manager, as opposed to a mere supervisor, is to design the system itself. The system for getting things done. And when designing the system, I believe a good manager pays sustained and astute attention to the effect that system will have not only on revenue and productivity, but on meeting the psychological and emotional needs of his or her team.
For example, when I owned my own sales agency, I made all the sales jobs “attendance optional”. My employees could pick their own days and hours for work. I believe that had an admirable effect on both morale (lower turnover) and productivity.
Now I was able to get away with that because all I really needed from my crew was that they achieve or exceed the sales quotas I set for them. “Lisa, all I need you to do is bring in $10,000/month, and not fart into the upholstery. If you do that for me, I will be deeply grateful and give you one of those fabulous disposable ballpoint pens over there that I see you have your eye on.”
Making your system conducive to the psychological and emotional needs of your employees can be quite rewarding. Whenever I was able to measure my team’s performance against one or another industry benchmark, they exceeded the benchmark, often simply burring it.
So very many myths about leadership involve the notion that key to it is charisma. In my opinion that’s bunk. Bunk in the precise sense that charisma can be key to one or another person’s success as a leader, but no more than average likeability is actually necessary. Most of the people who write about leadership impress me as groupies, and groupies — much more than most folks — seem to be in awe of charisma.
In my experience, if you have solid persuasion skills (again, see the above link) people will convince themselves you are a charismatic devil.
To summarize the key points now:
First, consider that you can decisively motivate people through both power and persuasion, but persuasion seems to be always the best choice except in extreme circumstances.
Second, consider that your attitude should be to serve your employees, rather than to have them serve you, and that you should take that into account when designing your system.
Last, consider that it might be best to hone your persuasive skills rather than try to enhance your charisma.
By no means have I attempted here to provide you with anything more than a starters guide to leadership. Volumes have been left out of this essay. But I do hope you find what I have included to be either entertaining or actually useful.