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Leadership Experts are Idiots––And I Can Prove It

I am unabashedly ripping-off this theme from my dear friend and mentor Larry Winget. His book, People are Idiots and I Can Prove It is a must-have for your library. I’m just narrowing the focus a bit.

So why do I say leadership experts are idiots?

Well––mostly because nearly everything they claim to “discover” are things we already know––or should!

The last thing in the world we need is another study to tell us that people work harder when leaders show they care. We don’t need another survey that tells us that people only perform at their highest levels when they respect and trust their leaders. No amount of research is going to add weight to the fact that emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills are essential ingredients in effective leadership…

And yet the research continues.

More than two thousand years ago Lao Tzu wrote:

“When the people are not in awe of your majesty,

then great majesty has been achieved.”

That sums up nearly all current research in one neat bundle! The rest is simply implementation and that’s where contemporary leadership development falls way short––more on that soon.

Now before I let myself get too wound up, I readily admit that I’m grateful for the research. It’s nice to be validated. But I still wonder why it takes so much effort to understand what’s around us every day and what’s in our own hearts and minds too.

I don’t care if you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Aren’t you first and foremost––a human being? Don’t you have certain fundamental human needs?

Experts (I know!) argue the order and importance, but Maslow’s Hierarchy still stands up pretty well. Above satisfying basic physiological necessities like food, water and sex, people need:

  • Safety

  • Love/Belonging

  • Esteem

  • Self-Actualization

Manfred Max-Neef added a few items:

  • Affection

  • Understanding

  • Creation

  • Identity

  • Freedom

Max-Neef is interesting because he was trying to understand what goes into making a successful society. His ideas have a lot of synergy with our understanding of what makes a successful organization.

I like simple. Dan Pink summed it all up very neatly––in my “expert” opinion:

  • Autonomy

  • Mastery

  • Purpose

Which of these do you need? Did you need a study to tell you that you needed these things, or could you have created this list just by paying attention?

And either way, if you need these things––don’t the people who trust in your leadership need the very same things? Isn’t it the primary role of a leader to try and satisfy these fundamental needs? If you answered no to the latter, you’re either a dinosaur, a tyrant or working alone.

What really bothers me is that these experts that promote the ideas of emotional intelligence so passionately are the ones who seem to be locked in this swirling cess pool of research. One study begets the next and that begets the next––and on and on and on.

Are they just trying to prove what we already know? Or––and here’s where I’ll cut the experts some slack…

Are they just trying to convince us of what we already know––because we’re really the idiots here?

Putting aside my snarky tone for the moment, I find it interesting and disturbing that despite the fact that we know, more or less, what we need to do as leaders to bring out the best in people, we seldom practice the fundamentals until someone beats us over the head with 500 pages of data.

No––the problem with leadership development is not the experts or the research, it’s the implementation. It’s a discipline problem.

That’s why some of the best experts like Daniel Goleman––who coined the term “emotional intelligence”––criticize most leadership development programs. They tell us that until and unless we embed certain practices in our daily lives, we simply won’t change, grow or develop; as leaders or as people.

Those experts tell us you just can’t learn to be a leader, or even a better leader, in a weekend retreat or a one-day workshop. There are, however, some powerful steps you can take in your next workshop.

THE SENSEI LEADER program is focused on two key actions…

  • First, we identify and develop meaningful strategies.

  • Then we create disciplines––things you’re going to do every day to implement those strategies.

Simple––not easy.

This process requires introspection and sometimes brutal self-criticism. It is sometimes uncomfortable, painful and frustrating. But one of the many valuable lessons I learned as a martial artist that translates so powerfully to leadership is this…

"Frustration is the well from which all wisdom springs!"

Genuine leaders are not “average” people. In fact, the very idea of a leader implies someone who is willing to rise to excellence and take on the toughest challenges––to find joy and opportunity in the hardship that sends others running.

We know what we need. We know what other people need.

We know as leaders that if we want to bring out the best in others, we need to address those needs.

We don’t need more research to confirm what we already know. We need to pay attention.

It no longer surprises me when the lessons I used to share with the “Little Dragons” in my 3 to 6 year old martial art classes are often the most powerful lessons for even seasoned leaders…

Here’s a discipline I used to practice with the Little Dragons that will help us all be more receptive and responsive to the needs of the people we serve.

I used to ask them: "What are the two most important words in the world?"

Answer: "Pay––attention!"

Then I’d go through this simple call and response exercise:

“Eyes?” “OPEN!”

“Ears?” “OPEN!”

“Mind?” “OPEN!”

“Heart?” “OPEN!”

“Mouth?” “CLOSED!!!”

That’s the simple discipline of paying attention. That’s how we can make sure we’re attuned to the needs, desires, goals, ambitions and interests of the people we serve. That’s how we’ll be sure to match the right people with the right role and it goes a long way toward earning their respect, trust and loyalty.

Just pay attention. That requires commitment––discipline and practice.

Do we need another study to tell us that?

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