Egocentric Leadership

I just finished reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and I didn’t like it. Yes, the message about team formation was quite good, and the model was interesting. But I hated the story. It describes a management team of immature managers, who all seem to be behaving like children. But behold… there is a new and wise CEO who is able to herd them all in the right direction, with a gentle but firm hand. Install a smart and experienced CEO, et voilá… Problem solved.

That’s management 2.0 all over.

It’s the same with Good to Great, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, The One Minute Manager, and many others. They all assume that the organization is a ship full of lemmings, who are all in desperate need to be led. And that leadership is to be executed by the top lemming, of course.

It’s no wonder such books sell like cupcakes among everyone who enjoys feeling superior to other workers. It satisfies their needs for status and power. Another name would be egocentric leadership.

Now, don’t get me wrong! There are plenty of good ideas and good intentions among the authors of these books. That’s why I call it management 2.0: Nice ideas, bad implementation.

I get the same allergic reaction when I see the suggestion that managers should “coach their subordinates”. (Some former sports athletes make a lot of money teaching “coaching leadership” to stadiums fool of drooling CEO’s. I’m sure they have some vendors selling branded sticks and carrots.)

Repeat after me: managers cannot coach employees!

Because most “superiors” have no idea how to do the jobs of their “subordinates”. Peter Drucker already wrote this ages ago:

Knowledge workers are not subordinates; they are “associates.” For, once beyond the apprentice stage, knowledge workers must know more about their job than their boss does—or else they are no good at all. In fact, that they know more about their job than anybody else in the organization is part of the definition of knowledge workers.

– Peter F. Drucker, Management

Management 3.0 is the understanding that an organization is a social complex system of knowledge workers. Taking care of the system is just another specialization, just like development, testing, and marketing. Someone has to do it. But nobody is anyone else’s superior. We’re all in it together.

  • How Can We Help Melly Shum?
  • Translating How to Change the World
Related Posts
free book
“How to Change the World”
  • Mel Gladwin

    I like the idea of being a Care Taker of the system. I have traditionally found it hard to articulate what I do in change management, at least in terms familiar to role-focused-organisations. As the job requires a holistic understanding of every element of the system, the tasks (transient roles?) fall naturally around this.
    This term may prove to be useful & provides a nice visual too.
    Bring on Management 3.0!

  • Sparky

    Ha, you had me going. I agreed with you up until the point where you say “managers cannot coach employees”. I disagree – a mostly non-directive coaching approach make the employee aware and responsible for their own performance – you don’t need to be a subject expert to coach.
    I liked your concluding paragraph though!

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Thanks. I admit I worded it quite strongly. I usually say that “Managers are not necessarily people’s coaches. In fact, usually it might be better to delegate that work to other more competent people.”

  • Angel Medinilla

    Wow, Jurgen, it seems to me that the childish story (a classic business book format, BTW, they seem to assume that most CEO’s are idiots) made you hate the book more than you should 😛
    I also like the model but feel like the book is a little bit dull and simplistic. Nevertheless, you seem to deny the concepts of leadership and coaching. I don’t feel like the book is about “install a CEO and get everything marching”, but about how a team coach can get a bunch of people to better perform. You say that most “superiors” are not qualified to do the job of their surdinates, but in the case of the book the new CEO is not telling finance guys how to do finance, but telling the executive team how to perform as a team, so I don’t feel like your concerns in this way are right.
    On the other side, I can understand how some literature depicture the leemings vs leader thing, but leadership is a hardwired concept in human brains (even in apes, if we come that far). We can discuss leaderless structures, or even if “correlation means cause” (as in Good to Great, were they find great leaders in all the great companies, so they assume that great leadership is a pattern, something that I agree on). But denying the concept of leadership seems like a bit to much to me 🙂
    Anyway, interesting food for thought. Keep them coming! 😛

  • David Farbey

    I think a good business manager can be a coach, as long as they regard their staff as equal contributors to the work in hand and treat them with respect. Unfortunately many managers feel that showing their staff that they value them is some kind of weakness that undermines their status.

  • Lucian Adrian

    Jurgen, the article is overall nice and useful. I like and share the vision that knowledge workers are not the kind of workers that can be lead in the traditional way. They are associates, as you well stated, the manager can not do what they do, at all times.
    What I did not like is the idea that “managers cannot coach”. This was stated in a very absolute manner, emphasized by “repeat after me”. This is not always true! There are, and I know some, managers that can coach. It all depends on what coaching you think of, but nevertheless, managers can coach, and some do it pretty well. They can coach not only in a technical way, but also at a personal and life level.
    I admire and respect you opinion :), but let’s try not to be so absolute 🙂

  • Joelhelbling

    The term “manager” covers quite a range of people, personalities and responsibilities. And the meaning of the word “coaching” is possibly even more broad. So yeah, its possible to take exception to the idea that managers shouldn’t (or can’t) coach.
    The real debate is (or, I feel, ought to be) what approach a manager should or should not take in trying to get a team to perform better. Knowledge workers know that they are knowledgeable; thus they don’t respond best in an environment which is oriented around one-way communication (e.g. a manager telling the KW’s “how to self organize”).
    A manager’s only real currency with KW’s is trust. Many managers seem to feel they can shore up a command-and-control approach with statements about what a “nice, reasonable guy I am,” and by one or two nearly meaningless gestures (e.g. “hey, it’s 4:50pm…go ahead and take off as soon as you’re done with your work.”). Good luck with that.
    The only way to improve trust is to listen well, and follow through on what you say you will do. That’s pretty much it.
    And as for coaching? Given an environment of trust, coaching happens whenever and wherever it is both needed and available. Despite what our org charts tell us, genuine leadership is completely organic.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    I agree. No absolutes! 🙂

  • paul mahoney

    I read the story somewhat differently, in that it shows a “Leader” who could also “coach”. it has been my experience working in US companies that the 2 skills do not often reside in one person at the top of the power pyramid. although i do think things are changing in corporate america, it will take time for the concept of true teamwork being more highly valued over being a superstar.
    It will be a delight to start seeing Management 3.0 making headway into how we run our companies/organizations. I think most of us can coach, but how good a coach you can be is determined by why you are coaching..

  • André Dhondt

    That’s not the way I interpreted the book. As I recall, the new CEO didn’t pretend she knew better than anyone else, she was humble, and led *through* the team. She encouraged everyone to show their vulnerabilities to each other, to align to the greater good of the company rather than to micro-optimization, to argue ideas openly, etc. This isn’t egocentric leadership–it’s tribal leadership.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    But it still was the CEO, wasn’t it?
    It was not a coach, not another team member.
    It was the boss who was portrayed as the wise and humble leader.
    This is exactly the problem.
    Bosses love hearing that -they- have to be the wise leaders.
    It simply reinforces the image they already have of themselves.
    Such book are thus symptoms of the problem, not the solution.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Portraying the manager as a coach reinforces the inflated image managers have of themselves. It adds to the problem. It doesn’t solve it.

  • Ronian Siew

    I enjoyed reading this post very much, Jurgen. I fully agree that “we’re all in it together”. Although I share the view with Sparky and Lucian Adrian about the point made on “Managers cannot coach”, I also understand the point which you were trying to make as well. Also, yes I agree that perhaps “managers cannot necessarily coach” is quite an appropriate substitute. However, I like the term “egocentric Leadership” and I think it could be taken far. I’m going to read more about your writings on Management 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 and also forward your article to our managers and HR whom I think will find it useful.

  • Mike Toppa

    I especially liked the Freudian slip of “…stadiums fool of drooling CEOs”

  • Jimewel

    Jurgen, are you familiar with the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) concept? It’s about treating employees as adults, and not children who need to be “managed”. The creators of the concept, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, have written a book, “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It” that I think you’d like.

  • Hugues

    I did not read the book with that perspective. I felt the new CEO was there as a facilitator, a mentor. Bringing her own experience to a team with dysfunctions. Her knowledge was not about how to do things «technically», but a better way to work together.
    I saw the new CEO role as an agent of change… It reminds me of the Scrum Master role; help the team finds what works and what don’t.
    But the story had to serve the purpose of the book; present ways to act better in a team (or as a team).

  • Jurgen Appelo

    That was not my point. My point was, why is so often the CEO presented as the agent of change? While in reality _they_ are the ones who need to change!
    You compare it with the ScrumMaster role. Indeed! The ScrumMaster is NOT the manager of a team. The change agent can be anyone…
    So why are books so often written with the manager (instead of another person) being the change agent?
    I know the intention of the book is good. But the fact that they (again) choose the manager as the change agent only reinforces the bad behaviors of managers seeing themselves as the wise ones.

  • Ronian Siew

    If we take on the perspective, as Jurgen has tried to point out, that change agents can be anyone, then it seems like it could be effective for managers to identify a number of employees who have either demonstrated positive influence or the potential to instil positive influence, and then to have constant communication with them. By doing this, the manager is helping people help himself. Soon, a common positive vision and “culture” would be crystallized from these conversations and then this could be spread across the company. This approach could reduce the tendency for managers to see themselves as the sole agent of change and thus, minimize the “Egocentricity” of their leadership approach. Unfortunately, this is very difficult for many managers! In Asia (such as in Singapore where I live, it might be even more challenging, because there is a tendency for Asian managers to see themselves as top dog and “know it all”. I’m not discriminating here, for I myself am an Asian guy. I have a unique perspective on this issue because I grew up in three different places: I was born in Malaysia and lived there for 7 years, then I lived in the Philippines for 10 years going to school at an International School with an American/British based education system. I also lived in the USA for 9 years, and I’ve been living in Singapore for the past 10 years. Thus, I’m a product of both the East and Western cultures and I can see the difference in leadership styles. In Asia, as in Singapore, the manager assumes great power. You can see many engineers and employees kind of shy or inhibited when the manager speaks. The manager is the “know it all”, and any questioning from the employees can be seen as insubordination. It’s not always the case, but most of the time it is like this. My experience has told me that no amount of management training has helped to change this nature for the vast majority of managers who behave like this. Only a few are capable of change and usually these are the guys who can empathize and humble enough to know what they don’t know. I blogged about this somewhat in the following two links:
    I don’t know how helpful these are, but they’re my thoughts on management and leadership, from the point of view of an employee (me) who is very enthusiastic about being a non-manager who likes to work with managers to influence positive change.

  • TestDame

    As a non-manager, I see a problem when a manager coaches an employee that’s not mentioned above.
    Coaching requires the people who are coached to be open about their sucesses, but also about failures and what they do NOT know (yet). I assume this sounds great from the managers point of view (useful input for the yearly performance review). But from the employees point of view, it can be like giving your manager a stick to beat you with!
    Think about it, how would you feel (and how open would you be)talking about your failures, lack of experience and lack of knowledge to the person who decides how high your raise will be next year?

  • Ronian Siew

    Hi TestDame,
    I think you may have a point here. For the most part, I’ve personally been pretty open about both success and failures, but I certainly can admit to advertising my achievements much more than the failures. When it comes to performance reviews, that’s what we all tend to do – focus on positives. Conversely, it is also equally important for a coach to share his failure stories. Jurgen did this really well in the introduction to his book “How to change the world”. If you haven’t done so, take a look at it. I am usually inspired by the stories of people who share their failures and success. I think it is a good way to lead by example. Unfortunately, there are far…FAR less managers like Jurgen in the world.

How to Change the World - free Workout - free