Want to be a better leader? Be a SAP!!!

Happy New Year Rebels at Work!

First off, I must confess that this blog post is one of those annoyingly not-so-clever ones that attempts to peddle a contrived acronym as a pearl of wisdom. Yup, eventually I’ll reveal what SAP actually stands for so that the readers can be amazed.

Perhaps some readers are already amazed that we’re writing a blog post about how leaders can improve. “I thought Rebels at Work were decidedly anti-management.”

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Well, yes, we don’t often sing its praises. And that’s what actually spurred the writing of this post. We take so many shots at managers that the reader might legitimately wonder “What are managers good for, anyway?” That’s a good question for which there are many bad answers out there. I remember when I had my first management job at the CIA in 1984, I spent two dreadful weeks trying to do what I thought a manager should do. I was rather humorless, uncharacteristically attentive to details, and constantly telling my “subordinates” what to do. Lucky for me and the “underlings”, I was also miserable. After two weeks, I decided to behave in ways that made me happy, which had little in common with 1980s management-speak.

One quite popular book then was In Search of Excellence. I penned a little ditty about it at the time, sung to the tune of Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later than You Think, which I would perform at CIA holiday parties. Luckily no cameras are allowed on the CIA campus.

You work and work for years and years on Uncle Sam’s payroll,
Protecting the American way from Communistic foes.
And then one day they tell you that you reek of indolence!
Imagine all the fun we’ll have In Search of Excellence.
Away we go, In Search of Excellence
Write a Credo, In Search of Excellence…

But I digress…

So what are managers good for, anyway, I asked myself. What can they uniquely do to make the workplace better that doesn’t duplicate others’ efforts and/or doesn’t somehow depress the energy of motivated employees? The first word that came to mind was

Anticipation

To my way of thinking, the one talent that managers/leaders must have is the ability to anticipate—to see around the corner to identify the annoying problem or the frisky opportunity. Other colleagues—even the “underlings”—can anticipate as well, but if the team has a broadish area of responsibility with multiple moving parts, the manager of the unit is the one person in a position to see more connections and thus anticipate what others can’t. If a manager/leader doesn’t anticipate well, they are failing at their primary, unique contribution.

Anticipation is not the same thing as Vision. You often hear that the leader’s job is to set the vision for her team, advice that I find disturbing but that I often see leaders follow. “I’m excited to be presenting my vision to the team tomorrow.” Ugh!! The last thing a leader should do is present a unilateral vision of the way forward to his “subordinates.” People do not freely endorse what is imposed upon them. A leader’s responsibility is to facilitate well the process through which goals and objectives are agreed to. Everyone on the team has an important role to play here.

Rather than visionary, anticipation is often tactical. It can be as tactical as realizing that too many people will be out of the office at the same time in August. But short-term can be quite important. For example, there are many contractors serving the Federal Government who now wish they had done a better job of anticipating a government shutdown. And anticipation is more than just suspecting what the next turn of events might be. It is important to appreciate the consequences of that event and what your team’s next steps might be.

Selection

The second unique responsibility for managers/leaders is selecting individuals for their team and helping individuals match their talents to the right tasks. I remember a CIA director once saying to me that the best way to get something done is to put someone in charge of doing it. Now this seems like ridiculously obvious advice although it is still overlooked in large organizations and bureaucracies. But the statement conveys more meaning with the simple addition of one word: “The best way to get something done is to put the right someone in charge of doing it.” Now it becomes clear.

The best form of quality control is hiring the best person for the job. It’s that simple and that hard. All other methods of quality control are inferior, tend to waste time, and risk eroding morale. In knowledge work, for example, controlling for quality almost always involves stopping the flow of work to allow the higher authority to weigh in. And “weigh in” is an appropriate metaphor, as the hierarchical intervention almost always comes down like a ton of bricks.

Managers/leaders don’t always make optimum hires. But you can always adjust by helping the colleague match their talents to the right tasks. In my experience, the majority of “performance” issues among the “underlings” involves a bad fit. When everyone on a team is well-fitted, the manager’s job in terms of quality control, is trivial.

Perspective

The final letter in my acronym is P for Perspective. Merriam Webster’s second definition for perspective is “the interrelation in which a subject or its parts are mentally viewed; the capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance.” Just as was the case with anticipation, managers/leaders are in the best position to keep things in perspective. In fact, perspective is a key prerequisite for anticipation.

Managers who lack perspective are bitter disappointments for their “subordinates.” The inability to distinguish the truly important from the bureaucratically necessary exhausts everybody. Lack of perspective leads to monotonous meetings and pointless taskings. When we speak of people who have common sense or good intuitions, what we are likely identifying is a keenly developed sense of perspective.

OK, so I’ve spelled ASP. I wrote about these in the order that I thought of them, but ASP obviously wouldn’t do, although no doubt many of you do suspect many leaders are snakes after all. So there you have it, a contrived acronym hoping to convey a modicum of wisdom.