Welcome to An Examined Life. Occassionally I delude myself into thinking that I understand some part of my life (or life in general) and I thought it might be a hoot to share those thoughts with whomever happens to stumble across this. I hope you find something enjoyable here. If I'm really lucky, I'll make you stop and think for a moment.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Picard vs. Kirk: A Few Thoughts on Leadership

In my last entry I made an offhand comment about which Star Trek captain – Picard or Kirk – was better. If you’re the type to read footnotes on blogs, you’ll know that I believe Picard was the better captain. Thinking about that got me thinking about leadership: how I got to be a leader and what I’ve learned about leadership along the way.

My first leadership position came in the job I had right after high school. I was working in a theater. It was one of the big, old 1000-seat, single screen theaters that were dying a long, slow death in the mid- to late-1970’s. I was hired as an usher and eventually became assistant manager. But, I moved up when the people over me quit to get jobs that paid at least minimum wage. By the time I got to be the assistant manager there was no one under me. So, as assistant manager I was still performing all my usher duties, plus I got to unlock the front doors. I’m not sure that I learned much from that.
My next job was with Kmart. The store manager’s name was John Lipp. I learned a lot from him. Every so often I Google him, because I’d really like to find him so I can say thanks. So far I’ve been unsuccessful. So, Mr. Lipp, if you ever read this: Thanks.
I started as part-time help in the toy department at Christmas. I worked for an assistant manager named Patricia. Apparently I impressed someone, because after Christmas I was hired full-time and was made the department head of three departments: rugs, furniture, and plastics (the faux Tupperware stuff that Kmart sold). I did that for awhile and then was offered a promotion to assistant manager, with several department heads and other employees reporting to me. And I started working much more directly with Mr. Lipp.
I remember the first time I got a note from him assigning me some task to do. It was written on a leftover goldenrod inventory tag. I don’t remember what the task was now, but written under it were the letters WIT. As I recall, the task was clear and easy, but the WIT stumped me. I was pretty sure he didn’t want me to be funny while I did the job, but I just had no idea what the WIT meant, and I didn’t want to start on the task if WIT altered what I thought the job was. Eventually I gave up trying to figure it out, went back to the manager’s office and admitted that I didn’t understand. He looked up at me and said, “Get it done Whatever It Takes.”
There were other acronyms, but that’s the only one I can remember now. I spent most of my retail career working for John Lipp and a lot of my style (such as it is) comes from him. I worked for other managers at Kmart, but most of what I learned from them was how not to lead. There were other managers at other chains, too, but the only other one who I feel was a positive role model was Fred Cole at Marshall’s. Thanks to you, too, Mr. Cole.
So, what did I learn? I could be here a long time and not get it all down (plus you wouldn’t read it all if I did – assuming that you’re even reading this). So, here’s some of what I think are the more important things.
First, you set the tone for your organization (your store, your department, your business). You do that directly by how you lead. If you’re a little ankle-biter, yappy dog of a micromanager you’re probably going to be leading a group of people chewing on their fingernails and watching the clock waiting for their shift to be over. They won’t go the extra mile for you, because you’re standing over them to make sure they do the required mile exactly to your specifications. You’re going to make them nervous and edgy and, I think, you’ll sap whatever creativity they might have. You’ll probably also make them a bit resentful – why did you hire them if you don’t believe they’ll do the work without you telling them every minute how to do it? That leads me to the indirect way that you set the tone for your group: you set the tone by hiring the people you hire. If you hire a bunch of jerks[1], you’re going to have a group that really doesn’t work well (Think about it. Who would really want to work with Dr. House?).
As a leader, you want to hire good people and then treat them right. Obviously, you want competent people (or ones you can train), but you also want someone who gets what your organization is about and who fits with your group (see the above comments on, umm, jerks). Given a choice between someone with lots of experience who’s a jerk and someone I’ll need to train who fits in, I’ll go with the later every time. The best of all is the job candidate with experience and who fits in. You also want to avoid judging on appearances. A good employee might not be the one who’s most polished in the interview. I remember one Christmas I was hiring part-time people to staff the toy department. I hired three people who didn’t fit the conventional mold (one, for example, wore faded denim and chains to the interview). The Boss (I won’t say which one) was leaving on vacation and said that my three would be gone before he got back. He much preferred a different more polished three who’d been hired for other departments. When he got back, the polished three were gone. Two of my three eventually ended up in management positions (the third left to go to college).
Once you’ve got good people you need to treat them right. You want to train them, let them know what’s expected (and high expectations are good), and then get the hell out of their way and let them do their jobs. Praise them when they do well, but let them know when they do something wrong (after all, how can they correct the problem if they don’t know it’s a problem). Another part of treating them right is the tone of the organization (you set that –see above). By way of example, retail stores tend to be a bit busy between Thanksgiving and mid-January. The first part of that is the Christmas season. After Christmas, most chains then do their yearly inventory. Everybody works hard. The best people I worked for asked for a lot during that time, but as soon as inventory was over, all the assistant managers found three-day weekends worked into their schedules. The lesson: ask a lot but give something back. Thank you notes are another way to let people know that you value them. Keep in mind, though, that three-day weekends and thank you notes only go so far. Thank you notes don’t pay the mortgage. Part of treating your people right is to pay them well.
A final point: you can’t lead by just quoting the rule book. No set of rules, no matter how well-thought-out they are, can ever cover every possible situation. As a leader, the situations that don’t fit the rulebook – either there’s no rule that speaks to the issue or someone’s asking to violate a rule – will come to you for your decision. It’s uncomfortable, but no one ever promised that leadership was easy. By accepting the position you’ve put yourself right where the buck stops. In those situations, you need to keep in mind the mission of the organization. You also need to bear in mind any general principles that your organization might have. Sometimes those general principles will be spelled out (see, for example, the APA Ethics code at http://www.apa.org/ethics/). Most times they won’t be. If they’re not, study the rules. They were written for a reason. If you can figure out that reason, that purpose, you’ve got the general principles. A rule against accepting a starter check for payment at a store probably wasn’t written simply to turn down starter checks. It was probably written with the larger purpose of avoiding bad checks. You need to make decisions that are consonant with those principles and further the mission of the organization.
So, why do I prefer Picard to Kirk? In my opinion, Kirk violated too many of these principles I’ve learned. First and foremost, Kirk didn’t let his people do their jobs (with the exception of Scotty. Kirk never went to engineering to repair the warp drive). If anything was going to get done, Kirk was going to do it. He had all these competent people sitting around watching him do all the work. Give me a break. Picard, on the other hand, let his people do their jobs. As a matter of fact, he demanded that they do their jobs (“Give me options,” he’d often say). He also had good people who didn’t fit the conventional mold: in the first few seasons a blind man flew the ship, a machine was third in command, a former enemy was the security officer, and his first officer often wouldn’t let him do something he wanted to do. And they did amazing things and had a bit of fun doing it.
That’s leadership.

[1] I’ve often thought (and said) that one of the greatest benefits that psychology could give to humanity would be to create a jerk test2.
2 Ok, to be honest, jerk isn’t the word I really use, but I think my kid reads this.

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