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The Collateral Damage of Selfish Leadership

The Collateral Damage of Selfish Leadership

Your people are your most valuable asset, and if you want them to excel―and your profits to soar―you need to abandon your traditional management style and adopt a collaborative, open leadership approach—one that engages and empowers your staff. Dan Pontefract, chief envisioner of TELUS Transformation Office and the author of Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization, shares leadership tools that push the boundaries of organizational change to create workplace cultures that shine. In this recent column for Forbes, Dan writes about the problems that result when a selfish leader is at the helm of an organization:

I’m from Canada and although I’ve never played hockey, there is a colloquial expression in my country known as a “puck hog”.

No, it’s doesn’t have anything to do with pig farming and it’s also not some new form of Canadian doughnut, but it illustrates the collateral damage of a selfish leader rather well.

A puck hog is a player on a hockey team who holds onto the puck for far too long looking to score from anywhere on the ice or is so delusional about his abilities that he believes he can win the game without ever passing the puck to teammates. The same phrase is used in basketball, but replace puck with ball to get “ball hog”.

Do you know any puck or ball hog leaders in business or government or your place of work?

You know, those individuals who only look out for themselves without really caring about employees or society in general? These are the types of individuals who like to dominate, sometimes for the sport of domination itself.

Here’s some irony to think about it. What if those puck and ball hogs acted the way they did in our organizations because that’s all they have ever been conditioned to behave like? What if they don’t know how to pass? What if they had no idea there was a greater purpose than simply winning?

What if they thought the purpose of an organization was to dominate without thinking twice about the societal consequences from their actions?

Perhaps we should unassumingly blame the followers. Otherwise known as employees —individuals being led by a leader — it just may be those people making up roughly 90 percent of an organization’s population that cause this selfish sort of leadership puck hog behaviour. For example, researchers found what can only be described as an alarming trend with the employee base when they discovered employees would rather be led by someone who scores high on the “dominance” scale versus the “prestige” scale. Put another way, employees are attracted to leaders who care more about (and exert) power as opposed to purpose. Thankfully, if the organization is philanthropic in nature or in a non-competitive environment, the “prestige” leader is preferred, but when it comes to winning, (i.e. competitive situations) the merciless, power-hungry leader is the more partial choice of employees.

Our organizations remain anemically disengaged (or not engaged) — according to firms such as Gallup, AON Hewitt and BlessingWhite — yet it seems employees would rather have their leadership team be made up of the “dominant” style, leaders who make Pol Pot and Ivan the Terrible seem friendly. This isn’t simply ironical, it’s just wrong. Nobody really likes a puck hog at work, do they?

Of course not all leaders are selfish either. It’s not as though every leader aspires to dominate like the Serengeti Lion of the Vumbi Pride does in Africa. Thankfully there are other leadership styles.

For example, Daniel Goleman indicated in 2000 there are six different leadership styles a leader might use, but as he writes, “only four of the six consistently have a positive effect on climate and results.” As you might deduce from their descriptors, the coercive and authoritative styles are not as beneficial or positive as the affiliative, democratic, pacesetting or coaching styles he outlined.

Not to be outdone, researchers Gary Williams and Robert Miller proved more than a decade ago in Harvard Business Review that there are in fact five different types of leadership styles. They found leaders to be classified as charismatics, followers, skeptics, controllers or thinkers indicating, however, that “each style can be highly effective in certain environments.”

The onset of defining leadership styles for the masses might have come from Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard when they created the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership model in the late 1960’s. Their four-tier model – selling, telling, participating and delegating – can still be found in corporate training seminars across the globe, but it is often proven by academics to be a flawed if not inconsistent model.

A few years ago, I was being somewhat cheeky and put together my own leadership style model, dubbing it the “Leadership Tonic Scale” where the levels of moronic, ironic, platonic, iconic and harmonic can be found.

But it’s the selfish leader – those choosing to lead with a perilous fixation on power, pay and/or profit – that might be causing much of the disengagement and dissatisfaction in today’s organization. It just may be this type of leadership style that has caused US middle class net worth to drop to mid-1960’s levels when (shockingly) adjusted to 2013 dollars. This is not a good thing.

It’s precisely why I’m on a personal mission to make 2015 (and beyond) the point at which we reintroduce purpose into the organization … and leadership in general.

Far too many employees are being duped into thinking the puck hog (and thus the selfish leader) is the manner in which leadership is supposed to manifest. Leaders ultimately have two actions to take. First, a refined definition that outlines a new ‘purpose of the organization’ is required. Second, leaders also need to redefine what it means to be both an employee and a leader in this new ‘purposeful organization’. I suppose that’s three actions, but work with me.

Many employees have been conditioned to believe the purpose of an organization is to fuel the needs of senior leaders in the leaders’ quest for “dominance”. That dominance often comes in the form of maximizing shareholder value (particularly in for-profit, publicly traded organizations, explained eloquently in Forbes by Steve Denning) and in the form of increased power and control, be it within for-profit or public sector organizations. (Think bureaucracy, shutdowns and partisan policymaking.) This is ball hogging at its finest.

In its simplest form, we need to dial back the “dominance” and increase the level of “prestige” in leadership.

We need to balance ‘purpose with power’ while introducing an elegant dose of ‘management with meaning’.

Arguably, we needn’t look any further for an example of purpose in the organization – and in their leadership style – than Etsy.

Founded in 2005 by Robert Kalin, Chris Maguire, and Haim Schoppik, Etsy is a very successful online marketplace for artisans and others to sell unique goods to citizens of the world. This past Christmas, I used Etsy to purchase a Bicycle Wheel Clock for my sister and brother-in-law from a wonderful artist in Oregon. There are over 40 million Etsy members and over 1 million active Etsy shops in 200 countries. In 2013, their sellers grossed more than $1.35 billion in sales and although the numbers aren’t in yet, 2014 revenues have no doubt exceeded 2013. What makes Etsy so special, however, (aside from being a registered B Corp) comes from their self-described mission:

Etsy’s mission is to reimagine commerce in ways that build a more fulfilling and lasting world. We are building a human, authentic and community-centric global and local marketplace. We are committed to using the power of business to create a better world through our platform, our members, our employees and the communities we serve. As we grow, commitment to our mission remains at the core of our identity. It is woven into the decisions we make for the long-term health of our ecosystem, from the sourcing of our office supplies to our employee benefits to the items sold in our marketplace.

One might argue that all senior leaders in today’s organizations need to “reimagine commerce in ways that build a more fulfilling and lasting world.” One might argue that the definition of leadership — shifting from dominance to prestige and from puck hogging to puck sharing — is how we might indeed redefine a new “purpose of the organization”.

As leaders and organizations remain selfish, the collateral damage affects employees, customers, partners and society in general. Etsy and its leadership team knew from the very inception date of their company a decade ago in 2005 that the organization they were building would be true and purposeful to all stakeholders, not simply profit seekers. They didn’t become an organization (or a founding leadership team) that put profit or power before purpose. On the contrary, profit and power became balanced with purpose. The collateral damage at Etsy is non-existent, and millions of stakeholders have benefitted. (And my sister and brother-in-law have a fabulous new Christmas gift clock.)

In his book, Management Challenges for the 21st Century, published in 1999, Peter Drucker issued a warning signal for leaders looking to build a more innovative and purpose-driven organization. Drucker wrote:

“We will have to redefine the purpose of the employing organization and of its management as both, satisfying the legal owners, such as shareholders, and satisfying the owners of the human capital that gives the organization its wealth-producing power, that is, satisfying the knowledge workers. For increasingly the ability of organizations — and not only of businesses — to survive will come to depend on their ‘comparative advantage’ in making the knowledge worker productive. And the ability to attract and hold the best of the knowledge workers is the first and most fundamental precondition.” (Peter Drucker. Management for the 21st Century. HarperCollins. 1999.)

At the risk of attempting to outdo several literary and leadership giants like Drucker — and as a soft introduction to my next book, releasing soon — I define the new purpose of an organization as follows:

“The purpose of an organization is to delight its customers through engaged and empowered employees, acting ethically within society to deliver just profitability that benefits all stakeholders including the community, workers and owners.”

I’d like to see more Etsy-like organizations in 2015 and beyond. I’d like to see more organizations utilize this new “purpose of the organization” definition from above to balance dominance with prestige, purpose with power and management with meaning.

This is my first Forbes piece. I hope you join me in the future for further insights and thoughts as we try to eradicate the puck and ball hogs from our firms, ultimately eliminating the collateral damage of selfish leadership, improving employee engagement and society on the whole. I believe it’s time we create a new organizational purpose and an improved definition of what it means to be both an employee and a leader for the stakeholders we serve.

After all, it was Peter Drucker who once wrote, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

By Dan Pontefract/Forbes/January, 2015