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A Leadership Kick in the Ass

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“This is one of the most unique and valuable books you will read all year, and I highly recommend it.”
—Jim Kouzes, coauthor of the bestselling and award-winning The Leadership Challenge and Dean's Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University

Even the best leaders—in fact, most of the best leaders—start out as decidedly bad ones. And sooner or later they reach a moment of reckoning that leadership expert Bill Treasurer calls the leadership kick in the ass. When it happens, it feels like it's all over. But Treasurer says that with the right attitude, that kick can be a new beginning. Based on his work with thousands of leaders, this book reveals how to turn those ego-bruising events into the kind of transformative experiences that mark the paths of great leaders. As Steve Jobs famously said, “Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me.” This book is a survival guide, coach, and morale booster to help you use that kick to move forward instead of fall down. If you succeed, the next place you get kicked might be upstairs.

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Chapter 1: Ain’t That a Kick in the Pants

ePub

CHAPTER 1

Isn’t it funny how obvious and oblivious are so close?
—Author unknown

My work with leaders sometimes involves inviting the leader’s direct reports to purposely kick him or her in the keister. One of the most effective ways of doing this is having the leader go through a 360-degree feedback process, where the people they are leading rate the leader’s style and performance. The raters often include the leader him- or herself and the leader’s boss(es), peers, and direct reports—hence a “360-degree” view. The feedback uses an anonymous survey consisting of quantitative data and qualitative (open-ended) questions. The idea is that people are likely to give more honest answers if they don’t feel threatened that the leader will retaliate against them for their honesty. A leader’s self-perception can be quite biased, so involving the broader perspective of others can be a useful development tool. While 360-degree surveys aren’t perfect, having administered hundreds of them over the years, I’ve seen them result in positive leadership change. Sometimes dramatically so.

 

Chapter 2: The Anatomy of a Butt Kick

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CHAPTER 2

You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the pants may be the best thing in the world for you. —Walt Disney

Meet Pete. Pete is the director of the IT department of a large suburban hospital. His team is responsible for managing over 150 software applications, providing computer hardware to hospital staff, and ensuring that the hospital complies with state and government security standards. IT failures could be catastrophic to the hospital and the patients it serves. Pete and his team are perpetually under siege with IT demands from nurses, doctors, and administrators. The job is beyond stressful, but he’s been at it for over a decade. Being in firefighter mode is nothing new to him. In fact, he seems to do a better job when there are fires to put out.

Pete’s team is another story. In the last year, three people have quit, most recently last week. The coder was in the middle of a death-march project that was requiring him to work a lot of weekends and overtime. During his exit interview, he said his wife had given him an ultimatum: either get a new job that allows him to be more present with their three-month-old baby, or get a new wife.

 

Chapter 3: Kick Me, I’m New!

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CHAPTER 3

Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.
—Michael Scott, The Office

For new leaders in particular, a kick in the butt is inevitable. In the same way people without children can’t really know what it’s like to have kids until they do, you can’t really know what it’s like to be a leader until you actually lead. Even organizations that invest in leadership development struggle with helping new leaders fully comprehend what it means to lead. Leadership programs often emphasize the operational mechanics of leading—planning, organizing, budgeting, or content that leans more toward management, such as delegating, time management, and giving feedback. What most leadership programs neglect to cover, but that new leaders quickly discover, is that leadership is massively freakin’ hard. What is left out is how political, shifting, and unpredictable leadership is. Also absent is how much the emotional aspects of leading overshadow and often interfere with the mechanical ones. Consequently, the excitement of finally moving into a leadership role, sometimes after years of toiling among the rank and file, quickly gives way to intense feelings of pressure, anxiety, and inadequacy. After moving into their first leadership role, new leaders are often dumbstruck by how ill prepared they are for leading others.

 

Chapter 4: The Cheeky Middle

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CHAPTER 4

Life is like a dogsled team. If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.
—Lewis Grizzard

Ah, the middle place. This is the point in your leadership career where nothing is certain, and everything is up for grabs. It’s like being in the middle of an ocean: you’re far from where you launched and still a long way from the safe shores. As a leader, your development is well under way, but nowhere near complete; you are formed but not finished.

Much of what makes midcareer so challenging is that everyone wants a piece of you. Your employees want your time, guidance, and recognition. Your bosses want your loyalty, diligence, and competence. Both groups want your leadership, but each toward different aims. Your employees want your leadership devoted to giving them opportunities to grow and excel. For them, your influence as a leader should be aimed at making their jobs more fulfilling, stable, and secure. How you treat them—emotionally, developmentally, and financially—will have a direct impact on how hard they work, and how loyal they are to you and the organization. It’s in your best interest to meet their needs. After all, where would you be as a leader without their hard work and loyalty?

 

Chapter 5: Shrinking Big Shots

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CHAPTER 5

The older you get, the stronger the wind gets—and it’s always in your face.
—Pablo Picasso

Even grizzled workplace veterans contend with getting their butts kicked. For seasoned leaders, a butt kick often comes with the shrinking of your importance or the diminishing of everything you’ve already accomplished.

Imagine building a long and positive track record as a leader. You’ve earned your stripes through hard work, persistence, and dedication. You’ve suffered through, and learned from, many butt kicks. You’ve given more to the organization than it has given to you. Most importantly, you’ve made the Holy Shift, making a real, positive, and enduring difference in the lives of those you’ve led. The organization and the people you’ve led are better off because of your contributions. You are at the top of your game.

What comes on the other side of all that success? Cresting. One day you will walk into work and things will be ever so slightly different. Your energy will be just a smidge lower. You will barely be able to notice that you are a tad less concerned about the things that, up until now, got you hot under the collar. People’s problems will seem just a little less significant, and your response when they bring them to you will register with a hint of dispassion. These changes will be barely noticeable at first. But after teetering over the summit of your leadership game, every successive day thereafter will be stretched out over a long, slow decline. Like a reflection of life itself, nobody leads forever.

 

Chapter 6: Kick-Worthy Leaders

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CHAPTER 6

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.
—Bertrand Russell

All leaders will experience a kick in the ass at some point in their careers. No leader gets to escape that uncomfortable reality. That said, there are two distinct types of leaders whose butt kicks are particularly forceful and largely self-inflicted. If you’ve been in the workforce for a while, you’ve likely worked with one or both of these dysfunctional leaders at some point in your career. It’s a soul-sucking experience you won’t soon forget. The wreckage they cause is real and lasting, and generally unstoppable except by a painful butt kick. Fortunately, for these two leader archetypes especially, butt kicks are inevitable. Get ready to meet the leaders you probably already know and wish you didn’t: Pigheads and Weaklings.

Some years ago, I was facilitating the kickoff of a multi-year leadership program. Thirty emerging leaders had been selected for the program by the company’s senior leaders. The program, which is on its fifth iteration, is well established as a leader spawning ground within the company. If you’re lucky enough to be selected as a participant, there’s a good chance that you’ll be in a senior leadership role someday.

 

Chapter 7: A More Perfect Derrière Confident Humility

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CHAPTER 7

You learn more from getting your butt kicked than getting it kissed.
—Tom Hanks

Most butt kicks are the natural consequence of a leader’s accumulated behavior over time. Often, they are an inevitable response to exaggerated hubris or withering meekness. You’re most likely to get them when you’re overly prideful or anemically weak. Butt kicks are life’s mysterious and painful way of reminding us of the dangers of too much or too little confidence.

When we believe in ourselves more than we should, when we put more stock in our skills and capabilities than they actually warrant, when we start all tasks from the presumption that “I got this,” overconfidence begins to distort our leadership. Overconfidence causes us to make decisions impulsively fast. Overconfidence causes us to trust our judgment over the judgment of others. And overconfidence causes us to be dismissive toward those whom we perceive as slowing us down or not having the power to further our goals. The most obvious and embellished example of overconfidence is the Pighead leader, who often steps over (or on!) people she views as getting in the way of her goals. Her motto is, “If you’re not part of the bulldozer, you’re part of the pavement.” Butt kicks stemming from overconfidence are the natural blowback of selfish leadership, often coming in the form of backstabbing or betrayal by the people we have led (or, more often, misled). As Julius Caesar said, “Et tu, Brute?”

 

Chapter 8: Three Expressions of Confident Humility

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CHAPTER 8

If I only had a little humility, I would be perfect.
—Ted Turner

The more genuinely confident and humble you are, the less likely you’ll be to get kicked in the ass. That’s because, as mentioned, most butt kicks are self-inflicted behavioral boomerangs, the result of behaving with too much arrogance or too little strength. This chapter introduces three leadership roles that draw on, and are strengthened by, confidence and humility. They reflect the essential behaviors that differentiate a leader from everyone else. Consider them a form of butt-kick prevention, because when you mix confidence and humility in the right measure, they ward off arrogance and weakness . . . and butt kicks.

Hines Brannan was the best leader I ever worked for. Hines was a partner at Accenture and, at the time, was overseeing the largest outsourcing engagement in the history of the world. BellSouth had hired Accenture to manage over seven hundred IT applications. Hines led thirty-five partners, who in turn provided leadership to an organization of over two thousand Accenture employees, most of whom BellSouth had outsourced to Accenture. I was a middle manager in Accenture’s change management and human performance practice, and I reported directly to Hines. I was part chief of staff and part gofer. But I loved the job because it allowed me to work closely with Hines and interact with all of his leaders. Until then, I had never worked for a leader who lived up to the leader ideals that I had studied in graduate school. What made Hines so unique, and so unlike some of the other partners that I had experienced, was that he was a wonderful blend of company loyalist and independent rebel.

 

Chapter 9: How to Kick Your Own Ass

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CHAPTER 9

The first rule of leadership: Everything is your fault.
—Hopper, A Bug’s Life

Wouldn’t it be great if people just agreed with everything you said? Wouldn’t life be friction-free if people did exactly what you wanted? Wouldn’t things go swimmingly if the world revolved around you? Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of kicking your butt, people tended to your rosy rump by carrying you around on large cushiony pillows? Ah, the life you could lead if people would just cater to your every demand, agree with all of your opinions, and continually give your ego all the applause that it deserves.

A world devoid of ass kicks, unfortunately, exists only in your sweet dreams. Your concerns mean little to a world that is so worried about itself.

The first law of leadership is this: it’s not about you. Leadership is about the people and the organization you’re leading. The more you focus on others, the better you’ll do. The value of a good psychological butt kicking is that it humbles you into getting over yourself. It deflates your ego so you can more earnestly focus on others instead of yourself. Butt kicks are important ego-reducing events. They are so important that, if your ego hasn’t been adjusted in a while, you should put on your boots and kick your own ass.

 

Chapter 10: Leading at the Point of Goodness

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CHAPTER 10

If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.
—Theodore Roosevelt

Leadership, as a topic, can be perplexing. As a leader, you are expected to be bold and calculated, passionate and reasonable, rational and emotional, driven and patient, principled and flexible, competitive and cooperative, strategic and tactical, and yes, confident and humble. Faced with all of these often conflicting factors, it’s enough to make you scratch your head and wonder, Where on earth do I start?

In my work with emerging leaders, I hear the question a lot. New leaders, especially, are flummoxed by all the divergent advice they get about what they should focus on to be a good leader. My advice to new leaders is simple: good leadership starts by being good. When it comes to the two words “good leader,” the first word brings about the second. You want to be a good leader? First concentrate on being a good person.

 

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