Good leaders don

A headline in the Jan. 21 National Post reads: “Canadians Challenging Authority, Report Says,” and a performance report on the Supreme Court goes on to say that Canadians are “more willing (than ever) to challenge the perceived wisdom of its leaders”.

Well I’ll be damned – this is certainly a trend I missed. Now that I think about it, maybe there’s a good reason for this seeming rebellious attitude amongst the usually mild-mannered Canadian population.

What if this kind of thinking spreads to our business? Is it possible that the positional authority of our business leaders ultimately means squat? How long has this kind of thinking been kicking around?

For a while it seems. Turning back to that venerable source of given wisdom that I sometimes do, I picked up my copy of The Functions of the Executive, by Chester Barnard (a former president of the New Jersey Bell Telephone Co., no less), published by Harvard University Press in 1938. Yes, I did say 1938 – it’s enlightening to see just how much and how little things have changed in sixty some years.

It seems that this rebellion against positional authority is nothing new – you’d expect a former-president of a big company, especially in 1938, to operate under the “do what you’re told ’cause I’m the boss model.” Not so. My old friend Chester (really, really old, if he were still alive today) quoted the Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences (another page turner, no doubt), when he said, “Whether authority is of personal or institutional origin it is created and maintained by public opinion, which in turn is conditioned by sentiment, affection (or) reverence…” Summarizing old Chester, I read pro-leadership, not pro-positional authority.

OK, so it was 1938, and I wouldn’t expect anyone in the corporate hierarchy of the day to directly come out and tell us to openly rebel against bosses or organizations that are idiotic, self-serving, and authoritative.

But I will.

In the long list of “life is to short to…,” surely working for a boss/organization that displays a lack of leadership, where authority over you is strictly positional and authoritarian, has got to be high up on the list.

A shining example of the kind of leader you would want to work for was shown to me a number of years back, when I first met my new boss, the guy who would run the whole IT organization, the guy who would have 200 full-time IT staff and just as many consultants working for him.

I’d never met the man, but I was to be one of his direct reports, and I had no idea what to expect. A couple of days before he was supposed to start, I headed to the desk of his to-be assistant (I knew her well) with an expense account in hand: “I’m really backed up on my expenses, so I was hoping that when the new guy arrives, could you ask him to review this and sign it when he has a chance?” I was guessing that expense accounts would not be a priority to him, even if they were to cash-starved me, and it would take him a while to get comfortable with the expense review process.

In any case, I wasn’t hopeful of getting a cheque in a hurry.

As it turned out, the new boss was in his office already (two days early) and happened to come out of it as I was standing there: “So you’re Ken Hanley,” he said. Oh oh. “Do you have time to come in and talk to me for a few minutes?”

Brain on overdrive: do I have a few minutes to talk to him? And then he asked to have all his calls held while we talked. And then when he saw the expense form in my fist, he asked me to hand it over…

And then he did something that demonstrated a leadership quality I’ll always remember: without so much as a glance at the form, he signed the approval box and handed it to his assistant. As I sat there in his office for the first time, expense account approved, he said, “Now, let’s talk about you…”

This same guy is now the CIO of a major Canadian corporation, and one of the most highly respected IT leaders in the country. Months later, I reminded him about that first time we met, and he told me that it was simply one of his philosophies of working with people in action: “I’ll trust you right off the bat until and unless you give me some reason not to.” That’s a leadership quality I won’t soon forget.

I learned a little more about leadership when I chaired a large volunteer board of directors for a good sized church congregation in Calgary a few years back.

Note the word volunteer here – 24 people, most older and more experienced than me, some business people, some social workers, some everything in between, who needed to work together toward a common goal. The trick was orchestrating this group of talented people when I had neither a carrot nor a stick to get anything done with; no performance reviews, no bonuses, no threat of demotion – and I learned that leadership in a volunteer environment teaches skills and subtleties that come in handy in the corporate world. I learned that even when you do have the carrots and sticks at your disposal, a good leader only uses them as a last recourse.

Soft economy or not, there’s no excuse to work for someone just ’cause they’re the boss. We should demand leadership from leaders, and practice it ourselves.

The minute we tell someone to do what we say “’cause I’m the boss,” we can expect that our days as the boss are numbered.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at