Leaders fail because they are mean, stupid, political, and uninformed. It’s time for matrix management.


Leaders fail for many reasons, the least of which depends on how smart (or stupid), how nice (or mean), and how knowledgeable (or little) they are in their field. But there is also a cultural aspect: does your style align with the prevailing cultural winds? There are many elephants in this world. Maybe we should talk about it, even if we do it with matrices.

I just searched Amazon and found no less than 160,000 books and sojourns on management and leadership. I then googled “Leadership Books” and got 2,980,000,000 hits. Unless management and leadership completely changes every week, how can there be so much new “wisdom” about leadership and management?

Or maybe we have no idea what leadership is, how to develop it, or how to evaluate it. This might explain why we keep asking the same old questions about leadership, direction and people. One conclusion is that people enjoy working with nice people even if nice people don’t know much or produce anything of great value. Isn’t that what explains how politicians get elected? How do movie stars become movie stars? How do old women become CEOs?

The book – The binding factor – by Tim Sanders, and a harvard business review the article-“Adorable competent jerks and fools“- By Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo, both suggest that people like working with people they like. Even nice dumb people like to work with nice dumb people. Likeable intelligent people also enjoy working with other likeable intelligent people. Everyone likes to work with nice people – even incompetent nice people. It explains why some nice politicians can’t lead, why some popular actors can’t act, why most famous CEOs don’t succeed, and why solutions to nagging problems are never applied. I’ve seen a lot of situations where judgments about likeability – “I just don’t like this guy!” — ignored excellent solutions to major problems.

The matrix of people

I mention all of this because enterprise technology management and leadership is not exempt from the sympathetic phenomenon. After reading the two studies above, I sat down and thought about the enterprise technology executives and managers I’ve known over the years. How many were friendly? How many were competent? How many were “lovable fools”? How many were really stupid, mean and incompetent? Here is a matrix for us to think about. Locate the company’s technology managers and executives you’ve worked with over the years. What did you discover? I discovered that the sympathy specialists were right: most of the managers and leaders I have known over the years were more green than red. But I also discovered that most green people are nicer and dumber than nicer and smarter. “Dumb?”

This may be an exaggeration, but I must say that I was not overwhelmed with the rocket science of most technologies leaders over the years (technology managers are usually smarter). Leadership fueled by intelligence, objectivity and insight are actually quite rare. If you have it, keep it!

I can easily identify many tech professionals who were nicer than they were smart. Or professionals whose major contributions were defined by the number of meetings they attended. They also seem to have a knack for being very nice to the people who promoted them (and the people who can promote them and bonuses again). I’ve also worked with professionals with less than “likeable” personalities. Some of these people were bona fide jerks, but some were absolutely brilliant and able to contribute extraordinarily to their organizations and businesses, but because of their personalities were often dismissed as “difficult”, “obnoxious” or just – good – good – not very friendly. Several times in my career, I have advised these people the following advice: “You are absolutely right…and if you persist, you will be absolutely dead None of them listened. All of this could also explain why there are so many consultants. there are no stupid consultants, are there?).

But more importantly, there are ways to optimize all of this (although company culture will define what’s actually possible): (1) get rid of stupid bad guys — they’re useless; (2) find, retain and reward smart, likeable people – as many as you can; (3) restricting nice and dumb people to roles that exploit their talents, perhaps as communicators, facilitators, etc., although pruning is also needed here (how many good helpers do you really need ?); and (4) working to harness the contributions that smart — but sometimes mean — people can make to your projects, programs, and strategies, because really smart people are really – really – hard to find. But above all, you (5) must identify the characters in the play honestly and objectively. I think these five steps amount to a certain form of “leadership”. (Is there another leadership book here?)

Now let’s move on to the 2-step career management part. The first is to assess your tolerance for the leadership world you find yourself in. Can you stand really smart, mean people? Can you smile alongside really nice, but really stupid people? Can you place yourself in the right box?

The culture matrix

The second step is an alignment exercise with your corporate culture. Are you green or red? Simple metric: the extent to which your culture is political and analytical and how you are wired. Is there alignment? Otherwise, and as the figure suggests, you will end up exploding. But if you’re aligned, you can live happily ever after, as long as you’re not surrounded by really mean, really stupid people.

The technology matrix

What about technology? What happens when the same leaders and managers have limited or deep knowledge of operational and strategic technology? Here is another matrix. How limited or deep is the TQ (technology quotient) in your professional world? But note the importance given to each box. The assumption is that businesses can survive limited knowledge of operational technology because it is commoditized faster than we can spell cloud computing. Companies – and the leaders who run them – cannot survive limited knowledge of the strategic role technology plays in every business on the planet. In fact, strategic technology is the last competitive advantage. In order to be competitive in the emerging digital world, companies must develop strategic IT expertise. If they don’t replace “skills and competencies” with “digital strategies” they will fail.

Where do you live?

If you step back and assess all of this, you can paint the best/worst case scenarios. If your world consists of stupid, mean, political and uniformed executives and managers, it’s high time to escape. But if your world is closer to Smart, Pleasant, Analytical, and Informed, you’re good. What does your world look like? Which boxes best describe your business — and you?


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