Once upon a time, for that is how these stories always begin, there was a brilliant engineer. He could come up with all sorts of creative ideas in a flash. Because of this, he decided to start a company. His company did reasonably well, although it did have some problems. One of the big problems was that this brilliant engineer, now a brilliant CEO, was not always all that skilled at playing well with others. He always had the best answers to all the technical challenges the company was facing.
Now, to be fair, his answers really were the best, at least according to some standards. On a technical level, he understood the technology of his business extremely well. His solutions were always technically brilliant. And that is where the problem arose.
One day, an engineer in the company was charged with developing a solution to a particularly vexing problem. This engineer went off and studied the problem. He worked hard at the problem. On the appointed day and hour, he presented his solution. Everyone loved the solution except, sadly, for the brilliant CEO. He knew the technology like no one else, and he immediately saw A Better Way. The CEO proceeded to demolish the engineer's solution. Indeed, he reduced it to metaphorical rubble. If the engineer's idea had been a village in Eastern Europe, it would have looked as if the Golden Horde had just swept through, leaving no stone standing upon another stone nor any blade of grass unplucked.
And then the brilliant CEO explained how it could have been done better. Truly, it is said by some, he waxed poetic in his analysis of what to do and how to do it. And all (or at least all those who understood what he was talking about) agreed his analysis was brilliant.
There was but one tiny problem: When it came time to implement the brilliant CEO's brilliant idea, there was no enthusiasm, no engagement. None felt they had a stake in the outcome. Not a soul among them dared to make suggestions, even though the most brilliant ideas invariably need modification as they are implemented. The engineer who had been eviscerated by the brilliant CEO never again volunteered to lead a project and never offered another idea for consideration. Others, who had witnessed the evisceration though they had not personally felt its bitter sting, developed a similar attitude.
In the end, the brilliant CEO's brilliant plan languished. With no one on the implementation team to champion it, the idea remained mostly just that, an idea. The company was left with nothing. Rather than a functional idea and a staff of loyal engineers motivated and enthusiastic about carrying it out, the company was left with no plan at all. An imperfect plan -- well, that can always be improved. But no plan at all? That can be a bit of a problem.
Sadly, for the brilliant CEO, this was not the first time this sort of thing had happened. Having the Golden Horde sweep across the landscape of ideas, leaving nothing but destruction in its wake, is not something that any company can long survive. In such an environment, it is not long before people stop suggesting ideas, lest they draw the attention of that aforementioned horde. The board of directors came to the same conclusion and decided that it was time for the CEO's tenure to also come to a conclusion. He was forced out, and the company went on its way without him. Perhaps their ideas were no longer quite so brilliant, but they had ideas. Perhaps their plans were no longer quite so ambitious and clever, but they had plans. Perhaps their products were no longer quite so perfect, but they had products.
From this, we can draw several important lessons:
1. When you crush every plan or idea people propose, eventually they stop proposing ideas or suggesting plans. It is unwise for one person to be left as the sole source of ideas; just look at Apple after Steve Jobs.
2. Tearing people down does not motivate them. Indeed, it does precisely the opposite. If you want to motivate people, find ways to build them up.
3. If it can't or won't be built, it doesn't matter how perfect it is. Insert whatever you'd like for "it."
4. Having the best mousetrap today is less valuable than having a consistent, repeatable process for developing good, solid, buildable mousetraps.
5. Point 4 will only happen when you know how to connect with your team and build them up.
In the end, playing well with others might not guarantee that you will live happily ever after, but it helps.
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development and Organizational Psychology for Managers. He is also a contributing author to Volume 1 of Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play. For more information, or to sign up for Steve's monthly newsletter, visit 7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story, "The Leader Who Didn't Play Well With Others" was originally published by Computerworld.