Small Wars Journal

Six Leadership Fallacies

Tue, 09/04/2018 - 3:51am

Six Leadership Fallacies


L. Burton Brender


One of the hardest things a leader will ever have to do is accurately assess the performance and potential of his or her workers.  Often, leaders have so much on their plate that really observing their people is a challenge, and it doesn’t help that there are false signals out there that can fool even the wisest of supervisors.  These fallacies can make people who are less competent, and less scrupulous, appear better than they are.  To be on guard against them, leaders must constantly assess themselves when meting out rewards, promotions, and punishment.  Falling for a leadership fallacy can see the wrong person advanced and drive the right people away.


The Overtime Fallacy.  Managers should not mistake how much time a person spends at his desk for necessarily being desirable.  People coming in early, working through lunch, and staying late may truly be examples of dedication; or, they may be the tokens of inefficiency and even ingratiation.  Instead of basing your opinion on how many hours someone puts in, examine the actual achievements that he or she produces.  Is the lunch-skipping “workhorse” producing more or better work than the one who meets his wife for a sandwich every day?  Is the one who makes it a point to drop by your office a half hour after quitting time really any more faithful, or is she just making sure you see her?


The Visiting Celebrity Fallacy.  Every manager of an organization will occasionally have that star worker who comes through.  She comes highly recommended.  Everyone says she’s going places.  You can’t believe you were lucky enough to land her in your organization.  Sometimes, these people are exactly as amazing as they seem.  Of course, they also might just be visiting celebrities.


I’m reminded of one superstar that I knew: she was top of her class, promoted ahead of her peers, held the swankiest after-work parties, and dropped the names of people the rest of us only read about.  This woman got assigned to a project once.  As her manager had hoped, it took off like a rocket.  Amazing performance, lots of recognition, it even won an award.  Great, right? Unfortunately not, because the manager didn’t know was that her star was just visiting.


While the worker was indeed talented, she also lacked any true commitment to her project, team, or leadership.  As soon as the awards were hung on the wall and a better opportunity came along, she was out.  What’s worse, the recognition-winning project she had started fell flat within a month of her departure.  This dramatic collapse did not happen because the celebrity’s successor was incompetent, but because its creator had no loyalty and no real investment in its outcome.  She took no pains to ensure its success after it would stop benefitting her.  In fact, looking at it in retrospect, one wonders how much of the project’s success was ever real and how much merely assumed because the celebrity had her name on it.  Still, the final injury was the aftermath for organization: not only did the project end up failing, but many good employees and solid plans were shelved to make room for the celebrity, who was only visiting.


The Lord of the Flies Fallacy.  There is a school of thought I have encountered that says organizations should be on the lookout for natural leaders.  Throw a group of people into a room, stir them up, and see which one comes out on top.  That’s the man people will follow, the one who leadership should invest resources into.  Like every other fallacy, this sometimes works out.  I’m reminded of the protagonist Ralph in William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies: an individual whose leadership does not come at the expense of the dignity or wellbeing of others.  But, there are also people like the cunningly cruel Jack who rise to the top through intimidation and bravado.  Managers must not take the easy way out when deciding who among their subordinates will be marked for leadership positions, just picking the man who looks like he’s already in charge.  Rather, after understanding who each worker is, promote the man or woman who best benefits the group.


The Pretender Fallacy.  Similar to the Lord of the Flies fallacy, the pretender fallacy is mistaking one who postures himself as competent for one who really is.  Signals of this include people with no special authority or expertise calling obviously unnecessary meetings, or issuing “mentorship” to others when it is neither merited nor wanted, or pretentiously congratulating coworkers in an effort to appear more important than they are.  These people hope to take advantage of the naïveté of their leaders in order to improve their own station.


The Common Religion Fallacy.  I use the word “religion” figuratively to mean deeply held values.  Sometimes, organizational members hold cultural values that are separate from the purpose of the group.  Fictionalizing a real-life experience of mine, a group once had a tradition of end-of-week socials at a local bar.  The leader attended them, and she encouraged all of her subordinates to do the same in the spirit of team building.  However, it turned out that one worker was not going to make these weekly shindigs because he had a reoccurring meeting right at that time.  This revelation sent the leader into an impassioned speech about how everything her worker was going to do at the office that day (and every day) won’t matter in ten years—but the networking at those Friday parties would pay lifelong dividends. 


Now, the benefits of social interaction are very real, but they don’t change the fact that the worker’s legitimate duties still required him to attend those meetings.  As clearly in the right as he was, he leader later ranked that worker lower than his peers, who regularly attended the socials, because he did not share his leader’s religion: namely that an unofficial value was more important than an official one.  Managers must constantly be on guard to not allow themselves to conflate work values with non-work ones.


The Trash Talking Fallacy.  It makes an emotional sense that those who have greater professional skill and experience have the grounds to judge others.  However, crafty individuals learn that there is a way to appear to be worthy of passing judgment without actually having to be skilled or experienced.  This simple trick is trash talking.  You may have met people who complain about the incompetency of their coworkers and subordinates (conveniently when the boss can hear): Bob didn’t even know about the new TPS coversheet format, Jane has clearly never read A Message to Garcia, Frank wouldn’t have gotten away with stuff like that when I was in his section.  Managers should be wary of this kind of rubbish and the kind of people who spout it.  These individuals give the false impression of competency by finding fault, real or imagined, in their competitors and workers.


So, how do you keep from falling for these six fallacies and many others?  The answer lies in distinguishing what the United States Army calls measures of performance from measures of effectiveness.  Measures of performance are those clearly discernable indicators that we look for when we initially assess a project’s success.  How many packets did we process, how many doors did we weld, how many customer calls did we answer?  However, a measure of performance is only an indirect measurement, something we can easily weigh and count.  Often, they are not the ends we really want.  Do local police really want to hand out more speeding tickets, or do they want less people to get into automobile accidents?  A reduction in car crashes is an example of a measure of effectiveness.  Measures of effectiveness are the sometimes concrete, sometimes intangible end states that asses the ultimate goal that an organization desires.  These are what managers must look at and judge their people against.


When evaluating workers, know what your measures of effectiveness are.  What is it that really want your workers to do?  Do you really want more hours spent in the office, or do you want more effective work?  Once a supervisor knows what she really wants, and she communicates it to her subordinates, she can then judge her workers fairly on their achievement of those ends—and avoid leadership fallacies that can lead her astray.


About the Author(s)

L. Burton Brender is the coauthor, along with Rod Pattan, of the poetry book In Cadence, and the forthcoming pictorial history Cashmere from Arcadia Publishing.  He has written for The Strategy Bridge, Mirror Northwest, Tacoma News Tribune, and Military Times, among many others.  He is a member of the Military Writers Guild and the Olympia Writers Group.  Follow his work at Swords & Pens.