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Don’t Become the Non-Leader

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In last week’s blog I listed the three key characteristics of a managerial leader, and then wrote about how the risk managers’ (no initial caps) agenda actually undermines that function. This week I would like to take that a step further, and discuss how to avoid attaining a leadership position by means other than through merit. I’ll begin by addressing the three easiest red-flags, derived from last week’s blog. To wit, if:

  • You are not pursuing the optimal technical approach to the problem in front of the team, or
  • You feel indifference, or even contempt, for the people on the team, or
  • You have no skin in the game, i.e., no apparent personal stake in the successful outcome of the organization’s work, then…

…you may have arrived at the leader role for reasons other than merit. The next set of clues are a bit more subtle, but can be just as telling.

Consider what tends to happen when a garden variety new manager is brought in to an existing organization. The newbies typically have an expectation that the organization’s current performance is the baseline, and things will only get better now that they are there. Working from this assumption, take a look at what probably presents as the biggest threat, that their new technical agenda will be thwarted or frustrated by uncooperative extant personnel. For this reason, whenever a new manager comes into an organization, the tendency may be to attract, find, and reward loyalty, not talent. Why should talent be an issue? The organization was clearly performing at an acceptable level prior to the newbie arriving, and the newcomer represents an influx of talent, right? So, upmost in at least some rookies’ minds is to move through the Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development dynamic, specifically

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing

…in such a way as to minimize the Storming phase. The newcomer may desire a return to organizational stability, with a subsequent cruise on into Performing space.

Here’s the problem with this entirely predictable, but strategically unsound approach: with the exception of replacement scenarios, the whole reason a new manager was introduced in the first place was usually because the target organization’s performance was disappointing, or even unacceptable. If the characteristic being sought out and rewarded is loyalty, then odds are that things are about to get worse. GTIM Nation knows of my respect for the brilliant Michael Maccoby, and his book The Gamesman, The New Corporate Leaders (Simon and Schuster, 1976). By attracting and rewarding loyalty rather than talent, the Maccoby archetypes that will succeed are the Company Men and the Jungle Fighters (who will feign loyalty), all at the expense of the most talented archetypes, the Craftsmen and Gamesmen. Put simply, this is an extremely hazardous transition strategy. With Company Men and Jungle Fighters placed in positions of authority over the Craftsmen and Gamesmen, the odds of arriving at the optimal technical approach – the very first characteristic of the managerial leader – have plummeted. Indeed, members of the latter two archetypes will tend to flee such organizations, likely to be replaced by more “loyal” team members, i.e., Company Men and Jungle Fighters. From an organizational behavior and performance point of view, this can easily become an unmanageable morass.

I mentioned last week that, in addition to the three essential characteristics for managerial leadership, an additional element – courage—was also key to success, and here’s another area where that becomes a factor. It takes a good measure of courage for the newly introduced manager to listen to those in the organization who may disagree with them, and to patiently and even-handedly review their criticisms’ validity before rejecting them and attributing their motivation to a lack of respect, or even insubordination. In short, newbie managers who aspire to legitimate leadership roles should never fear the Storming phase from Tuckman’s Stages, and instead use it as an opportunity to gauge which members of the inherited team are both talented, and have a personal stake in a successful outcome, the proverbial “skin in the game.” So, what’s the litmus test for whether or not criticism from the Project Team represents a legitimate technical approach alternative, or simply snarky opposition? If it’s not clear based on content, consider if the criticism/recommendation was intended to benefit the entire team, or just a subset (or even the critic alone). If it’s the former, it could well be legitimate. If the latter, not so much.

I would think it rather impossible to advise on how to become a leader in an 800-word weekly blog. But I do believe that such a venue does support relaying tips on how to avoid finding yourself in the role without a few foundational elements in place. In short, don’t become a non-leader.

Posted on: October 13, 2020 02:54 PM | Permalink

Comments (6)

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Interesting article Michael. The other reason people try to skip over or shorten the Storming phase is because it's uncomfortable. But then if you're a leader then discomfort shouldn't be a factor in whether you do something. So maybe that's another indicator that you shouldn't be in a leadership role?

Very interesting, thanks for sharing.

Perhaps it is a bit far fetched, but I had to think of a Spanish polititian after reading this article. At the end of the day, polititians are a clear example of individuals that do no go through the storming phase when they are promoted within the party. This guy said "whoever moves (inside the party), does not show up in the picture". By moving, one can assume making noise or challenging the party´s ideology.

Thanks Michael, for the tip on fundamental elements for being an effective managerial leader. A newly minted manager should embrace the Storming phase, navigate it well, and utilize it to seek out talented skills that can potentially be used to develop a successful project outcome. Benefiting the entire team should be the optimal goal.

Interesting points, Thank you for the article

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