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Work or Game

Jun 20, 2018

Are Your Leaders About the Work or About the Game?

There’s an endless debate in business and HR circles about the kind of leaders organizations really need. Different camps answer the question in different ways:

  • There’s the competency model crowd, who give us giant baskets of capabilities, qualities, and behaviors that they say leaders need to exhibit.
  • There’s the heroic leader crowd, who suggest our leaders model themselves after Steve Jobs, Abraham Lincoln, or whatever celebrity-CEO-du-jour.
  • There’s even a certain anti-leadership crowd, who claim if we just dismantle all the hierarchies, everything will take care of itself.

I’ve never found any version of those answers very satisfying. Part of the reason is that we expect different things of leaders in different contexts. The basket of capabilities that you want from a customer service manager is different than the one you want from a back-office IT leader. And nobody actually wants a whole company full of Elon Musk clones. Not even Elon Musk.

But what’s the alternative? Do we just throw our hands in the air and give up, because it’s hard to get a fix on leadership?

The longer I’ve worked with leaders and companies in this space, the more I believe in the power of simple answers. So, I’m going to suggest to you that there are two basic kinds of leaders:

  1. Leaders who are about the work
  2. And leaders who are about the game

Leaders who are about the game focus on the rules and the rewards. They pay a lot of attention to those above them on the org chart. They are terrific at negotiating low targets and high budgets. They manage to avoid real work and real accountability like the plague. They are masters at managing perception and controlling resources to build their influence and raise their status.

Unfortunately, while these leaders are often great at advancing their own careers, they have little positive impact on the business. At best, the teams or functions they oversee continue to perform regardless of their presence. At worst, they decline as people become disengaged. A few years later, they’ve probably moved on either way.

Leaders who are about the work focus on getting things done and creating value. They pay a lot of attention to the people doing the work. They engage their colleagues across the business to get things done. They sign up for the tough goals that aren’t guaranteed to hit. They take on the real issues facing the business.

Unfortunately, while these leaders move the business forward tremendously, they don’t always get the credit. Too often, they are passed over and pushed out by their more politically adept colleagues. While we may admire the skills of those leaders at playing the political game, our companies desperately need the ones who engage their people and engage in the important work.

What kind of leaders does your organization reward and retain?

  • Are they building success for the business or just for themselves?
  • Are they more concerned about reality or perception management?
  • Do they engage people and the real issues that matter?
  • Are they about the work or are they about the game?