Apply JFK’s people-managing wisdom to startups

Published in UT San Diego, December 2, 2013

Rule No. 217

It’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that will kill you.

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has prompted me to share some thoughts on leadership.

According to Warren Bennis, a leadership studies pioneer who teaches at the University of Southern California, “JFK made government service attractive to ambitious, intelligent achievers,” and it was David Halberstam who later described this group as “the best and brightest.”

And these are the kinds of people who you want in your startup. So the question is how did JFK get the best results from the brightest group? The answer is that he insisted on creating an environment in which the team had both the courage and the freedom — and in fact the requirement — to speak the truth of their mind. Kennedy believed in the value of great people, and he surrounded himself with the smartest people in the room. Not the Enron kind of smart, but the kind who believed in public service, not power.

So now, let’s turn to a recent study by Francesca Gino, associate professor at Harvard Business School, to see how a high-powered boss can lead a team into poor performance. Gino has studied the difference between teams on which someone assumes a position of power for the exercise versus situations where the leader actually has real power over both the situation and the participants.

JFK had real power, and his skill was that he listened better than most. It turns out that powerful leaders have a distinct tendency to interrupt. They think they already have the answer, and like a student in class, they are eager to demonstrate their mastery, so they do not allow for others in the class — others on the team — to add their input.

Back to JFK, who did not do so well with how he handled the Bay of Pigs crisis. He learned, and when he next tackled the Cuban Missile crisis, he crushed the ball. Very big risks, very successful outcome. He had learned to do a better job of listening to all the smart people in the room. After all, what is the point of hiring the brightest and then not giving them the space to be the best?

Seems simple, but it isn’t. Because leaders with real power tend to dominate. They suck most of the air out of the room. In contrast, Gino found that teams on which someone became the designated leader only for a particular problem did better by a wide margin than the ones with the “true high-powered leader.”

Of course, what becomes obvious is that the high-powered leader needs to learn how to listen better and in particular to allow the team to excel. Now, the next problem is how to do that. How do you take a type AA dominator and turn him/her into a calm, collaborative, engaging encourager?

The answer is that you have to make someone else feel powerful, to anoint a mantle of power onto someone on the team or at a minimum allow someone on the team to grab the sword. In other words, you have to take your damn hand off the wheel for a while and try riding in the back seat. One of the ways for the high-power leader to let go is to use humor or self-deprecation and finally humility. I love it — the balance of humility with power achieves the most successful leadership. The boss needs to tell himself that it’s OK to not know the answer; it’s OK to not be the smartest guy in the room.

Gino further notes that when “formal leaders” — ones who organically take charge of a project but do not seek permanent “power” — orchestrate the conversation, then everyone gets to talk and the best ideas rise to the surface. Put simply, the dominant leader needs to learn “to not hog the airtime.”

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