What Great Leaders Do (Bob Sutton Presentation at Stanford University)

Bob Sutton PODCASTYou may have heard of Bob Sutton through his books, like: The No Asshole Rule and The Knowing-Doing Gap.

In this audio PODCAST, Bob talks about his latest book, Good Boss, Bad Boss. Although leaders account for a measly 15% of the results in groups, they get 50% of the credit.   And when you put a person in a position of power, they:

  1. focus more on their own needs and concerns
  2. focus less on the needs and concerns of their subordinates
  3. act like the rules don’t apply to them

This is a phenomenon of human nature.  When you become “the boss” — or become successful — let it be a warning to you because, based on a lot of evidence, you are about to become an “idiot.”

Bob goes on to describe characteristics of in-tune bosses (best bosses):

  • They are assertive when they need to and back off when appropriate (i.e., not always the dominant assertive type)
  • They don’t constantly check on their subordinates; rather, they give them space.  They practice management by walking out of the room. Quote: “After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every week to see how it’s doing.” This is especially important in creative work.  If you keep checking up on your subordinates, they tend to start focusing on pleasing you and not doing the deeper work that the organization needs them to do (and you really want them to do).
  • They are confident and competent, AND they are open for input.  They walk the line between the two.  They practice an attitude of wisdom: They have courage and confidence to act on what they know right now along with the humility to update when new information comes along.

At the 34:30 mark in the talk: “Rotten Apples” and how important it is to get rid of them.  Bob shares the “5 to 1 rule”: if you are in a personal relationship with someone and you go below 5 to 1 – where for every bad interaction there aren’t at least five positive interactions, the relationship is in trouble.  When you have a bad interaction with someone, it packs 5x the power of a good interaction. When teams have one rotten apple, it knocks down the team performance by at least 30%.  It is contagious.  When you work with jerks, you start acting like them.  When you have a high-maintenance person, you spend more time working with their quirks and less time actually doing the work.

A good boss is a human shield.  “He or she has got my back.”  “Managers are people who see visitors so the others can get the work done” (Mintzberg).  Good bosses protect their people from all kinds of intrusions, interruptions, etc. – and they protect their people from “idiocy from on high.”
There’s a great question from Rob Cross at the end of Bob’s talk: “After you talk to this person, do you have more or less energy?”  Bob leaves us with this question: “How do people feel after they talk with you?”
Reflection: I thought this was a really nice tie in to the Leader-Member-Exchange (LMX) discussion we’ve been having because Sutton’s focus is on leader-subordinate interactions and relationships.
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