The Screamer

The screamer is the alpha-wolf of their corporate pack, and if you don't figure that out in the first fifteen minutes, you're probably deaf.  Screamers come in a variety of flavors -- yellers, cursers, table pounders, I've even seen one that would throw things at people.

The screamer usually gives the impression they are a hot-head, and sometimes the explanation is as simple as that.  For other screamers, they use their white-hot anger to probe, test and challenge anyone and everyone in the organization.  Of the screamers I've met, it is the second variety that seem to ascend the corporate hierarchy -- boards seem to see them as strong, or demanding.

The screamer often appears to be looking for subordinates who will "stand up to the boss" and fight back.  But from the perspective of the average subordinate, their raging boss looks like a lion roaring and licking his chops -- it's a rare person indeed who will go toe-to-toe with a lion.  The assumption in the behavior appears to be only the best people will actually take-on the screamer, and it is a way to strongly discourage the weaker ones from staying.  The fallacy of the assumption is that an employee with plenty of courage is not necessarily any better or worse at their job than someone more reserved.

Those employees foolish enough to try to appease the screamer will find their efforts very unsatisfying.  By attempting appeasment, the subordinate classifies themself into the "lamb" category, the type of employee the screamer is either consciously or unconsciously trying to drive out of the business.

As I've already mentioned, some screamers just have explosive tempers.  Most, I believe, are more delibrate in their behavior.  Those seem to subscribe to a form of social darwinism, or simply feel it is better to be feared than respected.  This last viewpoint seems to have some merit, as I've seen employees put in some pretty amazing work effort when the screamer has them in his sights.

For the larger organization, the primary alpha wolf seems to let a few younger potential alphas stick around -- perhaps for succession planning purposes.  The rest of the organization is either sheltered from the screamer, or lives in nearly constant terror of encountering him or her.  Exposure to this leader is definitely seen as a blessing (an opportunity to stand out) and a curse (the risk of being crushed under heel), and not typically sought out by most of the management team.

In cases where the screamer is in place for an extended period of time, a collection of guessers and sooth-sayers often seem to develop.  These are the employees who attempt to tell others what the boss really wants.  These individuals create a lot of useless busy work, and waste enormous amounts of the company's efforts.  

Since the ability to survive a firefight is NOT a key to success for most corporate jobs, there is an adverse selection and promotion criteria subtly in place.  This tends to lead to a shortage of good qualified candidates, with many of those remaining wondering why they stick around.  The screamer can also generate risk aversion like no other extreme leader -- but only if he or she punishes those taking the risks when they fail.

Screamers seem to do fairly well overall compared to the other extreme leadership styles.  There are many of them in positions of high authority, and their companies seem to suffer less than many of the other types.  Still, a screamer would be the last extreme leader I personally would want to work for, and I'm sure many others feel the same.

The Regurgitator

The regurgitator is very similar to the procrastinator with the exception of one characteristic -- the regurgitator is NOT afraid to make a decision.  Making the call is never the issue with this extreme leadership style, sticking with it, however, is.

The regurgitator loves to dredge up old decisions and rehash them endlessly.  Their leadership is characterized by numerous flip-flops in their decisions -- often reflecting the latest piece of data they acquired, or the last person in a position of authority they spoke with.

Unlike the procrastinator, who seems to have a deeply rooted fear of deciding at all, the regurgitator seems to lack self-confidence to stick by their calls.  When any bit of data or opinion seems to contridict a decision already long put to rest, the regurgitator, rather than brush off the contridictory data, wants to revise the basic premise, thus putting at risk every subsequent decision.  The regurgitator seems to lack confidence in their convictions or perhaps fear they consistently make the incorrect call and are trying to limit the damage.

The behavior has a similar impact as the procrastinator's -- there is no solid base of principles and decisions upon which to build.  The organization seems to be forever locked in a battle to develop basic management and organizational principles, never being able to progress beyond the fundamentals.

The impact on people is also similar -- they will try avoidance where possible, attempting to keep decisions out of the regurgitator's hands by either taking on greater risks themselves, or going around the regurgitator whenever possible.

As in the procrastinator's organization, a regurgitator's mismanagement will typically take a long time to become evident.  During the lengthy wait, forward progress will seem to slowly come to a halt, and the organization will stagnate.  As is true under most of the extreme leadership styles, talented people will tend to leave, eventually creating talent drain which is hard to overcome.

The Procrastinator

With the Procrastinator, nothing is ever final until after the project, decision or event is well in the past.  Procrastinators have trouble making decisions, and once they do decide, their people quickly learn no decision is forever -- there being a constant risk of the item being dredged up, reconsidered and reversed.

A typical time arc for a project in the Procrastinator's organization might included the following: an initial review with a tentative decision, but certainly a demand for more data, a series of further reviews, where there is still no decision, but during which the direction becomes a bit more clear (although often different from the original direction), and ultimate closure of the project prior to actual implementation.

Procrastinators tend to flip-flop on their decisions, talking themselves into alternately approving and disapproving various company actions.  They seem to suffer from a difficulty to commit to any course of action without perfect information.  As perfect information is rarely available in the real world, they tend to take the pulse of those above them in the organizational hierarchy (perhaps a board member, or a more senior officer of the company) who has a poorer perspective on the situation, just to make sure they know which way the wind blows.  If and when the procrastinator finally does decide, it is often to err on the side of conservatism, killing off new ideas or concepts.  From the perspective of an individual advancement, it will appear it must run a gaunlet of potential reviews, where any one of them being decided against will spell the end of the initiative.

At the core of this indecisiveness, appears to be a fear of making a wrong call -- and since mistakes are generally punished more than successes are rewarded, the procrastinator is forever holding out the option of pulling the plug on any remotely controversial or questionable initiative.

Employees find this leadership style provides an unstable footing for their work.  It is difficult to build upon new ideas, as the old decisions which might provide their foundation never appear to be behind them.  Sponsors of new initiatives tend to find themselves constantly defending past work, trying to hold onto meager gains, rather than advancing the organization.  The braver sponsors tend to "ask for forgiveness, rather than permission", putting themselves in personal situations which are highly risky, especially given the bent of their leader.

Ultimately the organization stagnates.  Fairly obvious decisions are left dangling, and too many projects are rejected.  The organization becomes focused on what it takes to get the approval of the leader, rather than what is right for the business.  The best and most innovative employees become frustrated and leave, or are discouraged and simply stop trying to offer ideas.

An organization can persist in this state for quite a long time, if the industry is mature, slow to change, and there are no nimble competitors nipping at their heels.  The employee's best bet in dealing with a procrastinator is to out-last and out-endure.

The Blame-gamer

We'd like to think corporate success -- and success in life in general -- is more dependent on the wins in our win columns than anything else.  There is, however, an ugly element to human nature, one where we tend to zero in on the losses, no matter how few and far between they are.  And most of us seem to get a charge watching the foibles and pitfalls of others (otherwise, why do television shows like American Idol, or Survivor last?).

The Blame-gamer knows this element of human nature extremely well, and is prepared to push it to its logical limits.  The primary Blame-gamer behavior is what is sometimes called "the search for the guilty, and the punishment of the innocent."  To the Blame-gamer, every problem or shortcoming has a name associated with it -- someone who's "guilty".  One of the things Blame-gamers rarely seem to do however, is look at the circumstances surrounding a failure -- was the original strategy sound?  Were there environmental factors that made success impossible to achieve?  Were the expectations of what would be called success unreasonable?  To the Blame-gamer, these questions are irrelevant, and examining them would only interfere with the search for the person or persons guilty of screwing things up.

Unlike some of the other extreme leadership styles, where the leader can be fully or partially blind to their own behaviors, Blame-gamers tend to be much more deliberate in their actions.  Since the leader is usually ultimately responsible for defining strategy, evaluating environmental factors, and setting the thresholds for success, it is much safer and emotionally more satisfying to define every failure as a "failure to execute".  Failure to execute automatically implies the strategy was sound and the expectations were reasonable.

Beyond just searching for the guilty (and punishing the innocent), sometimes the blame-gamer, sensing an impending failure, will push others into a key execution role simply as a buffer between a potential future problem and themselves.  The Blame-gamer uses the unwitting or unwilling person as a kind of human shield -- a scapegoat who can take ownership of the failure, should it occur.

The impact on the organization is fairly predictable -- conservatism.  In the Blame-gamer environment, where "failure" is punished much more than "success" is ever rewarded, it pays to avoid taking risks of any kind.  Employees in the Blame-gamer leadership environment will be reluctant to bring forward projects unless they're almost a sure thing.  The clever employees will strive to gain recognition for presenting ideas, but will shy away from involving themselves in their implementation.  Goals and targets, which wise employees already try to set as low as possible, will be pushed even lower in the Blame-gamer environment, where there is little upside in agreeing to hard targets.

Over time, the company will become exposed to smaller, less risk-averse competitors trying new systems, products or processes.  The Blame-gamer firm will be slow to move on new ideas, wanting to see they are nearly fool-proof before moving on them, lest the employees, as individuals, take the blame for anything less than stellar success.

The Oddball

I've known a few senior leaders in passing I would consider oddballs, but more due to strange appearance traits and the assumption this points toward other oddball behavior, rather than an intimate exposure to one of this strange variety of leaders.  Describing the oddball, therefore, is a bit more difficult for me, and I may get a few bits slightly off.  So with that disclaimer in mind, here goes....

The oddball is an offbeat leader -- one who seems to be at least somewhat out of touch with the rest of his or her management team.  He might range anywhere from amusingly eccentric to downright bizarre.  Oddballs are often superstitious or ritual driven, as if following an old and beloved formula will lead to continuing success, even though circumstance may have changed -- a little akin to the star athlete who rubs their lucky baseball before each inning, or who always wears green underwear, or some other seemingly disconnected behavior.

Oddballs seem to love old, outdated management fads -- remember "management by walking around", "In search of excellence", Theory X, and other management theories that have faded into the past -- they live again in the Oddball's organization.

What makes an Oddball?  Some simply seem to be different at their core.  Most seem to have a tough time separating luck (and luck plays a role in the career of every top manager) from actual actions resulting in success.

The biggest negative impact on the organization is the tremendous waste of energy on practices, systems, analysis and other elements of the Oddball's management mantra that have little to nothing to do with the organization's success.  This can range from annoying or confusing, to downright deadly, depending on the nature of the rituals, and what elements of current reality they tend to ignore.

Having an oddball for your leader can also be...well, embarrassing.  Image conscious executives will stay away just to avoid the guilt by association.

The Burnout

Most Burnouts were something before they slipped into this extreme leadership type.  They were typically hard-charging managers, and perhaps even exhibited some other extreme leadership type, but then something happened.  Something that changed everything for them.

It might be an event -- a personal tragedy, a career disappointment, an epiphany gained by watching someone else.  It could be just an accumulation of little things that piled on one another, much as that proverbial final straw on the camel's back.  Whatever the reason, the Burnout enters a time and a place where they no longer care about the business, their co-workers, or their customers.

The Burnout lacks the motivation to come to work each day.  They try to spend as much time as possible doing whatever gives them energy.  It certainly isn't their work, however.  They exhibit fatigue, and seem to have a tough time even putting up a show that they care about what is happening in the business.  In an odd moment, they might be caught surfing the web, or working a crossword puzzle, rather than reviewing last month's financials, or meeting with their subordinates.

Burnouts are noticeable mainly by their lack of presence and participation.  Most learn how to cover up their lack of motivation, at least in a superficial way.  They tend to be indecisive, or uncaring, and provide little inspiration to their teams or organizations.  They go through the motions, rather than provoking performance -- or even a reaction in some cases -- in others.

For subordinates, a burnout is one of the easiest extreme leadership types -- mainly because the Burnout will leave them primarily to their own devices.  While Burnouts are unmotivated, they aren't necessarily willing to accept blame, and they probably won't offer subordinates much guidance on the politics of the organization.  Benign neglect can rapidly become scapegoating in the Burnout's world.



The Micro-Manager

I must confess to finding it completely impossible to get all the way into the head of this Extreme Leadership type.  The term is thrown around somewhat loosely, and sometime misapplied by people.  So let's take a look at what the Micro-manager DOES, and then think a little about what might be making him or her tick...

Micro-Managers are in the middle of everything going on in their domains -- from the trivial to the most significant.  A Micro-Manager might be making a decision on an acquisition this morning, and overruling the selection of dinner napkins this afternoon.  The Micro-Manager's basic action is one of OVER-RIDING.  They over-ride the judgment and decisions of others -- on almost anyone and everything they command.  Usually their style is aggressive to the point of domineering (a tyrant), but I've seen some Micro-Managers who operate with a softer touch as well.  Just because their smiling and speaking calmly doesn't mean they're not a Micro-Manager.  This style seems to be most common in smaller organizations or smaller parts of large organizations -- a Micro-Manager tends to run out of bandwidth when their span of control gets too large. 

Micro-Managers tend to drive off strong-minded subordinates.  What person with a good brain and a little backbone would tolerate constant second guessing of their decisions by someone who doesn't have expertise in their area?  The people that remain tend to fall into a few different categories -- they're sycophantic toadies, or natural followers who are happy to have the responsibility of decision making lifted from their shoulders, or perhaps stuck in the organization for some personal reason and have to grind it out despite their leader.  The folks in the last category tend to be driven crazy by the Micro-Manager, but those in the first two will appear to be completely at home in this environment.

Micro-Managers negatively impact their organizations in several ways -- one I've already mentioned, the driving off of talent.  They also slow decisions down, acting as the choke point in a funnel.  If they were willing to provide general direction and let people make their own calls, a lot more would happen in a company a lot faster.  Perhaps the most insidious impact, however, is subordinates learn to ask "what does the boss want?", rather than "what's right for the business?".  I've also noted a tendency for people to become preoccupied with trivia at times -- arranging deck chairs on the Titanic -- usually in an attempt to give the Micro-Manager what he wants.

So why are they like this?  What need is this behavior satisfying?  I'm no psychologist, but it seems there is some deep seated need to be right, and as a corollary, to see others as less capable than the Micro-Manager.  There's probably some kind of insecurity swimming at the bottom of this pool.

Most Micro-Managers tend to effectively disguise the more flagrant aspects of their behavior -- at least they hide it from observation from above.  They will tend to appear very details oriented, on top of their responsibilities, and confident.  It usually takes a mass exodus, or the "right" critical person quitting, to bring their extreme behaviors to the attention of upper management. And heaven help you if the Micro-Manager is the top officer of the company.   Barring an attention grabbing event, this extreme leadership type can swim in the Corporate pool for a long time undisturbed.

The Super-Critic

Unfortunately, a large part of the daily work for senior managers is to deal with problems, and a part of that task includes figuring out what went wrong.  The exercise sensitizes managers to the many decisions that cause issues to arise.  And in this crucible, with the benefit of perfect hindsight, they learn to criticize.

I remember sitting in my Business School Classes (taught using the case method), and listening to student after student harshly criticizing the actions of the managers in the cases we studied.  Heck, we had Jack Welch show up at the school, and the same thing happened face to face!  For all the advantages of the case method, it does seem to set young budding managers along the path to becoming a Super-Critic.

The Super-Critic expects perfection, but more importantly, doesn't hesitate to find flaws with everything going on around him/her.  They criticize how things were done, even if the outcome was generally good -- because, if they'd just been able to apply their piercing insight, it would have been better.  Even if the Super-Critic learns to toss off compliments, they are given only on the most trivial of matters (nice tie, now on to the critique!).  Or they learn to compliment in public and criticize in private -- but the compliments still sound hollow and contrived.  This is the world of the Super-Critic, one of imperfection to be pointed out by his or her superior intellect.  It is a world of sneerning at a job that should have undoubtedly been better done.

The impact on people in the organization is predictable.  Avoidance is the principle reaction -- avoidance of contact with the Super-Critic.  No contact means less exposure to the Super-Critic's caustic personality.  There are still criticisms to offer -- which will make their way down through the chain of command.  In the Super-Critic's company, the employee who hears the criticism must always wonder just how high up its origin was.  In this environment, one often hears employees complain nothing is ever good enough, or the absence of criticism is the only compliment.

The Super-Critic fails by driving talent out of the organization, and breaking the drive to achieve in many of those who remain.  When negative critique is all that is ever offered, regardless of effort, many employees will reduce their efforts to the minimum necessary to get by.  The Super-Critic also inspires Mini-me's.  A Super-Critic CEO will, as is true with many of the extreme leadership styles, inspire other managers in the organization to become critics as well.  The leader will sometimes secretly admire the piercing insight of his subordinate who beats him or her to the critical observation.

The Super-Critic ultimately fails when the organization fails to perform.  Boards are not equipped to discover and remove the Super-Critic solely because of his caustic impact.  He or she fail because of a loss of talent and effort from the organization.  In some companies, this can become evident quickly, but in others with strong established brand names and positions, it can take a very long time -- if it ever is separable from the daily impacts of a hundred other factors.  The Super-Critic, in many cases, is there to stay for a long haul.

Extreme Leadership Types that Fail.

I've recently been working on a new novel, one that features several hard-to-work-for leadership styles.  That manuscript has gotten me thinking about the many different types of extreme leadership styles exist, and how many flavors they come in.

My initial investigation on the web shows little material on this subject (of course, I might just be typing in the wrong keywords -- more thorough research will follow).  So I've decided to take a different tact, by taking a leadership guide published by Darrell Zahorsky, and imagining what could happen to the"successful" leadership styles there when they are pushed to the extreme.

What I've developed is a list of ten extreme leadership styles -- of the type that cause partial or total failure of the executive in their job.  I think as you read the descriptions, you should think of these as extreme CEO leadership types, as that is where the failings will be most evident in any corporation.  I've seen several of these types, and a couple of them I'm intimately familiar with.

So without further ado, here are the ten extreme leadership types that fail:

1.  The Super-critic -- In this leadership style, the CEO become so critical of everyone's efforts that no one can do anything to his satisfaction.

2.  The Micro-manager -- Micro managers take the super-critic one step further, substituting the CEO's judgment for...everyone's.  The Micro-manager sees himself as a genius among morons, and won't allow anyone else's decision to stand.

3.  The Burnout -- This leader has had enough of everything.  Enough struggle, enough competition, enough conflict.  He should retire, but keeps hanging on, much to everyone's chagrin.

4.  The Diva -- Really isn't interested in what he can do for his company, only what the company can do for him.  He is focused on money, power, prestige or a combination of the three.

5.  The Oddball -- Locked onto outdated or ineffective leadership paradigms that seem to have little or nothing to do with success or failure for the company.  Stays with them in the mistaken belief they actually matter.

6.  The Blame-gamer -- Every problem or shortcoming has a name attached to it, and it isn't his.  He'll make sure to position any risk so that someone else can take the fall.

7.  The Procrastinator -- Unable to make a decision without perfect information, this leader is perpetually stuck in neutral hoping someone else will step forward and take a stand.

8.  The Regurgitator -- A variant on the Procrastinator, this leader decides, reconsiders and then decides again in a seemingly endless loop.

9.  The Screamer -- Gets his way through intimidation and brow-beating.  Usually dramatic, and often reacts just for show.

10.  The Gentleman -- Can't imagine doing, saying or deciding anything in a way that might offend someone.  Has a tough time making decisions that might impact other's opinion of him.

Now these types are not necessarily exhaustive, nor are they even necessarily definitive -- any given leader may demonstrate characteristics of several of the extreme types, while also doing some or even a lot of things right.  This blog has room for comments, and I would love to hear from other students of Corporate America about the extreme types they have seen.