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The Broken-Leadership Paradox

Is every hire a special little snowflake? That uniqueness affects the social dynamics of high-performing leadership teams.

About The Author: The author, a senior IT executive at one of the nation's largest banks, shares his experiences under the pseudonym Coverlet Meshing. He has spent the last two decades in the financial services sector, picking a fight with anyone who doesn't understand that banks are actually software companies and need to invest in engineering as a core competency. His cheery outlook and diplomatic nature are rarely reflected in his writing. Write to him at coverlet.meshing@ubm.com. Follow him on Twitter: @CoverletMeshing.


Ever wonder why executives brought in from the outside almost always replace competent members of the existing leadership team?

The easy answer is that the hiring manager has identified "talent issues" in the space in question. He isn't the only one who sees the need for a change. Every senior executive who has ever dealt with that space, every stakeholder who has ever interacted with it, every member of the team itself… hell, every clown in that little car has an opinion about who should get a pie to the face -- and not a one thinks it's him or her.

Filling an empty management slot has the same narcotic effect as buying a lottery ticket. Winning is never the point. That dollar buys you a chance to let your imagination run amok. In every clown's mind, that new hire might just as well be Oprah with a bag full of silver gift boxes. "You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!" And by car I mean employees who don't suck.

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But let's put wishful thinking aside for a second, because the key word in that first sentence is "competent." We're not talking about replacing underperformers. Rather, leaders who either met or exceeded expectations. To manage them out seems arbitrary, disloyal, and disillusioning, if not cruel.

It's a "lawyer up" moment for both parties, because both sides are right. Yes, he's a rock star, and yes, there's no place for him in our new boy band. I mean, seriously, he has the same damned haircut as the new lead singer.

What follows are some thoughts on this intractable talent paradox: the idea that most organizations don't really have the kinds of talent issues that everyone is convinced exist. Rather, organizations bring them on with changes in leadership. The root of the problem, I argue, is that we're all…

Special little snowflakes If management books are ever to ascend to the status of art or literature, they'll need to balance their cheery professionalism with some darkness and angst. They'll need to moderate their optimistic solutionism with the occasional "We have no idea how to solve this problem and we never will." I would love to see Jim Collins start his next book with:

"Life breaks us. And each of us in a unique way. Even if you experience no significant breaks, like the teens struggling with the ennui of suburbia or the adults suffering from what Louis CK calls white people problems, you still must end up broken. Because never experiencing real misfortune leaves you bland and hollow, with a skewed frame of reference and the inability to empathize with the damaged majority. Good managers recognize that we're all broken. And the best managers were the kids who very early on learned to play with and enjoy broken toys."

Read the full article on InformationWeek.

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