Leadership. Humanity. Either – Or?


In the New York Times, July 18 article about George Steinbrenner, the writer posits that leadership is something of a combination of patience and persuasion, not intimidation. “Soft skills”, as they are called, are not natural to most people. Brashness, entitlement and ego, the article goes on to say, are essential components for any competent leader. Limits on the over-the-top boss syndrome don’t preclude the need people have to be told what to do.  Right or not, not hesitating even a little has been the predominant posture in most companies where I’ve worked.

The Society for Personality and Social Psychology findings are that “participants choosing a leader gravitated toward those who made quick decisions in moral dilemmas.”  The Study states that leaders who come from their gut to make tough decisions are thought of as “more morally assured”.

I remember during my television production career sitting in a meeting of minimum 10 people where creative work and decisions about how to execute that work were discussed. In most of those client meetings, the “big guy” would nod his head and the underlings would mimic his decision. Yet, when Procter & Gamble would come in for a creative briefing or production meeting, the leader would always ask the least senior person in the room what he or she thought first, then ask that person to justify his/her decision. Those comments were then either agreed to or refuted by the boss. No one could “go along to get along”. Opinions were fostered and guided not commanded and future thinkers were created. Up-and-comers were not merely imitating, or worse yet, surviving the ordeal.

The Bully As Boss is so last year. Public displays of anger as a way to motivate and inspire people is a thing of the past. When Mr. Steinbrenner was at his most intimidating, the team suffered the most. I worked for a guy who loved to fight. It was his way of challenging people – or so he thought – to be their best. It gave him a reason to enjoy his working life more by putting a little spice into his relationships with colleagues and employees. My personal style is different and I had a hard time with it.  Eventually it led to my leaving the company altogether. I noticed, in fact, that most of the people who left felt bullied and unappreciated. So it seems, this boss’s methodology backfired much like Steinbrenner’s.

Humility seems to run counter to leadership in the minds of most people when asked the question in a survey setting.  Yet, in practice, the concept of humility is growing in popularity. In a Season 3 episode of Mad Men, Roger Sterling tells Don Draper that he doesn’t have a successful relationship because he doesn’t value them. Don seems to be a sociopath anyway, but the point is taken. Don is, as Writer / Director, Matthew Weiner, describes, a totally displaced person. Someone who is too busy surviving his own life to truly care about anyone else. All of us have known people who bounce when times are tough, and Don Draper’s gift is that he bounces better than anyone. He’s not a stranger to me at all. I’ve known more men and women like him in business than humanitarians, that’s for sure. When the end of the episode came, I couldn’t help wondering if all leaders in all industries, not just advertising, have ice water running through their veins.  Is there room in the business world for real caring and generosity, much less for actual humility?

The times they are definitely a-changin’.  Along with anti- harassment and the 90th Anniversary Women’s Suffrage, are the popularity of the soft skills previously attributed to only women.  Next time you’re at Barnes & Noble or cruising through Amazon, pick up a copy of Tom Peter’s book, The Little Big Things, and you’ll see from the intro throughout words like “thank you, apology, appreciation and listen”. These, he says, are skills to master as much as any taught a Stanford MBA. Corny? Well, not if you figure all the big sellers in the business book section are touting integrity, commitment and accountability.

To Work Or Not – On Spec


For many years, I’ve worked for myself or in a small group of entrepreneurs. When I was in the Ad Agency business, the company would shell out hundreds of thousand of dollars on pitches, involving many of the agency’s greatest talent and outside vendors. We would either try and keep and account or win a new one from many other worthy competitors. Those days of cut throat competing for business taught me a lot. I was even lucky enough to be in a Christmas Day pitch at Doyle Dane Bernbach for American Airlines. Mr. Bernbach introduced me as the most important person in the room. I was the button pusher or the poor shnook who signaled the projectionist to roll the film.

Since that pivotal event, I’m not sure if I’m proud or embarrassed to claim hundreds of man hours and lots of dollars to try and win business from notable competition. Sometimes with great success and most of the time, not.

The greatest lesson is how to choose the pitches to participate in and which to pass on. What are the actual odds that you’ll win against specialists when you are a generalist? Or visa versa. At a company where there are staff people who can be allocated to the task, the man hours are absorbed as cost of doing business. Not billable to a client unless the business comes in. And even then billing isn’t retroactive unless agreed by both parties.

On my own, I’ve been fortunate enough to find and collaborate with some amazing professionals who have made me look smarter.  I’ve been able to enhance my service  offering by virtue of their participation which has given my small one-woman shop the imprimatur of being a much larger more diversified company. I’ve put a lot of creative energy into some of these pitches, the sales cycle sometimes extending into nearly a year’s time. At that point, some of the previously committed “strategic partners” have moved on. This meant, winning the gig, that I’d have to hustle up people or companies in their class of work who I’d trust as much to deliver the project on time and on budget. This often proves extremely challenging.

This brings me to the present. A time when getting a prospective client to cough up a few dollars for services is even more difficult than usual. I recently offered up some work on spec that will hopefully lead to an ongoing paid participation at their company. First, to win their confidence, I signed on as a commission sales and marketing consultant. In other words, I initially agreed to work on spec in another capacity. Once in the door, I had the ear of the senior executive and now am able to leverage the trust I’ve built into other work for fees.

One needs to be creative and have faith in one’s talent these days more than ever. Good luck out there!