Thursday, February 18, 2010

(Un)Learning Leadership from "The Office" -- Part II

I shared with you previously my addiction to the NBC show, "The Office." It truly is like watching a leadership train wreck -- uncomfortable, inappropriate, and offensive. And yet...I can't look away. Not only is it funny, it offers insights into management issues faced by leaders everywhere.

Now this is not to suggest that the Office manager, Michael Scott, does a good job dealing with those issues. In fact, on most levels, he is an excellent example of everything one should NOT do as a leader. But I think many of us can acknowledge that we learn as much about leadership watching bad leaders as we do from good ones. Most of us have leadership qualities that are a combination of the former (things to avoid doing) and the latter (things to model). From the video above, you can guess in which category most of Michael Scott's behavior falls:

-- Leaders create the work environment. They are responsible for modeling appropriate behaviors, establishing a culture of tolerance and acceptance, and demand the highest ethics from themselves and the team. If you watch the show, everything Michael Scott does is wrong. He says inappropriate things ("That's what she says!"). He makes viewers wince with his off-color jokes and repeated episodes of intolerance. He allows bigotry from subordinates (Dwight) and never misses an opportunity to put people down for issues of weight, color, or religious and sexual preference. His behavior is clearly ALL WRONG. And this is probably the point. There is no mistaking his errors. And we squirm because we've all seen it. Leadership is clearly about creating a culture of acceptance and respect for all. It is about eliminating prejudice and crude actions that inhibit teamwork, trust, and performance. Leadership is about building people up, not putting them down.

-- Leaders focus on the mission. Many episodes of the show can pass without ever seeing any work get done. Sales are rare. Discussions about personal issues far outweigh talk of profit, performance, and best practices. And no one is more distracted than the leader of the DunderMifflin branch, Michael Scott. He is quick to rally the troops to talk about how to plan his own birthday party, while slow to talk about industry trends, competitor actions, or quarterly goals. There may be no greater time waster in the history of business than he. Constant meetings, games, off-sites, guest speakers, training, and internet surfing makes it hard to see how business gets done there in Scranton. Mission accomplishment starts with the leader. When he is focused, the team is focused. But when he is lost, the team is as well.

-- Leaders share the credit. Michael Scott may be the most selfish leader in history. He is content to be the only one on the team to have a parking space or to receive a bonus. He wants every success to be credited to him and every failure to be someone else's. True leadership is about focusing on the mission and the success of the team, without regard for personal success. Interestingly, most of us have seen that it is when we embrace this philosophy, we often have our brightest moments. Not Michael Scott. He finds new ways to put the "I" in "TEAM!"

-- Leaders know the business. While Michael Scott claims to know about sales, there is little evidence that he understands things like technology, accounting, marketing, or shipping...and probably not sales! Oh, and as for the business of leadership, he may have unwritten the book! One of my favorite scenes is when he tells Oscar from accounting to, "Pretend he doesn't know anything about the company's finances" in order to explain some very fundamental issues to him. It's funny because...he doesn't know anything about the company's finances! Leaders must be competent. If they don't know something, they should learn it -- before their incompetence hurts the team. While leaders don't have to know everything, they should have a basic understanding of the important things.

-- Leaders embrace change. Paper companies are ripe for efficiency. Customers should be able to make orders electronically. New products and services should be advertised on the company website. Sales managers must be equipped to operate virtually, not chained to the desk and the rotary phone. Michael Scott is old school -- to a fault. His methods of doing business likely make it difficult to compete with the "Big Box" companies. His failure to embrace emerging products and new opportunities makes it difficult to see how DunderMifflin remains in business. But it does make for good TV!

So while I admit to being an addict, I think I know why I watch. To an (hopefully small) extent -- I see myself. I have failed on occasion to establish the right culture and the necessary mission focus. I have hogged too much of the credit and have been too slow to adapt. I am reminded almost every day that I am not as smart as I think I am and am only successful because of the great people with whom I work. I think this show helps us all laugh -- at the Scranton Branch ourselves. Perhaps the more that I watch, the more about bad leadership I can unlearn. That double negative should hopefully make me a more positive, inspiring leader with my own team. That's Leader Business!

1 comment:

Jo Ann said...

As a relative new comer to this show, I find it to be the funniest show since Seinfeld. Your previous blog prompted me to seek it out and to become a fan. Immediately, one sees that the show is packed with every day office exaggerations that are so randomly funny and diverse that you cannot help but think you know someone that resembles the characters in real life. You are correct, the characters are relatable and their random faux pas are not behaviors from which we should model. As incredibly as it sounds, there are real people out there like the characters in this show…and we all work with them! You are quite astute in your observations that the show is a mirror from which one should view themselves as an example they should NOT follow.

Great leaders like you share their failures as well as their successes, because this attracts openness from others and inspires others to follow their lead. You do this every time you share your blogs with us. As always, I enjoy reading your blog and I enjoy your mix of pop culture with your Leader Business philosophy.