Tom Fehlman has assessed over 7,000 people for leadership positions. And he’s spent decades observing leaders, learning from their successes and failures, and boiling all the management theories, trends, and fads down to reality. And then he put all that in a book.
The book’s title, Low Hanging Fruit and Highly Placed Vegetables: Ripe or Rotten Leadership, sets the tone for its content – wry, funny, sometimes harsh stories from the front lines of today’s workplace. He describes the key elements of leadership and illustrates that it exists independently of your role or title in an organization.
The book is packed with good advice, much of it tossed off-handedly into amusing anecdotes, but here are the ideas that resonated most with me:
- Leaders never stop learning.
- Accountability requires support.
- Emotions come to work, too.
Leaders never stop learning.
As a culture, we often cast our leaders as General Patton, sure-footed, determined, never questioning the next move. We put a lot of pressure on managers to know the answers, and when they don’t, they often bluff. But this situation foments distrust and dishonesty.
Many managers are quite happy with pretending to know everything because learning new stuff is hard; change is hard; and considering other opinions is hard. But Mr. Fehlman stresses that leaders have to embrace change, starting with themselves.
They need to actively listen to employees, understand what’s really happening in the company, and adapt their actions to reality. They should constantly check their own behavior against principles of good leadership and find ways to improve.
And they sometimes have lead by following. Good leaders don’t buy into the fallacy that their role in the company makes them better at everything than everybody reporting to them, so when it makes sense, they step back and let others take the helm.
I don’t think this advice from the book would surprise anyone, but Mr. Fehlman stresses that it’s much easier to talk about good leadership than to practice it. The emotional cost of admitting you don’t know everything and making mistakes as you learn keeps many managers from growing into real leaders.
Accountability requires support.
I love the fact that Mr. Fehlman addresses accountability. He points out that it’s important to hold employees accountable for the objectives you set but it’s not enough. They have to have the tools and skills to meet those objectives as well. And management needs to make sure those are in place before they can hold people accountable.
I remember a former manager who responded to my plea for help on a project with “You can do it. I believe in you.” I’m sure he meant well, but it didn’t matter how much he believed in me if I didn’t have the tools to do my job.
Mr. Fehlman lays out four Laws of Accountability or conditions which need to exist before you can fairly ask an employee to be accountable for their progress.
Laws of Accountability:
- People have to know what they’re supposed to do.
- They have to know how to do it.
- It must be in their personal control to do it.
- They need specific feedback on how much progress they’ve made and where they need to go next.
Mr. Fehlman notes that leaders hold their employees accountable for their own development as well, which includes insuring that they use whatever they’ve learned in formal training classes. In his words, “Managers desperately need to know what is being offered as training for their people, whether or not it has value and application so they can at least attempt to reinforce and/or hold accountable their subordinates for applying the skills.”
Emotions come to work, too.
The book only briefly touches on the issue of emotions at work, but the point stuck in my mind because we believe work should be an emotion-free zone. When the robots take over, it will be. But until then, humans come with their baggage.
From Low Hanging Fruit:
“As adults, we still get angry, jealous, fearful, or silly. We’re still reactionary, we still get our feelings hurt, we still seek power as protection, and I still like to be right, which may mean making you wrong.”
Fehlman notes that emotions play a huge role in the causes of our behaviors, and good leaders need to understand what’s underneath problems before resorting to discipline. It goes back to listening to people, genuinely caring about them, and coaching them into engaged team members, if possible.
Leadership doesn’t come in a bottle (or an MBA).
Overall, after reading this book, I came away with the idea that leadership has several guiding principles, such as good communication, openness to change, and concern for others’ well-being, but its practice takes different forms from job to job and day to day.
Fehlman writes, “We are surrounded by inexpensive, easily-picked “Low Hanging Fruit” that have been ignored by managers for years. All we have to do is listen and watch for the continuous opportunities our employees provide us to become leaders.” It’s not about how many degrees you have or the last leadership retreat you attended. With the right focus and mindset, good leaders will find the right actions.
At Pract.us, we’re dedicated to making it easier for leaders to support their teams’ continuous learning and development through work-based experiences. Learn more.