Surviving your company's Steve Jobs wannabe

Supreme confidence -- without a record of success -- can destroy a company. Here's how IT can deal with Great Dictator disease

Just because your company is diseased doesn't mean it's poorly managed. For example, if Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs is to believed, Apple under Jobs was a sick place to work. By any other reasonable measure, it was very well managed.

Apple isn't the only example of a company that's both dysfunctional and successful -- a fact that's simultaneously puzzling and depressing to those of us in management consulting. For IT leaders trying to achieve next-generation status, it's worse than puzzling. It can, depending on the disease, range from apoplexy-inducing aggravation to near-insurmountable challenge. But for anyone in IT, the ability to recognize the symptoms of various business diseases, accurately diagnose them, and figure out how to handle the situation is a critical survival skill.

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Last week's Advice Line described stir-the-pot leadership -- a particularly bad business disease. Let's take on one more; a correspondent who asked to remain anonymous calls it the Great Dictator syndrome.

How to spot a Great Dictator

We're not talking about companies run by Charlie Chaplin. Instead, we're looking at companies run by CEOs who have all of Steve Jobs' worst characteristics (except, perhaps, his poor hygiene) without any of his saving graces: the supreme certainty that they're right, without actually being right often enough to justify their high opinions of themselves.

Because business culture flows downhill, arrogant autocracy is the company's standard leadership model, while cowering toadyism is the preferred way to "manage up" -- though not because Great Dictators have bad tempers. For the most part, they don't. They don't need them. Their excessive confidence allows them the inner peace to remain calm as they issue ludicrous instruction after ludicrous instruction.

No, the cowering is a result of a Great Dictator's favorite phrase: "If you can't get this done, I'll find someone who can." Their preferred means of providing information is on a need-to-know basis; their preferred mode of communication is giving orders; and their preferred organizational listening channel is nonexistent -- because who needs one? Finally, their preferred decision-making organ is their pancreas; they trust their guts far more than any form of evidence or logic.

How savvy IT leaders deal with a Great Dictator

As is the case with stir-the-pot leadership, the savviest IT leaders leave for a healthier environment. If, however, this isn't an option, the best defense against a Great Dictator is to master the fine art of Yeah But.

Of course, you don't ever say, "Yeah, but ..." That's too obvious. Instead, smart IT leaders learn to say in response to every order their Great Dictator gives them (because a Great Dictator never merely makes a request): "We can do that. Here's what it will take."

For more complicated orders, they'll offer, "We can do that. Give me a week to put a plan together so I can tell you how long it will take and what it will cost." In other words, "yeah, but," but with a more businesslike phrasing.

However, this won't always work. Anticipating your preference for planning and accurate estimates, a Great Dictator might tell you, "I've decided SAP is holding us back. We need to move our ERP into the cloud. That shouldn't take more than three months, I'd think."

Your reply: "We can do that. Here's what it will take: a miracle" -- that is, if you've decided to take advantage of option No. 1 after all and catch the next flight home to live with your parents for a while.

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