Bad Leadership in Action: Water Privilege Revoked

Have you ever heard a manager complaining about their employees?  The complaints run from “I can’t get good people” to, “My people don’t care enough” to, “I can’t keep good people.”

Next time you hear someone complaining, consider this perspective.  The true measure of a leader is their people.  Managers who complain about their own teams are essentially giving themselves a poor performance review.  It’s not the team that’s failing; it’s the leader.

In a recent piece, Your Water Privileges Will Be Revoked: A Lesson In Bad Leadership, Steven Blue, CEO of Miller Ingenuity, describes a particularly hot humid summer when he told his factory supervisor to see to it that plenty of bottled water was on hand for his workers.  It seemed to be working well . . . until one of the workers told Blue their water “privileges” had been suspended.  Blue writes, “When I heard about the “suspension,” I was aghast.  And when I asked him (the employee) why, he told me the supervisor would suspend anyone’s water privileges who didn’t drink the whole bottle.”

Blue writes, “Maybe the supervisor thought he could save money if people used a whole bottle, instead of several partial bottles.  Maybe he hated waste.”  But the supervisor didn’t offer an eco-friendly non-wasteful alternative; he simply revoked the “privilege.”

In the end, Blue recognized, a supervisor who considers water a “privilege” is not a good leader.  He dismissed the leader.  Blue says, “You can’t coach a person who thinks water for employees is a privilege.  Anyone who feels that way about the people they lead is not a leader at all.  If he feels that way about water bottles, in what other ways does he treat employees badly?  If he feels that way about water bottles, how do employees feel about him?  And if they feel that way about him, how productive will they be?”

They say in a democracy, we get the kind of leaders we deserve.  The reverse is true in organizations.  Leaders get the kind of team they deserve.  If employees aren’t measuring up, the place to look is the leaders.

Blue, who is the author of American Manufacturing 2.0: What Went Wrong And How To Make It Right, offers checkpoints for a leadership checkup:

  1. Don’t assess your leaders. Assess the employees they lead.  Are they of high quality, dedicated and enthusiastic?  If they are, it tells you your leaders are high quality, dedicated and enthusiastic.
  2. Don’t do performance evaluations on your leaders; evaluate the performance of the employees below them. If they are not performing well, it is because of what their leaders are doing.  Or not doing.
  3. If employees are disgruntled, that tells you it’s time to change leadership. People don’t work for the company; they work for the man or woman in charge.  Companies don’t turn people off; leaders do.  Great leaders create great employees.  Poor leaders create poor employees.
  4. Change the titles of your supervisors to team leaders. Words matter.  Be very clear with your leaders as to how you expect them to behave.  “Supervisor” drives command and controls behavior.  “Team Leader” drives coaching behavior.
  5. Some of your supervisors won’t make the trip to “team leader.” Be prepared to take them out if they can’t or won’t.

Now go back and reread this column.  If you manage people, ask yourself, how would they evaluate you?