The problem of the two-faced leader

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Written a lot about bad bosses — 12 types, 7 more — and today we’re going to quickly discuss two faced people becoming leaders.

It’s pretty much a horrible, no good, very bad place for your organization to go — and yet, it’s increasingly normative.

Many C-Suiters are, by definition, two faced people. What do I mean?

To the company: Buzzwords, mission statements, no real information.

Behind closed doors with lieutenants: Bellowing about margins, market share, and essentially only financial topics.

So let’s say you’re a middle manager in Operations, right? You go to this all-hands meeting and you believe “Oh, this leadership team cares about people and their growth and all that. That’s good!” But then every iota of space between those meetings is “Too busy, got other stuff to do!” or “Can’t talk, Q2 revenue plays standup!”

Then you start thinking: Maybe this guy and his team don’t care about people and growth. Maybe they care about money and just money.

Two faced people.

Now, look — this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People inherently gravitate towards what’s in a situation for them. Executives at companies get bonus’ed off financial metrics and that’s it. They don’t get bonus’ed off “Is Jim in Operations happy?” It’s actually probably better for an executive to fire Jim and hit a margin number than to worry if Jim is happy. See how it’s a little perverse?

Incentive programs = could use a change.

So, two faced people probably shouldn’t become leaders, but because of how we structure companies, they often do — or they evolve to that spot. What now?

Quick quote on two faced people and leadership

Deep-dive interview here with the CEO of Boston Consulting Group. He’s been there 30 years and been CEO since 2013, so there’s a lot about “rising up in a company” and that how affects your decision-making. This part is interesting:

If there was one piece of advice he would give CEOs, said Lesser, it was that “you can’t be two selves … you can’t be who you are in public and act one way, and go behind closed doors and act differently.”


So can this problem be stopped?

Probably not. It can be curbed at an individual level, yes. But writ large? No. What hurts it is bonus culture and incentives. If your entire chance to be “successful” (fraught in its own right) is contingent on a bunch of numbers on a spreadsheet lining up properly, then you’re going to spend most of your time making sure those numbers line up properly.

It’s pretty basic. For all the talk about “authentic leadership,” let me break this down for you. If you can make $1.5 million extra by going nuts about “show me the numbers” or make $0 extra by caring about Jim in Operations, well, f*ck Jim.

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Now, it shouldn’t be that cut-and-dried. You should be able to care about people and the financials at the same time. Unfortunately, many leaders cannot do this. This is the two faced people problem of leadership. It creates a lot of disengaged, poor relationships between bosses and employees, or executives and the front line.

Could we restructure bonuses?

Probably not anytime soon, and that’s an issue. Until we flip the incentive structure, though, two faced people will always emerge in the leadership ranks.

One way to try and flip said structure, although it’s tough:

  • Base compensation is tied to revenue gained/saved
  • 25% of bonus tied to financials/new business generation
  • 25% tied to managerial skill as shown in direct reports evaluating you
  • 25% tied to departmental communication (would need a clear way to metric this up)
  • 25% tied to peer (same level) evaluations of you

In this way, you need to generate new business, but you also can’t be a dick to colleagues or subordinates. And you need to learn to communicate better. (Although admittedly I have little clue on a metric there.)

Most people who drive revenue/sales would look at this and promptly kick me in the groin. “That’s not how business is done,” they’d wail. They’re not wrong.

But in the last 50 years before we automate everyone out, maybe we could find some ways to care about people and have less two faced people running the show?

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