Engineer to Leader
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STCerri International E-zine/Newsletter

#20: January 19, 2009

The #1 Leadership Rule You Need To Know!

If you were to pick one and only one leadership rule, I've put it in this ezine/newsletter.  Everything else about leadership pales in comparison to this rule and I've devoted this week's ezine/newsletter to just this topic.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

P.S.  Those of you in the San Francisco/Bay Area, I'm giving a talk at the AIAA meeting on Thursday, January 22.  The topic is a comparison of different personality style instruments (i.e., Myers-Briggs, etc.) and if they are useful.  You can get more information at

P.S.S.  Feel free to pass this Ezine/Newsletter on to a friend.

Note:  If you have missed my previous Ezines/newsletters you can find them archived at: 
Archived E-zines/Newsletters
"The first rule of management and leadership"
Is that an ear-worm I'm hearing?
Ever have one of those songs or tune that gets stuck in your head and just won't leave?  It repeats over and over.  An "ear worm" I think they're called.

Well, there's one in the world of leadership too.  It comes up every now and then, especially when something big is happening in the world of leadership, such as now with the change in US presidents.

It's usually put forth by news commentators who don't know much about the real mechanics of leadership and are quoting something they heard or read somewhere, someplace.

And because it's so common and it sounds so "true" I've decided to clear this up.

What they get wrong.

So what is this error that I am so boldly proclaiming people often get wrong about management and leadership?  It's this phrase:

"Leadership is the ability to get people to do what they don't want to do".  Or some variation on that theme.  It's wrong. Period.

Every four years or every time we have to do something painful as a nation or every time people believe that someone has to make a sacrifice, then someone says, "Oh that takes real leadership... you know... leadership is getting people to do what they don't really want to do."

It was said of George Bush and now it's being said of Barack Obama.  It's being said about the "bail out".  It's being said about the sacrifices people will be asked to make. 

And whenever the sacrifices are significant, we ask for "great leadership" because it is great leadership that will get us to do what we don't really want to do. Right?

That's not the way human beings work.
Let's get this really clear... it is impossible for a human being to do what they don't want to do.  We are not wired to do anything we don't want to do.  To act (or even to not act) requires "volition" which means it is impossible to do something that we don't want to do.  (Don't worry, I'll explain how this works by the end of this ezine/newsletter).

Humans as coins.
Imagine that every human being is a coin.  As we know, on one side of US coinage is a "head" or bust of a prominent historical figure and on the other side is something that is not a bust of someone and we call this a "tail".  If we use the analogy that human beings are like coins then each human being is motivated to move toward what they want (we can call this heads) or they are motivated to move away from what we don't want (we can call this tails).

There is no in-between.  We either move toward what we want or we move away from what we don't want.  Both are actions to do what we want to do.  Neither one is a movement to do something we don't want.  Both are movements to do what we do want... either to gain or to avoid.

That's not the way human beings work.
These two motivating forces are "hard-wired" in us. 

The moving away from motivation (the tails side of our coin) is driven by our desire for survival.  It is generally a result of our primitive emotional functions in the Amygdala. This portion of our brain is very old and has been programmed to help us survive.  It is where much of our fear-based behavior originates and current research indicates that the fears we have are mostly learned.

The Amygdala is also a critical component of our ability to generate cognitive dissonance and it's what drives us to look out for what has changed, what is dangerous, to our survival.  As I said, this is the "tails" portion of our brain.

The "heads" side of our brain is the "Neo-Cortex" including the "frontal lobes".  These parts of our brain are constantly thinking of possibilities and future projections in time of those possibilities.  They attempt to make sense of the world and allow us to create new worlds.

And these two parts of our brain are constantly in competition for who will win the tug of dueling motivational forces.

Just look around.
Now if you'll recall last weeks' ezine/newsletter, you know that I highly value personal experience as a validation of the truth about the world we live in.  Well, just look around you.  It's everywhere in the media.  Both sides of the human coin are everywhere in our daily lives.

Some people in the news emphasize that we have not been attached by terrorists since 9/11, and so we must continue doing what we've been doing to keep us safe (a moving away from statement). 

Others emphasize that this is a time of new hope, and it's time to re-think our policies and create something new (a moving toward statement). 

Some emphasize that this could be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and may actually be as severe as the Great Depression, and therefore we must be careful not to do anything that worsens the situation (a moving away from statement). 

While others emphasize that, while this will be serious, we can make changes and work our way out of this and create a more stable financial world in the future, (a moving toward statement). 

These are examples of how people can emphasize a moving away from motivation or emphasize a moving toward motivation.  Which one resonates with you will tell you a little about how you move through the world.  (By the way, the nation is very closely split on moving away from and moving towards and that is why our elections of late have been so close.)

Fear can be a powerful motivator.
Now because the primitive brain (which includes the Amygdala) is so old and deserves a great deal of credit for our survival, it is very powerful indeed.  That means, all things being equal, survival will almost always win over any moving toward strategy.  The fact that we are here is testimony to that fact.

So moving away from fear, is a powerful motivator in our world.  I remember when I was a small boy and the Soviet Union still existed, every election cycle the candidates would begin shouting about the threat that the Soviet Union posed.  It seemed that during every election there were only three topics that rose to the top of the election agenda... the fear brought about by the Soviet Union; the fear brought about by crime in the streets; and the fear brought about by loosing ones job.  Fear, fear, fear.  The politicians then, as some do now, played to the primitive brain of people, eliciting a moving away from strategy which often helped them win the election.

Priorities can change so watch the context
I want to give you one more example of moving toward and moving away from in the current financial situation.

A year ago, most people would never have given a thought to putting their cash in a bank savings account.  Putting cash in a bank savings account is a "moving away from" motivation because it is geared around the "safety" of your cash not making a lot more of it.

Instead, a year ago, most people had a moving toward motivation.  "I'll put my money in the stock market, or a hedge fund, or I'll buy a house because the value of all of these is going to go up... a moving toward motivation.  Moving toward more value.

Fast forward to a few months ago.  The financial environment has changed, drastically.  There is a great deal of risk... everywhere.  Survival is now at the top of the list.  Keeping the money a person has is much more important than making any money with it because the risk is so high.   So survival, maintaining the safety of one's cash, a moving away from motivation, has now gone from the bottom of the priority list to the top of the priority list.

So what was unthinkable a year ago, putting ones cash in a FDIC insured savings account, now seems prudent.  Is it getting people to do something they don't want to do (put money in savings accounts) or is this just a shift from moving towards to moving away from?  You know my answer.

So in a short time, we (indeed the whole world) have shifted from a moving toward strategy to a moving away from strategy.  We have moved from a growth, possibility, and creation strategy to a survival, maintenance, stop-loss strategy.  (By the way, we won't get out of this financial situation until we shift back to a moving toward motivation.)

Now what does this have to do with management?
Here is how this all translates to management and why the people who talk about leadership, I think, get it wrong when they say leadership is about making people do what they don't want to do.

Moving away from strategies and moving away from actions are often interpreted as "people doing something they don't want to do."  So the leader who can motivate people to move away from something, often appears to be motivating people to do something they really don't want to do.  The embedded presupposition is that people want to move toward what they want and don't want to move away from what they don't want. But it's not true.  It all depends on the context.

Regardless of whether people are moving toward what they want or moving away from what they don't want, they are still doing what they want to do.  It's just that a moving away from strategy is based on fear and a moving toward strategy is based on possibility.

Notice how just what I've told you to this point has probably changed your perception in relation to management and leadership.  Notice if there is a shift in the clarity of your perception regarding leadership as you read these two statements:

1.  Leadership is getting people to do something they don't want to do.

2.  Leadership is getting people to do something based on the possibility of an outcome or the fear of an outcome.

Notice how statement number 2 gives you so much more clarity regarding motivation and action about "how" to lead.

So which do you use?
Now here is the important point... there is a place for both motivations; moving towards and moving away from.  In fact, there are certain people who prefer to be motivated by moving away from.  They tend to be the people who believe their "glass is always half empty".

So I'm not going to suggest that leaders ought never to motivate using a moving away from motivation.  At times its useful.  And there are people who will like it and respond to it.

However, I personally prefer to use a moving toward motivation strategy whenever possible.  I have at times, used moving away from strategies in leadership, but rarely. 

By far the most powerful, effective, inspiring, and successful forms of motivation are those that employ moving towards.  This has been my experience.

This ought to now make clear why there are some managers who are tyrants and are still successful.  A "moving away from" leader will tend to attract "moving away from" direct reports.  They will work well together.  A "moving toward" direct report working for a "moving away from" manager will think the manager to be too negative and intimidating and too much of a bully.

A "moving away from" direct report who works for a "moving toward" manager will think the manager is too positive, and doesn't really see how dangerous the world is.

In the final analysis, the best leaders can adjust their leadership style to accommodate the preferred style of each direct report, whether one-on-one or as a group.

And the final rules are...
So here is my final leadership rule now expanded into all its corollaries:

Leadership Rule.  True great leadership is getting people to do something as a result of the excitement of achieving the possibility of an outcome or as a result of action prompted by avoiding the fear of an outcome.

Associated Corollaries
1.  There is no such thing as "Leadership is getting people to do something they don't want to do.  It's impossible for people to do what they don't want to do.

2.  People are in constant tug between moving toward and moving away from.

3.  Great leaders know how to assess the best motivaiton strategy based on the individuals and the team psychology.

4.  A combination of moving towards and moving away from can often be more effective than using any one mode.

5.  Too much "moving away from" leadership tends to drain an individual or team of it's energy and ultimately the team will disintegrate if too much moving away from strategy is employed.

6.  The greatest creativity, possibility, and energy come from moving toward strategies.

If you have any comments please add them to the end of this blog.  I'd be very interested in your ideas.

Have fun leading!

Be well,


"If you are an engineer or a technical manager, imagine what it would be like to be as adept, successful, and effective dealing with people as you are dealing with your technology?"

Steven trains, coaches, and facilitates engineers and technical managers to BE the answer to this question.  Steven is unique because he has made this transition himself.  Get Steven's latest thoughts at:

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Copyrightę2008 STCerri International and Steven Cerri.  You are free to pass this information on to others and to reproduce it.  If you reproduce sections in whole or part please give attribution to Steven Cerri.  Thank you.

Be well,

Steven Cerri
STCerri International

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