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Think For Yourself--Best Leadership Tip Ever

Here's how one famous consultant changed the face of leadership and what you can learn from him.
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There was a time when nobody talked about leadership. We managed our companies to develop great products that beat the competition. The goal was to maximize sales, profits, and the almighty holy grail of the corporate world, shareholder value.

We didn't give a crap about our employees. 

Then came emotional intelligence. Command and control style management was out; soft skills were in: empathy, self-awareness, social skills, motivation, communication, and all that. Employee engagement soon followed.

Finally, business leaders learned to treat employees with genuine respect and dignity. Hallelujah.

I know that sounds great, but that's not how it happened.

Actually, we learned all that stuff decades ago from the father of modern management, Peter Drucker.

That's right, it was Drucker, a management consultant, who taught a generation of executives how to effectively run large, complex organizations. He was the first to argue the importance of serving customers versus profits, knowledge workers and their productivity, and respect for employees as assets, not liabilities.

He invented many of the management concepts used by every company to this day, including managing by objectives, decentralization, outsourcing, simplification, and focus. And he was an outspoken critic of out-of-control CEO compensation, calling it "morally and socially unforgivable" and saying, "we will pay a heavy price for it."

Drucker was a major influence on some of the most successful CEOs of the past 50 years, including GE's Jack Welch, Procter & Gamble's A.G. Lafley, Intel's Andy Grove, and Toyota chairman Shoichiro Toyoda. And they in turn mentored another generation of executives who lead hundreds of companies today.

More than anything, Drucker was a great observer and a brilliant thinker. And a central theme behind much of his teaching was the idea that business is all about the behavior of individuals. That managing companies is about managing people. Well, that's exactly how I've always thought of it, as well.

Along those lines, one thing I've observed over the years is that some companies are well run by good people who aren't terribly dysfunctional, others are run like mini-monarchs with the CEO as supreme ruler, and there's everything in between. In any case, it's all about the individuals and their behavior.

Like it or not, that's the way it is, and as it should be.

People always ask me why I'm so critical of leadership concepts like emotional intelligence and employee engagement. I'm really not. What I object to is plastering sound-bite labels on otherwise good ideas and marketing them more or less like miracle cures and diet pills.

More importantly, I object to the notion of turning a crank and running a company by management fad du jour, as opposed to thoughtfully developing unique plans designed to accomplish specific strategic objectives.

You see, as a consultant, Drucker was known for telling managers what he thought. He didn't give them answers; he gave them unique insights that opened the door for them to come up with their own solutions to their company's specific dilemmas and challenges.

And that's exactly what you should do. Because every business, every company, is as unique as the individuals that develop its products and serve its customers. Running a business or an organization is never, ever about buying into canned solutions or turning a crank.

By all means, ask your lieutenants and trusted mentors for advice. Listen carefully to what they say. But don't ask them what you should do. You know your business, your company, or your organization better than anyone. Trust your gut, find your own path, and make your own decisions.

Think for yourself. It's an attribute that's in short supply these days.

Last updated: Jan 17, 2013

STEVE TOBAK | Columnist

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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