Hey, leaders: Are you high maintenance? Or awesome?

There is a leader, and he’s been put on the stand in front of his followers, his peers, his stakeholders, his bosses and his clients.

The judge’s sombre tone echoes through the courtroom: Members of the jury, we have listened to the facts, and the defendant has been charged with being High Maintenance: An offence punishable by derailment, probably via restructuring, or just plain old letting go.  How do you find your leader, guilty or not guilty?

When I ask groups to describe three attitudes or behaviours of high maintenance leaders, without much exception, they advise the following (and they can do it very quickly):

  • They’re naggers. High maintenance leaders nag and nag, about details and minor things that are not of their concern or, of anyone’s concern, frankly. And by nagging, they’re not doing, not working. They’ll give or delegate a task, yes, but they will probably stand behind you as you ice and cut the cake (if you actually even get to do that, because high maintainers tend to prefer that part).  Yes, we could say micro management from hell, perhaps incompetence, but the nagging simply replaces taking an interest in the development of their staff.
  • They’re insecure. And lack confidence. They need attention, affirmation and praise, and look for it everywhere.  For everything they do. They want to know they’re great and they want us to back their decision, before they’ve made it, and certainly after. Yes, everyone needs a little affirmation and we know that positive reinforcement of effort (rather than talent) works wonders for children, followers and leaders.  But the reason you’re in a leadership position is because you need less affirmation and support than others.  That’s the whole idea, and is probably why you’re paid more.
  • They’re energy vampires. It’s hard work, working for high maintenance types, and they take up a lot of space. Everything is difficult and most things are probably a negative, a no, or a probably not.  In a worse case, they’re not just Mr or Mrs Risk or a healthy skeptic, they’re grumpy, cynical or nihilistic. Friday drinks sarcasm or Coen Brothers films aside, not many people I’ve met rave about cynicism as a great leadership trait (believe it or not).

Can you relate?  I remember seeing Sam Morgan speak at an HR conference when he was in his halcyon days at TradeMe.  He opened with something like: I am aware I am speaking to 300 HR practitioners, but we really only have one HR policy at Trademe. He then clicked his PowerPoint to reveal a towering font behind him: Don’t be a dick. Everyone laughed, revealing their obvious envy for both his policy, his leadership and his workplace.  Of course, when you’re in charge of a couple of hundred motivated, hip and tech savvy employees, and you’re changing the world, this policy works.  When you’re not, you might face a typical bell curve that will most certainly include dicks.

High maintenance leaders are sometimes dicks, as Sam would say, and I saw quite a few of them as an employment lawyer, in the performance management or misconduct ring.  This was an awful job for the dick, the leader managing them, and me as the lawyer.  Does anyone enjoy managing poor performance or misconduct?  Of course not.

However, despite appearing so, some high maintenance leaders aren’t dicks intentionally, they don’t know any better.  We need to develop empathy for these people, and help them.  Often their high maintenance behaviour is unconscious to them, driven from deep inside, and related to complex things like repressed emotion (often anger), levels of security and confidence, and the leadership role models the person didn’t have throughout their childhood, schooling, sporting or early career. 

So what can we do? We can send them on a leadership programme, to a career or leadership coach or even a therapist. And, hopefully, these actions will be a good start.

But we all know you can’t change people, especially if they’re not up for it. You can do something else, though.  Whether we are their boss, peer, stakeholder or customer, we can start (or continue) role modelling low maintenance attitude and behaviours.

How does the jury read a low maintenance verdict?

Of course, low maintenance is the opposite of high maintenance and when asked, the people yelp (again, rather quickly):

  • They do the work. Fundamentally, low maintainers understand the brutal simplicity of having signed up to be paid to do some work, and they do that work.  And, low maintainers do it without too many complaints, probably with a grin, and they do it very, very well.  And, the best ones enable, rather than disable, others to do their work.
  • They follow through. Forget fancy words like integrity, trust, passion and brand.  The jury says: If a low maintainer makes a promise, whether to play social football on a Wednesday lunch with the Marketing team, or get a cash bonus for the crew, they do it.  More than that, the ultra low-maintainers under-promise and then smash expectations by not just following through, but over-delivering.
  • They’re inspirational.  Yes, and because they’re human. The late genius David Foster Wallace wrote a little on leadership and, in short, he thought the greatest leaders inspired.  See more here. I agree.  Think about it.  Think of the last brilliant leader you worked for.  Why did they come to mind? Because they inspired you in some way.  Inspiration is a personal thing of course, and the reasons are countless.  But I believe those who are the most human inspire the most.  Low maintainers win here because they don’t shy away from being upfront and, human, about frustratingly tight deadlines, baby vomit on their shoulder, or emotional struggle (that’s a tech term forpissed off-ness) with the ‘special’ customers and projects.  And, they will happily get involved in the morning tea quiz, or admit to their nightly living room dancing to Bowie (as a form of mourning), or their repetitive viewings of Alan Rickman in Die Hard (yes, I’m still in mourning).  The whiteboard jury screams things like: ‘real, not fake or plasticky’.  Real doesn’t mean "bring all of your private life to work", by the way, it means “we can relate to her or him because they share their life with us in a balanced way”.

Low maintenance? More like Awesome! Of course, the second half of this blog could have been called ‘What makes the most awesome leaders awesome?’  But for us Kiwis and Australians, low maintenance is our humble favourite.

So, if the jury comes in with you having more days on the high maintenance list than not, please get some help from a professional, or, just start behaving like the second list, you might surprise yourself (and certainly those around you).

Paul Pringle is the owner of Paul Pringle Consulting.