Monthly Archives: May 2012

SpaceX Checks its Ego at the Door

As I write this the SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) Falcon 9 rocket has blasted into space, carrying the Dragon spacecraft toward the International Space Station (ISS) with a load of cargo. This milestone marks a new era in private as opposed to government space flight. While a significant portion of the program funding comes from NASA and therefore could be considered government funded, two important points would be missed if we apply such a broad brush.

Falcon 9 Launch May 22, 2012

As a leader our ego sometimes gets the better of us. We begin to believe that we and our team can deliver new products or services without the help of others. Such an attitude frequently ends in failure and a veritable crawl back to those who offered help in the first place.

The collaboration of SpaceX with NASA has been shown to provide tangible benefits in terms of development time and cost. While SpaceX has taken a fresh approach to rocket and spacecraft design they have hired and collaborated with NASA engineers to design and produce highly reliable and much lower cost equipment. This collaboration has created the best of two worlds—the fresh, pristine design team and the legacy team learning from the vast knowledge of successful and failed missions.

In order to make this collaboration work the SpaceX management and design team had to set their ego aside and embrace the NASA voice of wisdom. My work with clients has revealed many a time when individuals feel they can go it alone to achieve their goals. Sometimes this is successful, sometimes not. I find it helpful to strike a balance between receiving and utilizing sage advice versus allowing your team to become bogged down with too many opinions.

I believe the second lesson here is one of minimizing bureaucracy. In general, as organizations mature they continually learn from mistakes and implement a multiplicity of checks and balances. At some point the organization becomes overly cautious and new, more nimble competitors swoop in to take market share with clever innovations.

As you observe this taking place in your organization you have a couple of options: either allow the bureaucracy to slowly build and then destroy it and build anew or continually hack away at the bureaucracy and agree to take on a measured amount of risk.

So when you find yourself turning down offers of help ask yourself if your ego is popping up. Continually assess your processes to ensure you have not become too bureaucratic. After all, this is rocket science and you want to do the best you can.


  • Allow your ego to step aside and ask yourself where the help of others might improve your team’s performance
  • Take a fresh look, from the ground up, what business processes are absolutely necessary for your team to meet its goals

Keywords: leadership, ego, bureaucracy

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Michigan Rising Under the Leadership of Governor Rick Snyder

The state of Michigan, long a manufacturing bastion of the United States, was on the skids in the heart of the recent recession. Unlikely gubernatorial candidate and self-proclaimed nerd Rick Snyder was swept into office on the heels of the recession. Willing to press forward and sometimes take an unpopular stand, Governor Snyder is leading the way to a better future. We can learn many lessons from him.

Rick Snyder

The first lesson is courage. Governor Snyder has eschewed conventional political wisdom and taken a firm stand on issues such as budget cuts and tax reductions. He has been able to improve the business climate by changing the business tax to a flat 6%. While the budget cuts have been painful for many and have cost a significant amount in political capital, Governor Snyder continues to press forward.

The second lesson we can learn is to take a holistic view. Creating a favorable business climate with low and simple taxation is simply one step along the journey. Businesses require an educated, talented workforce. Governor Snyder noticed the mismatch in number of students graduating with technical degrees and workforce requirements, and then promoted a program to retrain workers in areas of shortfall. Similarly, people want to live and work in a desirable living environment. And so, two of the points on the Reinventing Michigan plan are restoring Michigan cities and protecting the environment.

Finally, we can learn from the simple, clear way that the Governor communicates. In a throwback to President Ronald Reagan, he boils the issues down to a few. His card for Reinventing Michigan is a case in point. The points begin with “Create more and better jobs,” and continue from there. He doesn’t shy away from his scorecard, either. He adopted the use of a simple dashboard in order immediately determine the progress or lack thereof.

Not without his detractors, the governor is facing a second recall campaign after the first one withered on the vine, unable to gain the required votes. Despite the best of communication and rationale, none of us want to have to give up any pay, perks, or educational funds.

Some wonder if Governor Snyder deserves the credit for this renaissance. Sure, the global economy has improved and he’s enjoyed the bailouts for the auto companies, but when I talk with business owners in the state they tell me they believe he’s authentic in truly wanting to turn the state around. So far he’s made great strides.


  • Summon the courage necessary to move your initiative forward
  • Take a holistic view
  • Communicate simply and clearly

Keywords: leadership, communication, holistic view, courage

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The Leadership Style of Osama bin Laden

Last week, on the one year anniversary of the fatal raid of Osama bin Laden’s house, a set of documents was released providing us additional insight into the mind of this famed terrorist. While certainly a despicable character, I find his charisma and longevity remarkable. Let’s take a look at his approach.

Osama bin Laden


Osama bin Laden had a clear and consistent vision—attack America. He viewed the United States as an immoral nation, full of homosexuality, gambling, alcohol, and an unacceptable alliance with Israel.

Loosely allied terrorist groups frequently adopted this mission and expanded it to include local governments. This caused bin Laden quite a bit of consternation. He made a considerable effort to moderate these more extreme groups. In this sense he was a moderate.

He admonished rogue groups who reinterpreted ancient Islamic law regarding collateral damage in the event of an attack into enemy territory. While Islamic law may allow this only in extreme circumstances, these regional groups considered it acceptable to inflict casualties to innocent bystanders, including Muslims during “normal” operations.


As these regional groups adopted more radical terrorist tactics bin Laden attempted to persuade them to come back into the fold and moderate their behavior. Surprisingly, based upon the materials I have examined, it seems that he did not attempt to use coercion or punishment as tools in this regard. Other al Qaeda leaders wanted to take more polar positions with these errant groups, either distancing themselves or bringing them under their wing in order to broaden the reach of al Qaeda central.


Osama bin Laden’s journey from country to country has been well-documented. He fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, then returned to his home country of Saudi Arabia from which he was expelled. He chose to live in Sudan and continue to build a network of terror. Pressured to leave that country, he boarded a chartered flight back to Afghanistan. Upon his return he struck up a friendship with Mullah Omar and began to establish the fighter training camps. Each stop along bin Laden’s journey he adapted to the local culture and developed a strong network of allies.


In order to execute successful terrorist attacks significant training is necessary and bin Laden knew this. He invested both time and money in people and equipment. The September 11, 2001 attacks are a prime example of meticulous plans executed well.


From the beginning, Osama bin Laden felt that discipline and a code of conduct were necessary. The al Qaeda manual obtained in a raid on a Manchester, England house reveals a number of values and behaviors demanded from all members. These included patience, a calm personality, a commitment to the organization, and the Islamic faith.

And so we can get a better picture of Osama bin Laden the leader. Far from a feckless leader, he developed a vision and remained steadfast in it. He adapted well to contrary events, trained his people, and demanded the best of his men.

Osama bin Laden: loathsome—yes. A successful leader—yes, unfortunately.


  • Maintain a clear and consistent vision
  • Use power wisely and effectively
  • Remain adaptable, able to adjust to changes in outside forces
  • Invest in training for your people
  • Communicate well to assure alignment of everyone in the organization

Keywords: leadership, vision, power, adaptability, training, alignment


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Finding a Balance in Your Leadership

Last week I attended the Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology (SIOP) conference, my favorite. For me, the resonant theme was achieving a balance—in many areas. It was particularly timely given my involvement with a client wrestling with a team of extraordinarily talented individuals who have difficulty working together.

I want to focus on three qualities in leaders which may be assets or liabilities, depending on how they are utilized and how well they fit the situation. These three qualities are strengths, openness, and mental ability.

Curvilinear Performance

Much has been written about the benefits of specific strengths in leadership. Some work has carried this research further, and revealed how often strengths become liabilities. Assertive leaders can cross the line to domineering. Technically knowledgeable leaders can become micro-managers.

The key here is to understand how your leaders are utilizing their strengths. Leverage these strengths but make sure they are held in balance with contrasting characteristics such as good listening skills and openness.

Which brings me to the next quality—openness. While I don’t have statistical evidence, I frequently hear executives praise leaders for their decisiveness and ability to bring issues to closure. This decisiveness is often accompanied with a low amount of openness, a factor of the Big Five, or Five Factor Model of personality.

We can easily imagine situations where a decisive leader, one with low openness may be good at making decisions but less effective when it comes to gathering information in order to make a well-informed and comprehensive decision.

We also must look at the specific task at hand. For example, the leader of a task force exploring future strategies must be open to new ideas and thoughts, i.e. have a high degree of openness. On the other hand, a group working to complete a long-term project requires a leader converging on solutions and closing the project down. These may require a low amount of openness. Here we can see situations where there may be an optimal amount of openness for each job.

Similarly, consider the leader’s level of intelligence and the relationship to their performance. We expect that leaders with low levels of intelligence will have lower performance than those of higher intelligence, and research bears that out. Interestingly enough, once a certain level of intelligence is reached, performance begins to decline with increasing intelligence.

While we can easily imagine the difficulties with a leader who is not too bright, it may be difficult to understand how too much intelligence becomes detrimental. Consider for a moment a brilliant executive with a high business acumen. While he may be good at business analysis and strategy, imagine he is unable to communicate this strategy and motivate his team to implement it. Illuminated in this fashion, his brilliance seems doomed to failure.

So it may be good to consider your own leadership style. Do you have strengths you are leaning on and therefore possibly overusing? How might you balance these strengths in order to move from being a good leader to a superior one?


  • When reviewing required leader characteristics for a job, consider the ramifications if a leader goes overboard on those characteristics.
  • When evaluating a leader, consider the leader’s strengths and the consequences if he or she overusing this strength.

Keyword: leadership, balance, strengths


  • Ghiselli, E. E. (1963). Intelligence and managerial success. Psychological Reports, 12, 898.
  • Kaiser, R., & Hogan, J. (2011). Personality, leader behavior, and overdoing it. Consulting Psychology Journal, 63(4), 219-242.
  • Kaiser, R. B., & Hogan, J. (2012) Personality, leader behavior, and overdoing it: Empirical links. In R. B. Kaiser (Chair), Theory-driven, personality-based leadership development. Symposium conducted at the meeting of Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology 2010, San Diego, CA, USA.
  • Kaiser, R. B., & Overfield, D. V. (2010) Strengths, Strengths Overused, and Lopsided Leadership. In R. B. Kaiser (Chair), The trouble with the strengths fad. Symposium conducted at the meeting of Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology 2010, Atlanta, GA, USA.
  • Kaplan, R. E., & Kaiser, R. B. (2009). Stop overdoing your strengths. Harvard Business Review, 87(2), 100-103.
  • Sharer, K. (2012). Interview by Thomas Fleming : Why I’m a listener: Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer. McKinsey Quarterly.
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