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On a rainy monday morning I’ve met an Old School Manager (OSM). There was a bit of tristesse in the air. The windows were pearled with drops of rain and in the pub there was this cosy but nostalgic smell of damp clothing mingled with coffee. The Old School Manager was sitting in a corner. His attire was impeccable: fashionable suit, strong coloured tie, perfect haircut. I greeted him and sat down in the chair in front of him. He radiated success, self-confidence, …
Me: what is to you the essence of Leadership?
OSM: The first rule of Leadership is not to show that you are weak. Weakness undermines you as a leader and makes you unreliable.
Me : Why is that?
OSM: If you show signs of weakness, you loose respect. People will stop following you. As a manager people need to respect you. And where there is weakness, there is no respect.
Me: But is that even possible? Every human being has moments of weakness, frailty. Everyone has a personal problem from time to time. Everyone faces situations that seem to be insurmountable.
OSM: That may be so, but you cannot show that you are in doubt, or that you are stumbling. Hide it at all cost, because respect is the one and only capital a manager has.
Me: Do you think people cannot respect you if they see that you are like them. Facing the same issues, having areas of improvement, … ? Could that not be a sign that you are close to them, and as a person not that different?
OSM: But that’s the point. You cannot be one of them. You need to keep distance. They cannot see that you are …
Me: Mortal?
OSM: Well, if you put it like that, yes.
Me: But you get ill from time to time. And after all, you are mortal, aren’t you?
OSM: Physical illness is OK. That can happen. But let’s make it a severe illness. One that overcomes you and is not related to your personal doing. And still, you will show up at work. Or you will be on the phone. It must be a very tough virus that puts you down. By resisting illness, you will be a hero. And you show the example. You’d better expect others to resist illness as much as you do. I like to compare myself with the robots in The Terminator. They got shot to pieces, but still they went on and pursued their target. Relentless, ruthless, remorseless.
Me: and what about mental issues.
OSM: I do not understand that. A good manager does not have that. There’s a lot of talk about burn-out these days. In the past you could not talk about that. And I believe it did not exist. And that was a good thing. Today it seems to be fashionable that you have a burn-out. Everyone talks about it. But to me, burn-out does not exist. And all those people testifying about it in the newspapers, it puzzles me, because they commit seppuku.
Me: Seppuku?
OSM: Don’t you know about seppuku? It’s ritual suicide for the samurai in Japan. How can you expect to be employed again or be respected after you have revealed your are an utter failure in front of everyone? If someone googles you, he will know immediately that you’ve failed big time.
Me: You mentioned that burn-out does not exist. What do you mean, it does not exist.
OSM: Burn-out is an escape route for managers who are in trouble. It’s capitulation. They run away. Instead they should stay on board, with their heads in the wind and lead the way in whatever storm. I’d rather say that I’ve failed than to run away in cowardness and say that I’m burning. That would be more honorable. Face up the problems, but don’t look for excuses. Hey Guys, it wasn’t me, it was my body or mind that collapsed. What a poppycock.
Me: So Burn-out is a choice?
OSM: Of course it is. It’s only between the ears. And it’s weak. Very weak.
Me: Have you had it?
OSM: How dare you even ask that question. Of course not. That would be the day. I am too strong too have it. You see, when you are like me, you cannot have it. Maybe it’s a genetic or a moral thing. But weakness in general is not part of my code.
Me: Have you seen it in your team?
OSM: Sure. I have had weak people in my team, yes. And they told me that they had problems. But if I look at it, these were not related to work. The thing is, people want to have everything. They do not make choices. And it’s unacceptable that their private problems have an impact on the job. Job first. The rest will follow.
Me: But what did you do?
OSM: Nothing. It went away. They went away. And that was OK. Good riddance. Teams are like ecosystems. They get rid of their problems. Herds do that too. If a weak animal threatens the entire group, the weak animal gets expelled. It becomes a solitary animal. That animal is often very dangerous.
Me: But is that not a loss to the team?
OSM: Everyone is replaceable, you know. The cemetery is full of people who thought they were not replaceable. Even I am replaceable. As unlike as this may seem, one day I will no longer be there. And yes, you need to solve the problem. But a company is a like machine. You need to have the right pieces and put them together in the right way. And then it functions. A leader is sometimes an engineer of his company. He assembles his company in a brilliant way.
Me: Assembly is one thing. But how do you get “the pieces” to work well together?
OSM: It’s not rocket science. You only need two things: focus and motivation. You need to make people look at only one point. That’s their focus. It’s like with horses in the street. You put these things, what are they called, blinkers or blinders on their heads  so that they can only look ahead and not be startled by the traffic. That’s what you need to do with employees. Put blinders on them. Make sure they look at the focal point you want them to look at. And then you need to have some carrot that makes them want to move on. With a horse you can use the whip, with employees you need to be a little more subtle. Whipping is illegal (laughs). But once they are motivated they run.
Me: That sounds like Gallipoli.
OSM: I resent that. Gallipoli was a slaughter-house. I take care of my subordinates.
Me: How?
OSM: by giving them a good job and a good salary. It’s still about the money. People work for money, you know. And so, they can earn really well if they get their targets. And that’s how I motivate them. They can buy a second car, by working well. If they work more, they earn more money. That’s our HR philosophy.
Me: as long as they do not get ill.
OSM: exactly. A healthy mind in a healthy body. That’s their responsibility. And like this can can have good careers in my company.
Me: Do you think you have a part of the responsibility in that healthy mind in a healthy body?
OSM: There’s a fitness room. And the pizzas we order at night are of sublime quality.
Me: And what about the quality of work?
OSM: . I do not measure the quality of their work, I only measure results. I know that I ask people to do marathons for me. But they are really eager to do that.
Me: how do you know?
OSM: I just know. Do I sense a certain criticism in your voice?
Me: It’s just … you talk about distance but also about motivation. And If I get it right, the motivation is based on financials?
OSM: right.
Me: But aren’t you afraid that people will start to behave like mercenaries? And that they will not want to help you if you need them to?
OSM: They will help me, because I pay them.
Me: but sometimes you do not know that you need help.
OSM: If I don’t know it, I don’t need it.
Me: How will you have people do something extra, just because it’s right. Or because there is an opportunity? To go beyond their job descriptions?
OSM: Maybe I forget a third thing. Next to focus and motivation you need to have order and discipline. Everyone has to know his or her place. Eveyone must be focused on the part he or she is responsible for and must follow instructions. If they would start doing other things, that would be chaos. Total chaos. I don’t want that. Focus, Motivations and Order?
Me: And what’s the fourth thing?
OSM: There’s no fourth thing. Three things is enough. Focus, Motivation and Order. F-M-O. Besides, people cannot keep more than three things in their heads. Corporate Life is really simple: I tell them what to do and give them focus, I make sure they want to run towards the target and I keep order and discipline.
Me: How do you involve people?
OSM: They are involved through the work.
Me: I mean how can they voice their thoughts, ideas, suggestions?
OSM: There is actually no time for that. I am like a conductor of an orchestra. I decide which piece we are going to play, I define the musical interpretation, I choose the musicians and I tell them how to play. If they don’t like it, they can leave. There will be other musicians. And frankly speaking, there is no time for involvement. Do you know what a rehearsal cost? We need to make the most of it in a short time. So there is no time for discussions. I am like Von Karajan. People love to work for me and my company, because it looks good on their CV.
Me: you’re a career maker.
OSM: Exactly. So there’s a lot of benefit for them to work for me. Working for me is the best thing that will ever happen to them in their career. The hardship they have working in my company moulds them, gives them backbone. Just like the army does. They will be better persons once they leave. And they do leave, to take on important positions. But you need to be tough and strong. No talk about weakness. Companies are built on strengths, not on weaknesses. We do not make money through weaknesses.
vulnerability OSM

Afterthoughts about the OSM

The Old School Manager was not able to question his/her convictions. Usually people who refuse vulnerability hide behind a fake sense of self-confidence. Their evolution has stopped but the world around them is moving forward. Although they can do a lot of damage, they will become obsolete. Showing that you are vulnerable makes you more human. It also makes you more credible. And it’s a basis of sustainable leadership. You do not need to hide anything. Admitting that you’re wrong and that you have made a mistake can be very liberating. Failure is a basis for success. You learn from it. It makes you humble. And perseverance is indeed a quality. And every moment of adversity is an opportunity.
You stop being an old school manager when you discover that being a leader is not about you. It’s about the others.
But you will never convince an OSM of that.
The character appearing in this work is fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This interview never happened.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.


  • kindadukish says:

    How about an interview with an old school HR Manager, or new school HR Manager as I am not sure they are any different?

  • Norman Edmanson says:

    To be a real leader you must choose a path which others wish to follow. No one knows all the best answers. When in doubt one should ask questions of those who can contribute to moving the situation forward in the right direction. Then the leader has to make up his/her mind what is the most appropriate action to take in this situation then get on with it. The team will then follow.

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