Shade-Tree Syndrome

Great leaders don't tower over their teams. They let the light of praise filter to those below.
Oct 01, 2007

Sander A. Flaum
We've all experienced it...working with a colleague who takes all the credit for whatever success the department or division achieves. It is frustrating—and not motivating—to be around. It's even worse to have to report to a person like that. Having researched this particular aspect of nonleadership, I've found that these department heads have some traits in common. As a rule, they all have low self-esteem, are fairly insecure, and cannot tolerate pushback from their direct reports. To insulate themselves, they put yes-men and -women in direct-report roles and survive until their superiors wake up one day and realize there's a nonleader in place running a dysfunctional group.

Former ACS CEO Jeff Rich dubs this group of lousy managers "shade trees." He calls them by that wonderfully descriptive title because "they're huge; they soak up all the sunshine coming down on their organization, and they don't let any of the credit go below them." He added, "Relying on just financial compensation to grow loyalty isn't enough. People have the need to be recognized in other ways."

To lead people, you certainly don't have to be the IQ leader of the pack. You need, oh, good mentoring from sixth grade on and enough common sense to surround yourself with people as smart as or smarter than you in areas in which you are deficient. In studying leadership for the past 10 years, I've learned that great leaders are good listeners first; they're motivators, facilitators, and great identifiers of best-in-class ideas. They hire people with a passion to do their job better than it has ever been done before—those who have the persistence to work every day to learn something new and who acknowledge it takes practice to become best in class.

I'll give you an example that changed the way I hire people. When I took over an advertising agency, then called Robert A. Becker, there was a bookkeeper who had been with the company for 15 years. She was a high school grad with no formal education in financial dealings, but she was known to be a whiz with numbers. As assistant to the then-CFO, this bookkeeper, Terry Wachalter, taught me the financial inner workings of our organization through her clear and cogent explanations. I wound up having to terminate three high-priced CFOs, none of whom could seem to improve the reporting of the financials or explain the company goals to me in simple financial terms (not to mention match Wachalter's zeal for our company's mission).

Though she refused the post at first, telling me she did not feel qualified, Wachalter was eventually persuaded to become our CFO. Not one to let herself off the hook, she assessed where she personally had to grow and enrolled in public-speaking and business-management classes. She became a knowledge sponge, given all the books she read about running an organization. As you might expect, she was promoted to EVP and chief of operations not long after, and she ran the tightest ship around for the many years we worked together. She had everyone's respect because she earned it with her performance and demeanor, not with her resumé credentials. (By the way, she's now my COO and partner at Flaum Partners.)

To push the point, think of what it takes to be a great parent. Great parents, I daresay, want their kids to be the best that they can be. And great parents certainly give credit when credit is due. (Sometimes overly so, but that's OK when kids are small and need tons of encouragement.) Put simply, great parents want their kids to shine, and great leaders want their employees to shine.

As a leader, you have to surround yourself with people who want to grow and welcome being pushed to become better tomorrow than they were yesterday. One of the slogans the Marine Corps is known for is "Grow or go," and I couldn't agree with it more. Find the best and push them to be better. And when they push back and ask the same of you, smile to yourself, because you've done your job.

Are you smiling?

Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners and chairman, Fordham Graduate School of Business, Leadership Forum. He can be reached at

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