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January 2016

The Anti-Role-Model: Richard Nixon

51n0nJ0YHSL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_I recently finishing listening to the audiobook of Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas. I like reading biographies of past leaders for the lessons on leadership they provide, and the life of Richard Nixon is particularly rich in such lessons. In fact, because such a rich historical record exists of recent political figures, they can be scrutinized to an extent that is rarely possible for their business counterparts. What better moment to learn from their example than when you have just started in your job, before you have heavy responsibilities similar to those that made them stumble or represented the crucible of their leadership?

Ever since I listened to, rather than read, Robert Caro's The Passage of Power (LBJ volume 4) read by Grover Gardner, I have particularly liked to get heavy historical tomes as audiobooks for my car drives. While excellent, Being Nixon doesn't quite rise to Caro's LBJ books, through no fault of the author. In contrast with LBJ - a clear doer and a masterful politician who enjoyed human interactions - Nixon during the Presidency was quick to feel wronged by his treatment in the press, even after triumphs such as the trip to China. His brooding gets a little repetitive after a while, although of course this played a key role in Watergate and his subsequent downfall. But Being Nixon also provides spellbinding accounts of Nixon's youth and rise to power, and the end of his presidency. While the book is less gripping in the middle, it remains a very worthwhile read.

It is well-known by now that Nixon suffered from a deep sense of outsider-ness, social awkwardness and a feeling of isolation from the establishment. His downfall was brought about by his lack of self-awareness and his failure to ask hard questions from his staff. He shied away from difficult conversations to a spectacular extent throughout his presidency. (He could also be evasive with good news: Henry Kissinger at first didn't know if a convoluted conversation with Nixon meant he had been offered a post in the cabinet.) Regarding Watergate, according to the book it seems that he had no specific prior knowledge of the break-in but created a culture in which his subordinates thought that was what he wanted, and then failed to realize the mess he had gotten himself in.

Nixon's refusal to understand the gravity of his situation while the Watergate scandal was gaining momentum gave me pause. How do people lose so much touch with reality? How do they not see they're going to hit a wall? How do they not see they contributed to that culture in the way they behave with their underlings and the actions they take (such as installing a secret recording system in the Oval Office)? 

I didn't know that part of the reason why he indulged in "dirty tricks" was that the Kennedys themselves had indulged in those at his expense during the 1960 campaign and deeply wounded him, so he felt it was fair game to do the same. I also hadn't realized that Nixon's relationship with Kissinger was as complicated as it was, although it makes sense in hindsight when you think of how hard Kissinger has tried to position himself as an intellectual in the limelight rather than an adviser in the shadow. Finally, I was pleasantly surprised at the close relationships he seemed to enjoy with his family.

In the end, although he had some accomplishments during his presidency such as the opening to China, Nixon's inner wounds were his downfall. Too much outsider-ness led in his case to a feeling that others (like the Kennedys and the press) were out to get him, which brought out the worst in him. He is a sobering tale of what happens in a rags-to-riches story gone wrong.

First Quarter: On Mentors

Dear college graduates, whatever it is that you decide to do during your first 90 days in your first job, do NOT ask anyone to be your mentor. In fact, do not EVER ask anyone to be your mentor. Even typing  that question makes me cringe. If you only remember one thing from the many posts I write, be it that you should see things (and yourself) from the perspective of the people you interact with.

If you had been working at a company for several years with enough success that entry-level hires viewed you as a potential role model, and a just-hired twenty-two-year-old you had had no previous interaction with asked you to be his mentor, would you accept? Would you really want to give advice to an admiring youngster you can't vouch for (potentially wasting time, effort and human capital on an incompetent nonentity, a loose cannon, or who knows what else), or would you want to be more discerning regarding the people you take under your wing? 

Do not even try to find mentors before you have a track record that would make your would-be mentors want you as a mentee. (This is something PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi also emphasized at the 92nd Y panel I attended back in September; read my blog posts about it here and here. Mentors find mentees, not the reverse.) And when you are ready for mentoring, I would advise to avoid that big word - mentor - and instead phrase questions in terms of behavior, such as: I am facing an issue and I'd love to have your input on the way I could handle it, or: did you ever face that issue when you were in my role, I can't quite figure out what to do, would you mind talking it through with me?

Not only is the term "mentor" over-used, but it also betrays the ambition of the people who want to be mentored without saying anything about the (real) benefits the people who do the mentoring gain from the interaction. Most people like to take under their wing youngsters who remind them of themselves so that they have at some level the impression of helping their younger self, but no one wants to feel used. The word "mentor" also suggests that the mentor has achieved a "perfect" state of all-knowing wisdom that the mentee strives to achieve.

This discourages a more realistic assessment of the more senior employee: most people have weaknesses, blind spots, flaws but those who are successful in their career compensate for those in a way that delivers value to their boss and their team. It takes a particularly self-aware and self-secure mentor to point out his own weak spots to a mentee so that the mentee doesn't emulate those aspects of his personality. In some cases, the mentee may even believe that the weak spots (such as, say, a tendency toward autocracy in leadership in this day and age) brought the mentor's success about when the success happened in spite of them. 

In summary, "will you be my mentor?", especially asked by someone who has just started his first job, is a naive question that smacks of amateurism and a lack of basic understanding of psychology. (Also, it doesn't allow the person being asked for a graceful way to say no.) If a more senior employee has a track record in an area where you'd like to succeed, observe him and ask him questions about the specific behaviors what you've observed. He'll be glad you've taken the time to think about it first and care to ask for his perspective. Or ask for help in brainstorming an issue, but make sure you have prepared a couple of ideas first to show you value their time and can take yourself of the "basic stuff".

If you'd like him to send opportunities your way, then what you need is a sponsor, not a mentor, so you might as well get the terminology right first, but the same issue remains: why would he send opportunities your way if he doesn't know you and can't vouch for you? Show them you'll be worth their time. Then they'll put your name in for new opportunities without you even having to ask.

Is your work life a Shakespeare play?

This is Shakespeare in the workplace, Part 4.

  • Are you a recent graduate thrust into a position of leadership ? If so, you could be Hal or Hotspur in Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2.
    • Hal and Hotspur are both sons of a king or would-be king, and fight alongside their father in battle. At first Hotspur looks like the more valiant of the two, while Hal appalls his father with his free-partying ways in the taverns of Eastcheap, but once he's enjoyed his youth, he proves a determined soldier on the battlefield - killing Hotspur in battle - and ultimately a good king, at least in the Shakespeare play.
    • Hal becomes Henry V by proving himself less hot-headed than Hotspur, a great strategist, a valiant fighter, and also a man who is willing to cut old ties to people who would drag him down and prevent him from achieving greatness (such as Falstaff, who expects a special appointment simply because he knows the new king). Yes, Hal breaks Falstaff's heart in Part 2 by repudiating him, but you must learn to let old relationships die when you've outgrown certain people. If you have become someone very different from the person you were back then, what is the point in associating again with people that don't reflect your best self back to you? Loyalty is important, but even more so loyalty to the right people, so maybe you don't need to give a job to your sorority Big Sister just because she was your Big Sis in college. 
    • Hotspur is quick to anger and spouts diatribes when he feels wronged. Anger never serves any purpose. Losing control never serves any purpose. If you want to get angry, go and sit in your car (preferably after having parked it on a shopping mall's parking lot where you won't run into coworkers, rather than making faces in your company's parking lot). If you want to get angry less often, try meditation. I rarely start my day without a 15-min meditation. If I feel cranky I'll do a 30-minute meditation to figure out how to deal with things. Once a week I do a 1-hour meditation. It quiets my mind like nothing else can, and afterwards (not during!) I get a ton of insights, fresh perspectives into problems, ideas for new projects.
    • If you are expected to take over the family business after college or after a few years in industry, you are definitely Hal or Hotspur. Just make sure you end up a Hal (future King Henry V) and not a Hotspur. Interestingly, Hal once he is Henry V has some advisors but does not seem to have one very close mentor. Mentorship, whether through Falstaff (bad example) or Henry IV (good example), happened while he was still prince. Once he is king, Hal is his own person.
  • Do you have subordinates (e.g., graduate students of the research group you manage) who badmouth other subordinates of yours and try to set you against them? If so, you could be Othello or King Lear.
    •  It is always good to ask yourself what agenda people have when they share news with you. We all want to believe we surround ourselves with trustworthy people thanks to our exceptional judgment, but we are often only able to read people definitely after working with them for extended periods of time, during which the least ethical of them may try to manipulate us or steal our place.
    • If subordinates (e.g., graduate students) are competing against each other to become the favorite, that would make you King Lear. In contrast with many of the other kings in Shakespeare's plays, King Lear is rather pathetic - an old man who wants to be loved but goes about the wrong way in finding out who loves him most.
    • In other words, King Lear is not a king you want to be. You might be blind to the fact that Cordelia has different values than what you expect and won't stoop to badmouthing her colleagues, which you might interpret as an admission of guilt regarding whatever she was accused of. The trick is to figure out which subordinates are badmouthing others and which ones are sharing important information you need to be aware of. This is not something you will figure out on the spot, so resist the temptation to banish Cordelia right away (fire the subordinate, remove him from project leadership, etc) and to divide your kingdom into the two other daughters, who really just wanted power to begin with. 
    • What you want to do is to take the time to observe and judge for myself, so resist rolling your eyes and complaining you don't have time for this, whether "this" is bringing you bad news or having to deal with people who can't lead a project. If people bring you information, say thank you, don't commit and think about it. Either you've just been given information on the lack of ethics and desire to manipulate of the person who brought you the news, or you've learned something about the person they spoke about. Either way, you're bound to learn something new about your team. Be grateful if it happens when you can still do something about it. 
    • King Lear has two power-hungry "bad" daughters who want what he already has said he will give (his kingdom). Othello has a confident who actively plots his downfall out of revenge for a slight. Is someone you have passed over for promotion giving you advice, and does that advice include negative facts about other people who work for you? If so, you could be Othello.
    • I write "negative facts" purposefully, because Iago is masterful at planting evidence. Yes, Cassio has Desdemona's handkerchief, but that's because Iago planted it in his chambers. Maybe a subordinate writes you an email that you find ridiculous and that can only have been written by an incompetent person, but perhaps Iago told her to write it like that because he assured her that he knew you best and that was the right way to phrase things to get your attention.
    • Do you know your weak spots? In the end, King Lear's "bad" daughters Regan and Generil exploit his need to feel loved and Iago exploits Othello's sense of outsider-ness and worry his new wife has already stopped loving him. What is the type of story you often tell yourself to explain what happens to you? Could someone exploit that story to their advantage?
    • A typical one would be "I'm the only one who understand the true challenges we face in this business and everyone else is asleep at the wheel [or incompetent, or out-of-touch, or...]" and, if you're not able to see through that little game, Iago would play on your feeling of one-against-all to make you feel he's the only one who deserves your trust and then he would "helpfully" point out that the person you have just promoted as your second-in-command for your division is having a lot of lunches with your big adversary who controls the other branches of the business.
    • Although I advocate cutting Iago types loose as soon as you can, there might be some benefit in keeping them close before you can get rid of them, in order to prevent them from wreaking havoc in the company. But you need to be on your guard and at the top of your game to pull it off. 
  • Are your peers or colleagues badmouthing you and plotting your downfall? You could be Cassio, Cordelia or Desdemona (in Othello, King Lear and Othello, respectively).
    • Cassio and Cordelia are both warriors (Cordelia leads the army of the King of France once she marries him) and Cassio is hated by Iago precisely because he was promoted instead of him. Desdemona is a sweet, loyal thing but a bit clueless. In the workplace she would more likely be an allegory for something that the main character really wants, like the top job at the company, rather than a real person.
    • Cassio and Cordelia have in common that they have high integrity but Cassio isn't even aware of the plotting in his back while Cordelia refuses to imitate her unethical sisters to get her rightful share of the kingdom. In that sense, Cordelia is a far more inspiring figure.
    • Do you believe skill, talent and character alone are enough to win the game? Don't become a Cassio. Think about who might want to make you fall. Who might envy you? (people who competed with you for your last assignment, people who have been in a job position longer than you and yet have not been promoted while you were, people whom you have bested in your projects,...).
    • Cassio's demise comes from the fact that, at Iago's prodding, he gets drunk although he knows he shouldn't, and Iago has arranged for him to get into an altercation with one of his (Iago's) acolytes and thus create a ruckus sure to infuriate Othello. In other words, to bring Cassio down Iago doesn't just use words and stories he plants into Othello's mind. He pushes Cassio to make a mistake (get drunk, get into a fight) so that Othello demotes him. Then Iago uses Cassio's attempts to get his job back to destroy Othello through Desdemona, by suggesting to Cassio that he beg Desdemona for help. (And then he hints to Othello that Cassio and Desdemona are seen together because they're having an affair.)
    • In contrast with Cassio, a better awareness of politics wouldn't have helped Cordelia, since she witnesses her sisters' great speeches of love to King Lear and simply refuses to play the same game. Cordelia's main issue is that she is outnumbered. Her sisters and her sisters' husbands ally while she is cut out from her inheritance and only finds an army when the King of France marries her. She is the lone warrior who takes a stand for her values, a bit like Gary Cooper in High Noon. Lone warriors in real life get themselves boxed out, marginalized and neutered.
    • It is hard to think of good advice to give Cordelia. No one should have to compromise her values to get what is her due. She must have known, if only by overhearing them chat once in a while, that her sisters were manipulative shrews obsessed with power, and so she should have figured out earlier that not only she should watch her back but it was her responsibility to look out for her father, who after all was so tired that he wanted to relinquish power - a sure red flag. He didn't become wary with power overnight. She also should have seen that her father was the sort of person who yearned for great professions of love and thus would be easy to manipulate by bad people.
    • Things she could have done include helping him with day-to-day decision-making to take some of the weight of king-ship off his shoulders so that he would have delayed relinquishing the throne, building alliances for instance by getting married earlier and asking for her share of the kingdom as part of the marriage negotiations to the King of France. Cordelia does die in the play but she dies with integrity and honor. King Lear realizes his mistake but collapses and dies shortly afterward. 
  • Are your associates egging you on to make an unethical move that would put you at the top, and would make them right-hand-men to a really very powerful person? Be careful not to turn into Macbeth. Macbeth is a brave general who first commits regicide (egged on by his wife, after witches tell him he will be king) to ascend to power, and then kills and kills and kills again to remain in power.
    • What I find interesting in the play is that Macbeth starts out as a good man, and then is caught into a spiral of murders. The play is about his wife's naked political ambition and his own lust for power that he proves unable to relinquish. In the process, he and his wife become monsters.
    • The other thing I find interesting is that the witches may have known he wouldn't become king if they didn't tell him he would and thus incite him to murders. They know exactly what to tell him to bring his downfall, a little bit like a confidant who insists you deserve better, so much better, you should be sitting at your boss's desk right now, so that when the occasion presents itself to (figuratively!) orchestrate a coup, you find a resolve you would not otherwise have had and get rid (again, figuratively) of your boss. Meanwhile, the witches may laugh at your gullibility, but you're already far down the slippery slope of backroom intrigues, Machiavellian manipulations and illegal practices that you need to remain in power.
    • Is there someone near you who seem to have unbridled ambition in his lust to reach the top? If you stand in his way, you may end up as Banquo, who was Macbeth's friend and fellow general, and is murdered by him because the witches prophesied (after telling Macbeth he would be king) that Banquo would be father of kings, although not one himself. (The murderers who kill Banquo also try to kill his son but he escapes.) 
    • If someone near you, like your boss, stands in that person's way, but that person can't reach your boss directly, then he might try to get rid of the people who make your boss effective, such as you. If so, you'd be like Macduff's wife and his little children, all assassinated while Macduff is out of the country although they had no direct role in the intrigues. 
  • Do you have achieved the top? You will surely be aware that some people will try to take your place, but don't become Duncan, the king Macbeth kills, in placing too much faith in your lieutenants. (Duncan is killed while he spends the night in Macbeth's castle. This was asking for trouble from the start.) Further, be careful that people around you don't mistake you for Julius Caesar
    • Julius Caesar is murdered by a group of men led by envious Cassius, who takes advantage that Julius Caesar is so loved people want to give him absolute powers to spur uneasiness in his friends and claim Caesar is letting power go to his head. Cassius manipulates Brutus into taking part in the ploy to murder Caesar. Cassius pretends he is doing a good deed for Rome but he is really just acting out his envy at Caesar's power. 
    • Brutus is taken advantage of by Cassius's good words and convinces himself he is acting in the interest of Rome, out of a sense of honor and moral responsibility. In contrast with Cassius, Brutus really believes what he says. If a colleague tries to incite you to take part in a backroom coup on the grounds that your boss has become out-of-control, you may be a Brutus.
    • Cassius and Iago behave in similar ways, giving interpretations of others' gestures that are false but become ingrained in the minds of the people they talk to. In the end, Brutus is the last one to stab Caesar in the back. Julius Caesar turns around and sees him. His "You too, Brutus?" in surprise at Brutus's betrayal is something Brutus would have had to live with for the rest of his life, but it turns out that Brutus is killed not too long afterward. The perpetrators of the backroom coup are fired, and the Brutus-like character doesn't even have his honor left, since he associated with envious, manipulative colleagues to betray his boss, who viewed him as someone he could trust. 
    • If you're the lone man trying to do the right thing and not only avenge your boss, fired after a meritless power coup, but get rid of the conspirators who engineered his downfall, then you're Marc Antony. Later, much older Marc Antony will succumb to the charms of much younger Cleopatra and make a fool of himself that will cost him his empire, his honor and his life, but in Julius Caesar, Mark Antony is the good guy who, thanks to his oratory, sets the crowd against the murderers and thus brings about the murderers' own death. He is the right-hand man who doesn't let you down even after there's nothing more you can do for him. We all need people like that in our lives.