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Leaders and the “Little People”

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As election season rolls around and campaigning for public office ramps up (does it ever leave?) most of us dust off the decision matrix by which we choose the candidates we’ll vote for. For some, it’s simply a matter of whether there is a donkey or an elephant next to the candidate’s name. Some might resort to using a dart board. Others are only interested in finding someone they believe to be capable of beating the other guy. Those who want to think a little harder might use an issues or trait-based filter. My own process rests on an analysis of a candidate’s positions on a short list of key issues, coupled with an assessment of vital personal characteristics.

One of those vital personal characteristics, whether I’m helping choose the next president or a mid-level manager in the corporate world, is the person’s level of consideration and affinity for those who are south of them in the socio-economic order or org chart. I want some insight into how much or how little they care, really care about those whose interests they will be representing, or who they will be providing leadership and direction to.

Observing their interaction with a food server, retail clerk, or flight attendant provides a window into their world, but it’s just a start. I want to know, is the person naturally at ease with subordinates, and vice versa? At one company I worked for, a finance SVP had a habit of parking at the rear of his office building every morning and sneaking through a back door that no one else used, simply so he wouldn’t have to interact with the people who worked for him. The sad thing is he actually thought that no one noticed or cared.

Are they at ease interacting with those who may not dress as well as they do, or whose speech is not as polished? How quick are they to smile (really smile, not that plastic version) and greet a subordinate or service worker? Do they mumble “how are ya?” and keep right on moving, or do they stop and actually wait for an answer?

Some might argue that this is nothing but a touchy-feely academic exercise since once you are declared the leader, at any level, and have position power, people pretty well have to do your bidding and learn to live with it. Au contraire! As pointed out in our first book, upon entering a leadership role, you are immediately faced with a simple, ongoing high school physics problem – There are more of  “them” than there are of you. Failure to respect this iron law can have a drastic affect on one’s career. Remember that finance SVP who parked around back? It turned out that his people didn’t work very hard for him, because they had long since figured out that he really didn’t like them very much, or care about them. Ultimately, it cost him his job.

Conversely, we’ve seen any number of leaders with modest intelligence and skills race up the career ladder, propelled by the “little people” who were putting it all on the line for them every day.


A pathfinder in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He is co-author of the Contented Cows leadership book series, the next edition of which will be released in June 2012 by John Wiley & Sons. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website, or follow him on Twitter at

Contented Cows

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