Why Productivity Isn’t Everything for Leaders

Intense focus on meeting your goals has its virtues—and its drawbacks. Better leadership, experts say, means diversifying leadership styles.

There’s no one wrong way to be a leader—except, perhaps, being overly committed to the idea that there’s one right way of doing things.

Consider the case of Elon Musk, who since taking over Twitter last year has worked to institute a productivity-focused, “hardcore” workplace culture at the social media platform. There’s no need to restate the various ways this has backfired on Musk. I’ve written about Musk before, but I don’t mean to pick on him; he may yet right the ship, and some of the worst tragedies that doomsayers have predicted for the company haven’t come to pass. But there’s no question that his results-above-all philosophy has proven alienating, and often counterproductive.

If your company isn’t a place where people want to work, it’s not going to be very productive or successful.

Ayelet Fishbach, University of Chicago

That’s why Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff got plenty of pushback when he recently said more executives should “unleash their own Elon” when it comes to managing (or firing) their workforces. University of Chicago Management Professor Ayelet Fishbach told Insider that such an approach can be devastating.

“Sometimes, culture is the only advantage a company has,” she said. “Anyone can imitate a business strategy, but culture is much more difficult to replicate. If your company isn’t a place where people want to work, it’s not going to be very productive or successful.”

There’s nothing wrong with chasing productivity, of course. Many association leaders who’ve been hammered by the pandemic, having to dip into reserves or taking other financial hits, are understandably looking for more efficiency from staff and volunteers, as well as more revenue streams. But the “hardcore” method is only one way to pursue that, and in itself is unlikely to be successful.

Media entrepreneur Hope Horner recently made this point in Harvard Business Review. CEOs, she writes, tend to “major” in one of three leadership focuses: people, processes, and productivity. None are “wrong” in themselves, but overly emphasizing one over the other two has negative consequences. Performance-based leaders, for instance, have their upsides: They’re data-driven and are confident decision-makers. But those decisions aren’t always thought through very well, and subordinates tend to find themselves under the bus when things don’t pan out. Horner doesn’t mention Musk by name, but it’s not hard to think of him when Horner notes that productivity-first leaders risk “molding an environment that feels chaotic and stressful, resulting in employee burnout and high turnover.”

The fix here isn’t “stop focusing on productivity.” A better approach, to extend Horner’s college metaphor, is to pick a minor. Horner suggests that leaders tend to gravitate toward one leadership style naturally; the second or third ones require some intentionality and work. In the Financial Times last week, columnist Andrew Hill quotes German entrepreneur Hermann Arnold about the importance of managing dual roles as leader. They need to “kill the dragon” and tackle big challenges, but also “win the princess” and inspire your people to come along with you.

“If you want to be an excellent, world-class leader, you have to master both,” Arnold said.

Developing that mastery isn’t necessarily easy. But recent years have taught all association leaders about the importance of flexibility when it comes to how workers do their jobs and how members convene. There’s no reason why executives can’t borrow some of that spirit when it comes to their leadership style—or styles.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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