Leadership Without the Ego

Wired magazine just published a cover story on whether Steve Jobs’ leadership style should be emulated. I have my own thoughts on this which I will save for another posting but the article did remind me of a recent book on leadership that would be a great read for public sector leaders.

In J. Keith Murnighan’s Do Nothing! How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader, he lays out the Leadership Law:

“Think of the reaction that you want first, then determine the actions you can take to maximize the chances that those reactions will actually happen.”

It sounds like an obvious law but Murnighan argues that many leaders do not follow this law because of five fundamental problems:

  1. Egocentrism – leaders tend to focus on their needs and wants rather than on what their team members need and want.
  2. Empathy Gap – leaders also have trouble seeing the situation from the team members’ perspectives.
  3. Focus On Own Actions – leaders believe that the team members will understand and act as if they perfectly interpreted the leader’s action.
  4. Transparency – leaders believe that everyone else sees the situation exactly as the leader perceives the situation.
  5. Double Interacts – This is a natural result of the preceding four problems. Essentially, a leader underestimates the impact of his or her initial action and is surprised by the resulting reactions from the team members. For example, if a leader starts by yelling at the team, he or she may see the resulting hostility from the team as an overreaction because the leader doesn’t believe he or she was hostile.

To become a good leader, one just needs to recognize the five problems and act accordingly. He gives five traits that directly counter the five problems:

  1. Focus on the team – ask questions and get to know what drives your team members.
  2. Try to see from the team members’ perspectives – it’s difficult to fully understand another person’s perspective but even a partial understanding can be helpful.
  3. Follow the leadership law – focus on how to evoke the positive reactions you want from your team members.
  4. Active listening – basically you cannot understand another person unless you actually listen to what they say. And that also means listening to the nonverbal signals too.
  5. Get on the Balcony/Walk the Floor – Seems contradictory but what Murnighan is suggesting is that a leader learns to see the situation, his or her actions, and the team’s actions from an objective viewpoint so that the leader can better plan future actions. Walking the floor means that the leader is seen and that he or she sees what the team members are doing. Taking the time to recognize team members for good work on the spot goes a long way toward keeping people motivated and willing to follow the leader.

Murnighan lists some great leaders that practice the five traits listed such as Captain Abrashoff and Phil Jacksonwho were, in their own ways, just as successful (arguably even more so) as Steve Jobs in their respective fields. It seems to me that, as a follower, I would rather have a leader that has these five traits. As a leader, I can see the advantage of the five traits in helping me to harness the combined energy, passion, and innovation of my team. Although, Jobs’ aggressive and confrontational leadership style may work in the private sector (and you better have a good track record of successful products), I believe the five traits would make a successful public sector or nonprofit sector leader.

Murnighan, J.K. (2012). Do nothing: How to stop overmanaging and become a great leader. New York: Penguin.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Andrew Krzmarzick

Great post, Bill. How do you think a leader can move from having a wide blind spot to even being open to seeing that a company’s problems begin with him/her?

Dannielle Blumenthal

Isn’t it really a matter of how one defines success? Two dimensions here:

1 – People vs. Results

* On the one hand – engagement. The more engaged the team, the better the leader.

* On the other hand – outcomes. The greater the quantity of results, the better the leader.

These two extremes can coincide but often they do not.

2 – Public Sector vs. Private Sector

* Public sector success involves…this is not entirely clear. Problematic from the perspective of defining what a leader should be after. Clearly relationships matter and so do results, but after that, vague.

* Private sector success means…again, not entirely clear because while “profit” is the simple answer, long-term stakeholder relationships require a measure of self-sacrifice.

Since clearly it’s impossible to say that one mode of leadership is always right, perhaps a better way of thinking about it is situational. Such models might consider:

1 – The personality of the leader – one person can’t be and do everything (I don’t know why we idolize leaders, they’re limited like anyone)

2 – The culture of the organization – how much leeway the leader has to lead, and how much they are expected to bring people along

3 – Whether results must be short-term or long-term – if there is short-term pressure the leader will need to make decisions regardless of whether people agree (of course smart leaders build up relationship capital so they can do this)

4 – Survival pressure from inside and outside the organization (e.g. internally, colleagues who are against you; externally, competitors)

5 – Employee morale – whether engagement/disengagement is having a business impact


Book titles like “do nothing” are oversimplified because sometimes a leader has to “do something.” That’s what they’re getting paid for. A Zen thing where you sit around and sort of magically let things happen is not always leadership – sometimes it’s fear of making a bad decision.

Also, what might look like ego from the outside might be something entirely else – something as simple as time pressure.

One thing I think we have to admit is that leadership in the public sector requires serious examination and reflection. Everyone has their own opinion but at the end of the day, what do we want from the civil servant? How do we know when they’ve reached the top of the mountain?

We know process things pretty well. For example, that a diverse and inclusive workforce is important. That we want to ensure veterans can transition into the civil service if they choose.

We have trouble with results-type goals. Because there’s that whole accountability thing. There is an aversion to it.

For public sector leaders to succeed at results we ought to come up with some meaningful performance metrics – like “maintain an employee engagement score of .6 or higher consistently for a period of 12 months” or “eliminate at least $500,000 in excess costs per year.”

At that point we could talk about how leaders get there, and how they do so while balancing employee engagement and empowerment.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Andy – That’s a tricky question as the egotistical leader would think that the problem is with everyone else and nothing to do with his or her own personality. Part of the solution would have to be that the manager suffers some type of epiphany that demonstrates his or her ego blindness. Also, the followers around the leader should not enable the leader’s egotistical behavior. Of course that is rather tricky considering the context. I am sure that people who point out the faults of the current North Korean leader are not warmly received by Kim Jong Un.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Dannielle – Yes, it is a matter of defining success but it is also a matter of sustaining success. On your first point (People vs. Results), the leader may receive credit for either the engagement or outcomes but is it actually the leader that brought about either? I agree with you that deciding what is good leadership is situational but I would argue that there are leadership behaviors that are not appropriate for any situation. I would also argue that a good leader is one who consistently produces successes. General Grant may have won the Civil War but President Grant was one of the worst Presidents the U.S. has had.

As to the book title: I am surprised by your reaction to “Do Nothing.” As the expert on branding, you should know that catchy titles sell. 🙂 Despite the title, I think you will find the book has great advice backed up by some compelling anecdotes.

I also agree with your thoughts on public sector leadership. Too often, I have seen the lessons from the private sector just directly applied to the public sector without recognizing the unique environment of government work.

Dannielle Blumenthal

“Coercive leaders demand immediate compliance.

Authoritative leaders mobilize people toward a vision.

Affiliative leaders create emotional bonds and harmony.

Democratic leaders build consensus through participation.

Pacesetting leaders expect excellence and self-direction.

And coaching leaders develop people for the future.”


Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Dannielle – Thank you for the link. The leadership styles demonstrate well the progression from the egocentric leader to the leader who puts the team first.

Carol Davison

I thought that leaders optimized results for the (taxpaying) customer. For example my part of Commerce facilitates international trade. We reward your accomplishing that. We don’t reward curing cancer, because we are not tasked to do that. You can’t achieve much without your people so unless you are a complete jerk or an idiot, you would collaborate with them, encourage, develop and reward them.