MES Spring 2019 speaker Niel Nickolaisen discusses the leadership lessons that CIOs and IT executives can pick up from the enduring 1990s situation comedy.
In the famous “The Opposite” episode of the TV series “Seinfeld,” Jerry points out to George Costanza that if his instincts have always been wrong, then doing the opposite must be right.
The theory may have been written by comedians, but it has implications for leadership. Over the years, we have all worked with leaders and managers who were irritating and debilitating. Others possessed the wrong characteristics, actions and thought processes.
Knowing this, then, doing and being the opposite of such leaders must be right.
Niel Nickolaisen, chief technology officer at OC Tanner, will lead a session at the forthcoming Midsize Enterprise Summit Spring 2019 conference in Orlando that talks about what it takes to be a good leader and manager. In this session, attendees will take a personal assessment and make some commitments to become the opposite of what we don’t want to be.
Niel was nice enough to answer some questions via email about the session.
Niel, I couldn’t help but notice the “Seinfeld” theme to your presentation. Were you a fan of the show?
Hardly a fan, but I am pretty sure I can quote most of the lines. In addition to “The Opposite,” I find lessons for my life throughout the series – well, after the first season . . .
Beyond “The Opposite” episode mentioned in your abstract, what other “Seinfeld” episodes do you think would apply to midmarket IT leaders?
I suppose the biggest lesson is to be authentic. How much of the conflict, how many issues, how many problems came from the characters’ inability to build authentic relationships with those in their lives? From their work to their romantic to their family relationships, it seems they were most focused on what the characters could get from those relationships rather than what they could contribute. In my own life, my biggest leadership breakthrough occurred when I realized that my most important jobs are to build relationships of trust and to put the needs of my teams over my own needs.
We often talk about what makes a good leader, but we rarely look at what makes a bad leader. In your mind, what are some characteristics of poor leadership?
A good starting point for bad leadership is whatever I am doing! Seriously, I think each of us can think of the terrible characteristics and practices of those who have had leadership roles in our lives. These include micro-management, ineffective measurements, poor communication, pitting people against each other, talking poorly about others and taking credit for the work of others. It is one thing to recognize these in others. Our challenge is to recognize these in ourselves and commit to do the opposite
Now that we’ve identified the characteristics of a poor leader, what can be done about it?
In my case, I first had to confront the reality that I might be, in some ways, toxic. Unless we see ourselves as we really are, I am not sure we will ever make the changes we need to make. But, this is something of a Catch-22. If we are toxic, it is likely that we have created a culture that discourages our teams and peers giving us honest feedback. I suppose the best thing to do about is to commit to being humble and vulnerable – and be authentically humble and vulnerable. With that, we have a chance to see the real us. We can then assess when we should change in order to not be one of those toxic leaders.
You’ve spoken at MES before. What appeals to you about the event and the audience?
At first, I was a bit unsure about the boardroom portions of the event. But, I have learned about great vendor/partners through the boardrooms – vendor/partners I would not have otherwise ever met. I like the ability to network with my IT leader peers and have long-term relationships that formed at MES.
What should attendees expect from this presentation?
If I had my way, the attendees would ponder the message – in what ways am I a less-than-amazing leader? And, what can I do about it? And, how can I actually pull that off. During our time together, we will talk about those three things and do so in a collaborative way. Let us learn together how to improve.
What’s the first thing attendees should do after the presentation and event?
We all have a lot on our plates. I do not want to pile more on myself or others. Rather, let’s pick one thing – just one thing – we will do differently as a result of the presentation and one thing we will do differently as a result of the event and then go get that thing done. We can then move onto the next things.
Is there anything else that would be good for attendees to know beforehand?
Let us ponder our roles in the context of (watch out – buzzword warning) digital transformation. As IT leaders, we need to exert influence well beyond our IT teams and departments. We need to influence the entire company and that takes genuine leadership. One of my favorite mottos is, “Leaders are those who attract followers.” What does it take for us to attract followers? What are the characteristics and actions of those that others willingly follow?