Unreasonable leaders, 2.0

leadessrLet me begin by saying I neither work for Weber Shandwick nor am I paid to shill for WS consultant, Don Spetner.

I volunteer this information because Spetner happens to pen far and away the most interesting, entertaining and informative column in PR Week. In fact, his previous content has inspired at least four or five riffs from this blogger.

And yes, Virginia, Dandy Don has done it again.

In his latest cool, offbeat and unexpected column, Spetner reminisces about his long-ago relationship with Eli Broad, the CEO of two Fortune 500 corporations. The column is entitled, “Unreasonable leaders” and you can read it here in its entirety.

Spetner’s comments got me thinking that, as an agency guy, I’ve always reported to two classes of leaders: Those within my agency as well as the top dog at the client who paid our monthly retainer.

And, like everyone, I’ve reported to my share of the good, the bad and the ugly on both sides of the spectrum.

Spetner describes a reasonable leader as someone who makes an outrageous or idiotic demand (i. e. “We shouldn’t be pitching the Charlie Rose Show. Charlie should be begging us to have me appear as a guest.”). Note: That’s my illustration, not Don’s.

But, alas, like cancer, the word unreasonable has many permutations and mutations.

One of the most unreasonable clients for whom I ever toiled would never fit central casting’s selection: She was bright, smart as a whip and, to be 100 percent politically incorrect, “easy on the eyes.”

But, she turned out to be beyond reasonable in a completely unexpected way:

She had no clue how to clearly communicate exactly what she hoped to accomplish in her organization’s massive re-brand. I remember our numerous, 30-minute phone calls that I’d record to make sure I hadn’t missed a subtle nuance. But, after reviewing my notes and pouring over the transcript, I still came away, shaking my head, and thinking, “WTF did she just say?”

I even went to the extra effort of sending immediate follow-up memos summarizing what I intuited were key outcomes. These e-mails always went unanswered.

Desperate to solve the puzzle, I scheduled a call with the unreasonable client’s number two report. I asked how he had been able to unscramble her hieroglyphics, survive and, indeed, thrive. I’ll never forget his response: “Look, with Martha, you have one chance to fail. If she thinks you don’t understand her needs and can’t immediately act on them, you’re toast.”

Helpful, no?

Mercifully, divine providence interceded and another of Martha’s direct reports left the client organization and took us along. The unreasonable leader dilemma had been solved.

Quick afterword: not too long ago, I attended an industry event at which the unreasonable leader was being awarded a lifetime achievement award (no doubt for obfuscation).

At the end of her 30-minute monologue, the guy next to me gave me a nudge, leaned over and whispered into my ear, “I don’t know about you, but I didn’t understand a single thing she just said.”


4 thoughts on “Unreasonable leaders, 2.0

  1. That’s the Jack Welch school of management, no? I have a hard time reconciling the proven need to make mistakes, sometimes lots of them, before getting to success and leaders who don’t tolerate mistakes. Is this where the happy medium of ‘fail fast’ comes in?