I am currently reading a book called Skunk Works by Ben Rich. It is about the inner workings of the famous Lockheed engineering site that built some of the most stunning aircraft of the 20th century, among them the SR-71 Blackbird and the first Stealth Fighter. I am not through, yet – but can already tell it is fascinating. Anyway, this is not what this post is about. Page 83 of the book contains a quote from Alan Brown, the program manager of the F-117A project, about his boss, Ben Rich:

Ben kept a close eye on all our problems, but he was never a second-guesser. The most striking thing about his leadership – especially in comparison to Kelly Johnson, who was totally hands-on with technical people – was that Ben let us do our jobs with a minimum of interference. His style wasn’t to redesign our designs of engine the way that Kelly absolutely would have done, but to let us do our thing and smooth our way with the Air Force and Lockheed management. Yet the F-117A tactical fighter was every inch Ben Rich’s airplane. If he hadn’t pushed for it right from the outset, we would never have got into the stealth-competition. He was the perfect manager – he was there for tough calls and emergencies. He would defend and protect us if we screwed up and keep us viable by getting new projects and more money from the Congress, convincing them and senior government officials about the value of stealth. He had a hunch and a vision – and it paid off handsomely.

Skunk Works by Ben Rich

I am often asking myself what makes a perfect leader. Having a vision and following it through surely is one criterium that is essential. Defending and protecting your people when needed is another, I am convinced. Also being a great moderator and making tough decisions in a timely manner is a big plus for sure.

But what is better – being the hands-on type of leader that is deeply involved into every aspect of the work of their directs? Or being the type that provides a vision – and then stays out of the way of the people who want to realize it, only to be called when severe problems arise? I try to be more the latter kind, even though sometimes it is hard – and maybe my direct reports see this differently ;-) . The reasons why are manifold and range from too little time to become deeply involved to how can I be more of an expert on a hundred topics than my engineers, who do nothing but deal with this stuff all day :-) .

The most important reason, though, is from yet another book I have read that has helped me greatly in my personal development – Marshall  Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Marshall has a list of leadership flaws, and flaw no. 2 he calls adding too much value. It is easy to understand, as it has happened to all of us, probably both as a direct and as a leader.

Here is a little story as illustration. One of my directs once came to me with a good idea on a project. I liked it and knew a lot about this particular topic myself from my former role – so I started discussing the idea in detail and further improved on it. I was probably adding value somehow, one could say. On the other hand I saw on the reaction in my report’s behaviour that the energy had gone. I had turned his idea into mine by improving on it – and now the 150% motivation he had for the topic was back to normal level. In the end, the result was good – but could have been a lot better and probably faster if I had just let go and expressed my appreciation for his very good idea.

Does this mean it never pays off to discuss ideas, brainstorm and dive hands-on into a project? I am not saying that, of course if the direct is going into the wrong direction or you can improve the idea significantly, go ahead. If you can add just a small tweak that may or may not be useful – I would suggest to bite your tongue and keep it to yourself. Usually there are enough projects that are not running well and that appreciate a little help and leadership attention, you don’t need to add value everywhere. The hard ones are the ones to concentrate on, not the easy ones – and a truly great leader knows the difference.

So what type of leader are you?