GRAND RAPIDS — David G. Mutchler knows what leadership accomplishes, but if you ask him to define leadership qualities, he just grins.
That’s because confusion about leadership qualities is the jumping-off point for his consulting company’s work and for a book he hopes to have published within the year: “Why Your Leaders Fail to Lead.”
He said the book results from current and past clients’ requests to have more written information about the premises upon which his firm, Leadership Development Systems, operates.
The problem with leadership, Mutchler said, is that nobody’s quite sure what it is. Yet he believes industry fruitlessly tries to develop in people those supposed qualities of leadership that are so illusive.
Quoting from a recent article he published, Mutchler recalls asking eight business executives each to list three qualities about a leader they had known. The answers were a hodge-podge of admirable qualities. In fact, many of them were opposites, ranging from unemotional to driven, from patient to passionate and understanding to demanding.
Of the full list of 24 qualities, he said, only the word “decisive” appeared more than once, and then only three times.
“This is the competency-based model of leadership. And in the vast majority of cases, I’d say 90 to 95 percent, industry is saying ‘Here’s the list of qualities. Here’s what we need to grow in people,’ even though there’s no real agreement on what the qualities are.
“But they do a lot of training to those qualities in hopes people will develop into, well, you never quite know what. It isn’t anything necessarily aligned to the vision of the company and doesn’t necessarily drop anything to the bottom line.
“Basically you’re trying to make your leaders into clones of each other.”
But that may not always be the best course of action.
“What we do,” he said, “is just exactly the opposite. We say, ‘Let’s define your results.’ And then we facilitate that process, because people usually don’t know exactly what results they actually want. This helps them get in black and white exactly where they’re going: what are the desired results.”
And why, exactly, does his company seem to go against the flow?
Actually, Mutchler said, it doesn’t.
He asked the same eight executives, “Is there any one thing about each of these ‘leaders’ that they all had in common but not on your lists?” He pretty much got one answer: “What makes a person a leader is his or her ability to achieve the desired results.”
And, in a nutshell, what the rangy 59-year-old former teacher, football coach and counselor has been doing for a decade is conducting leadership development based on desired results rather than leadership training based on vague qualities.
He stresses “development” in distinction to “training.”
Harking to his own training in classical philosophy, he said, “You could say we’re using the Socratic method.
“Like Socrates, we don’t have to impart a lot of knowledge. We only need to get them to discover what’s already there. We help muster the forces they already have, and optimize the leadership they already have, and point them all in one direction, and fix the processes they need to be on course. We let everyone do what they do best.”
In some ways, he admitted with a grin, it’s a lot like coaching football, something he did in high school for 16 years.
That was before his biggest break which, he said, really was a gradual confluence of events and experiences over nearly decades: teaching, coaching, counseling in school and later privately, and finally a growing attraction to work in, and with, business and industry.
He committed fully to the practice of results-based leadership development 10 years ago, a new career that took him all over the nation and out of the country. In fact, he spent the bulk of 1993 working with a firm in London.
“But about a year and a half ago,” he said, “I made a decision to bring my work back here. That’s a hard life. Business travel was really starting to wear on my health and personal life.”
Now he confines himself to work within roughly a 60-mile radius of his home in Ada, dealing with firms in Grand Rapids, Holland, Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Lansing.
And the thrust of that work, he said, first is to engage people at the top of the corporate hierarchy so that the results cascade down through the corporation. “You orient people to results — everybody from the board room to the boiler room.
“What we’re after is giving a firm the competitive advantage of having everybody pulling the same direction on the same rope. If you’ve got a company with 50 people, you’re obviously more competitive if all 50 are pulling the same way instead of in 50 different directions.”
He said getting everybody pulling the same direction may sound harsh and impersonal.
“But it’s exactly the opposite,” he said. “Every person has innate strengths and we want to optimize them in support of the vision, so that each is doing what he or she does best.
“And instead of saying this person ought to have all these 23 characteristics, what they need to have are the ones that get results.
“Let’s say we’ve got a procrastinator and it’s interfering with getting the results. Then we would set in motion the processes to get him past the procrastination. We’re not worried about the other 22 attributes. We’re not cloning.”
Mutchler’s firm is one of about 200 similar organizations affiliated with Resource Associates Corporation, a Pennsylvania producer of results-based leadership development materials.