Leadership at the "Genius Level"

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Aug 16, 2023

By Dale Dauten

When a group of allies is working toward a worthy goal, it is often difficult for an outsider to guess who the leader is. Such a team doesn’t seem to have a boss, and yet it needs one—not to require compliance, but to inspire experimentation. The gifted boss doesn’t get out of the way, but rather acts as the “keeper of the way,” imagining what could be.

Having spent over a dozen years researching the most effective leaders in America, I’ve learned that there are two key ways in which gifted bosses differ from ordinary ones: they devote a minimal portion of their time and energy to traditional management/supervisory functions and they have a surprisingly high amount of turnover.

How to Not Manage
True leaders understand that most traditional supervisory activities are “police” functions, designed to enforce policies and prevent negative outcomes. The result is that gifted bosses know how to not manage (in the narrow sense of that word), mostly by hiring people who don’t need supervising.

This sounds like a reprise of the old adage, “Hire good people, then get out of their way.” But wise leaders have also figured out that the natural state of organizations is devolution; human nature slides us into bureaucracy and inertia. So the greatest leaders set big goals and inspire new experiments.

Sam Walton, for instance, was known for relentlessly asking, “What are you working on?” and “What have you tried?” Both questions really come down to the same question: “What’s new?” Walton always wanted to hear about his peoples’ experiments and innovations. The typical (effective, but ordinary) manager asks policing questions such as, “Are we on schedule?” (Notice how the word “policing” looks so like “policy”)? A great boss, knowing that the schedule is being taken care of by talented and trusted employees, is free to ask the big questions—those that engage the imagination—such as, “How can we do this better than we’ve ever done it before?”

The latter approach is playing the organizational game at the “genius level.” Picture Walt Disney, Oprah, or Steve Jobs. These are not “Let me check up on you” people, or even, “Let me help you” people. They are “Let’s figure out how we can do something extraordinary together” people.

By asking hard questions, gifted bosses soon find out which employees have the desire to rise up to being extraordinary and which of those have the talent to help carry the team. This is where the surprisingly high level of turnover enters in and where we are able to see the mastery of the twin arts of hiring and de-hiring.

“Firing” vs. “De-hiring”—the Art of Assuming the Best
I coined the term “de-hiring” to capture the graceful way that gifted bosses help every employee discover what he or she is meant to do, even when that leads to their working elsewhere. Meanwhile, they create talent pools from which to select fresh talents. They are masters of spotting and courting talent and they understand that the best employees are rarely found in the traditional job market.

When you fire a struggling or difficult employee, he or she is told to leave. With de-hiring, this same employee is invited to stay, but only if the conditions are right for the person and the team.

Here’s an example of de-hiring. At a meeting with a group of insurance agents where I presented de-hiring strategies, one of the agents, Christy Chatham, recalled a young woman who had once worked for her whose performance had declined into mediocrity. One day Christy asked the employee, “Are you happy?” They had a brief conversation that left her disappointed, feeling as if she hadn’t gotten anywhere. However, the next morning the employee said, “Your question prompted me to rethink where I’m going with my life. I had a talk with my parents and they are going to help me go back to college full time.” Employer and employee hugged, both happy. The young student is still a client of the insurance agent, and happily reports on her progress in her new venture.

Firing tells employees they are wrong for the organization; “de-hiring” helps employees do (or find) what’s right for themselves and the organization. You often hear people talk about “having the guts to fire someone.” Firing takes guts; de-hiring takes heart.

When I asked executives of the PetSmart chain if they had a store manager who was renowned inside the organization for his or her hiring ability, they urged me to talk to David Rains, a store manager in Las Vegas. He displays the “assume the best” attitude that is so common in gifted bosses, saying, “I take transfers. I take people who need a second chance. They might have been at a store that was too busy or too slow, or just wasn’t the right environment for them. I’m open to working with anyone.” Here we see one of the striking differences between a typical, Darwinian manager and the gifted boss. The Darwinian has no time for “failures;” the gifted boss has an open mind and a large heart and is willing to look for the genius inside those who are struggling or unhappy elsewhere.

Another gifted boss, John Opland, when working for a furniture store chain in the Northwest, offered to take employees the other managers didn’t want. His system was simple, and conveys the essence of de-hiring. Opland made a list goals for a new employee, giving him or her a speech that boiled down to: “I know it wasn’t going well for you before, but let’s change that. Here’s what it takes to be a star. I think you can achieve these goals, and do so in three months. Do you agree? You’ll either be a star or move on and find the place that’s right for you. What do you need from me to accomplish your goals?”

This attitude puts employees in charge of their futures. There is no doubt about whether or not they are succeeding. Opland reports that he saved about half of the employees who came to him because they were about to be fired by other managers. Most of the failing employees left before the deadline, but among those who stayed to the last day, the most common parting words were, “Thank you for all you did for me; I know you tried everything.”

Let’s stop and admire John Opland’s attitude and achievements: He saved the majority of employees about to be fired by others. He is a leader who assumes the best about all the people who work for him. He truly wants to help them--and they know it. They know exactly where they stand and where John stands. No mysteries, no intrigue, just “Here’s the goal and here’s where you are now. How do you get from here to there and how can I help?”

What separates de-hiring from firing is that with de-hiring, employees aren’t told to leave, but told how to stay. Employees are offered the chance to make the decision. Many rise up to the challenge and stay. Others arrange transfers or find new jobs. And the few who remain at the end of the goal period keep their agreement and leave. Even then, with the last (and smallest) group, it’s not the same as being fired. They have had time to understand the situation and have mentally already moved on (into a job search or career change). The gifted boss and the employee are never enemies; they are working together toward a common goal.

(I believe “de-hiring” is so important that I put together a video explaining it in more detail. It’s free, and it’s not copyrighted, so you can pass it along. You can see a low-quality version at YouTube.com or a high-quality version at dauten.com.)

Summing Up: Rising Up
We can see now how the two most striking characteristics of the most admirable leaders come together: they free themselves from many of the usual management chores by inviting their teams to experiment and, as they do, they create a culture that does the hiring and de-hiring for them. Their organizations naturally drive away ordinary talent become a magnet for exceptional performers, the sort who welcome tough questions and big goals. That’s playing the organizational game at the genius level.

About the Author(s)

Dale Dauten is the founder of The Innovators’ Lab, a provider of leadership and creativity training for organizations that include Caterpillar, Marriott, the Veterans Administration, and NASA. His latest book is (Great) Employees Only: How Gifted Bosses Hire and De-Hire Their Way to Success (John Wiley & Sons).