Friday, June 27, 2014

Gamification and Gimmicks

I approached Brian Burke's book on gamification with great trepidation: it's a very trendy topic, and there are a lot of fanboys who are wildly enthusiastic about the topic, and who promote the wrong approach.   Fortunately, Burke is not among them.  He recognizes that gamification is "on a collision course with reality" and that it will not fare well - but hopes that something can be salvaged from the wreckage.

The introduction to the book is titled "Beyond the Hype," and Burke acknowledges that there's just too much enthusiasm right now, particularly among those who don't understand what it really means, and that this is likely going to poison the well.  The gamification fad is already nearing the peak of enthusiasm, and will soon plunge into the valley of disillusionment because many firms will invest millions in a poorly considered approach that will provide them little return.   As such, gamification is going to get a bad name, and it will have to be reintroduced under a different one in order to escape the bad reputation that current enthusiasts will earn for it.

The core problem is that the common definition of the term is very poorly defined: gamification is "adding game-like elements to a non-game experience."  As such, it is being used as an additive to sweeten sour experiences - like a coat of candy-colored paint on a broken machine, it won't fix anything.

But there's more to it than that: used correctly, gamification contributes to the understanding and enthusiasm of an otherwise dreary task.  It helps the participant to envision a goal, plan a course of action to achieve it, and receive feedback about their progress.   This is necessary for tasks that take a lot of time, especially those that cannot be completed in a single sitting, and is particularly suited to maintaining a relationship between a brand and a customer through multiple interactions over a long period of time.

The long-term perspective alone should help sort out some of the trash from the treasure: if a "gamification" idea does not do those things, it is merely a gimmick that will perhaps be amusing, though more often annoying, and will not help either the customer or the business accomplish anything meaningful.

And so, a suggestion might be gamification if ...

  • It enables the player to envision a goal that is meaningful, to engage in behavior that has a benefit to him outside of the game
  • It provides the player with a clear path to achieve that goal with feedback along the way
  • It involves game mechanics (an objective, rules, tactics, and strategy) that drives decisions about the game elements (badges, points, avatars, etc.) are to be included
  • It has a duration of more than a few minutes - whether one extended playing session or many brief sessions over a longer period of time
  • It engages the business as well as the player - marketing, operations, and other business units are affected and must support (it's not just a "website thing" that the rest of the business ignores) 

And a suggestion likely a gimmick if ...

  • It's "just for fun" and the player accomplishes nothing for the player or the business outside of the game experience
  • It is a decorative element or a lure, which draws in players who are not qualified customers of the business
  • It applies game elements (avatars, badges, etc.) without considering how they derive from game mechanics (objective, rules, tactics, etc.)
  • It is a distraction from doing "real business" with the company
  • It engages the user for a short period of time, after which he loses interest in interacting with it ever again

My sense is that if those criteria are considered, many bad ideas can be sorted out and scuttled well before they waste resources and damage brands.

On the larger scale, the question remains: will discernment and discipline be applied before the very idea of gamification is ruined by hyper-enthusiastic fanbuys and the gullible decision-makers who fund their silly proposals?   Burke doesn't seem optimistic about the chances and I'm inclined to share his perspective - but it remains to be seen.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Components of Trust

I've been pondering the nature of trust lately, having been asked the question "How do we earn the trust of a prospective customer?" and having to reply "I'll have to think about that."   Earning trust is a critical skill for a marketer, and it's a component of the work I've been doing for over two decades - but I still have difficulty articulating what "trust."   I know what it is but have difficulty expressing it verbally.  And so, I've done some reading and some meditating on the topic, and have come to a four-factor model for trust that I sense is fairly accurate.

What is Trust?

Before going into the model, pause to ponder what the word "trust" means.   It's one of those words like "love" that is evasive because it means so many different things to different people, and even to the same person in the same context.   Dictionaries define it by way of synonyms, and seem to muddle the notion of trusting in things and in people, which are somewhat different.

Trust in things is easier to define: we have certain expectations about the properties of a thing, and are confident that those expectations will be proven true in practical application.  I trust a bridge will bear my weight, and so I am willing to walk across it.   When I reach the other side and the bridge has not collapsed, I find my trust to have been well-founded.

Trust in people is not that different, though we more often trust in the behavior of people rather than in their qualities.  I trust that a customer will pay a bill, so I am willing to extend him credit and give him possession of merchandise immediately on the expectation he will make payment later.  And when he does, my trust was well-founded.

This leads to a significant consideration: while we speak of trust in a general and abstract way, in practice we trust people to do specific things.   We can trust in people to do some things and not others.  We can trust people in certain situations and not in others.  And we can even trust in people to do bad things: I trust a salesman to lie to me if it means making a sale.

So asking whether I "trust" someone in general is difficult to answer.  My sense is it's a generalization: I trust in them to do specific things under specific conditions - so perhaps my sense of "trust" is whether they are generally reliable.   I have the sense I may call upon them to do a number of things under a number of conditions - and my expectation is that they will do most of them, so I can say in a general sense that they have my trust.   (But there will still be specific instances in which they do not.)


The first of the four factors that create trust is predictability.   Considering the nature of trust, it seems the most important because trust is all about predicting a person's future behavior and having confidence that prediction is accurate.  An unpredictable person, even if they have many other virtues, cannot be trusted.

Predictability, however, speaks more to the accuracy of the observer's assessments.   It is obvious that trust in objects is based entirely on my own powers of perception and analysis:  it is not the bridge's fault for being unable to bear my weight, but my own fault for having believed that it would do so.

Unfortunately, that argument is the refuge of many untrustworthy people: when they fail you.  When you express shock at their betrayal, their defense is to suggest it was your fault for expecting that they would do something they had no intention of doing.  This is the danger of assumption - but while trust is sometimes assumptive, it is not always so when they led you to have those expectations.

It is mainly the reason for having those expectations that gives rise to the other factors in this model.   We may expect someone to do something because they explicitly stated that they would (honesty), because they have the capability to do something (competence), and because they have the right motivation to do so (concern).

The "and" is an ideal situation in which all three conditions are satisfied, but this is not always the case in reality.  We may trust someone to do something because they stated an intent, but fail to consider their competence or concern for doing so.   Such is the nature of things: in practice, we make decisions on incomplete or imperfect information.


Honesty is a foundational characteristic for trusting in others: when they state an intent to do something, we assess whether they are being truthful.   This is often based on the plausibility of their statement and their history of being honest, and the latter carries more weight than the former but is less often known.

There is also a difference between "being truthful" and "telling the truth."  A truthful person presents information that is accurate to the best of their knowledge at the time.  In future we may discover them to have been wrong, or to have overlooked certain facts or potentials, but at the time they made the statement it was true to the best of their knowledge.

So while our trust in a person is based on the assumption that they are telling the truth, we recognize that people are not omniscient and clairvoyant.   And we are to some degree willing to maintain trust when a truthful person has said something that turned out not to be true - it was still their intent to be truthful.

It should also be considered that trust pertains to the future, and the "truth" about the future is different to the truth about the past, as the latter is based on known facts and the former on predictions that may be inaccurate. A person may promise to meet us at 8:00 and arrive at 8:15, or not at all, and later state that "my car broke down," suggesting his commitment was contingent on the prediction his vehicle would be in working order.   And provided that reason is true, we will continue to trust them in future, though we are less inclined to trust people who routinely fail to keep commitments even if there is a valid reason.

Dishonesty is much easier to define: it is the statement of something known to be false.   In rare instances, it may happen to be true, but the person who made the statement believed it to be false even as they were making the statement.   While failure to be honest may result from unexpected or external factors, being dishonest is always failure of character.  Hence, dishonest people cannot be trusted.


Competence speaks to a myriad of qualities of a person that render them capable of doing something.   This, too, is an assessment and a prediction on our part or on theirs that we expect will hold true, but cannot strictly guarantee for lack of omniscience and clairvoyance.

When dealing with things, our assessment of their "competence" is clearly a matter of our own analysis intrinsic of their qualities.    A bridge does not claim to be able to bear weight (though the person who built it might make such a claim), we merely assume it to be capable of doing so (because that's what we suppose it is meant to do) - or at best we inspect it and make a judgment call about its capabilities.

Some of this carries over to the assessment of the competence of people: we consider what we have observed and make assumptions about their capabilities, often without asking them.  There are even instances in which we do ask, but ignore what they say in favor of our own analysis.  And where our analysis is flawed, they prove incapable (not merely unwilling) to do what was predicted.   Where we refuse to accept the blame for faulty analysis, we may label them untrustworthy - but the facts do not support that conclusion.

Competence can also be a factor that undermines honesty.   People are not particularly good at assessing their own competence.  They are absolutely confident that they have capabilities they do not, and will make statements about what they will do, and only discover when they attempt to do them that they are incapable.   We tend to be somewhat forgiving of this, but it depends on the scale or frequency of their inflated sense of ability.

People also can underestimate rather than overestimate their competence, which leads us to disregard what they say about themselves and rely on our own assumption that they are capable of doing something that they claim not to be.   When they fail, the fault is clearly the result of our own analysis of their capabilities.

We also form a general impression of competence, and suffer from the fallacy of the "halo effect" that leads us to assume that a person who is competent at some things is competent of many others, or who has proven effective in one situation will prove effective in any situation.

So as with honesty, our impression of competence is an amalgam of their statements and our analysis both of the person's general level of competence and their competence at a specific task.


Concern is a consideration of the motives of a person to perform an act.   That is to say they may be capable of doing something, but uninterested (or reluctant) to actually do it because there is no benefit or reward for undertaking the effort to do it.

A person can be trusted to do what is in his own self-interest, though in saying so we are supposing that the outcome of his action has a benefit to him, and the benefit he will derive is perceived (by him) to be worth the effort to undertake the action necessary to achieve it.

However, the kind of trust we seek of others is not because they are concerned with their own interests, but with ours.   It is with some sense of irony that in disparaging a person for being self-interested, we are expressing our own selfishness because we want him to do something that serves our own self-interest.

But in a social sense, we want others to do things for our benefit, and seek to have trust that they will - which is to say that they are concerned with our needs, to a degree that will motivate them to undertake an action that will benefit us (or refrain from an action that will harm us).

The philosophical argument over self-interest versus altruism can get rather convoluted - but in terms of the present discussion, we trust in people because they are concerned about the consequences of their action (to self or others) and as a result have sufficient motivation to undertake the action, hence we predict that they will do it - and if those predictions prove true, then we feel the person is trustworthy.

And of course, there remains the question of whether that assessment is based on our own logic, or some indication given us by the other party that would indicate their concerns.   The more we assume, the less we can rightly blame an individual for being untrustworthy.   And our assessment is done in both the aggregate sense and the specific sense of a given act.

One last quality of concern bears mentioning: concerns can change more readily than capabilities or knowledge.   A person may have great interest in achieving a goal in one moment, but lose interest the very next - whether the outcome is no longer appealing, or a better opportunity has arisen, that will cause them to change their behavior from the predicted course.

Trusting and Being Trusted

The qualities of trust have thus far been considered from the perspective of a person who puts their trust in another:  if we feel confident in our prediction of their behavior because they are honest, competent, and concerned then we place trust in that individual.  The assessment is based on the extent of our knowledge and our ability to analyze it.

When the situation is reversed, and we want someone else to trust in our behaviors, the way we go about doing so is to provide them with information that will support a positive assessment of ourselves by the very same factors.   How do we cause others to form the impression that we are trustworthy?

  • Predictability - We must convince them that their beliefs about what we will do in future will be fulfilled by the actions we take
  • Honesty - We must convince them that what we say is true, or at least true to the best of our knowledge, so they may expect us to do as we say
  • Competence - We must convince them that we have the ability to do the things they expect
  • Concern - We must convince them that we are interested in achieving the outcome of an action, whether for our benefit or theirs (mainly theirs)

I would say "it's as simple as that" but none of this is particularly simple, and given that this meditation has gone on for a while, I am going to avoid crossing over from "what must be done" to "how it can be done."  The latter is also important, but requires a great deal more consideration.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Satisfaction, Delight, Disappointment, and Shock

The phrase "meet or exceed customer expectations" is a mantra in the customer experience profession, said so frequently and done so rarely that the phrase itself has become devoid of meaning. Pondering this adage in light of the stimulus-response theory of emotion, I'm led to the sense that it was never quite right in the first place - that the satisfaction (or disappointment) of a customer has less to do with whether their expectations were met or exceeded and more to do with a combination of two factors: whether the outcome of an interaction was positive and whether it was predicted.

By matrixing these two qualities against one another, it becomes evident that satisfaction or delight (as well as disappointment or shock) depends on both factors - and that delight is not merely an extreme sense of satisfaction that occurs when expectations are met (nor is shock merely the extreme of disappointment), but that they are separate emotions based on the interplay of a second factor (predictability) rather than mere extremes on a scale that depends on the degree to which expectations were or were not met.

Satisfaction (Predicted Positive Outcome)

Customer satisfaction occurs when the outcome of an interaction (any interaction, not merely transactions) is positive in a way that the customer predicted - whether his expectations were set in advance or arose during the encounter in question.   It is in this sense that the notion of meeting expectations causes an immediate sense of satisfaction, which may be supported or undermined at a later time (such as when the customer is satisfied at the cash register but later dissatisfied when they get the product home and attempt to use it).

Satisfaction is not delight. There is no rush of positive emotion, but merely a flat or null emotional response that results when things go as expected.   It is not wondrous to pour a carefully measured pint of water from one measuring cup to another to find that it still measures exactly one pint.  If a person were to tell someone else of this experience, their response would (rightly) be "so what?"

And "so what?" is exactly the response of a satisfied customer.   It is not a memorable experience, nor an experience that is of sufficient interest to tell to anyone else.   He is contented that things went the way they should, and that is all.  This is the reason that customers who are satisfied do not become loyalists or advocates for a brand.

To merely be satisfied by a customer experience is like being told a joke to which you already knew (or could easily predict) the punch line: it does not make you smile and might even make you sneer.   And a customer who is merely satisfied does not develop a positive emotional connection to the brand, and is likely to shop the competition in hopes of an experience that is not merely satisfactory, but delightful.

Delight (Unexpected Positive Outcome)

Delight is not merely an extreme form of satisfaction, but an emotional sensation that is entirely different in its foundations:  we are delighted when something positive occurs that was not expected or predicted.

That is to say that a customer who goes to a merchant expecting to pay five dollars for a pint of product is not delighted when he pays five dollars and receives the pint.   It is exactly what he expected and he experiences a cold, emotionless sense of satisfaction.

Delight, unlike mere satisfaction, evokes a positive emotional response.  This occurs when there is some positive consequence that was unexpected - and it is likely that the unexpected consequence must be something significant enough to exceed the "more or less" variance in expectations (a 5% savings does not cause delight, but "half price" might because it would be completely unexpected).

Experiences of delight cause a customer to be awestruck, or at least significantly impressed, and the experience is memorable.  Customers who are delighted by a merchant want to continue to interact with the merchant in hopes of being delighted again, and the experience is so unusual that they are likely to spread positive word of mouth.

But here's the tricky part: the second time around, the customers remember their previous experience - what was unexpected the first time becomes expected the second time, and thus fails to cause a repeated sensation of delight.   Going back to the analogy of a humor, a joke is never as funny the second time it's heard by the same person because they already know how it's going to turn out.

The same can be said of the "new" customers who are attracted by the positive word-of-mouth of a delighted customer.   Their expectations have been set such that when they obtain the benefit that delighted the initial customer, they are merely satisfied by an experience that met their expectations.

This is where delight becomes an ever-increasing burden on a service provider: they must add something unexpected to the interaction each time.   There are likely effective ways to do this.  For example, the Cracker Jack model is to lead purchasers to expect a surprise - and though "expected surprise" is an oxymoron, the fact that the customer doesn't know exactly what he's going to get restores some degree of delight to the experience.

Disappointment (Predicted Negative Outcome)

Disappointment is not entirely the opposite of satisfaction: the experience had a negative outcome (or failure to produce a positive outcome) - but the customer had still anticipated that the outcome would occur.   It's in this way that meeting customer expectations does not result in satisfaction when customers had low expectations in the first place.

As with satisfaction, disappointment does not engage the emotions in any significant way - the customer got somewhat less than he expected, or he may have gotten what was expected but his expectations were low to begin.   At most, he experiences a low-grade melancholy in the same way a satisfied customer experiences low-grade contentment, which doesn't move the emotional needle far from a neutral setting.

It is generally believed that a customer who has a disappointing experience with a vendor will not repurchase from them, but this does not hold true in instances in which the customer feels the service was not too inadequate and they have no better alternative.   If one supplier is no better or no worse than the rest, and none of them are expected to deliver a completely satisfactory experience, people will reluctantly continue to do business with "the devil they know," but are always on the lookout for a more satisfying prospect.

This is the reason that customers who are mistakenly identified as "satisfied" due to their willingness to purchase repeatedly often defect to competitors - whether the competitor has made an overture that leads them to expect a better experience or they have merely become fed up with the routine disappointment of their regular supplier, these customers will avail themselves of any opportunity to obtain satisfaction elsewhere.

In that sense, most firms would do well to reconsider their criteria for customer satisfaction - as those who appear to be satisfied or loyal may simply be "not disappointed enough" to leave ... though their departure is inevitable.

Shock (Unpredicted Negative Outcome)

Shock is a different reaction than mere disappointment, which occurs when the customer experiences a negative outcome (or lack of a positive outcome) to a degree that they did not predict prior to the encounter with a supplier.   There is a strong emotional reaction and a sense of betrayal when this occurs.

And like delight, an emotional reaction of this strength motivates a customer to take action: to seek a different vendor the next time the need arises (which may be immediate if their need was not fulfilled), to retaliate against a company for its betrayal, and possibly to give warning to others about the negative experience they had.

Shock is the most difficult of the four results when it comes to making a service recovery.   A customer who is merely disappointed may return in hope of being satisfied (or delighted) the next time around, but one who is shocked will avoid future contact and may be galvanized against the vendor's attempt to ameliorate.

Companies would do well to consider whether their one-time buyers (or near misses) may have been shocked by their experience.  Particularly when there are diminishing results for advertising campaigns, the explanation may be that their previous overture had shocked the market of prospects and the chances of gaining their interest with repeated overtures have been damaged by their initial experience.


Thus considered, the mantra of "meet or exceed customer expectations" needs to be abandoned, and replaced with two others:
  • Satisfy the customer's needs
  • Delight them with the unexpected
Do those two things, and you will achieve more than satisfaction - but win the loyalty and advocacy you need to retain their business in a highly competitive market.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Knowledge and Consumers

I'd like to ruminate a bit about a theory of knowledge acquisition and the way in which this influences consumer behavior - which is to say that this will likely be tedious, but I have the sense that it's worthwhile as I have never seen a brand approach its target market in quite this way, and I expect it may be useful to do so.

Kinds of Knowledge

One way to consider knowledge is by considering the method by which it is gained - whether it is based on experience or inference, and whether it arises from ourselves or from others, resulting in four basic types:
  • Experience - Knowledge that is gained from personal experience, in which the data is as accurate as sensory perception and memory, but which may be reinterpreted in arrears
  • Witness - Knowledge gained from an experience that does not affect an individual personally, but directly witnesses the experience of another person - which is likewise as accurate as perception and memory and is subject to greater variances in the process of interpretation afterward
  • Inference - Knowledge for which there is no directly corresponding personal experience, but which is derived from various memories (of similar experience) and abstract logic.   This knowledge is unproven, but seems plausible given an individual's own reasoning.
  • Allegation - Knowledge that a person gains from other people, regardless of whether it is based on real experience or sound reasoning, but which is accepted because it seems plausible and whether they regard the source as reliable.
These four types or knowledge are listed in their order of credibility, though this may be subject to argument - as there are instances in which a person may doubt his own inference, or even his own experience, if he gives sufficient credibility to the allegations of others - however, this should be unusual, to the point that I would be reasonably confident in asserting that any instance in which the order above is compromised represents a logical defect.

How This Ties to Marketing

The connection to marketing is fairly straightforward: the methods by which a person has and accepts knowledge for consumer products is identical to the methods by which a person has and accepts knowledge in general.  The same schema, and the same principles, apply from one to the other.   With this in mind, consider the methods of marketing that correspond to the kinds of knowledge:
  • Experience - First-hand experience with a brand is the strongest and most credible source of knowledge about the brand.
  • Witness - The knowledge gained from witnessing others use of a brand, while subject to inaccuracies of perception and interpretation.
  • Inference - The beliefs that are formed based on comparing the brand to memories and experiences of a similar nature
  • Allegation - The information that is received from other sources, and which is taken to be credible based on whether the claims seem plausible and the source seems reliable.
Considered thus, the most popular method of disseminating information about a brand (advertising) is also the weakest and least credible.  And for that matter, word-of-mouth promotion falls into the very same category, and is superior only by virtue of the increased credibility of the source.

Taken together, this would suggest that the approach to marketing which traditionally receives the greatest support in terms of resources and budget is likely the least effective method - and that further consideration should likely be given to the other three categories, attempting to establish as vivid and credible a connection as possible.

Knowledge Versus Belief

An afterthought: I am likely neglecting the distinction between knowledge and belief - but the more I consider it, the less relevant that would seem to be.   "Belief" connotes information that is not known (factually) but merely accepted as true.    But ultimately, belief is not a separate thing from knowledge, but an assessment of the reliability of knowledge: the degree to which we are willing to accept as fact something we suspect to be true.

So whether belief is weak knowledge or knowledge is strong belief, the threshold that is of the greatest interest is the point at which there is sufficient faith in knowledge/belief that an individual is prepared to apply it to a predictive model, and use it as a basis for behavior.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Management by Intimidation

I recently read Comaford's Smart Tribes, a book that has become trendy in certain circles lately - and for a change, I have the sense that's a good thing.   While I don't expect many readers will get the message, anything that seeps in to help evolve management out of the industrial era and into the present age would be helpful.

I've likely mentioned before, perhaps several times, that management tactics are stuck in the Industrial era in which workers were unskilled drudges whose contribution was to do as they were told without thinking, and how this ill-concived methodology has been carried forward in firms that want, but fail, to be innovative.   Workers can be terrorized (threat of terminating the income on which his family depends is nothing less) into doing the will of management, but they cannot be terrorized into thinking innovatively, or thinking at all.

Much of this has to do with the processes of the human mind: any stimuli that is perceived as a threat gets an immediate reaction that includes very little intelligence.  While human beings do not have instincts in the sense that animals do, they do have stored procedures that they immediately fall upon when faced with a threatening situation, and they are more sophisticated in their threat-assessment algorithms.

Not only does this mean that any management directive that is backed by an "or else" threat receives an immediate and unintelligent response, but any situation perceived as being a problem is also categorized as a low-grade threat that gets a quick reaction - the first thing that comes to mind, based on patterns established by past experience in dealing with threats, is put into action without much consideration.    Neurologically, the activity all occurs in the limbic system, a part of the brain humans have in common with lesser species.  In a sense, it's entirely accurate to say that human beings behave like animals in dealing with threatening and stressful situations because the response does not give them access to the parts of the brain that are unique to humans.

In order to activity to take place in the frontal lobes - the distinctly human "thinking" parts of the brain - the threat-response algorithms must be bypassed.  If they are triggered, the stimulus and response never get further than the animalistic limbic system, and the intelligent mind can only be engaged after an action has been taken - hence the common question of "what was I thinking?" and the invariable answer that "I wasn't thinking."

The problem is not solved, not even partially, by traditional managers who seek to use traditional intimidation/terror tactics to motivate their subordinates to be innovative.   To be threatened into thinking is as absurd and contradictory as to be ordered not to follow orders.   It simply will not work.

What is necessary is an environment of opportunity-seeking rather than problem-solving, which is more than a matter of cleverly rephrasing a problem as an opportunity, but a significant shift for an organization.  It is a change not only in tactics, and not only in strategy, but in culture.

And with that in mind, I think Comaford is definitely onto something.   I'm not ready to jump on the "smart tribes" bandwagon after having read her book because there's a little too much cheerleading and a little too much junk-science for my taste - but that doesn't mean she's not heading in the right direction and that exposure to her theory of management would be harmful.  Quite the opposite.   Perhaps the best way to frame it is to say that it's good but in need of further consideration and refinement.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Leadership: Desire and Ability

A colleague of mine, in a pessimistic mood, remarked that the kind of people who seek leadership positions tend to be the kind of people who are least capable of being successful leaders.   They are seek dominance and power over others as an end in itself, and have no specific objective in mind except to dominate and control others.   And sadly they very often hound their way into management, where they do quite a bit of damage.

I could not disagree with him, as I routinely see exactly this kind of person in a position of authority - but if it's any consolation, many of them do not go very far, or remain managers for very long.   At the top levels of management, C-level executives and senior vice presidents, there are many very good and capable leaders.  Below that level, it tends to be a mixed group, with a constantly rotating gallery of power-hungry clowns beneath them.   Granted, it's not universally true: there are strong leaders in the lower echelons and clowns in the firmament, but these seem to be rare.

And being a tedious person, I've meditated on the matter, and put together a simple matrix of the desire to lead against the ability to lead, to define four basic "types" of leader in terms of these two parameters.  Hence, this article.

Core Qualities: The Desire and Ability to Lead

The two core qualities evaluated in the present assessment are the desire to lead and the ability to lead.   There may be other parameters that are worth considering, but these are most germane to the discussion that started my wheels turning.

The desire to lead is merely the degree to which a person wishes to be a leader.  The motivation of such a person could likely be investigated further by asking "Why do you want to lead?" in order to get a better sense of an individual's motivation, at least to the degree they will make an accurate statement - whether they wish to lead because they need people to accomplish a personal objective, for the salary and esteem of a leadership position, a response to a cultural imperative that motivates them to attain a given position in life, or merely for gratification of their psychological need to be in command of others.

The reason a person wants to lead is likely a determinant of whether they have the ability to lead competently - or are willing to apply themselves diligently to the task of learning to become an effective leader.  But my sense is that a person is driven by lust for power may be just as likely to hone his abilities and become a good leader as one who gets into leadership for the "right" reasons.   That is, a person may have good intentions and state strong desires but be too lazy to do what is necessary to achieve them.

The ability to lead is more easily measured in the behaviors of a person.  A leader can

  • articulate his goals
  • define a plan to accomplish them
  • persuade others to contribute to the effort, and 
  • maintain the morale of his followers over a long period of time.   

Anyone who does less may be a boss or a manager, but is not a leader.

These four qualities of leadership are not matters of opinion, but are demonstrated in action.  A man may claim to have leadership qualities, and he may even convince others that he has the makings of a good leader - but his ability to lead will become evident only when he is in a position of leadership, at which point it will be obvious and unmistakable whether he possess them.

These qualities defined, I will consider their convergence.

Inspirational Leaders: High Desire and High Ability

An inspirational leader possesses both the desire and the ability to lead, and is the very model of what a leader ought to be.

A high desire to lead is necessary, as a person who does not see the need for others can be competent in a task all on his own and will not see the need to command the cooperation of others to achieve it.   Such a person can be a great individual performer, but lacks sufficient desire to lead to become a great leader.

This begs the question: are great leaders always leading others?   My sense is that they are not.  They will at times identify tasks that do not need others to cooperate and can perform them without followers.   But at the same time, I sense it is more than just happenstance: people choose the goals they wish to pursue.  Therefore, a person who routinely chooses tasks that require no assistance may have the potential to lead, but not the desire to do so - and his lack of desire causes him to choose to pursue tasks that do not require others to support.

In that sense, if a person is to be in a position of leadership on a regular or ongoing basis, he must have a desire to lead, and express this desire in choosing to pursue goals that require him to be a leader of others in order to accomplish them.

Terminal Followers: Low Desire and Low Ability

The diametric opposite of an inspirational leader is a terminal follower: such a person has no desire to lead, nor the ability to lead, and will likely never find himself in a leadership position.

Given that western culture is prone to hero-worship and takes a very negative perspective on anyone who does not wish to become a hero or a leader, there may be the tendency to dismiss a "terminal follower" as a useless and shiftless person - but my sense is that perspective ignores the value of followers.

Without followers, there would be no need for leaders.  Conversely, if a single leader means to inspire a thousand others, there must be a thousand others who have no desire or ability to lead, but will happily resign themselves to supporting roles.   Leaders require followers, and society requires a great deal more followers than leaders.

The question may arise: how can a terminal follower become a good leader?  The obvious answer is that he can't, and should not be encouraged to assume a role for which he has no desire or talent.  Allow such a person to do what he does best and is most comfortable doing rather than push him into a role where he ill be miserable and doomed to failure.

However, that is not to say that a terminal follower cannot become a good leader, or even an inspirational one - but this motivation must come from within.   Generally speaking, a terminal follower must discover a cause about which he feels so strongly that he is willing to undertake the task of learning to be a leader and assume a position that will be uncomfortable for him.

While I am not aware of the proportion of leaders who were once followers, history and literature provide quite a few examples of a person hidden among the ranks who discovered the need and desire to lead.   Such a character transformation makes for quite a compelling story, and is often a prominent turning point in the biographies of many legendary leaders.

Occasional Leaders: Low Desire but High Ability

The occasional leader is an individual who has the abilities to be the best sort of leader, but who has little desire to apply himself to the task.

These individuals are easily mistaken for "terminal followers" simply because they do not demonstrate in action the leadership qualities they happen to possess under everyday circumstances.   But every so often, when they are inspired to step into a position of leadership, they excel at the task.   But as soon as the goal is achieved, they blend back into the scenery.

My sense is that a great many individuals are occasional leaders, as western culture extols the virtues of leadership and western education seeks to prepare every student to become a leader, even though the great majority of them will never have an opportunity to serve in a position of leadership.

Encouraging the occasional leader to step out of the pack and put his skills to use is no easy matter.   In that way, he is like the terminal follower who rises to the task of leadership only on the rare occasion that he sees the need.

However, it stands to reason that the occasional leader is more open to encouragement - in general, people find pleasure in doing the things that they are good at doing, and it is likely easier to persuade the occasional leader to put existing skills to work than it is to persuade a terminal follower to develop skills he does not have so that he may then utilize them.

It can also be observed that the progression is not always from occasional leader to inspirational leader, but can often go the other way around.  When an inspirational leader is disgruntled or frustrated, he may abdicate his position of leadership to blend into the ranks - still having the ability, but not the desire, to lead others.

Tragic Leaders: High Desire but Low Ability

The worst form of leader, and seemingly the most common, is a person who desires to be in a leadership position but has no ability to exercise leadership.

This includes the swollen ranks of those who are in leadership positions, but are mediocre or incompetent leaders.   At best, such people maintain the status quo but accomplish no improvement; at worst, they do a great deal of damage to their organization, whether through the waste of resources in pursuit of ill-conceived directives or merely running off competent followers who wish to devote themselves to a more competent leader.

It's my sense that the lower ranks of management are infested with tragic leaders for two reasons: there are those who desire to be better leaders and require time and experience to hone their skills to become effective in the task, and then there are those whose desires are more in the nature of personal gratification who will never become competent leaders.

The first class of tragic leader is mere inefficiency, as the damage they do during the learning process will be surpassed by the dividends achieved once they attain competence in their role when they become good leaders, and possibly outstanding ones.   Training, mentoring, and other forms of education and guidance can be used to mitigate the damage they might do and expedite their development into effective leaders.

The second class of tragic leader may well be incurable.   Particularly because their desire to control others is psychologically motivated, it is often entrenched in ego defenses that prevent them from accepting guidance or training - and will most likely resist any suggestion that they need to develop skills as a threat to their authority.  Because they desire to be autocratic, they will not listen to anyone, but persist in their unproductive behavior.

That is not to suggest that the second-class tragic leader is entirely wasted, but it will take a dramatic event to get such a person to recognize his own incompetence and apply himself to improving his performance.   However, a dramatic event is often so catastrophic that organizations will seek to get rid of such people rather than attempting to salvage them.

Thus considered, the best approach to a tragic leader is to facilitate that epiphany - to help him discover, before he has damaged the organization and run off all the good followers, that he is incapable of leadership such as he is, and either to reconsider his desire to lead or channel it into improving himself to become a better leader.

It is also my sense that the lower ranks of management are infested with tragic leaders because most of them do not cause catastrophes, but merely inefficiencies.  The damage they do to the firm is minor and sustainable, and they alienate employees at a slow enough rank that they can be replaced.  They fail to wreak enough havoc to seem to require a reaction, but at the same time fail to achieve enough success to seem to be worth promoting, and so languish in the lower eschelons indefinitely.


The first and most obvious set of conclusions to draw from this meditation is that organizations should assess the leaders they have, both in terms of desire and ability, and take action accordingly:

  • Inspirational leaders should be cherished, and put to work in places where good leadership stands to have the most positive impact on organizational performance
  • Occasional leaders should be sought out an encouraged to apply themselves to the task of leadership where no inspirational leader can be assigned, with the understanding that it is motivation rather than skill that needs addressing
  • Tragic leaders should be identified and encouraged to develop their skills, and if they cannot recognize their incompetence or apply themselves to improvement, they should be removed from leadership
  • Terminal followers should be value for what they do, which does not include leadership roles in which they would be both uncomfortable and unable to succeed

The second and most germane to the conversation that set my mind in motion is that the proportion of tragic leaders who selected for leadership, who rise within the organization or, or who linger in the lower levels of management is a testament to the competence (or lack thereof) of the higher-level leaders who have selected, appointed, and maintained such people in positions of authority - and that it is highly likely to be an indicator of the effectiveness of the organization as a whole.

A firm can either succeed in spite of poor leadership, or fail because of it.  There need be no matrix to explain that particular correlation.