Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter

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Author: Liz Wiseman
Publisher: HarperBusiness
Published: 6/15/2010
We've all had experience with two dramatically different types of leaders. The first type drain intelligence, energy, and capability from the ones around them and always need to be the smartest ones in the room. These are the idea killers, the energy sappers, the diminishers of talent and commitment. On the other side of the spectrum are leaders who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them.

Book Summary - Multipliers by Liz Wiseman

Key Insights

In our working lives, we all encounter good and bad bosses. A good boss makes us feel creative, needed, and excited to come to work while a bad boss makes us dread our jobs. In Wiseman’s book, she considers what qualities set these people apart, specifically how good bosses are Multipliers: people who inspire productivity that is multiples higher than that under mediocre leadership. Wiseman explains what it takes for anyone to become a Multiplier by creating a fair and encouraging environment for all their talent and simultaneously explains how to avoid becoming a bad boss that diminishes the possibilities of their team.

Key Points

Bosses call into two categories: those that diminish the strengths of their team and those that multiply them. These are known as “Multipliers” and “Diminishers”

Most people have had a diminishing boss at some point in their lives. The hallmarks are familiar: you don’t feel excited about going to work, are frightened of their barking feedback, and always feel them looking over your shoulder.

Bosses like these are bad not only for the individual employees but for the function of the entire organization. Employees become worried about missteps and avoid creativity and honest communication. Ideas get left unsaid or undreamt. According to Wiseman, employees with these sorts of bosses only gave 20-50% effort on a daily basis.

Good bosses, on the other hand, create a thriving environment for their employees. By encouraging their team to make the most of their talents, ideas, and intelligence, they help raise the game for their entire organization.

Most bosses lie somewhere in between, not quite an extreme of one or the other. But by becoming aware of the distinction between multiplier and diminisher, any boss can change the way they approach their employees and start the path towards excellent leadership.

“Talent Magnets” find teams in unexpected places and make the most of individual strengths. Meanwhile “Empire Builders” can attract teams, but neglect to nurture the talent they onboard.

L writes that there are different ways that bosses can exhibit Multiplier qualities. The first type that she considers is the Talent Magnet or a boss that attracts excited and motivated people.

She tells the story of Ernest Shackleton, an explorer who wanted to launch an expedition to Antarctica. Shackleton advertised his mission in the local newspaper, explaining plainly the realities of the dangerous but exciting mission. In response, he received hundreds of applications from around the world and was able to put together an ideal team. As a result, Shackleton and his team made it through their mission with no casualties or injuries.

Wiseman explains that Shackleton is an example of a Talent Magnet because he was not afraid to look everywhere for his talent. In his search, he was not afraid of traditional boundaries and vetting processes and opened his search to anyone who felt interested in his mission. By avoiding limiting hierarchies he was able to find the team of his dreams.

Bosses can implement this skill by also widening their conception of where talent can be found. By doing this, they may find unexpectedly useful skills or qualities. This sort of searching can improve the diverse nature of teams.

After a team is founded, Talent Magnets make sure to appreciate and nurture the talent they’ve onboarded. Talent Magnets praise the special qualities they see in their workers and communicate these praises to the entire time. They also put their employees in positions that let them thrive— they know which roles will suit their talent and allow them to run with their responsibilities.

Once diverse teams are assembled and responsibilities allocated most efficiently, Talent Magnets know that it is their responsibility to remove obstacles in the way of each team member so their talent can thrive as individuals. They may go so far as noticing when a person has reached the capacity of their work and offering them a larger role or even offering that they move on to bigger and more rigorous opportunities.

The opposite of Talent Magnets is Empire Builders. Empire Builders may be able to find talent, in the interest of collecting it, but that is where their interest stops. Instead of appreciating and nurturing their talent, they move on to their own agendas. In this case, the real potential of workers goes unnoticed and the entire operation becomes limited by these oversights.

“Liberators” create a fair and inspiring workplace rather than a stifling one

Another form of Multiplier is the Liberator. Liberators know that the workplace can be stressful, and therefore limit a person’s ability to put their best foot forward. In response, they make sure they create an environment that encourages experimentation and free thought. They know that making their employees comfortable does not necessarily sacrifice productivity.

Liberators also know that a comfortable work environment doesn’t mean one without a certain amount of pressure and expectation. To encourage employees to work to the best of their abilities, they also create a feeling of intensity and seriousness in their workplace. This intensity encourages employees to seriously consider how they can help their team the most.

Wiseman provides Steven Spielberg as an example of a well-known liberator. According to those who’ve worked for Spielberg, he creates a sense of pressure at every film set, setting the expectation that the cast and crew are working towards something great. This inspires his people to want to do offer their best work in every scene in an effort to be apart of excellence.

The opposite of Liberators, according to Wiseman, are Tyrants. Instead of making the workplace seem comfortable, they prioritize intimidation in an effort to get their employees to do their best. Although employees might continue to contribute to their jobs, this stressful atmosphere limits their interest in sincerely trying their best and makes them fearful of experimentation.

Bosses can start employing Liberator tendencies by considering whether they are giving their employees room to do their work. Wiseman explains that Spielberg knew the duties of everyone on his crew but trusted them to perform without offering his input. Bosses should trust the expertise of the people they hire.

Bosses should also make it clear to their employees that failure should not be feared. This sort of allowance allows breathing room for employees who may feel anxious about trying new and potentially better methods to their work. Mistakes should be completely acceptable, as long as employees know to own up to them and then learn from them.

“Challengers” push their teams to their limits by inspiring belief in new opportunities

Multipliers are also expert Challengers. Challengers are leaders that can show their team ambitious goals and express the possibility of these results. By seeding these opportunities, they motivate a team to see their potential and push towards these new limits.

Wiseman gives the example of Matt McCauley, the CEO of children’s retailer Gymboree. McCauley was able to raise the price of Gymboree's stocks by five-fold after stepping in as CEO by always aiming high. He expressed to his company that they could raise their share prices to a dollar within a year, and soon the team met and exceeded that goal. Gymboree ended up raising their share prices by four dollars thanks to McCauley’s vision.

To become a Challenger, bosses should help their team define challenges and understand ideal outcomes that may not have been considered before. To identify these challenges, bosses should pose questions about what a team’s dreams are. Then, they can help the teams set appropriate and achievable goals that push towards these ideals. By setting these targets, teams can feel they are moving in the best direction and believe in their capability.

Bosses should also avoid telling people what to do exactly, and instead point them in exciting directions. By letting teams develop their own ideas on how to meet these goals, bosses can stay out of the way of any progress.

The opposite of a Challenger is a Know-It-All. Instead of challenging their teams to figure out the best solutions to ideas, they feel they can find the answers themselves. They feel they can decide on goals themselves without asking their teams what seems possible to them or where they hope to end up. To avoid being a know-it-all, always consult with your team about potential challenges and whether they feel this to be ambitious or not ambitious enough. Inspire them to push their strengths to new heights by their volition instead of just asking for larger and larger results.

“Debate Makers” create space for open conversation within a team. They are interested in the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of everyone involved.

Debate Makers are another type of Multiplier. These types of bosses understand the importance of debate as a discussion of ideas and where everyone in an organization stands on certain decisions. They seek input from everyone, regardless of title, and make final decisions based on these conversations.

Wiseman gives the example of Arian Mengerink, a police chief in a Dutch city. Mengerink grew tired of the hierarchical structure of his decision after a series of failed initiatives. He decided to rearrange the structure of his police force by instituting practices that would allow for more dialogue. Mengaerink’s restructuring can be applied to any organization by Debate Makers.

First, he decided to prepare issues for debate by making clear presentations before facilitating discussion in order to bring everyone onto the same page. Next, he allowed his police force to debate each other and invited everyone in the department to these sessions. This included secretaries and lawyers and created a space for a diverse set of opinions and perspectives. He expressed that disagreements were encouraged to keep the debate honest and civil. Finally, he made sure to take what he learned from these debates and worked towards a strong decision to present to his constituency. After making this decision, he made it clear to everybody that he’d reached a conclusion. Because of these initiatives, Mengerink’s people felt well-represented. In believing they had a say in decisions made by the department, they felt more interested in contributing their ideas for the success of the department and can understand the process in which their ideas are used.

The opposite of a Debate Maker is a Decision Maker. These people make decisions without consulting their teams. They announce their ideas rather than developing them with the inputs of others. To avoid this, always weigh your options only after consulting various experts— evidence and facts are an important part of any decision. This could avoid a team feeling that decisions were forced on them or like their individual voices do not matter.

 “Investors” put others in charge and invest in their success

The final type of Multiplier than Wiseman presents is the Investor. These types of bosses understand that instead of micromanaging their team, they can instead invest in resources that will allow employees to work through challenges on their own. This investment could involve education, space, or coaching and allows employees to feel in charge of any responsibility given to them.

This sort of leadership differs from micromanagement because it doesn’t shield employees from failure, headwinds, or natural consequences. Instead, it gives them the resources to weather these things on their own terms.

Wiseman gives the example of Larry Gelwix, a rugby coach. Gelwix gave the responsibility of improving the rugby team’s fitness to the team captains. The captains started to come to him for help on the most efficient exercises and Gelwix happily explained what he knew and then pointed them to the appropriate resources. By the end of the season, the team was fit and ended up winning the championship after an undefeated streak. Gelwix’s story reveals how Investors aren’t afraid to delegate their power to capable employees and how their success can be encouraged by supporting them in material ways.

To avoid becoming an accidental “Diminisher” practice self-awareness. Then, start becoming a Multiplier by simply focusing on one strength and one weakness.

Well-meaning bosses can easily slip into a diminishing role. They may not notice the ways they are smothering their workers by constantly checking in and offering their input.

The first step to avoiding this behavior is to try and understand the way you appear to your employees. Ask for honest feedback from peers, employees, and customers. Be open to hearing about your flaws. Noticing these flaws will allow you to correct what is needed and avoid slipping into detrimental habits.

After understanding your effect on your employees, the next step to becoming a multiplier doesn’t have to overwhelming. Start with considering which type of Multiplier you are most similar to, whether it be a Debate Maker, Investor, or Challenger. Lean into this natural tendency of yours and practice embodying this role in your everyday leadership.

Next, consider your weaknesses. Which type of Multiplier is you least similar to? Practice taking this thing and working on it regularly, implementing the strategies above.

Wiseman recommends focusing on these two adjustments at the start of a thirty-day effort to become a multiplier. Within thirty days, she says, it is possible to shed Diminisher tendencies and transform into a Multiplier.

Within these thirty days, question everything you do as you reset your role as a leader. Are you rethinking the intelligence of everyone you manage? Are you trusting they will figure out their tasks on their own accord? Wiseman states that once bosses start to believe these things, they will watch and notice as it proves to be true. Change is not immediate, but by the end of the thirty-day experiment, bosses can celebrate their new positive habits.

Workers dealing with Diminishing bosses can learn how to defend themselves

Diminishing bosses are unfortunately very common. If you are a worker dealing with a diminishing boss there are steps you can take to protect yourself from their behavior.

If you want to make a suggestion to a difficult boss, you can be the one to diffuse the conflict. First, you can offer that the team regroups to figure out the issue. Then, once you have cooled off, you can approach the boss and see if your soft approach softens their position as well. You can offer a solution that combines both ideas with a new compassion for your boss.

If you are being micromanaged try and find patient ways to remind your boss that you are qualified and that you can work without their input. This could mean explaining to them that you need space to complete a project and that after you will bring it to them for their opinion.

You can also ask for feedback and resources yourself, extracting the resources of a Multiplier boss whenever you need it. For example, ask for insight in key moments where a boss’ perspective might guide your own vision. This requested input could lessen a boss’s need to give input on their terms. Finally, invite a boss to see your talent by inviting them along in your work. By showing bosses how you do your work, they may better understand your expertise and how their interruption affects your process.

The Main Take-away

A boss’s tendencies can severely affect the productivity of those that work for them. Leaders should be conscious of the effect they have on their employees and strive to maximize the possibilities of their people. This multiplier effect can occur through several avenues, like making a comfortable workplace, trusting the intelligence of employees, encouraging debate and feedback, and investing in the independent development of workers. By practicing these ideal behaviors and avoiding harmful ones, bosses can inspire the most out of their company and experience the best results for everyone involved.

About the Author

Liz Wiseman is a researcher, author, and executive advisor. She teaches leadership skills to executives around the world. She is CEO of the Wiseman Group, a leadership research firm in Silicon Valley California. Her research focuses on the field of leadership and collective intelligence. Her clients include Apple, AT&T, Disney, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Nike, Salesforce, Tesla, and Twitter. She writes for the Harvard Business Review and is a guest lecturer at Stanford University. She holds a BA in business management and a MA in Organizational Behavior from Brigham Young University.


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