Interview with Leadership and Management Expert Alan Willett
Leadership expert Alan WillettBefore his work as a consultant, Alan Willett spent 20 years building and delivering superior integrated software-hardware products to the marketplace. Originally a software engineer, he quickly took on management positions as a result of his strong organizational skills and commitment. At Xerox, he was part of the management team that created Xerox’s first ever digital print production system.

Alan has a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science and a Master’s Degree in the Management of Technology and Organizational Change. He designed his master’s degree around the art of culture-change in the fast-paced world of technology. Alan is joining us today to talk about his latest book, Leading the Unleadable, as well as the characteristics of a great leader, motivating a team, and asserting your authority.

Hi Alan, thanks for stopping by Activia’s Expert Insights today.

I read that your passion for learning how organisations work began in your childhood, on your father's dairy farm – and I’ve been curious about this ever since. How did it all start – and why there?

I grew up on a farm that has been in the family for almost 200 years in the midst of the time when so many other family farms were failing.  Meanwhile, our farm was “Dairy Farm of the Year” many years in a row. The differences between exceptional success, squeaking by, and failure fascinated me then and it fascinates me now.

There is one other key thing that I learned in my younger years on the farm.  That simply is the joy of life whether you playing or working. Mastering that difference with joy has defined my career.

Your new book, Leading the Unleadable: How to Manage Mavericks, Cynics, Divas, and Other Difficult People, is coming out in November. Could you tell us about the book and what urged you to write about this topic?

Leading the Unleadable by Alan WillettI have consulted with many organizations from the very small, as small as a company of 4 people, to the very large composed of thousands of people. One of the most troublesome things I heard is the common complaint from executives that “I should have fired this person sooner!”

I have a fundamental disagreement on this. They should have taken corrective action much, much, much sooner such that firing was never required!

When I dig deeper into these situations, I often find that they had concerns far earlier than the firing, and they had failed to take any action at those points.  They allowed things to continue to build until firing was the best, perhaps only, option that was viable.

The question was why wasn’t action taken sooner? Most executives won’t admit this, but I discovered they did not know how to handle giving feedback to a difficult person or situation.  Further, for the few that provide feedback, it often did not lead to a positive difference.

After coaching many people on how to successfully transform the troublesome to the tremendous, it was clear I had a message to share.

There are thousands of books out there about leadership – what makes Leading the Unleadable different from the rest?

My bookshelves are full of many of those books! Leadership is such a rich, diverse topic that most of those books are a needed treasure trove of wisdom.

Leading the Unleadable is unique in that it provides very specific, pragmatic guidance on dealing with difficult people and difficult situations. Best of all, the guidance leads to lasting improvement.

Further, and I am proud of this especially, Leading the Unleadable provides very specific clear guidance on how to prevent the difficult problems from even occurring. Too often books focus only on reaction. Prevention is far more effective.

Are there any new projects you’re working on that you can share with us?

I always have many projects going! The one I will highlight here that many people are excited about has a working title (it might change) of “Friction Point Leadership.”

This is a very exclusive, intense offering for leaders that are choosing the exceptional path of leadership. Note that I will interview each applicant first. I am not going to disqualify anyone, but everyone must know what the commitment is to the program before they can join. You can check out this offering and other news at

Your book talks about control-freaks, narcissists, slackers, and cynics – which one is the most difficult personality type to manage? Or are they equally challenging but in different ways?

That question made me laugh. There is absolutely one type that is more challenging than all the others. Which? It will be specific for each leader — it will be the type that is the most annoying or even infuriating to that leader!

The roots of these behaviors can be different. The good news is that addressing each type is based on a common framework and mindset. Mastery of that will enable you to deal with them all.

What are the most common reasons for this behaviour?


Really, the reason for the behavior is often irrelevant to what you need to do.  I have not yet found a disruptive individual who actually wanted to be disruptive in a negative way. They did not want to harm the group.

Many times they did not even know that they were being a problem. People want to do good for the group. Your job is to let them know what good they are doing and what adjustments must be made for the good of the overall group and mission.

That being said, just because the causes are irrelevant to what you, as a leader, need to do, does not mean to ignore the reasons. Listening and understanding will absolutely help you bring the troublesome individual into harmony with the group.

I have seen various causes of disruptive behavior including an individual with a dying husband, a man going through a very difficult divorce, a leader who was trained in the military and having a hard time adjusting to the world of technology development. All three of these examples were people suffering in silence. The causes behind this did not change the overall approach. However, listening to the causes absolutely changed my heart, their heart and our mutual approach to solving the problems.

Author Alan Willett

What do you think are some of the most common problems managers have to face – and how easy is it to overcome these?

The most common problem managers face is almost always inside themselves, especially when we are talking about leading difficult people and situations.

No leader I have met actually likes giving out hard messages. In fact, many leaders fear and dread having to do that very action, so much that they often fail to do so in a timely way. This is one of the most important growth opportunities all managers face because this is one of the greatest areas to ensure the group grows in skills, talent and productivity.

The difficult people are often some of the most talented and often they are very charismatic. This means that when they are being disruptive, they are VERY DISRUPTIVE. The leaders that can consistently transform the troublesome into the tremendous have the most dynamic fun and productive organizations I have ever seen.

In your opinion, what makes a great leader or manager?

Choice. The biggest difference between a good manager and an exceptional leader comes down to choice.

Many good managers come to work every day and do a good job. However, they do not think, nor believe that the act of coming to work is a choice. Most of these managers have some level of feeling trapped inside their responsibilities.

And these managers' jobs are difficult. There is constant high pressure. They know that people above them and below them who are all counting on these managers to deliver to very often very imposing demands.

Because most managers have some level of feeling trapped, feeling like they can never be fully successful, they often feel miserable. They try to mask this but it comes out in small ways.

The exceptional leader knows every morning when they wake up, that going into their job is a choice. The people that follow these leaders are consistently amazed about how “free” the leaders are in their actions and they way they speak. Exceptional leaders exude joy. I cover this topic in depth in my book in the chapter entitled “Accept the Call of Exceptional Leadership.

What would your number one tip be for motivating a team who are lacking in energy and enthusiasm?

Give the team a metaphorical mountain to climb. More specifically, help them come up with key goals that are challenging to the team and excite the team about questing after those very goals.

I was in the midst of working with an organization where the corporate headquarters had decided to close their site. They had eight weeks to wrap up and hand in their assets. They would then be out of jobs, including the managers of that group.

There was one leader there who was different from all the others. He went to his software team and said the following:

“We can just coast for eight weeks and look for jobs. Or we can do the best, most professional hand off this corporation has ever seen. Personally, I want to leave here with a wow. However, it is up to you as individuals and as a team. Let's discuss this and set our goals together.”

Every individual responded to this leader’s inspiration. The team delivered a finished, polished product with complete documentation that astonished the headquarters. They all received bonuses for the effort above and beyond the final severance pay.

Everyone on the team quickly found very good jobs in the area. Each person told me the confidence they received from the leader, and from the amazing way they closed down the site gave them the motivation to get those prime jobs. Their leader removed their fear and gave them a mountain to climb.

What advice would you give to a new leader, who is struggling to assert their authority?

Don’t assert authority.

This is actually a complex area with lots of nuance, but there is one fundamental truth we can briefly explore here.

The need to assert authority, or give orders, comes from a lack of self-confidence. Thus if you feel like your position is being disrespected, look within and find your points of confidence and your points of concern.

Be confident in helping the people you are leading define the goals you and the team want to achieve. Be confident in leading a process that defines the strategy that the team will follow in achieving those goals.

Especially important, read chapter 9 in my book. It is about how to define your personal expectations of excellence. Doing that exercise will provide you with foundation from which you will lead with confidence without the need to assert authority.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

Once a car passed my car quite dangerously. I was furious. Around the next corner that very car was pulling into the emergency room with doctors already running towards it. My fury turned instantly into compassion.

I have learned through that and many other instances, that removing my judgement and my anger and replacing it with compassion is the very first step in leading the unleadable.

Alan's new book, Leading the Unleadable: How to Manage Mavericks, Cynics, Divas, and Other Difficult People, comes out on the 29th November 2016, and you can pre-order it on Amazon. If you'd like to connect with Alan on Twitter, you can find him at @oxseeker.