Leadership: You Cannot Get Enough of What You Don’t Want or Need

It must be very complex, leadership that is. It must be or why would Amazon currently carry nearly 382,000 titles containing the word leadership? A quick Google query on the word "leadership" gives a response of over 143,000,000 entries. I smell a rat and I have been smelling a rat for several years now. Maybe there is something else afoot here and it is time to tell the truth about it.

In practice I have had occasion to have more than one senior leader say he or she was interested in seeing  more leadership from the people in their organization. A typical response from me might be to suggest my sincere doubt in this expressed interest! A provocative remark like this better have a good follow up and there is one available, if you can get that first line out of your mouth. Played properly this exchange can have the desired effect of creating a "teachable moment" or at least one where you have an opportunity at offering something I think is infinitely wise. When challenged in these cases, as I always have been my response is similar to that offered by Doug Sundheim, Executive Coach from New York City. I’ll paraphrase Doug here; "I bet you have been taking responsibility for all of the critical decisions – and thus the critical thinking behind them. Your people feel alienated, with no sense of ownership, and you wonder why you can’t get them more engaged.There is a direct correlation between employee’s stepping up and whether there is any room to step up." This exchange often has led to a visible shrug of recognition and a sheepish question from the potential client, "It sounds like you are saying I am the problem?" So here the "teachable moment" presents itself. My response to the potential client will be to say "First, you are not the problem but you are certainly part of the problem and if you are willing to at least be part of the solution we can make some progress. And is there a connection between what you have been doing and the level of engagement you see, oh yeah!"

It is occasions like these that are also moments of truth for those of us who fancy ourselves organizational catalysts, the conversations that now follow are not only going to determine whether this potential client becomes a client, they are also going to determine whether you are going to go back out on that wire without a net yet one more time, make that promise that things can be different. From here the exchange might go something like this, " To begin with when you have been saying you wanted more leadership I suspect that what you meant was more do as I want you to-ship." This is always hard because invariably this assertion produces a flash of recognition coupled with awkward silence and the tension of embarrassment. But it passes fairly quickly!

I then ask the by now fully engaged executive or manager another question, "What are you willing to give up?" This question almost always requires further explanation so I just go right on. "There is a difference between 1) a ‘desire to be in charge’ and  2) a willingness to lead. The first is a matter of personal interest or motivation and not necessarily even a qualification for the second, where I imagine almost anyone asked about the topic would say that leadership and accountability are inseparable and many who wish to be in charge just want that, not that accountability stuff!  You very likely have no shortage of people in your organization who like the idea of being in charge, because of a number of incentives that go with that territory but they do not necessarily aspire to accountability because it doesn’t work that way.Accountability isn’t yours to give or expect anyway. It is, however, something you can request or offer and as in any deal there needs to be an exchange of value, something that provides for mutual, not necessarily equal, benefit . If what you truly want is leadership then you need to be prepared to give up something and generally the give up you are least likely to want to give is the final say."

This statement usually brings up the first " I am not really comfortable with that!"  My rejoinder to that might echo the words of Sue Tupling, "Feeling uncomfortable? So you should!" in the piece she authored recently describing the emotional hurdles many senior leaders face when they first begin to confront the need to let go in order to get what they want. Personally, I have seen leaders knowingly choose control over business results or staff development on more than one occasion, especially when they knew they could make their numbers without letting go.

When we reach this point the conversation turns solemn, like something ominous is about to happen. Thankfully, at least on some occasions something really productive emerges from the somber mood and the executive or manager sees that not letting go is going to constrain them to results similar to those they have already achieved and if they are up to anything more the give up is the price of admission into a new realm of possibility. But the positive thing does not always occur and on those occasions my mood may become a bit sarcastic , "If you can make your numbers without letting go what are you complaining about? Unless of course your intuition is telling you there is something more to be had than just making the numbers. Or maybe you simply want someone to blame if things don’t work out?" Shortly after this I usually leave their office.

By the way, it was probably initiative they wanted anyway, much less expensive than leadership but to the control oriented, knowing what they would want, that distinction does not readily appear.




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