Looking for leadership in all the wrong places

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

When I am talking with business owners about their primary concerns, without question the No. 1 issue they raise is the challenge of finding good people.

The term “good people” has more than one meaning. Sometimes it means “people who will work for what I want to pay.” That can indeed be challenge because “good people” always have options and working for what you want to pay may not be attractive to them.

But that’s another story. The more challenging question of finding “good people” might more accurately be framed as “How can I get more leaders in my company?”

This is an issue worthy of a lot of discussion. For years, when it came to leaders and leadership most business owners have been looking where it’s easiest for them. This is sometimes referred to as “the street light effect” and it is a trap we all fall into; looking for answer where we already have the most understanding rather than challenging ourselves to learn something new.

In the case of leaders and leadership the tip-off that we’ve been looking in the wrong place might be the amount of literature, books, videos and articles that have been published on the topic. Amazon currently lists over 190,000 titles with the word “leadership” somewhere in the title. Really? And still we will write more books about leadership.

There are those who believe leaders are born and not made. If we all thought this, there certainly would not be all this writing which seems to indicate that there are not enough natural born leaders and there is a big market for help with creating more leaders.

A quick word for all the “natural born” leaders — I know you are out there. Mostly you were born with a desire to be in charge. That doesn’t make you a leader; it just makes you bossy. But it is a start, since you will naturally step up to assume leadership in order to be able to control a situation.

If you’ve been able to maintain your leadership role over time you’ve learned something about what I will be talking about in a moment. Your primary challenge is to discover how to develop more people who, like yourself, willingly step up to both responsibility and accountability without an annoying need to be in charge adding unwanted noise to every situation. It can be done, but patience will be the order of the day.

Last week I was meeting with one of the business owners I coach. For months, he has complained about a lack of leadership from his senior staff. He would say to me, “they just don’t get it, why can’t they just do it the way I do?”

Unfortunately, when we are disappointed in someone else’s performance, there is often a default to a handy explanation like “poor work ethic” or “sense of entitlement” or some such, which is, again, looking for an answer only in the easiest places.

Unknowingly, my client was almost correct. He just didn’t know how close he was, or what to do about it. In effect, when he said, “They just don’t get it,” if he had recognized that the truth is, “they just don’t see the world the way I do”, he would have been closer to being able to address the issue.

From my own experience, it now seems to me that the way we differ in our “seeing” of the world plays a large part in differences in performance and in this “leadership” we so eagerly seek.

We all know modestly talented or intelligent people who seem to make very good leaders. We also know very smart or talented people who could not lead themselves, much less others. So how come? Default explanations lie “work ethic” don’t seem to make a difference.

In a book titled, ‘The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life“, authors Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan do an uncanny job of offering us a view into an alternative reality. In their view, it is the way people see the world more than the intelligence or talent they possess that determines the performance we see from them.

I am constrained by space here to say a lot more so I’ll let the authors say it for me and maybe you’ll be tempted to read their book:

  • “First Law of Performance: How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them”
  • “The Second Law of Performance: How a situation occurs arises in language”
  • “Third Law of Performance: Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people”

Very likely these words are more confounding than clarifying. That’s because the keys are not where the light is. Read the book!

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at mike.cook@vistagechair.com


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