What will you give up to gain employee leadership? | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing writer

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 smelled a rat for several years now. Maybe we should be looking at the conditions that allow leadership to emerge. Maybe leadership is naturally occurring and we hold it back, either consciously or unconsciously in our organizations.

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 ask, “Are you sure that’s what you want?” A provocative question like this better have a good follow up. If I am on my game this exchange can have the desired effect of creating a “teachable moment,” or at least one where I have an opportunity to think I am offering something infinitely wise.

Charging into the awkward silence I might say, “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.” 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, “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.”

It is occasions like these that are also moments of truth for those of us who fancy ourselves organizational catalysts. The conversations that follow determine whether this potential client becomes a client or we walk out the door hat in hand.

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-a-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 inevitably leads to a conversation where the potential client sees their role in the problem they’ve described — a shortage of leadership. And I continue: “Accountability, the precondition for leadership, is a choice you can offer not a sentence you can hand down. 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 in at least some aspect of running the business. So where is leadership most missing in your business and how are you controlling the situation?

This statement often brings up an authentic, ” I am not really comfortable with this!”  My rejoinder to that might echo the words of Sue Tupling, founder of international PR and marketing firm Changeworks, “Feeling uncomfortable? So you should!” Tupling said exactly that when she described 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. So when we get to this stage the conversation invariably turns solemn, like something bad is about to happen. Thankfully, at least on some occasions something really productive happens and the executive or manager sees that not letting go is going to constrain them to live with results similar to those they have already achieved. They begin to see that giving up control is the price of admission into a new realm of possibility.

But the potential client does not always see the light and on those occasions the question might become, “If you can make your numbers without letting go what are you whining 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… with my hat! I am obviously needed elsewhere.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.

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