Recently, The Center for Leadership Studies conducted a survey asking our clients to identify the top leadership challenges that they are facing within their specific organization.
Due to the results provided, we have started a series of blog posts that will address the challenges they proposed. In this post, we will address: leadership drive.
Consider for a moment the pressure associated with being a thought leader. When you break it down, the job of a thought leader is basically to write something, or say something, that literally forces the rest of us to go … “WOW!”
Simon Sinek is an emergent thought leader that appears to be thriving on that kind of pressure. He is also personally responsible for providing us with several “WOW-related” thoughts. If, by chance, you are unfamiliar, Mr. Sinek’s first book “Start With Why” was not only a runaway best-seller but (in our collective opinion) a genuine contribution to the field of leadership development.
His second book “Leaders Eat Last” is one of the best reads we have ever come across for anyone aspiring to become a people manager (and you only have to wait about three pages to get your first “WOW”).
The book begins with the story of a Special Forces Captain in Afghanistan literally putting his life on the line to provide cover for members of his squadron that were under enemy fire. Sinek positions that narrative to make the following observation:
In the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.
What ensues is a thought-provoking journey on the paradox of becoming a manager-leader in an organizational setting. Leading people is, has been and will always be a function of an intangible connection people feel that is difficult for non-thought leaders to put into words. This much we do know: really good leaders, at all levels of any organization, are readily identified by their ability to gain the trust of those they seek to influence, while simultaneously getting those same people to feel both inspired and fulfilled with the contributions they are being asked to make.
How (exactly) do they do that? Well, admittedly, here’s where leadership “gets messy.” Without question, there are behaviors leaders exhibit that we can both identify and examine. But, beneath the surface of the behaviors we so often point to and intellectually dissect, you can come into direct contact with the authentic foundation of leadership – the heart!
Now, how exactly am I supposed to examine a person’s heart in order to get a clearer picture of their values and my subsequent thoughts, you might ask? Well, you typically start out with behaviors you do see and then draw inferences or conclusions about an individual’s underlying intent (a.k.a. heart). In general, here’s what that translates to:
WE WATCH HOW LEADERS HOLD PEOPLE ACCOUNTABLE!
- Do they intervene with members of our team that are clearly not pulling their weight in support of our mission/goals? Or, do they pretend they don’t see what is clearly evident to everyone else because intervening would be “uncomfortable?”
WE WATCH HOW THEY RESPOND WHEN WE SUCCEED!
- Do they “step out in front of the parade” and take credit for what we have accomplished? Or, do they pass that recognition around when it deserves to be passed around?
WE WATCH HOW THEY RESPOND WHEN WE FAIL OR FALL SHORT OF DESIRED RESULTS!
- Do they distance themselves and blame others? Or, do they step up and assume at least partial responsibility?
WE WATCH HOW THEY PROVIDE DIRECTION!
- Are they legitimately teaching someone how to do something they don’t know how to do and need to learn? Or, are they simply making sure everybody within earshot understands exactly who is in charge?
WE WATCH HOW (AND WHEN) THEY ASK FOR OUR INPUT!
- Do they really want the benefit of our perspective? Or, have they already decided on a course of action but feel political pressure to solicit our opinions before they tell us why our ideas won’t work?
WE WATCH HOW AND WHAT THEY DELEGATE!
- Do they empower us to take on meaningful projects that we are both qualified and motivated to tackle? Or, are they distancing themselves from something they think will never succeed and has the potential to be a huge mess?
The first thought leader we are aware of that investigated “the heart of the leader” was Douglas McGregor. McGregor made a strong case for “leaders eating last” way back in the 1960s by identifying the distinctions between what he referred to as “Theory X” and “Theory Y” predispositions. In short, Theory X leaders saw followers as needing guidance and possessing limited potential to lead on their own. Theory Y leaders saw followers as “leaders in waiting,” possessing the innate potential to both solve problems and pursue opportunities. When we review Sinek’s work in the context of McGregor’s foundational contribution we can’t help but pose this question:
If we have known (in one form or another) for the better part of half a century where real leaders can be found in the lunch line, why are there so many examples of “the Theory X types” still hanging around?
We would suggest the troubling answers to this inquiry are rooted foremost in culture and career path. The “culture” explanation leans on the age-old axiom “you get what you reward.” Not surprisingly, organizations that promote and reward managers that produce results at the expense of people have to combat the problems those short-sighted decisions bring with them (e.g., high turnover, low employee engagement, etc.). Left uncorrected, that recognition strategy virtually guarantees those problems will never go away.
The “career path” explanation emphasizes the importance of the critical decision most individual contributors need to make relatively early in their careers. In general, 70% of the reason most frontline employees have the opportunity to move into management is because they have demonstrated proficiency in some type of “technical skill.” Ironically (or maybe not so ironically at all), 80% of the reason new managers struggle (or fail) is because they lack “human skills.”
Technical skills are about “the head.” You learn things, you apply what you learn and, over time, you develop some level of technical mastery. Human skills are about the heart. Consequently, “Leaders That Eat Last” develop a “condition of the heart” consistent with Theory Y assumptions that could best be described as follows:
The role of the leader is to assist others to be as successful as they can possibly be.
It doesn’t matter how much technical knowledge you have acquired, or how successful you were as an individual contributor, your success as a leader is not only grounded in the success of your people, it is defined by it.
And, what is it our conclusion is piecing together with the core themes of McGregor and Sinek? Leadership is truly at the heart of the matter!
For those of you new to our blog, we like to offer an Application Challenge at the end of every post. This challenge is meant to help you internalize what you read and provide a context in which you can apply it to your specific organization or leadership opportunities.
- Review McGregor’s “The Human Side of Enterprise” and Simon Sinek’s “Leaders Eat Last.”
- McGregor D. (1960). The Human Side of Enterprise. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
- Sinek S. (2014). Leaders Eat Last. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.
- Critically assess your organization’s system of recognizing leaders and managers:
- Are you rewarding the right people for the right things?
- List three examples
- How could you improve the manner in which your organization identifies and promotes individual contributors into their first role as a people manager?
- Are you rewarding the right people for the right things?