A leader is not many things
7 July 2020
A leader is not many things. Very often, a leader is not the best designer, delivery person, SEO specialist, or accountant in the business – they are almost always not the best anything as an employee. Even though a leader probably held different jobs in his or her career, the leader’s results or performance in a specific job were probably not award-winning, and there is real downside to seeing themselves as the best.
Leaders are not necessarily the most skilled players. Bill Belichek, the head coach of the New England Patriots and one of the most successful sport coaches of all time, never played in the pros, and spent four years of losing football seasons at a small college program. He was captain of the college’s lacrosse team, which he has said was his favorite sport. It is his leadership skills and not his former playing ability that makes him a great leader and that helps shape the very successful culture of his team.
“The commander in the field is always right”
Colin Powell said that the “The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise” and many business leaders can use this as a guiding principle for how they conduct themselves. Although a leader with specific experience in an employee’s field may have some ideas that would help the employee, the leaders’s experience is not a license to preach.
The cost of preaching
First, a leader who defaults to preaching misses the invaluable input from the employees. Even if it’s cleverly disguised or charitably delivered, one-way communication eliminates the possibility of the employee delivering news, changes or an impression that’s different from what the leader thinks.1Many “open” meetings and conversations start as encouragement or even the expectation that participants put forth their ideas or objections, only for the leader to exert their authority and position and take the path he or she decided before the meeting started. That’s counterproductive if we want progress.
Secondly, how many one-way “conversations” take place before an employee recognizes that there’s no point in offering his or her perspective? After a pattern of this, the employee’s behavior becomes a cashier’s 1000-yard stare while mumbling something about “company policy.”
Consider the opposite of the one-way lecture (even if the leader claims “accessibility,” “approachability” or something similar): what happens when someone on the team is heard and considered by a leader?
Even if the employee has a terrible idea, maybe the worst idea in the history of capitalism (probably not though), there is a considerable benefit to the cooperation between leader and employee: the employee is more invested, creative and responsible. Most likely however, there will be some merit to the idea, and the leader can help both the employee and the business by instituting appropriate change that will make the process or task more efficient, less expensive, etc.
Most importantly, the employee gains agency in their work domain, which will trigger better performance.
A happier employee is willing to contribute more ideas, potential solutions (and perhaps problems), and may figure out a better way to achieve their part of the business goal.
A good leader listens and engages employees, considers feedback, complaints, ideas and desires. Part of the leader’s job is to relate those things to the company mission and how the employees and their ideas can contribute to the business goals.
A leader (including someone who sees themselves as one) does not attempt to make an employee a copy of how he or she would perform a task, especially under the guise of “imparting wisdom” or “ being the voice of experience.” The true voice of experience would inform the leader – even if they had just left the employee’s job – that they don’t know exactly how the employee best performs his or her duties, but that they are willing to guide and help the employee in their part of the business mission.
Additionally, if a leader considers themselves “the smartest person in the room,” the business ultimately suffers because each employee will quickly learn self-preservation by always acquiescing to the leader’s decisions and ideas, and not bring up their own. The leader always assumes he or she is correct – why would the employees argue? This is opposite of Colin Powell’s position that the front line commander is right. While it may stoke a leader’s ego to draw employees into a meeting and demonstrate the leader’s “right reason,” productivity, profit, efficiency and satisfaction will decrease because it’s impossible for a leader to know every part of everyone’s job.
If a leader’s ultimate decision contradicts the employee’s wishes, has a good idea that incorporates the employee’s idea, or has to make a difficult decision2Sometimes, we are all faced with figuring out how to choose the least bad option. which reflects a broader scope of the business, there are two ends of the spectrum in dealing with it.
One is cooperation and the other is by exerting control. It is possible that a leader can dictate a decision or direction without the employee’s participation to the business’s detriment. The alternative is to listen, consider, and get the employee to participate in the decision itself.
The next time you’re talking to an employee, please consider all the things that you are not. Maybe you are not a mythological god, imbued with omnipotence and right reason, and “know” the employee just needs to do what you say.
Instead, listen. Ask the employee if you’ve understood correctly what he or she said. Compare the employee’s answer to your business goals and see if you can put the two things together that makes everyone’s life a little better.
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