Lessons in Leadership

As someone who has made leadership my life’s work, I take it very seriously. It is a craft that requires intense focus, daily attention and strong adherence to principles. While several principles play a role in leadership success, the key principle I believe in is explaining the “why” behind actions taken or decisions made.

A Key Principle

Jocko Willink discusses this principle very clearly in his book Extreme Ownership:  How Navy Seals Lead and Win. The underlying point of this principle is that any miscommunication needs to be owned by the leader. It is their responsibility to explain the reasons behind their decision or request. If the subordinate understands the why, they will get behind it and put in their full effort.  If they don’t understand the why, and its downstream impact on their world, they may still execute the tasks but you will not necessarily have their full buy-in. In worst cases, the subordinate may even sabotage the effort.

To ensure a successful outcome, I often sit for hours with the managers and team members in my charge. We talk through any confusion or objections to be certain they understand the impact of the requested task on the business as a whole. We do not break the huddle until I am confident the task is understood and the necessary buy-in is achieved to execute the task successfully. In my 30 years of experience in leadership positions, this approach has resulted in great success. Not only are tasks usually executed properly, but team cohesion is enhanced and strengthened.

Manager vs Leader

By contrast, you have managers (I make the distinction here very clear, because these are not leaders in my eyes) who rely on position or title to get things done. They commonly use phrases like “because I said so…” or “you don’t need to know my reasons…”  I find these leaders to be insecure in their position or worse, they don’t fully understand the “why” of the situation themselves. Often, they didn’t bother to go back to their manager to ask follow-up questions and now fear being exposed.

This type of manager will never be successful for sustained periods of time. They may rise to power briefly based on an ability to get things done in a certain organization, but that type of leadership is almost always accompanied by a total lack of ability to attract and retain good people. Too often, they hire and promote weak team members who don’t question directives or seek the “why”. This cycle will repeat itself over and over until the organizational culture is “Just do what I say.”

A Consultant’s Perspective

As a consultant, I work with many types of organizations. Often, the “just do what I say” organizations think there is a magic pill to fix their problems… hire a consultant. However, this type of organization is least suited to heed a consultant’s advice. It is often dismissed with the rationale that “they just don’t understand our culture” or “they don’t have all the necessary information.” Typically, managers in these organizations recognize the value of the advice but are incapable of admitting they may be a strong contributor to the issues. If the consultant is good at their practice, they will continue to offer advice—whether it is heeded or not. A true professional, will work hard to alter their message or delivery approach to ensure the message gets through.

Exception vs Rule

Unfortunately, that type of leadership consultant is the exception rather than the rule. More often, the consultant gets frustrated with the lack of action or change and simply gives up. They stop offering advice and rationalize their action with thoughts like “they will never change, they don’t really want to change, or they simply want to appear that they are open to change.” The key is to be part of the exception group. Trust in your process and the proven leadership principles you have learned over the years. Don’t let the current short-term situation negate the past experiences when it worked.

A Lonely Road

The challenge with this approach is that you oftentimes feel like you are alone on an island or speaking a different language. Leadership can be a very lonely position, that is at times often accompanied by questions and doubts. The key is to persevere and trust in your training and experience. Seek advice from a mentor to reinforce your resolve. Stay true and always remember, if the client had it all figured out, they wouldn’t have needed your assistance to begin with.

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