The what, why, and how to make it happen
Let’s first begin with a picture of a great leader, what’s at work here, and the secret ingredient that any leader can tap into for organizational or team transformation and success.
What does an effective leader do?
I believe that a great leader encourages discovery and empowerment with a good dose of wisdom, direction, and boundaries. As this leader engages people in a discovery process to help them solve their own problems or innovate, they exude confidence it that person’s or team’s capability. This leader does not just point people to the ocean and say, “swim, you can do it!” thus setting them up for fear, anxiety, and, most likely, failure. Instead, as servant leaders, they provide enough coaching and guidance to create safety, clarity, and boundaries to increase the probability of short term and long-term success. They set up check points and invite ongoing reporting and feedback. When milestones are completed or the goal is reached, they congratulate, celebrate, and fully recognize the outcome as owned by the employee (or team). Like a good coach, they are behind the scenes, not directing or interfering, but guiding, asking good questions, encouraging, removing ‘political’ obstacles if necessary, and helping the individual or team learn to solve their own problems and meet their goals. This leader derives their fulfillment from supporting the person’s or team’s success.
In turn this leader derives tremendous personal and business benefits and so does his or her employees as customers keep coming back and profits grow. In fact, I argue that the organization that learns how to solve problems and innovate efficiently and effectively will rise to the top of their industry.
What’s going on and why does this type of leadership work so well?
A person or team that learns and gains confidence in their ability to solve their own problems, or to build the support and coalitions needed to resolve issues, is creating an organic system that can flex and adapt quickly to internal and external changes. If one finger breaks, the hand adapts and keeps working. But, if not able to solve issues itself, it is more like a chair with a broken leg that topples and becomes worthless. The broken chair can no longer serve its purpose and requires outside help to fix it.
Serving clients, producing, or delivering products or services, and doing so in a profitable way means solving problems to fix or make things better all day long. The more that is solved at the root or front line the less likely small problems will turn into crisis because ownership of the problem is not ignored, passed up the ladder, or moved across departments. Like the hand, the organic organization is self correcting and adaptable. The chair needs outside intervention and bleeds money and energy until resolved only to have the other leg break down the road.
Empowering people and teams to engage the right people, upline, downline, and cross functionally if needed, to solve problems versus throwing dodo over the fence or blaming others, gets things resolved faster, conserving huge energy, and preventing crisis or lost clients. Nails might crack, fingers might break but the team flexes and moves forward still serving its purpose, adapting until whole again. No one member is indispensable, and no one person calls all the shots.
What the leaders coach for, especially if they are explicit and clear in their processes, will cascade through all leadership levels right to the front line where empowerment really counts – serving the client, making the product, and paying attention to the voice of the market.
The more empowered people are, the more they are involved in decision making and so the more engaged they become. They are no longer passive recipients of orders from the top but intelligent, creative people developing solutions and serving their clients, whether internal or external. If they are part of the decision, they are more likely to implement it well. If they row the boat, they are less likely to rock it and, with oars in the ocean, they can feel the market feedback and react to it faster than the captain on the bridge.
The secret to transformation and success?
Changing behavior and habits is hard and takes time and all that we have just talked about so far doesn’t work well without mutual trust and respect among team members. To adjust the attitudes and behavior of a whole company, while building trust and respect at the same time, is almost unsurmountable, especially if a culture is long standing with lots of habits, alliances, and memories.
The secret is in a simple known truth about human psychology. Long standing research has demonstrated that we can either help people feel happier with hours of counselling and self-help tools or we can put them into an environment that is designed to create fun and, voila, people will report and recall they felt happy, and this happens in minutes, not hours or weeks. Similarly, asking people to ‘act’ happy works faster at changing the overall experience and mood in a room than asking people to ‘be’ happy. What if we asked people to ‘act’ in a respectful and trusting way and created an environment to make it safe and acceptable to
do so? Hypnotists also tap into this phenomenon but that’s another article.
Let’s try another example using a card game. Imagine a tired group of leaders chilling out after a conference and they strike up a game of poker. Lots of money is exchanged but the game and banter are energising, and all have a good time. Now take this same group and ask them to divide up a multimillion-dollar budget and decide on priorities. There will be conflict, divisions, and they will be exhausted. What’s the difference in these two activities?
In the first one, everyone knows the rules and how to play the game. The environment is well set up. It is safe, the boundaries and the goals are clear. If someone cheats, they are out. The steps and the process to follow are known and even how to deal with disagreements is in the rules. The system is set up so that within the context of the game, mutual trust and respect happen because of the rules and process of the game. All their energy goes into playing the game. Everyone is fully engaged.
As leaders if we set up the rules, the boundaries, and the purpose so that our teams can play the game in an environment that by default supports mutual trust and respect (or at least helps to build and enforce it), then collaboration will most probably happen, and decisions will be made with minimal wasted energy and time. Plus, when we create safety and clarity, people know the game and can step in with confidence, take risks, speak up, share ideas, and enter with more trust needed for the give and take of collaboration. Now we have more people and more information being input into problem solving which can only lead to better decisions. With engagement of more people including the implementers, implementation will be more efficient and more likely to happen.
Every assorted rag tag team of players now has the potential to be the brilliant team that solves bigger and harder problems. As leaders we don’t have to fix and perfect each player first; we just need to teach, guide, and empower the team. The players can step up and play to the best of their ability, energized by the game they are playing as part of a team. Of course, individual development is still valuable but so much more so in a team environment. Instead of growing a lone wolf in a sea of self-protecting peers you are growing people who grow people. It’s a beautiful thing when a team and a company start to move in the direction of engagement, empowerment, and accountability. There is no stopping them when it does.