What do we mean when we say leaders need to provide meaning? Let me share an example through an anecdote by John Girard which points to this absolute at an individual level and its implication for leadership.
"On a foggy autumn day nearly 800 years ago a traveler happened upon a large group of workers adjacent to the River Avon. Despite being tardy for an important rendezvous curiosity convinced the traveler that he should inquire about their work. With a slight detour he moved toward the first of the three tradesmen and said “my dear fellow what is it that you are doing?” The man continued his work and grumbled, “I am cutting stones.” Realizing that the mason did not wish to engage in a conversation the traveler moved toward the second of the three and repeated the question. To the traveler delight this time the man stopped his work, ever so briefly, and stated that he was a stone cutter. He then added “I came to Salisbury from the north to work but as soon as I earn ten quid I will return home.” The traveler thanked the second mason, wished him a safe journey home and began to head to the third of the trio.
When he reached the third worker he once again asked the original question. This time the worker paused, glanced at the traveler until they made eye contact and then looked skyward drawing the traveler eyes upward. The third mason replied, “I am a mason and I am building a cathedral.” He continued, “I have journeyed many miles to be part of the team that is constructing this magnificent cathedral. I have spent many months away from my family and I miss them dearly. However, I know how important Salisbury Cathedral will be one day and I know how many people will find sanctuary and solace here. I know this because the Bishop once told me his vision for this great place. He described how people would come from all parts to worship here. He also told that the Cathedral would not be completed in our days but that the future depends on our hard work.” He paused and then said, “So I am prepared to be away from my family because I know it is the right thing to do. I hope that one day my son will continue in my footsteps and perhaps even his son if need be.”
In this example we immediately take note of the difference between the first worker who has no meaning for what they do beyond the immediate task at had which is cutting stones or the second who is there to earn a buck and we are drawn to the account of the third stone mason who demonstrates a grander vision that gives meaning to his work. This speaks to something that I believe resides in all of us that our lives have meaning not only in our personal lives and relationships but also in our work. This is crucial particularly when it comes to performance, after all which of the three would you hire?
This worker was gifted with an understanding of the meaning of his work but where did he get that meaning? The Bishop. Not all of us will immediately see the meaning to the work we do so it is something that good leaders must provide for their team or group. We have an innate need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Some in leadership will create the connection between the work and a greater good - for example Starbucks does not "just" sell coffee, they provide a social experience; a place for people to gather. Some companies tie the work with philanthropy by directing some of the profits and/or providing time for staff to volunteer toward causes of their choosing such as "Habitat for Humanity" or the "United Way."
As leaders we do this because we value our people. You communicate worth when you take the time to create a meaning in the work being done.
You will find that it helps to have your own meaning for what you do sorted out as well. For example, I do what I do because I believe that leadership though fraught with all manner of pitfalls and opportunities for failure can be an amazing experience that need not be terrifying or mundane. That leadership can be bigger than us and can be enjoyed and the more we enjoy it the more those we lead and work with will benefit.
Have you created meaning for your leadership, for your team? If not, why not?
Okay, I confess that I am a secret Star Trek fan and maybe I was looking for a way to insert my guilty pleasure into our discussion on leadership. I think you will find though, that this is a good fit for this topic.
Perhaps the number one characteristic of good leaders is that they produce other good leaders – they multiply. To quote Tom Peters, author of “In Search of Excellence” - “Leaders don’t create followers; they create more leaders.” In today's competitive market this is a crucial advantage for businesses.
The reason for this revolves around the practice and concepts of continuous improvement. One of the foundational concepts of continuous improvement is the need for innovation. Not just innovation but a constant flow of innovation. How does this relate to leadership? Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, sums it up this way; “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” As leaders we can develop followers who will be very good at following and will for all intent and purpose do what they are supposed to do. But great leaders develop other leaders who will not only do what they are supposed to do but constantly be on the lookout for ways to innovate and improve.
Why is this important? Followers react, leaders anticipate. In today's market that may well be the difference between surviving and bankruptcy. When you develop a team to be leaders in their own right you create a group who are able to anticipate and innovate rather than react. We understand that reacting places you at a disadvantage because it confirms you are already one step behind.
I won’t kid you, this is hard! For most of us this seems counter-intuitive. It means you have to look for people who are smarter than you and then invest in them for success. The hard part is overcoming the fear that in doing this you put your position at risk. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. In researching the top reasons for leaders failing some of the leading reasons were as follows; Leaders become selfish or greedy, they become reactive, they stop developing the team members. You will note that nowhere in this list is the idea that they developed people who took their jobs. In fact, it is just the opposite, failure to develop or multiply the leadership in your team is a leading cause of failure!
How then does this relate to the Borg? In the Star Trek series, the Borg was an alien race that operated from a collective base of knowledge that they grew by assimilating other cultures. Fashioned like a giant matrix each member had access to that knowledge base and as such they were able to react and learn from threats quite quickly which made them almost unbeatable. (Know any companies like that?)
Yet for all their knowledge they lacked a key advantage; innovation. The Borg had access to knowledge and could respond quickly which initially gave them the upper hand. Yet their weakness was in the fact that they could not anticipate or innovate. They did not have leaders they had followers and that initial advantage in terms of knowledge and speed of reaction could not overcome the group that could anticipate and innovate.
Great leaders multiply leadership in and through their team. In so doing they grow and develop teams who can anticipate and innovate which I submit is THE biggest advantage a business can have over its competitors. It is also a key feature of continuous improvement and the reason the Borg will never win. Work to develop the leaders in your team and in case I forget, in the words of Spock, “live long and prosper!”
The behavior of individuals on a team or staff is one of the most interesting areas of leadership study. It is also probably one of the most uncomfortable. When I meet with leaders often one of the first issues of discussion will revolve around either performance or culture and usually both as they are intimately entwined. When I tell senior leadership that they are getting exactly the culture and productivity they are reinforcing it almost always elicits an "...oh ya?" response.
Of course no leader sets out to reinforce low productivity or a negative culture yet often that is exactly what happens. Getting into that bind usually happened over a long period of time and getting out of it will take some time as well but the good news is that there is a solution.
In the simplest terms we inadvertently reinforce low productivity or poor culture based on a series of responses (or non-responses) to perceived behaviors. In one company it was an unspoken rule that when someone got their work done early that they got to sweep and clean the shop. The intent had been to ensure everyone was seen as being busy during the shift but as I am sure some of you realize it also had the effect of ensuring no one finished early and the net result was low productivity.
That is an easy example but there are literally hundreds of interactions that leaders have throughout a typical day that have the net effect of reinforcing or ignoring (what we call extinguishing) behaviors. A crew needs to meet a deadline but doesn't make it and as such need to stay late to complete the task and collect overtime pay in the process. An employee comes into your office to complain about something or someone and in the interest of getting them out of your office so you can get back to work you promise that you will look into it. You notice one of your staff not wearing the proper safety equipment and make a note to talk with them about it but get busy with your daily responsibilities and forget all about it. In a staff meeting input is sought but when a new employee offers some they are belittled by the supervisor. And you wonder why one crew seems to lag behind the others, why that person seems to "always" be in your office, why safety events are on the rise or why staff are not engaged and no one is willing to come up with new ideas?
The path to the kind of productivity or culture you have is made up of all of these types of decisions and actions and the first step in turning this around is in recognizing that this is indeed happening. The second step is to decide on what behaviors you want. This may seem obvious but our environments have actually taught us to look for those things we don't want. To test this ask yourself have you ever told your parents or had your kids ask you "can you name one thing that I have done right in my life?" If that left you a tad uncomfortable don't worry you are in good company.
You need to be intentional, identify the behaviors you want and start to reinforce those behaviors. This is hard at first but once you start to identify those behaviors you will be surprised at how fast things fall into place and I suspect you will be surprised at the staff you start to interact with and who you never noticed before.
Next time you take a look around the office or walk out on the production floor or have staff meeting ask yourself what kinds of things am I reinforcing? Like the answer - great! Don't like the answer - time to make a change.
This is not a new concept and it has been around since the 17th century when writers such as Locke and Rousseau began to explore the relationship of the individual to authority. They examined how an individual would cede certain individual liberties to a governing authority in exchange for that authority providing certain things like the enshrinement of those rights and the provision of a level of order. They called it a social contract which was either explicit (a constitution) or implicit and the understanding was that one exercised authority only at the consent of those being governed.
While this is admittedly a political concept the fact is that it can be applied to leadership in general. Its application can range from informal settings such as a group of friends to more formal settings like teams and certainly to business. And it is a leadership absolute.
What are the components of this absolute and how does this impact you as a leader? First and most importantly it is based on the premise that those you lead have value. Value not only in terms of what they bring to the group or business but value in terms of who they are as individuals and what that means. What are some of the features that make up the value of the individual?
People are more than the sum of their resumes. You hire someone for certain skills which of course is the point. They come though with far more than those skills. They come with a desire to learn, to grow, to contribute, to be recognized, to be provided with direction and feedback that is timely and as people who are wired for community they desire to have that community acknowledge their value beyond their skills to the whole person that comes with that package. In short our people are not commodities or assets to be used and then discarded.
The social contract subscribes to two principles; people have an inherent worth that must be respected and those in authority act as trustees of that worth and lead accordingly. In a political setting when that social contract is violated sufficiently those who are governed rise up and replace that government. In business when this happens they leave. They leave in one of two ways; literally or they just check out emotionally and productively. Either scenario is costly.
The expression of this social contract in business can be seen with good leaders igniting staff to new levels of engagement and productivity or bad leaders driving truly good people out. People have figured this out and now companies rate leadership on things like employee retention or satisfaction. Of course that is only one measure but folks are getting the message.
Think about it this way, you may get promoted into a position of leadership and have the ability to exercise whatever authority comes with that but you will never truly lead unless you have at least the implicit consent and support of those under you. We all know that those who treat staff poorly can get away with it for a time but sooner or later it will catch up to them either in poor productivity or high turn over. Remember you lead by social contract - do right by them and they will do right by you.
If vision is about what you are going to accomplish then philosophy is about how that will look and how it will be done. All of us will apply a leadership philosophy of some sort but few of us will do so knowingly or with intent.
That is not to say it won’t happen but rather that it happens by accident and often haphazardly. Leadership philosophies are prone to trends like many other things in the realm of social interaction and most leaders (70% according to Gallup) report they develop an approach through trial and error.
What this means is that if you manage to get through the first year of your leadership role you just may survive. But there are costs; talented and high performing operators get thrust into front line leadership roles and struggle with the new skills and many fail. That failure is not just theirs alone as well over 60% of workers cite poor leadership as the chief reason for leaving a company. So we not only lose a good potential leader we lose staff. For example, an average sized company of say 150 employees with an 11% turnover rate loses 16 people per year. Cost to replace each employee is conservatively around 50% of annual salary and let’s assume average salaries of around $50,000. What that means is that poor leadership at the front line costs this company around $412,000 per year!
The good news is that companies are starting to realize that leadership development is not just good for the resume but is in fact an essential element of driving performance and competitiveness. So what role does philosophy play in good leadership? It should provide you with a few key points of direction – your focus, a timeline to achieve that focus, how your team contributes to the accomplishment of that focus, how you know that’s been achieved and how do you improve in the achievement of that focus?
I will tell you a secret, within that set of parameters there are literally dozens of approaches that can be taken, pick one and run with it! Any approach that you “knowingly” apply is far superior to no approach or what I call “accidental, run and gun leadership.” The research on this is pretty compelling in that a leader is 80% more likely to succeed through the application of a structured approach to achieving team or company goals. (Prosci)
In my experience leaders deal with this one of two ways; either they don’t have a defined philosophy or methodology in place or they overthink the one they have and keep changing it to adjust to the current crisis. The bottom line with a leadership philosophy is this, pick one that works for you, communicate it vigorously to your team and stick to it. This is one absolute of leadership you can literally take to the bank.
This is going to be the first of a series of articles related to how leaders can explore potential absolutes around their role and anchor their leadership for the purpose of creating engagement, providing purpose and driving performance. I am compelled to explore these issues as a result of the feedback I have received from many in leadership centered around their struggle to create meaning for their teams. Many see this as due to the fact that we live in a pluralistic society that enshrines individual perspective and perception as paramount. While most have no issue with this concept they struggle with how to provide tangible, productive leadership from within that setting.
It hearkens to the old saying that often leadership is like trying to herd cats. In our current setting in North America and Europe our pluralism often leads to relativism and it is this relativism that is at the root of the angst I find among leaders today. One may subscribe to these principles on a personal level but as a leader you are immediately confronted by myriad of voices each attesting to their own reality or validity. Many leaders share that they see themselves walking the proverbial "plank" on a pirate ship where one false step or failure to be inclusive puts you in the drink. It is worth noting that most leaders care about giving an ear to all these voices but good intentions don't necessarily address the reality that trying to create a mechanism for other perspectives rarely translates into a unified business approach. And we are back to the cats - lol!
Any engineer will tell you that there are absolutes that cannot be violated. So in the realm of leadership, business and wealth creation are there some absolutes that can be applied? Over the next few blogs I am going to suggest a few absolutes and lets see where the conversation takes us.
First and foremost effective leadership involves vision. You either become a leader because of a vision or you bring vision to leadership you have been tagged to perform. Steve Jobs or Bill Gates would be an example of the first as their respective visions for computing thrust them into leadership. Sue would be an example of the second.
Never heard of Sue? That's because Sue, like most of us, moved into leadership and needed to bring a vision for that role. She wanted to do a great job and she wanted to have a high performing team. Soon into the role however she noticed that this new crew did or didn't do certain things the way that she felt comfortable with. They were a good group but Sue unknowingly had an approach that was different from the team. They were doing okay but because of these issues she was not enjoying her new role.
She approached me one day on the horns of this dilemma. She reasoned that because she had a good team and because she was uncomfortable with their approach to things that she must be lacking as a leader. As she shared these fears with me her pain and struggle with this was very evident. "I am having a hard time controlling my temper and I am starting to belittle some of the guys" she confided. The reason was her growing frustration with some of these things that she did not agree with.
After letting her share her thoughts I asked her why she just didn't sit the team down at the start of the shift and let them know how she wanted things done? "I can do that?" she said. "Of course you can" I responded. The relief was palpable. I told her that just because she inherited this team did not mean that she could not bring her own vision and leadership to the group. Her group would be a reflection of her leadership not the previous leader.
When I met her a couple of days later she was all smiles and life was good. She had learned that first absolute; you are the leader - bring your vision and pursue it. For those of us who have been there nothing is more disheartening than failing while in the pursuit pleasing everyone else and not staying true to our vision. The problem is how many get promoted who have not been mentored with regard to developing their own vision for leadership? Come to think of it; what is your vision for leadership?