Over the course of this year, I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over North America speaking at conferences and with organizations about how we can do a better job being the kind of leader our employees need us to be.
As I travelled from the East Coast down to the South Coast, and just two weeks ago, to the West Coast when I spoke at an IT-education conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, I couldn’t help but notice a common line of inquiry being brought forward by some of the leaders in attendance.
While the exact circumstances and dynamics varied among these different leaders, there was nonetheless a common thread at the heart of each of these questions being asked – how do I get those in charge above me to be more like the leaders you demonstrated are necessary for an organization’s long-term growth and success?
Regardless of the focus of my talk or the industry in which these leaders serve, I always began my answer with the same starting point – the fundamental truth is that we can’t get people to do what we want or need, even if at times it’s in their best interests.
Consider, for example, those times when we’re given advice by our doctors for how we can improve our health. How many of us openly embrace the changes to our lifestyle that we’re being told to make? Most often we don’t, that is until our health deteriorates to the point where we no longer have the choice but to follow our doctor’s directives.
But what’s really interesting about this question is not how it surfaces in such diverse groups – from businesses to public institutions, from government agencies here in Canada to multinational organizations based in the US. Rather, what’s interesting is how in each of these situations, the leader standing before me is essentially giving up their power to be the change they need to see in their organization.
Of course, the almost immediate response most of us have to discussing power in the workplace is to view it within the lens of our organization’s structure; that the degree of power one has is relative to the position you hold within the organization.
While it’s understandable to view power from this perspective, the problem I have with this viewpoint is that it leads us to give up the power each of us has to change things for the better. In other words, power is not about our position, but about our ability to contribute meaningfully and be valued [Share on Twitter].
It’s recognizing that thanks to the faster paced, interconnected global environment that we all have to operate within, no one person can have all the answers and that the key to succeeding is ensuring that everyone we lead feels a sense of shared ownership in both the vision and in the process.
In each of these conversations with these different leaders, you could feel their sense of disconnect; that if only their president or CEO would recognize what they need from them to feel like they matter, then they could feel more successful and more connected to the work they do.
Each of them was approaching the situation viewing power as something that’s scarce because it’s tied to our position within the organization, as opposed to what we bring to the table that serves to drive our collective efforts forward.
When we view our power, our ability to inspire and drive change through that lens, we end up overlooking a fundamental truth of our world today – that we can’t achieve our goals without the help and support of those around us [Share on Twitter], and this is true both for those we lead and for those we answer to.
It’s a truth we’re reminded of every couple of months when a president or CEO of either a private or public organization steps down because of their hubris that’s brought on by their failure to respect that a leader’s power comes not from their title, but from how well they serve those they lead.
Of whether they are honouring the values, culture, and vision that defines their organization, community, or country, or whether they are simply looking at the current challenges solely from their vantage point, or worse, through their own personal biases.
What we forget in that rush to get things done is that true leadership is not dependent on our position, but on our ability to inspire and empower others [Share on Twitter].
Again, consider all those leadership quotes and famous speeches given by leaders during those dire times from the past. What made them powerful, evocative, and memorable was not simply their words or the fact that they were the head of that country or social movement.
Rather, it was how they used their ability to inspire and empower those around them to believe things can get better through their collective resolve and efforts; that we should tap into our own power to influence and direct the change that’s necessary to achieve the shared purpose that binds us together.
These historical and inspiring leaders made us believe not just in the potential we bring to the table today, but in what we can become if we challenge ourselves to be more than we are today.
For today’s leaders that means we have to walk into work with that willingness to learn and grow; to not leave it up to others to clear the path that we want to walk, but to chart our own if others are unwilling or incapable of doing what’s necessary. In other words, to get people to follow us, we first have to believe in ourselves and our potential to be more [Share on Twitter].
It’s a fundamental truth that I’m reminded of each and every time after I talk to these leaders about their own power to inspire and influence those they lead and those around them. Seeing their faces as they realize that they don’t have to wait to get that permission to drive the change they know is necessary for their organization’s success is inspiring, as it is empowering for me to want to keep pushing that message out there.
Is this tough to do? Absolutely, but we have to remember that leadership is not about finding the easy road, but discovering how to fuel the success of others [Share on Twitter]. We have to be ready to commit to dedicating our talents, our insights, and our drive to help those around us to be better than they are today by being our own best self.
And this is exactly what I see reflected on the faces of these leaders following these one-on-one conversations after my talks. There’s no look of frustration, of discouragement or resignation. Instead, there’s this clear look of determination, of optimism, of hope because they now understand that they already have within them the means and opportunity to make things better than they are today.
Indeed, when we shift our perception from one where we think we need to wait for others to change, to one where we view ourselves as being the vehicle that can bring forth the change we want to see, it becomes easier for us to care even more about why we do what we do. By making this perceptual shift in how we view and understand our own leadership, we end up increasing our own commitment to making things better, to transforming our reality from what is to what could be.
It’s this mindset that drove every successful leader and role model we look up to for inspiration and direction to achieve the kinds of successes and achievements we all long to attain for ourselves and for our organization. These leaders didn’t wait for ‘better times’ because they recognized they had within them the power to inspire and influence those around them and in the process, help to shape and transform the world we all live in.
The fact that there are some leaders who clearly don’t get this shouldn’t be seen as a reason for us to not employ those measures that are within our ability to do so as to make our team and organization function better than it does right now.
Indeed, as I pointed out to these leaders, the side benefit is that it’ll make these command-and-control type leaders look good, which will only give you more permission to challenge yourself to grow and evolve into the kind of leader that brings out the best in those you lead.
So the next time you read about some new insight on leadership or attend a talk on what it takes to lead in today’s faster-paced, interconnected global environment, don’t get discouraged if the leaders above you fail to appreciate the importance of employing these measures themselves. Instead, recognize your own power as a leader to inspire and empower those around you to bring their best selves to the work they do.
In so doing, not only will your employees appreciate your new understandings and approach to leadership, but you’ll move one step closer to being the kind of leader your employees need you to be.