On Leading Horses Who Don't Know They Are Thirsty to Water

There is an adage that goes, “Authority is the last resort of the inept and frustrated.” Parents who have found themselves relying on “…Because I said so” to direct a reluctant child know the total truth of that adage. When rank becomes the only means of ensuring compliance, one has long lost the battle to effectively influence.

The art of influencing another has challenged leaders for centuries. In autocratic settings, influencing is relatively easy to accomplish--you simply gave an order. Obedient followers comply with little resistance, at least until they revolt, use sickouts, or go on strike. But compliance is a long way from commitment. Directives may ensure movement but they do little to foster motivation.

In more democratic settings, leaders resort to humanistic means. One approach some leaders use to influence is through selling--outlining to followers the benefits of pursuing a goal, making a change, or embracing an initiative. There is obviously a “selling” dimension to all acts of non-directive influencing. But, at the end of the act of selling is a follower who feels sold. That “sold” feeling can contain residuals of feeling manipulated or conned.

Colorful communication is another powerful leader tool for influencing. Communication-dependent leaders rely on a charismatic or compelling style. Like responding to a well-executed sermon, those who enlist can often have second thoughts about whose interests the recruiter had in mind. This tool also relies on the skill of the leader as a great communicator. Were charismatic communication a prerequisite for effective leadership, organizations would hire talented thespians instead of thoughtful decision-makers.

Role modeling is another popular approach to influencing. Leaders who “walk the talk” not only telegraph priority, they demonstrate that whatever it is they are walking should be emulated by their followers. There is obviously a valuable side to leaders ensuring their words and deeds are congruent. However, there is a side to the “leader as role model” that is noticeably parental. Placing leaders on pedestals to be copied does little to bolster the self-reliance of employees. As long as followers pursue a “messiah-like” shepherd, they move further away from personal accountability. Empowerment becomes more about advance permission than about on-the-spot authority.

Rewards and incentives are frequent tools for leader influencing. When leaders incent the “good child” who acted in sync with the goal or cause, they are actually using a two-pronged tactic. One is to reinforce the “good” behavior so the “good child” will repeat it. But the more significant side is the modeling that is at work. Those not “on board” see those “on board” being publicly favored. Wanting to be among the favored, they follow suit so they too will be rewarded at some future point. The parental overtones may seem subtle to leaders who use such an approach. But, they are clearly felt by those who acquiesce solely for acceptance.

Employee recognition is generally as wholesome as apple pie. However, relying on the carrot as a tool for influencing can be experienced as an exercise in employee seduction. The words are obviously more loaded and perhaps more violent than is intended. Yet, there can be a sense that “I have allowed myself to be snookered into pursuing a path that may not be in my best interest.” Seduction leaves victims with the guilt that at some level they have participated in their own demise.

So, what does the leader have left as a tool for influencing? If you ruled out selling, colorful communication, role modeling, incentives and recognition, what leadership tool is left?


Three Tools for Authentic Leadership


How do we get the horse to drink? If we give the drinking horse more hay or remind the horse of the long hot journey ahead, or sell the horse on the benefits of drinking, or give the horse affirming strokes, or drink beside the horse to encourage imitation, have we authentically influenced or selfishly conned? While no leader would suggest their people are human horses, their actions can sometimes suggest they believe followers have similarities when it comes to influence.

Finding a new answer to an age-old question involves letting go of our traditional leadership notions about control and self-interest. It entails choosing partnership over patriarchy. If we approach our relationship with our followers as fellow travelers on the same train, we begin to acknowledge interdependence.

To get a handle on the experience of partnership from the leader’s perspective imagine you have been away on a two-week vacation. While you were away your subordinates each put up $10 to purchase a group of lottery tickets hoping to win the largest jackpot ever. Their agreement was that if any ticket won, they would share the winnings equally. Since you are away, you do not participate. They win and are all now all multi-millionaires! At your first staff meeting after returning from vacation, your subordinates announce that they have all decided to resign. However, they would like to remain as full-time volunteers. Assume these are the only subordinates you can get for a long time. What would your leadership style look like of your entire staff were independently wealthy, full-time volunteers?


Facilitating a Collective Creation of Purpose


The first component of “leader as partner” is the collective creation of purpose. Peter Block in his book Stewardship states, “The traditional process is that management creates its vision and then the enrollment process begins…. Enrollment is soft-core colonialism, a subtle form of control through participation. Nothing has changed in the belief in control, consistency and predictability, only the packaging is different.” It is challenging for leaders, affirmed for being visionary and charged with “charting the course,” to embrace the concept of a truly shared vision. Shared vision typically implies “you share my vision as being your vision.” A truly shared vision is one crafted collectively. It entails creating contexts in which everyone enters the dialogue about direction. It involves getting every person impacted by the vision to have an honest, non-pressured say in what it looks like.


Bolstering the Power of a Shared Legacy


Helping people see how they contribute to the future is a vital part of the role of a great leader. Helping them discover how they contribute to a rich history is also a part of that role.   A CEO addressed her managers during an off-site retreat at a crucial turning point in the company’s life.   “We stand today on the shoulders of the pioneering giants who came before us,” she told them. “They made this company what it is today. But, you are the people on whose shoulders others will stand in the future. Let us all make sure the quality of our work insures those who stand upon us have a sound footing.” Great leaders don’t let employees forget their corporate ancestry. Not to perpetuate an ineffective “we’ve always done it that way,” but rather to honor the emotional ground on which the organization stands.


Creating Processes for Joint Accountability


Partnerships are first and foremost power-free relationships. In some ways, partnerships are “marriages of equals” with a common vision, shared values, but with different talents. This means that if there is accountability for results, it must be shared. Clearly some components of worker roles require individual accountability. But, there should also be the strong sense of “one for all.” To quote one NBA professional athlete, “No one on this team wants to be the highest paid player on a losing team.” That means leaders must relinquish their babysitting, caretaking role. They must lead with discipline and collaboration, not rely on hope and hand ringing. Everyone in the partnership is responsible for the results and the quality of cooperation.

Where does all this leave the partner in charge? Certainly it does not mean organizations become entities lead by a committee. People in the most senior role of leadership have a responsibility for ensuring clarity, particularly regarding effective ways to be distinctive in the market place.   They also are charged with insuring power is shared, not horded. They serve their colleagues through support, linking partner with partner as well as locating fresh leadership for the partnership. The partner in charge champions the betterment of the partnership by elevating the standards of excellence. The partner in charge brings specialized information to the partnership, data others might not have the capacity or opportunity to acquire.

Partnership is a commitment to a dialogue, not an act of surrendering. It starts with asking for input rather than offering instruction. It entails averting the trap of being the “answer person.” It is operating with the faith that wisdom lays within us all and the effective leader opts for the inefficient fostering of discovery rather than the expeditious pronouncement of the solution. It is as personal as it is professional; as transparent as it is inclusive.

Earl Shorris wrote in his book, Scenes from Corporate Life, “In business, people do not arrive at totalitarian methods because they are evil, but because they wish to do the good in what seems to them the most efficient way, or because they wish merely to survive, or with no more evil intent than to prosper.”

Power is a seductive and slippery ingredient. The closer one gets to the top of the hill the less one is able to keep the appeal of totalitarianism on a short leash. Perhaps the greatest gift a partnership provides the partner in charge is a collection of relationships willing to tell the emperor about his or her wardrobe.



Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker, consultant and author of several best-selling books including his most recent book, The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service. The Chip Bell Group was recently ranked #6 in North America for leadership development by HR.com. Chip can be reached through www.chipbell.com.

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