Stop Leading! You're Bleeding Off Passion

Last week I had an old-fashioned, too-much-cholesterol breakfast at an out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere diner. The walls were adorned with ads from yesteryear. One that caught my eye was for Ayer's Sarsaparilla at the bargain rate of 100 doses for one dollar. The centerpiece of the ad for this exotic tonic was that it "purified the blood." What foundational belief would make people buy the promise that the blood needed purifying, and this was the ticket? Just recall your history when bloodletting was common—even barbers could do it!

Leadership is also laced with a lot of beliefs that lead to doses of solutions. We start with a standard definition of leadership—influencing people to act toward achieving a goal. Here are a few solutions. The question becomes how best to influence. Let us examine a few popular leadership "tonics."

Leadership Sarsaparilla

Leaders influence by selling—outlining to followers the benefits of pursuing a goal, making a change, or embracing a new initiative. But, done as the sole source of influence, can leave followers with residuals of feeling manipulated or conned. Communications is another influence tool. However, it too cannot be selected as the primary tool. Were charismatic communication a prerequisite for effective leadership, organizations would hire talented thespians instead of thoughtful decision-makers.

Role modeling is a useful approach: leaders who "walk the talk" not only telegraph priority, they demonstrate that whatever they are walking should be emulated by followers. However, there is a side to the "leader as role model" that is noticeably parental. There is risk that, as long as followers pursue a "messiah-like" shepherd, they move further away from personal accountability.

Some leaders influence primarily through rewards and incentives. The parental overtones may seem subtle to leaders who use such a "tonic," but they are clearly felt by those who acquiesce for leader acceptance. Recognition and affirmation are as wholesome as apple pie. However, relying solely on the carrot as a tool for influencing can be experienced as an exercise in employee seduction.

So, what does the leader have left as a tool for influencing? If you ruled out selling, communication, role-modeling, incentives, and recognition, what is left? They all depend on the leadership orientation of the leader.

Remember Abe Maslow's famed line:

"If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

Before selecting an influence tool, leaders must let go of traditional leadership notions about control and self-interest. It entails choosing partnership over patriarchy. If we approach our relationships with followers as fellow travelers on the same train, we begin to acknowledge interdependence. What would leadership look like if all your followers were wealthy volunteers? How would it impact what influence tool you chose?

Lead Like You Are a Senior Partner

I have always liked the senior partner model used by firms in the professions—law, medicine, accounting, etc. Senior partners are charged with ensuring power is shared, not hoarded. They serve their colleagues through support, linking partner with partner as well as locating fresh leadership for the partnership. The senior partner champions the betterment of the partnership by elevating the standards of excellence. They are charged with bringing specialized information to the partnership, data others might not have capacity or opportunity to acquire.

Treat Leadership "Tonics" as Condiments

My mother lived an incredible life until she died at the age of 102. Every meal started with her reaching for the salt shaker. "But you haven't tasted it yet," I would tease her, "how would you know it needed salt?" Leaders are often like that. They enter an encounter with followers and immediately don their "I am the leader" hat, before determining if leadership is even needed. Leaders with a partnership philosophy view leadership tools as condiments. They are more interested in the result than having their underlings be reminded they are "under." They add leadership only if needed, and then sparingly.

Leaders as Partners Are Askers, Not Tellers

A partnership is a commitment to a dialogue, not an act of directing. It starts with asking for input rather than offering instruction, averting the trap of being the "answer person." It operates with the faith that wisdom lies within us all, and opts for the inefficient fostering of discovery rather than the expeditious pronouncement of the solution. It is a conversation, not a command. It is interesting that the number one impact on mental development among children is having a parent who converses.

Leaders as Partners Refuse to be Babysitters

Babysitting leaders like rules, directives, and cuddling, but veil threats like "get your act together or there will be consequences." They like "check with me" styles over approaches that rely on trust and expectations of excellence. They enjoy being a surrogate parent. Leaders as partners, by contrast, enjoy helping followers feel accountable to the team, not the boss. They lead with reminders of core values, not as dictators of the rules. They inspire and coach rather than pester, guilt, and command.

People have always been drawn to various forms of Sarsaparilla, especially when dealing with the mystery of leadership. Before leading, stop! Consider the goal, the real intent, and the best action needed, if any. Remember, when we reduce leadership to prescriptions, we are tricked into thinking that leading people is like programming computers. More importantly, we risk missing the drama of humanity and the potential for being amazed by it.

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