The New Math of Leadership

“You are now the leader.” It is a sentence that implies a do-something role. If it ended with word “driver” or “cook” or “host,” you would have a clear sense of the actions required. New leaders think being a leader means doing something important. So, they stretch and adjust their style and practice like a new pair of shoes that must be broken in.

What if we altered the frame and thought of leadership more like the rheostat on a light switch—turned up or down, on or off, depending on what was required? If the goal is reading, the light goes up; romantic, the light dims; and time to turn in for the evening, the light turns off. The presence of light becomes relevant only in the context of a need or goal.

When I landed my first supervisory role, my boss advised me to think about leadership like arithmetic—only adding as much leadership as needed to get the net desired.

Too little, and the goal risks not getting accomplished; too much, and the goal gets done but with consequences that can be unhelpful. The implication is that, if all is going as planned, no leadership at all is necessary.

Add Leadership Only if Needed

Barbaro was the 2006 Kentucky Derby winning horse. He came into the race undefeated. His margin of victory—6 1/2 lengths—was the largest in over sixty years. A heavy favorite to win the Triple Crown, with a “mustang-like joy of racing,” he shattered his right hind leg two weeks later at the Preakness after he false started and, ultimately, had to be put down.

But there was a backstory to this memorable event—Edgar Prado, Barbaro’s proud jockey. Unlike most jockeys who generously used a whip, especially on the home stretch, Prado never touched Barbaro with his whip and never asked him to do anything more than necessary. "If he's running really hard, why should he be punished?" Prado once told a reporter.

I invited a fellow consultant to assist me in working with the executive team of a long-term client. She had heard me repeatedly rave about the CEO of this high-tech company. Her flight was delayed and the meeting underway when she arrived, preventing us from introducing her to the team. After listening to the group have a lengthy, spirited dialogue over a strategic challenge, she whispered, “Which one is the CEO?” Leadership is not a rank to be displayed and trumpeted; it is a spirit to be summoned as required.

Err on the Side of Subtraction

I serve on the board of a community organization. There are no paid members, only volunteers. Most are fairly well-to-do and retired. In fact, I am the only board member still working in a profession. When I joined, I heard stories of the previous leader who thought his job was to give instructions and critique performance.

At the time I was asked to join, morale was low, recruitment of volunteers was challenging, and the organization was at a standstill. I quickly learned that the new leader’s philosophy was to focus on clarifying the vision, running interference to eliminate obstacles that slowed work, and providing lots of affirmation. The accomplishments went up dramatically, right along with morale. His subtraction of control enabled others to take initiative; his addition of affirmation made board members feel valued instead of brow-beaten.

Multiply Contribution Through Leadership Math

Tree trimmers aren’t typically known for their service sensitivity, but tree surgeon Richard Butler is an exception. He long served as caretaker for the massive oak trees in my yard when I lived in Texas. Richard’s service approach was as impressive as his team’s Cirque du Soleil antics in tall trees. For example, realizing I was an author, Richard requested a signed copy of “your latest book” as a part of his payment.

I needed a dozen tree stumps ground out of my yard, and asked Richard for an estimate. Satisfied with the price, work began a few days later. But further examination of the terrain revealed three stumps that were previously overlooked. “If you could please give me another signed copy of your book. Beep Beep!,” Richard announced, “I’ll throw these stumps in at no extra charge.” My delight multiplied!

On another occasion, lightning struck a large elm tree. A call was placed to Richard to “come give an estimate.” Arriving home after work, we found the tree gone and the stump removed. On the back door was not an invoice; it was Richard’s business card. On the back of his card were four words written in the language of a multiplier leader: ‘No charge. Beep Beep!”

Leaders are not just adders and subtractors, they are multipliers! Armed with a generous “Richard Butler” spirit, they create relationship synergy and model a Samaritan mentality. "To lead people, walk beside them,” wrote philosopher Lao-tsu in 500 BC.

“As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate... When the best leader's work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves!'"

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