Three harmful ideas about leadership (and shifts you can make)
January 16, 2018
Leadership and coaching has been a one of my side interests for the longest time. I recently wrote 3 Tips for Middle Managers in “Day 2” Organizations. This article goes a little deeper – challenging us not just to take on tips, but to fundamentally reorient our (often sub-conscious) mindsets.
Image credits: Zimbio
What makes a great leader? Is it inherent? The Silicon Valley is known for some really great leaders (and some very terrible ones – but that is a story for another day). CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Weiner are famous for creating highly productive workplaces – where people feel empowered to solve problems in creative ways and teams are more than the sum of their parts.
How did they become great leaders? Is the ability for good leadership somehow inherent to these individuals, or inherent to a particular breed of (young) (engineering-minded) people?
I don’t think so. Rather, I believe leaders like Zuckerberg and Weiner simply grasp what it takes to lead successful teams in the new economy, which can be characterized as a rapid series of disruptions whose timing and nature are difficult to predict. The skills-sets needed to help a company be continually successful are evolving faster than before.
Hence, in the new economy, good leadership is less and less defined by subject-area expertise, and more and more defined by the ability to hire well and create the conditions for talented individuals to propel the business forward, such as trust and autonomy.
Unspoken assumptions about good leadership held me back
Changing a leadership culture in incumbent organizations is arguably more difficult than setting up new ones like Facebook or Linkedin. I believe that more than anything, it is the subversive assumptions about good leadership that hold us back from adapting.
In the Asian context (the roots may trace to patriarchy), much of the subconscious narrative around “good leaders” centers around three characteristics:
Teachers, who impart years of experience in subject matter or organizational navigation to team members
Protectors, who shield their teams from the vicissitudes of the workplace so that they can focus on their tasks
Lonely heroes, who personally soak up the stress and always present a calm front to superiors, peers and team members
The problem with this definition is that it assumes a certain hierarchy in knowledge and ability that is inconsistent with the dynamic and evolving needs of the new economy. It drives leaders to limit, rather than unlock their team’s potential.
My Turning Point: Three Big Mindset Shifts
For a good 2.5 years of my leadership journey, I was unaware of that I held these beliefs. It was only when I attended a 5-week leadership training programme in 2015 that these assumptions were unearthed. The training included a 360 degree feedback exercise which 15 staff, 15 peers and 2 superiors filled in anonymously, group and individual coaching, and leadership simulations.
Through the course, I realized that I needed understand my role as a leader differently in order to truly unlock the potential of my team. Here are the three mental shifts I had to make:
1. From Teacher to Coach
The first shift was to see myself as a coach, rather than a teacher. Most leaders feel safe when they know better than their teams. It is a natural way to garner respect and confidence from the team. When I started my first managerial position at 26 in a team that was older and more experienced, I constantly asked myself what areas I “knew better”, so that I could establish value by imparting some sort of wisdom. That was not a good move.
This mindset made me unnecessarily (and subconsciously) controlling. When leading a team, the right starting point is not I, but them. A leader who primarily sees himself as a coach believes in the potential for each member to bring some magic to the team which he cannot. This is more in line with the reality of the new economy, where what we need to know is rapidly evolving.
A coaching leader also understands that every member has both personal and work objectives when they arrive at the office. He gets to know these objectives and is committed to helping them achieve it. He acts as a mirror, a challenger and supporter, as the individuals pursue their objectives.
Grasping the shift from teacher to coach invigorated me. I started to see team development not just as “making the team better at their work (in the narrow way I defined ‘better’)” but unlocking the potential of every member. This opened up whole new spaces of interaction, especially with team members who had gained mastery at their work. We probed into issues such as helping a highly intelligent but quiet woman contribute more during debates, helping a team member change an overly confrontational communication style, and working through an unhealthy competitive dynamic between two members. We grew individually and became a more productive team.
A coaching approach also set me free. Instead of trying to solve their problems, I saw clearly that my responsibility was to help them understand themselves and take steps towards their objectives, thereby maximizing the potential of my team without bearing unnecessary burdens.
2. From Protector to Challenger and Collaborator
The second shift is moving away from a “protector” mindset, which can really hold your team back. At a management course, I was asked to draw a picture representing my relationship with my team. I drew a picture of a sheep pen and shepherd. Very noble, one would think. And why would it be the wrong solution? My team gave positive feedback about my protector role: I made things clean, structured and efficient so they could deliver the outcomes. Navigated the politics on their behalf.
Reading the 360 degree feedback, I felt like I was doing a good job at leading. (One day, when we were working on a very complex, politically charged project, my team sent me this picture:) I had not realized that delivering on ‘work outcomes’ and having a happy team did not mean I was succeeding in unlocking their potential.
My role was to prepare each team member for the next bound of leadership, not to keep them happy within the current role. I needed to be generous enough to allow them to experience frustration, ambiguity and conflict. To give them a safe environment to face some of this messiness down themselves; to decide what was the right thing to do, how firmly to stand, how much compromise they were willing to make; to stay confident when people disagreed and made things personal. This is what it means to move from the role of a “protector” to “challenger”.
It also struck me that leaders need to move from the role of “protectors” to “collaborators”. One leadership simluation drove the point hone. Each one in our cohort of fourty was assigned a role in an imaginary organization – either a “Top”, “Middle” or “Bottom”. We had to maximize some outcome in a tight timeline (I believe it was about accumulating shoes…). Instructions would be given to the “Tops”, who would then hold meetings with “Middles”, who would execute the tasks with their teams. Every 20 minutes, we would pause and give each other feedback.
One of my friends who was a “Middle” faced a huge uprising from his team. They fed back that they could not trust him because he was not being transparent with them; he seemed to be concealing some instructions. He said that the instructions were changing so quickly and he wanted to establish some clarity before communicating with him. It struck me that when we hire top talent, they want agency, they want to be collaborators – not sheep that are protected. “We want to discuss as a team how to address ever-changing instructions, rather than have you hide some instructions from us to protect us.”
3. From Lonely Hero to Highly Networked with Peers
My final shift involved understanding the value of being tightly networked with my peers. If you subconsciously see yourself as a protector and teacher, you will start to become isolated because you perceive your role as constantly “helping” and “giving”, absorbing difficulties for others, being a hero.
However, if you shift your perception of what good leadership entails: moving from teacher to coach; from protector to challenger and collaborator, you will start to see yourself as needing a community of people who can serve as your coaches, challengers and collaborators.
There is no better group to do this than your peers. Yet many of us neglect our peers as we spend time managing upwards and downwards. I remember a piece of feedback from several of my peers, which said, in gist: “Karen is super effective at bringing us together and helping to get cross-team projects done, but we wish she would tell us more about herself – what she thinks, what she likes, what she feels about issues.” I reflected on this feedback with my coach, and realized that I resisted being vulnerable with my peers because I believed I should not be a burden.
It was an unhealthy belief not just for me, but evidently for my wider organization. This insight, along with the intensive group coaching I went through with 5 peers during the course, made me understand that good leaders cannot be lonely heroes. We must be tightly networked with peers for accountability, challenge, support and perspective.
As we seek to navigate a far more volatile and ambiguous economy, this has never been more important.
I’ve argued that the new economy demands a new style of leadership, but subconscious, subversive beliefs about what makes a good leader can severely hold us back. Which of the three shifts: teacher to coach, protector to challenger and collaborator, lonely hero to networked – do you feel is holding you back? Realizing this is a great first step to working through it and becoming a leader who can truly unlock the valuable human potential that is in your team, just as Facebook, Linkedin and Google do in theirs.
Afternote: These principles do not apply equally to all jobs. For example, professional skills still require superiors to play a strong teaching role, although seniors need to be open to learning from younger doctors who might have a stronger grounding in technology. Another example is when the team is new and needs to be taught basic skills. Furthermore, a focus on bringing out the potential of your team and being a good coach does not mean that you cannot be firm, especially with people who are not motivated, or whose goals are wildly disaligned with that of the organization. I have examples from my own experience, but that is a story for another day.