Recently, I’ve been reflecting on how leaders act when faced with stressful situations.  The natural reaction of a strong leader is to take charge, bounding from problem to problem offering expertise, opinions, and action items.  Counter-intuitively, the exact opposite is more effective.

  • Give power, don’t take it – the natural reaction in stressful situations is to take control.  It’s the way humans are wired.  Don’t believe me?  To arrive at a destination safely, would you rather drive yourself or have someone else drive you?  Leaders must effectively “encourage someone else to drive” and be willing to accept scraped fenders and dented bumpers along the way.  In this aspect of leadership, leaders are including team participation and energy and ideas.  When leaders take power, they turn OFF the hearts and minds of their teams.  The resulting employee dis-engagement permeates throughout a company.  All the while the “leader” is puzzled by why less and less is accomplished.
  • Set priorities by reducing “priorities” – leaders help their teams immeasurably when they DE-prioritize items.  This may be the single most common mistake I witness.  A lot of very smart people create priority lists for their functional silos and fail to consider the required cross-company coordination and collaboration.  The result… too many priorities!  As it becomes clear that “priorities” won’t be accomplished, in-fighting starts.  All this can be prevented IF the leader takes “priorities” off the list.  Focus and execution on a small number of priorities beats frustration and delays on a larger number of “priorities” every day.
  • Track performance targets, not action items – leaders can’t possibly monitor the myriad of details to keep a company running smoothly.  Instead, their eyes must be set on the end results.  They must define “what” success looks like while delegating “how” the results will be achieved to the team.  As in the example above, leaders who dictate “how” lose the energy and intelligence of their team and feel as if they are going it alone.

Consider successful sports teams.  The stars are not always the ones who do everything better than the people around them (though perhaps they can).  Instead, stars elevate those around them so that the entire team is better.  The sooner leaders realize and practice this, the sooner they’ll turn their companies around.

So what’s a leader to do?  They must resist the temptation to gain control and instead seek ways to distribute and share power.  (For more ideas, consider D. Michael Abrashoff’s book “Get Your Ship Together.”) Leaders’ pre-dispositions to act can be very powerful forces – when directed in the right ways.  The pivot point is that by giving power, de-prioritizing activity, and focusing on results, leaders activate teams to achieve great things together.

With all this considered, readers may still think “these sound like good ideas but they won’t work here.”  If this is indeed true, I suggest you step back and consider yourself and/or your team.

For more thoughts on this topic, read Ed Batista’s thought-provoking article titled Hammering Eggs.

Counter-Intuitive Leadership Tips

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