What, exactly, is a leader?
The definition used in Tango is my favorite: If you notice the leader, he’s not doing a very good job. The job of the leader is to get the best out of his follower and get out of the way: He opens the door, the follower goes through exhibiting her best, and then the leader follows. I believe that it’s a leader’s job to help followers – colleagues, staff, partners, teammates – make the decisions they need to make to achieve excellence.
Of course we all know many leaders who believe it’s their job to make the decisions and get their followers to do their bidding. They call that Influencing, and there are many methods and models that teach this. But doing it this way often comes back to haunt: when people are not part of the decision making process and haven’t bought in to the proposed change, they may go through their own brand of sabatoge, acting out, forgetfulness, or misinterpretation en route to following orders. Their knowledge of the environment, of the day-to-day working conditions, and their creative ideas, are ignored. We see this frequently with tech implementations. Indeed, requests made by senior people for ‘underlings’ to do their bidding are often met with failure.
Here is an example that I found to be costly on many levels. I was doing interviews for a book on decision making, and spoke with one of the CEOs of a two-company merger between two extremely well-known brands. This man told me how he went about ensuring the national team bought-in to the change. He developed a multimillion dollar ‘dog and pony’ show, and went out with a team to 30,000 employees in store-fronts across America to give them an understanding of the merger (that had already been planned and executed, with no one’s knowledge or buy-in). How successful was it?
“They all loved it. Loved it. Well, most of them did anyway. There were about 10% who didn’t buy-in.”
SDM: What happened to these 3,000 people?
“They became a retention issue.” [A ‘retention issue’?]
SDM: You mean you fired them all?
“Well, we had to. But not to worry: they were the folks that had been around the longest – 18 or 20 years. It was time to make room for new blood anyway.”
They fired the wisdom, the bedrock of their company – the skeleton, the bones, the legacy – because these ‘old-timers’ didn’t like a dog-and-pony-show.
Imagine if the CEO’s criteria were to keep employees, keep them happy, and use their combined wisdom to help create the sort of change that everyone would buy-in to. Imagine if the CEO thought it was his job to give the employees a chance to buy-in to the change and help influence the direction and execution of it. Imagine if the CEO helped the 30,000 people decide to actively support it and offer creative ideas throughout the process, thus becoming an asset to the merger. And then get to keep the history of the company.
Change happens when the internal systems issues become willing and able to buy-in to disruption and a new reality, and are able to see a clear route through to implementing the new in a way that leaves their jobs in tact, their egos accentuated, their ideas worthy of consideration. In other words, the people, policies, rules, relationships and historic issues that maintain the status quo must be involved with aspects of the proposed shift. After all, that is what a system is: it’s a group of interdependent elements that work together to create a set of agreed-upon rules and roles. Change represents a disruption of the system, and system will work hard to maintain their status quo.
In order to lead folks through to change, a leader must help those in the system buy-in to a shift in their system. Each person in the system – individually and as a group – must decide to help, shift, learn, and become an active part of the change in order to ensure that the change will be implemented successfully. We all know that to date, most technology implementations cost $5 to fix every $1 expenditure in technology, because of the problems getting buy-in to the change.
How ’bout if our leaders learn how to facilitate decision making? If they hold as ideal the ability to get buy-in, gather creative ideas, instill dedication and commitment BEFORE any proposed change, and find a way to help them manage parts of the change internally, on their own, from the bottom up. Imagine.
To see a presentation I gave to an annual World Future Society conference 2 years ago, please click here.
I look forward to having ongoing conversations with you all about this topic. In this time of change and confusion, I believe it’s necessary for our leaders learn to facilitate the decisions and choices of our colleagues and employees so they can buy-in and add value.