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Don't be afraid of power A lot of people are suspicious or even afraid of leadership because they think leaders are powerful, and power means controlling or dominating other people. But just today I looked up the word "power" in the Oxford English Dictionary. Did you know that the "controlling and dominating" sense of the word is the fourth of many definitions for power? The first and most important definition is "the ability to get something done". Power is beyond good and evil. Any person who can get anything done has power. A leader is a person who cultivates and directs the individual power of a group of people to achieve something that none of them could do alone. That's the basic fact: whether the leader and the group use their collective power for good or evil is up to the leader's, and each member's, own conscience. Because of our long and bloody history, we often think about power as the attempt to get people to do things through fear and the threat of violence. Why else would somebody give up their freedom to do what they want to do, follow a leader and do what the leader wants to do instead? But the positive leader knows that there are other motivations besides fear. There is also love in the world. It is not just possible, but actually commonplace, for people to build the power to do great things on a foundation of love and concern for the welfare of others. But oddly enough, these people are usually called saints, and described as compassionate, not powerful. Now isn't that interesting? Why would we belittle the power that is required to make good things happen in the world? Listen more than you speak One of the biggest mistakes people make about leadership is to believe it is the leader's job to motivate people. No matter how you sugar coat it, the basic thrust of this idea is that people are lazy, empty vessels that not only have to be told what to do, but even what to care about, and why. That is why so many ways "leaders" try to motivate "followers" – incentive programs, special outings and perks, motivational speakers – are received as cheap attempts at bribery and coercion. At best, these attempts inspire people briefly and then fade out quickly. At worst, they confirm that the leaders are out of touch with what really matters to people. Ironically, people often join a group, team or company because their understanding of what the group is doing already connects somehow with their own sense of what they want to do and be. But when people are not accorded the basic respect of having their own identities, desires, and existing motivations, they quickly become alienated and tune out. To avoid this waste of passion and talent, leaders need to learn how to stop shouting through a megaphone at groups of people as if they were identical sheep, and listen to the existing motivations and concerns of each of the individuals they are working with. When you have a sense of what a person wants out of life, you have your most important clues
to what will make them happy to be a part of the group, what kind of contribution they can best make, and even whether they belong in the group in the first place. The best "motivational speaking" that a leader can do is to simply articulate the purpose and work of the group in a way that connects deeply with the inner motivations of each of its members. Strike a balance between know-nothing and know-it-all In almost every case, the leader of a group cannot possibly know everything that all members of the group know, or possess all of their talents. Most often, the very reason that the group exists is because many different kinds of skills are needed to accomplish the group's task or mission. Very rarely, the group may exist simply because there is too much work for one person. But even in this case, where all the group members have the same skill or profession, they all have different experiences, and so nobody can truly know everything that all of the others have learned over time. There are two traps facing every leader in this situation. The first and most obvious is the tendency of some leaders to feel that they must know more than anyone else in the group about what they are doing. Some people feel this way out of arrogance – that is, they actually believe that they know better. Other people feel this out of insecurity – they don't think they have the right to guide people or assign people to tasks unless they know more than those people about the work to be done. The second one might seem "nicer", but both of these attitudes are poison for effectively leading a group. When working with a person who has to know better than everyone, people lose their motivation and actually start to act less intelligent and capable than they really are. People very quickly get the sense when their own ideas and experience are not respected, and so they stop thinking. They may continue to do what the leader is asking them to do, but they will never do more than that. Teams and groups that are led this way may be productive, but they will not be as productive as they could be, and they will never be creative or innovative. They will also tend to have poor morale, because almost nobody can work happily in an environment in which they are basically not allowed to bring their own thoughts and experience to bear on the problem at hand. The less obvious mistake is to think that leadership is some special kind of skill completely separate from the work or mission of a group. Some people believe that a good leader can lead anybody, even if they have no skill or knowledge relevant to the particular kind of work being done. In my experience, this seldom works. As a purely practical matter, it is very hard to evaluate the work being done by a member of the group, or coordinate work between people with different skills, if you have no idea what is going on. More importantly, it is hard for people to respect a leader who has no practical experience in the work he or she is directing. People are rightfully proud of their skills and experience, and if a leader shows no inclination to learn about them, people tend to become both offended and contemptuous. A leader like this has little moral authority behind his or her decisions, and difficulty mediating disputes between members of the group.
Even though many leaders fall into one or another of these traps, staying out of them is not very difficult. They key is to learn about and respect the talents of others, and to rejoice in the fact that some members of the group know more than you do about particular aspects of the work. When people are recognized for the value of their skills and knowledge and encouraged to offer their opinions, they have a stake in the purpose and work of the group. When members of a group feel both understood and valued for what they do, the group becomes much more than the sum of its parts and achieves much more than anyone could have expected. Seek trust, not control When the work a group needs to do to achieve its purpose is complex and must have a carefully coordinated schedule, many leaders experience an intense need to be in control of everything that is going on, to make sure it all comes out right. When the work requires a lot of expensive resources for which the leader is responsible to a boss or investor, this feeling only gets stronger. Under these circumstances a leader or small group of leaders has a natural tendency to try to gain control by centralizing everything in themselves – everything must be known by them, approved by them, and ultimately decided by them. However necessary this may seem, it is deadly to both the purpose of the group and the satisfaction and well being of the group's members. This kind of control doesn't work because the kinds of situations in which it appears crucial – complex, urgent, and evolving over time – are exactly those situations in which a single person or small group cannot possibly anticipate and respond to everything that will happen. Because everything must be communicated and decided by a single person with limited time and experience, progress slows to a crawl, and the group as a whole has no ability to respond quickly or flexibly to a changing environment. And like the "knowit-all" problem, this kind of distrust and desire for control also destroys morale and creativity. The collapse of the Soviet Union with its centrally planned economy was supposed to prove the impossibility of this kind of control, but it remains a surprisingly popular approach for many kinds of leaders. If centralized planning doesn't work in a complex environment, what does? In one word – trust. No matter how terrifying it may be for a leader, decision-making needs to be shared as widely as possible for any group to move quickly and flexibly. That means instead of hoarding knowledge, a leader must encourage everyone in the group to share what they are seeing and doing with anybody who could even remotely benefit from it. Leaders must also learn to cultivate the talents of other people in the group, and then delegate responsibility and decision making power to them. Then, the leader must learn to trust these people and not second-guess their decisions all the time. This can be painful because it will fail occasionally; all people make bad decisions sometimes. But with people who are more trusted, more motivated, and closer to the action to make sound judgments, it will succeed much more often. When a leader is able to trust others to make decisions for themselves, they are also able to pull back and think about the organization as a whole, rather than getting caught in
every detail. One of the most important tasks for the leader will be to spread this habit of trust everywhere in the group, finding places where progress is blocked because people don't trust or work well together, and healing those breaks. Don't fall in the democracy trap This last one is more of a warning than a principle. Some people feel that the ultimate and best way to achieve a lot of what I have been advocating – having all members of a group feel respected, creative, and productive – is to get rid of leaders altogether. Why shouldn't a group of capable people with a shared sense of purpose and a mutual sense of respect manage their affairs and achieve their goals with a completely democratic approach? It's a great question, and I don't have the answer to it. But in my many years of leading and being led by others, in for profit companies, non-profit companies, and volunteer groups, I have never seen it work. My best guess is that it has to do with the inherently timebound nature of groups that come together to achieve something specific. No group that intends to actually do anything has the luxury of continuing to discuss every issue until all disagreements are ironed out and perfect consensus is established. This is so true that in the business world with which I am most familiar – in which there are always too many things to do in far too little time – consensus management is a kind of notorious joke. I believe that whenever something significant really needs to be done, the formation of a group to achieve it and the rise of leadership within that group are basically inevitable. The question is not whether leadership is necessary, good or bad, but what kind of leadership shall we have? And my answer to that question is: people would be a lot less suspicious and resentful of leaders if they adopted a path that is humane and respectful, and motivated by honest love and concern for the welfare of everyone in the group, and for the people served by the group. I hope that my comments here have been helpful to anyone seeking to walk that path as a leader.
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