In my early years, my approach to leadership could be summarized by these three words:
Sweat. Grit. Know-how.
It was not wrong. It got me from the village of Soufriere in the small country of Dominica to medical school in New York City and then to the role of chief medical officer in a large federal agency.
I produced results that were significant and meaningful for myself and for others. And my approach also left me feeling burned out and disillusioned.
Looking back, I see that my actions generated waste and suffering. In many ways, my approach was blind to what is most fundamental and essential to leadership. At the heart of leadership is the ability to declare a preferred future (vision), generate commitment in others, enroll them, and support them in realizing that vision—all of which happens in conversations and through conversation. Leadership is the art of engagement—connecting, listening, addressing concerns, aligning, and coordinating—for the sake of realizing a vision.
Below I highlight 5 common missteps which leaders who are experts or specialists in their field often make. I have made them myself, and I have observed them in my clients and colleagues.
Leading from knowledge and expertise
This is a big trap into which many leaders who are experts or specialists in their field fall. After decades of schooling that rewards them for right answer and their know-how, they have developed strong habits and identities around their knowledge. Leadership, like medicine for example, has its own discipline with its distinctions, skills, and practices.
Leadership is the work of organizing human beings to achieve a desired future result. Although a leader’s expertise is helpful—establishing one’s credibility, understanding the issues of the field or marketplace and knowing the key players, this technician’s knowledge does not readily transfer to the domain of leadership. A leader’s expertise, no matter how vast, is too limited, fragile and temporal to deal with the complexity of human beings in action.
A more solid ground is leading through connection, caring, and inspiration.
Prioritizing activities and tasks over conversations and reflections
After years of studying and practicing leadership, I still have the tendency to be doing, completing my task and spending little time reflecting or listening to what is going on around me. And why wouldn’t I? The U.S. is an activity-oriented culture that values active states such as analyzing, promoting, persuading, performing, evaluation over more passive or receptive states such as feeling, noticing, appreciating, reflecting, and acknowledging.
The good news is that this tendency no longer drives me. This is not the case for many leaders, who focus almost exclusively on what needs to get done—reports, metrics, meetings, etc. They ignore their own internal states as well as the states of their people. They fail to appreciate that human beings have internal spaces that need to be cultivated so that people can commit to and have the energy for their work. This overemphasis separates people from the meaning and satisfaction that work can produce.
Leader, fortunately, can begin to relax the tendency toward excessive activity by learning to listen to what is happening to them and to their people.
Many leaders make telling their people what to do their mode of operating. So you might ask, what’s wrong with that when his/her title is director? There’s nothing wrong with it…although there is a much better way—one that promotes individual initiative and ownership, saves energy and vitality, and does not produce negative moods, such as resignation and resentment.
Let’s see how directing work or rather works ineffectively: You are leading a team of 4—a small team—on a project. You direct each member to his/her piece. If you get a strong commitment, he/she will complete his/her own piece. So who owns the entire project? You…but what does it feel like for you to be holding it all by yourself? What is the cost to you and the organization that you are the one who is committed to the entire project? And what if you are the head of an office, department, or large company? This reminds me of the saying that it is lonely to be on top. It is also inefficient.
A healthier and more empowering role for leaders is to enable their team members to have conversations to take responsibility their individual components as well as for the success of entire project.
Leadership does not rely on influencing others through the exercise of power, coercion, or fear. Leaders that over-emphasize exercising power generate a culture of fear, resentment, resignation, disengagement, or apathy. Exercising power as a way to influence people to move toward a particular vision is not effective leadership, because it does not elicit commitment from others. Commitment is a foundational element of effective leadership. Commitment is what brings followership to leadership. And commitment is triggered by human connection and listening, and not by manipulation or coercion.
Mistaking a Yes for a Commitment
Effective leaders bring ideas to reality through coordinating the actions of others. A fundamental skill of leadership is making requests—asking others to take action on a leader’s behalf. Many leaders assume that a ‘yes’ or an affirmative response to their request is a commitment or agreement. How does a leader know whether the response is trustworthy? When is a yes a commitment that can be trusted?
A ‘yes’ is a trustworthy commitment when it show up in the words and the non-verbal language of the person saying yes. Is the person sincere and reliable? The leader also has to assess whether the person saying yes also has to have the capability and capacity to take the requested action.
To be able to determine when a ‘yes’ is a commitment, leaders needs to be a competent observer of human beings.
The above missteps arise from misconceptions about leadership, and they lead to breakdowns in teams and organizations, waste and miscommunication, and unwittingly contribute to the failure, stress, and burnout that leaders and their teams experience. Addressing these missteps involves learning to connect and reconnect with what is essential to leadership—conversations.