When you picture a leader what shows up in your mind? Chances are you will see someone talking, maybe standing, in command of their domain. We all learned that to add value as leaders we need to contribute, share our perspective, and show the way. The issue is, where does that leave our people? Because as much as our intent might be to be of service, the result of that kind of leadership is it’s still all about you!
We were all raised in a world that depicts a traditional, hierarchical leadership model with leaders at various levels with increasing power and individuality the higher up the ranks you go, where promotion is primarily based on subject matter expertise and reinforcing the system. This dates back to the military and the dawn of industrialization and in today’s modern world and information economy it certainly no longer fits for most of us, yet it persists in almost every institution in our society. In my work with leaders I find that many are ready for a personal leadership revolution – questioning the systems that have always been the backdrop to their work and lives, and re-imagining their roles to be much more aligned to values and purpose.
In the recent Brené Brown Dare to Lead Podcast with Michael Bungay Stanier they talk about the habit to give advice, which comes from our drive to add value. But the truth is, this is not how actually people learn – we don’t learn from advice, but from reflection and making our own meaning. One concept that hit deep for me, was that we know how to win by giving advice - our experience has convinced us the only way we add value is to have the answers, be the smartest person in the room, share our own experience, or give advice. In doing so we keep our place at the table, but there’s a cost. Sometimes our advice isn’t that great or not the right fit for that person. If we’re jumping to solutions, we may be solving the wrong problem, and perhaps the greatest unintended outcome is disempowered people.
Why? Because it’s the key to engagement, particularly for today’s diverse, younger workforce. Engagement is the extent to which people feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work, and it doesn’t come from telling people what to do.
So how do we empower rather than, disempower? It’s simple - ask questions and then listen! Paradoxically it’s not about doing more, but doing less. Less talking, more listening. Less telling, more asking. Not to ‘be nice’, but because it actually engages and empowers people to bring forward their own ideas and perspectives. If engagement is about passion and meaning then we need to help people understand more about who they are and what’s important to them, then help them connect that to their work. As simple as this sounds it requires us to resist the deep socialization that we have to give advice and lead the way we’ve been taught. When we do this, our people can start to experience their own learning that comes from discovery, reflection and the subsequent trial and error of applying what they learn to their own situations.
There’s no way to genuinely go down the road to asking more, talking less then to work through our own personal leadership revolution. To overthrow everything we’ve been trained to do in our hierarchical, traditional leadership models and examples, and to simply come alongside our team members. To be human, be with, be side-by-side.