Imagine if you would, the wisest and most beloved ruler, leading a country with a wealth of knowledge and experience at their disposal. All the people of the country sought the ruler’s advice on all matters and were happy to be ruled. But as the country grew more prosperous, the ruler soon realised it was impossible to keep attending to each and every need or issue that arose. The ruler knew this problem would not go away, but the people not ready to resolve it on their own.
What to do? What to do…?
The more experienced of you may jump to the obvious answer at the end, which is that the ruler must learn to delegate and teach others, or risk total ruin. But as you are also keenly aware, that is always easier said than done. As playful as it sounds, I find this little metaphor fitting for today’s modern leaders and describes the vast percentage of leadership issues worldwide; especially those managers today who are struggle ‘to lead’ by trust others, delegate, and manage others. This can be difficult to understand and accept for some, but like with the metaphor earlier, it is the only correct answer to this problem.
“Leaders are ultimately people, and they have to be people-oriented; to manage people and processes effectively and to resolve the inevitable people-related issues that arise.”
Let’s start by being brutally honest and fair. Leaders are not rulers. It’s an archaic form of thinking that has spawned some of modern history’s worst examples of leaders and leadership. All of those examples also being soundly proven to be unsustainable. What’s more, leaders don’t always have the right answers. Put aside the ego, bravado, and the idea that public perception must be maintained — That leaders must be this symbolic idol of infallibility or perfection, because they’re not, and such ideas are the most common ingredient in leadership problems.
It can be tempting to assume that knowledge and experience will always correctly guide a leader; as if the right reference of knowledge and the exact suitable set of experience will magically pop into the leader’s mind at the precise moment like a Disney movie special. But we know reality is seldom that optimistically and conveniently OCD in our favour.
Over time, the experience and knowledge a leader acquired can actually become the problem, because a lot of things can change and not all of the knowledge and experience remains useful or relevant. Those followers who pick up the reigns, taking on more responsibility will not necessarily know what to process, how to process, or how to adapt to changes. That’s what the leader has to address — How to coach and develop others. This ultimately leaves leaders needing to learn how to coach!
Leaders often have the benefit of experience and knowledge. However, if that experience is not transferred and translated into a learning for the next generation to accept, all that experience will be wasted. And it will be no one else’s fault but the leader! Those who stubbornly cling to their own, “My way or the highway” attitude may have some merits in certain contexts, but that philosophy is exactly the thinking used in short story above. Furthermore, it likely will not gain the kind of acceptance or trust needed.
Eventually, more and more will simply leave or respond with the collective mentality of “keep your head low and if it happens, just let it happen”. It’s a passive act of surrender, which limits the quality of their performance. Those people will stick to it until it finally becomes unfavourable or unbearable to stay. Then, when they leave, they take the all their experience elsewhere leaving the organization more work and a different problem to manage.
The reality is that “My way or the highway” only works until you’re the one being forced to take those choices, and you don’t like either one. It’s very limited way of thinking, let alone doing anything as varied as dealing with human beings. When someone in the team isn’t conforming to the work, culture, or whatever policies that management has decided on, there are plenty of other things leaders can do before ‘playing the authority card’, and chief among these options are leaders becoming a coach to the people on their teams. There is a reason(s) why someone doesn’t do what they’re supposed to. And it’s not something that using punishment, threats, or shame will help bring out. Needless to say, if you don’t know what the issue actually is, you’ll go back to doing what you think will work…And that doesn’t work!
A good manager’s (and similarly, a coach’s) job isn’t necessarily to fix other people’s problems nor is it to fix other people so that they can just tell people what they want. A coach isn’t (just) the cheerleader, or the personal trainer shouting motivational things, or coming up with solutions. Instead, it’s about empowering their team through coaching them through their limitations, to deal with their own challenges by unlocking their own resources and take charge of their own results. It’s not completely unlike that of a teacher or gardener — They create the ideal environment for those working to achieve goals and make it easier to be productive and deliver good results. This is what leadership skills are at the ground level; building better people around them – Deepening their abilities, enriching their contributions, and creating an environment that encourages them to be accountable for their own outcomes.
In the same way each leader learns how to best lead their team by gaining trust and learning about their team, so too does a leader become a much more effective coach by listening and asking better questions. In coaching each member of the team with their issues, by learning their strengths and weaknesses, and adjusting the method of leadership to best activate their team members, these leaders will gain the trust and loyalty of their subordinates. Moreover, it presents them with a flexible and reliable style of leadership — to empower them, to educate them, and to ensure they develop real ‘management’ skills.