A Leader’s Dream. Or Nightmare?
I recently had an experience where I was coaching someone and something happened that made a big impression on me. It’s certainly not the first time something similar has happened, but this time it really affected me. We were talking through how to prepare for a certain event and I told him, you will need a schedule in which you detail what you are going to do daily over the next four months. He said to me, “Please make me the schedule and I will just follow it”.
My first thought was, ok, this is perfect – I will just make the schedule – it will save me a lot of time if I don’t have to explain it and the result will likely be the same – a leader’s dream, right? Given what I do for a living on the coaching side, which is work with entrepreneurs, senior executives and other high-achievers to help them achieve peak performance, I quickly had to step back and point out to myself that the easiest route is not always the best route.
Sure, by just setting up the schedule and letting him perform the activities like a mindless automaton, he probably could have performed quite well on this particular project. However, where would he be on the next project? Would I really have been doing my job as a coach and a leader? Some would argue yes, that the simple, straightforward, mindless approach was fine, as long as the results of the project were good – the ends justify the means argument.
I came to a different conclusion. Even though it cost me and the person I was coaching a bit of extra time, I decided it was worth it to walk that person through the rationale for each activity and the timing of each activity on the schedule. How do you think this went? You are correct – it was “like pulling teeth”. The “mentee” already had his mind up that he did not want to know any of “the why”; he simply wanted to know exactly what he needed to do, then go do it.
This led me to a few specific conclusions about this individual and one general and more troubling thought. First, I realized that unless this person changed their mindset, they were not likely to progress much further in that particular field of endeavor. Second, I also concluded that without a change of approach, this person could not very easily become a leader – after all, how could they ever lead someone else if they themselves did not want to understand the “why” behind what needed to be done? Finally, I concluded that while this approach of “tell me exactly what, how and when to do it” may work for some relatively simple tasks and situations, as soon as this “paint by the numbers” trainee ran into a more complex and dynamic scenario, they would likely have no idea what to do. That is not very useful in the exceptionally dynamic world in which we live.
The more general and troubling thought I had based on this interaction is that this individual is not unique. There is a massive group of people out there, probably a significant percentage of the Earth’s population, who would rather be told exactly what to do than to have to spend one second thinking for themselves. That is a scary thought indeed! You can call it human nature if you’d like. You can call it laziness. But whatever you call it, it’s hard to disagree that if we only have a small percentage of the population willing and capable of thinking and planning for themselves, we have a real problem! We must also ask ourselves how we can change this. On a macro level, it’s going to be a tremendous challenge, starting at the beginning of how we raise and educate our children. On the micro level, we stand a better chance of making a positive change in the short term.
What if, in our businesses and any organization in which we participate or lead, we slowly, but surely push ourselves and those around us to cease being automatons and start thinking for themselves? Do you think we’d develop more effective organizations that way? Do you think we’d develop organizations that are more capable of adapting to our dynamic, rapidly changing macroeconomic and global political environment? I would say that the answer to these questions is a resounding, “Yes”! We must create more leaders, not more followers. Through our leadership, we must strive not to tell our followers exactly what to do and be content when they obey our orders. That will not get us nearly as far as creating followers who are capable of thinking for themselves and becoming the next generation of leaders. If we don’t do this, then who will become the leaders of the next generation? How will they know how to lead? Will they even want to try to lead?
Given the time pressures we are all under, it would be easier to just make the schedules and task lists for our followers, but we need to resist that temptation. Work with your team, your mentees, your followers, your children and anyone else you may influence to teach them how to think for themselves. Reward them for thinking and for being creative. Tell them that the end result matters. Of course, it always matters. But emphasize to them that it is much more important that they can figure out how to get to that end result individually and in collaboration with their team, than that they can do a specific set of well-defined tasks from rote memory. Reward problem-solving initiative and creativity as much or more than you reward results on specific tasks.
Another related and very important topic, which is too much to cover in detail in this article, is the importance of willpower in overcoming any problem. Regardless of how well you teach your team to solve problems, unless they have the willpower (perseverance, determination) to follow through until the job is done and the goal is reached, it will be all for nothing. As a leader, you must help your team develop not just the knowledge and capabilities necessary to succeed in dynamic environments, you also must help them develop the confidence and perseverance necessary to follow through until the desired results have been attained. That’s the topic for another discussion.
I look forward to your thoughts and comments.