In the 90s, comedian Tim Allen starred in a sit comedy, Home Improvement. His solution to any handyman situation was “more power.” In his role, he hosted a TV show that featured home improvement projects while celebrating the tools that did the jobs. He was fascinated by the latest and greatest gizmo that offered more RPMs, greater torque, and more impact. Power was progress, always, at least in Allen’s character’s mind. This was the case in spite of his reliability at making a mess at most projects precisely because of an inability to properly wield the power of the tools he held.
Unlike Allen’s character that never seems to learn this lesson, the audience and those of us in the real world may recognize that power is a more delicate thing. When our vehicle is losing traction from that late winter snowstorm, hitting the gas doesn’t move us any further forward. If we’re in an argument, we don’t bolster our case by building the decibels in our voices. Out shouting someone doesn’t enhance our clout. More power doesn’t make our position smell like a pretty flower. In our relationships with family, as parents, or with friends, colleagues, or as a boss, dictating by decree isn’t where we want to be. When you are on the receiving end of being told what to do against your will, how have you felt?
From our early days where we wanted to explore the world around us many of us began to experience the pain of being put in our place by parents, teachers, and others in authority. We resented being told what we could do and when. Even if a little part of us knew and accepted that we had no experience and the adults in our lives were acting with the best of intentions towards us, strict rules pushed down from above didn’t feel good. We likely felt powerless. With no ability to influence direction, we shrunk into acquiescence while letting resentment foster. Moreover, whenever the opportunity to sneak out or break a rule presented itself, we were more likely to do so. It’s the same in the work place. If you feel like you have no choice but to accede to living under someone else’s thumb, do you bring your best work forward? Do you grudgingly comply while seeking to do as little as possible to move things forward?
Hopefully, we’ve matured a little from who we were as teenagers. We may now find ourselves in those positions of power over others as parents or managers. What are we doing to help bring others along and ensure that more power isn’t our default solution to getting things done? How do we influence without imposing? Various types of leadership styles have been offered as examples. Many famous leaders use charisma or a vision to attract others to them and their cause. Others are very good at getting commitment from creating mutually beneficial transactions. Another variation of leadership is leading by example. Regardless of style, all leadership shares the common element of trying to bring others along. All leadership actions seem to take place on a continuum between influencing and imposing direction.
Contrast the image of soldiers Goose stepping compared to eight individuals representing Canada in Olympic Rowing. Both are examples of groups working together towards a common objective. Both have some type of leadership involved. Their individual movements are completely coordinated in service of their group goal. They both reflect intense discipline, skill, and commitment. Everyone involved in both examples have devoted deep effort to the craft. As similar as the situations are, they are products of diametrically opposed leadership.
When we think of soldiers Goose stepping we tend to think about those in Communist countries. Originally done by the Soviets forms of it have been seen in Germany, China, and North Korea. Those that serve in these types of countries don’t do so by choice. They are doing what they are told. Their motivation is survival. They’re driven by fear of reprisal for non-compliance as opposed to interest in the mission. Yes, they are focused and committed. However, it’s not noble values like commitment to each other or a higher cause calling their efforts forth. They are being led by a stick from behind.
A rowing team represents an example of a completely counter type of leadership. In the 2020 (2021) Tokyo Summer Olympics, eight Canadian women won the gold medal in their two thousand metre rowing event. Each one of the team members had committed many years to their sport. Several members had represented their country at a prior Olympics. All prepared together as part of a team for months and years in advance of these Olympics. They were put together to perform for one purpose, one event. They were led by their Coxswain who is considered part of their team. The individuals knew each other and had sacrificed together. In their event they are giving all that they can not just for themselves but for each other. When the pain of fatigue hits, they are digging deep for another ounce of effort fueled by thoughts not just of their own hopes and dreams, but to honor the efforts of every other member on the boat. One of the athletes, Lisa Roman, talks of the team as “we” and “us” in an interview with CBC Sports. Roman said, “It’s amazing. We worked so hard and we trusted each other. We knew we could do it if we put it on the line today and that’s what we did. It’s amazing, it’s a great feeling.”
Again, both Goose steppers and rowers represent impressive feats of human performance, but led by completely different methods and motivations. Is one better than the other? With which “team” would you prefer to play? Would you prefer to be forced to join a team or choose to chase your own dream? Do you want to be invited to contribute or directed to march? Would you prefer to be around others that were compelled to participate or those trying to become great? Given a choice, most of us would opt to join a team by choice. We’d rather enroll and engage with a group than be forced by threat to comply. We don’t mind subjugating ourselves to an authority where the authority is pulling the best out of ourselves in service of an objective in which we believe. We want to serve the group. We want to please our leader. We want to be led. But we want to be drawn not dragged. We want to be inspired not insulted. We prefer persuasion to proclamation. We seek commitment not compulsion. Of all the things leadership may be, it’s less about the leader and more about the group. The more a leader claims their title as the basis for direction or the more they say that what they’re suggesting represents “leadership,” the less they are exhibiting characteristics of leaders.
Imposing may be useful in an emergency or where the leader is the expert in an area. Often, though things may be urgent, emergencies they aren’t. For example, in heightened states of urgency, the bias for action can trump debate and discussion. When under pressure we may default to applying pressure on others. With stress we press. Being the BOSS doesn’t mean Bullying, Overbearing, Strict, Sergeant. These should be a red flags. We aren’t better when putting pressure on others. Of this, we should guard against. There are capital letter EMERGENCIES and there are emergencies which we have just hyped up into something urgent that really aren’t. Sometimes, in our zeal to deliver results, we overlook the human cost of getting things done. Our go getter Type A personality may morph into a different type A or A#shole. Unintentionally, our enthusiasm, energy, and urgency can slide into becoming overbearing. In The Code of Trust, Robin Dreeke writes, “Unfortunately, the Type-A people who often seek leadership positions tend to be born with high-adrenal physical characteristics… Their adrenal abundance—typically regarded as a gift of the strong and energetic—can easily tilt them toward negative behavior, allowing a productive condition such as aggressiveness to slip into the destructive condition of aggression.” This is even more the case for those of us that pair Type A personalities with high levels of disagreeableness. Sure, we may get things done, but there can be a flood of tears left behind.
Lead foot leadership has its costs. It is tyrants that lead through fraud and force. Regularly check-in and ask, am I using either tactic to reinforce my physical position instead of the proposed direction? Consider that those that fail to propose are ultimately deposed. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that ranting and raving, bullying, or exhorting aren’t effective. They’re the tired tactics of children and tyrants. A leader without followers is lonely. Take a minute and ask yourself, at what cost? Is it worth it? How many bullying bullets do you have in your credibility chamber? The downside is that where commitment must be coerced, credibility is being spent. That is, even where a leader believes it is a necessary strategy, it’s not a sustainable one. If we start from a position of imposition it will be tough to transition to one of trust. Geoff Smart and Randy Street in their book Who remind us that “Freedom matters to today’s workforce, and especially to the most valuable among them.” There are plenty of leaders that can generate results by imposing their will. They may view themselves as excellent leaders. The results speak for themselves they suggest. Some see the responsibility of leadership as prioritizing results over relationships. We’re not suggesting that relationships are more important than results. However, those that seem to be able to generate sustainable performance accept the importance of quality relationships amongst peers and with leadership as being a core contributor to results. We’ve all heard that the number one reason people leave a job is because of a boss. It’s not the tasks, it’s the poisonous person. Imposing leaders may generate impressive results briefly, but the churn and burn of their credibility and relationships will catch up eventually.
A way to improving our ability to influence is to focus on trying to be less wrong. If we know what behaviors we’re trying to avoid, we can work to heighten our awareness to sense where we may be straying in order to move back to the desired path. If we feel the urge to make a power grab to impose our will, this should be the warning we need to check in and work through two questions. First, am I off track? And, if convinced that you remain on the right track, then what more can I do to communicate to those I lead in order to bring them along? We can check ourselves by asking, Am I off track? (Do others know something I don’t know? Am I missing something? Is there a possibility that the voice of dissent isn’t criticism but useful feedback? Am I able to get over myself and my perspective and be willing to see that others may be able to offer valuable input to help us all end up in a better place? Instead of attacking, discounting, and seeking to discredit dissent, what can I do to decipher their intent? Am I right because of my position or am I right because I can connect the dots between the declared direction and a specific destination? A leader seeks to draw forth input and insight from multiple sources to form a more accurate picture. As Susan Scott notes in Fierce Conversations, “Real thinking occurs only when everyone is engaged in exploring differing viewpoints.” Diversity of discussion drives better decisions. Encouraging contributions from others helps to sharpen the quality of our position. Moreover, inviting discourse and debate allows us to prove the merits of our position where we’re confident in it. If we’re convinced with certainty of the desired direction, then we can move on to the second question.
What more can I do to communicate the importance of the proposed direction to bring others on board? Have the humility to accept that “because I say so” isn’t going to bring forth the best contributions of others on your team. If you are convinced in the merits of your direction and you are committed to progress, you will need to help others help you. Start by considering questions like, Am I being honest with them? Have I told them everything I know about why this is important? Do they see what I see? Remember, your colleagues aren’t the enemy, they’re your army. Their energy and effort represent the weapons you will wield in order to advance your aspiration. Why is this initiative an imperative? How will the business and their positions within it benefit from the project? What will success look like? What challenge is being overcome, what improvement sought? Is the outcome tangible?
Getting things done may be the goal. Yet, we’re trying to do so over the long-term. Delivering results today as well as tomorrow requires the ability to sustain relationships with and commitment from those on your team. Being wary of our ambition becoming scary can cue us to take time to engage and involve those upon whose efforts we rely. Taking the foot off the gas may help us to stay on course.