It’s fascinating how many assumptions there are about leadership.
Consider the image of the leader as dictatorial hero—the executive, general, or visionary who grabs the wheel and saves the day. The central assumption in this narrative is that a strong leader takes over a group and willfully exerts power over its members.
That idea of leadership is pure fiction. The only way for a leader to hold power over group members is for those members to give her power.
Sure, you can point to dictators who rocket to power and terrorize a citizenry into toeing the party line. But without exception, there comes a point when enough people are fed up and they change the power dynamic and choose a new leader. Yes, there is often loss and tragedy as the leader tries desperately to hold onto power, but in the end they all fall from power. Unless the people choose to continue giving them power.
The same dynamic holds in organizations today (hopefully without the tragedy). Each day employees choose to give their leaders power. Each day, they choose to come to work and either cooperate or rebel. In extreme circumstances, employees are almost as direct in their dissent as the citizenry of a dictatorship. For instance: in the early 1990s, when I was a contractor at United Airlines, employees thought the company was being managed poorly, and they simply bought the company and cleaned house. Okay, it wasn’t exactly simple, but employee buyouts do happen. I’m not saying this change necessarily made things any better for the company, but it certainly made it clear who was in charge.
Usually, however, rebellion comes in the form of minor resistances like taking office supplies, buying the more expensive flights on a business trip, ignoring customer complaints, or not mentioning opportunities for growth that won’t otherwise be noticed.
Just as people can take power back from their leaders, they can also give it. The leader who seizes power will not keep it for long. The strongest leader holds power by gaining the confidence of her employees.
If most employees engage in resistance in small ways, they also give power in small ways: by exerting discretionary effort. Employees can choose to stay that extra 15 minutes at the end of the day to finish something up, or go home and start again in the morning. Does an employee re-read a document before presenting it to a client to be sure there are no typos, or do they skip it and hope for the best? These decisions don’t make or break an employee when review time comes around, but if an entire team takes is making the extra effort to focus a bit more, improve quality, and set standards high the aggregate effect can be huge. And not just huge for the company. We all want to work on a team where our colleagues are focused, working hard, working smart, and everyone is pulling for the same goal. In work environments like this time flies by, employees feel energized at the end of the day, and amazing results are possible. Sports psychologists call it being “in the zone.”
So, how does a leader get her employees in the zone?
The first step is to realize that your job as a leader is to help employees succeed by finding ways to make their job 1) more meaningful and 2) easier to do well. If you do these two things employees will give you the power you need to lead. They will say, in effect, “we are happy to follow you, because you are getting us all where we want to go.”
The second step is to hone your listening skills. Every day leaders need to listen to what their employees need and where they want to go. Knowing employee perspectives allows a leader to shape a common purpose for her team and communicate to employees where that thin red line of commonality lies.