Leadership Caffeine: Dare to Be Different-If You Dare

A Cup of Leadership CaffeineNote from Art: Don’t miss out on the opportunity to join the Management Excellence e-newsletter list and win a book.  The promotion runs through Wednesday, 12/16.  See the post for more details.

It’s good to be a good leader, so don’t misconstrue the message in this post. The world needs more individuals that care enough to consistently execute the blocking and tackling required to pass for effective leadership.  My issue here is that good isn’t good enough, when the potential to be great at this activity that we call leading is within reach.

Often, the distance of the reach to “great” is slightly beyond the cultural norms and leadership habits of the firm.

Leadership Anthropology and the Rituals of Leaders:

Let’s back up for a second.  If there were such a creature as a Leadership Anthropologist that spent his/her time studying the leadership development rituals and practices inside these closed ecosystems we call organizations, I suspect that one of the consistent observations would focus on the impact that the alpha-managers have on the development of the overall leadership culture.  The observation might even be labeled as “Mimicry.”

The top leaders of a firm directly impact the prevailing leadership culture through their own practices and attention (or lack thereof) to the tasks of identifying and supporting the development of talent.

Show me a firm where the top executives engage with employees, talk openly about tough performance and organizational issues and focus on genuinely supporting talent development, and you’ll more than likely find managers at all strata acting in similar fashion.

Alternatively, spend some time at a safe distance observing the rituals of top leaders that are otherwise focused on the transactional issues of day-to-day business and that rule with an imperial mentality, and you will likely observe that the rest of the tribe focuses on these transactional issues as well.  The lower priority people development tasks are reduced to simple, empty routines such as the often banal and inane annual performance review programs.

While generalizing is always problematic, in my own experience, I most often end up engaging with conscientious individuals working for firms that represent the latter example.  These individuals intuitively understand the importance of great leadership and great talent-development practices, but find themselves struggling as outsiders and outliers. Instead of transactional hunters, they aspire to sew and cultivate talent, but find little support beyond lip service for these important activities.

A Quiet Revolutionary at Work:

In one example, a conversation with a manager at a highly regarded firm went something like this:We’re great at recruiting the talent.  Heck, people in this industry want to work here.  Unfortunately, once we get them here, spend the time to evaluate and place them into our very sophisticated talent evaluation system, there’s nothing on the other side that pro-actively supports their development.  They spend a few years, put in the time and then go off to richer development and career opportunities with our competitors.  We’re training the industry,” he added.

Recognizing the folly of this cultural norm, this professional has taken it upon himself to serve as an informal mentor for many of the firm’s recruits, volunteering precious schedule and personal time to help right a wrong and do his part to change the culture for the better.

It’s reached the point now where people seek me out based on reputation.  I don’t mind that and in fact, I feel like it is my unspoken, unwritten responsibility to do what I can to help our firm get better at the development tasks of leadership.  It’s been noticed, and some of my peers are following suit.”

This manager dares to be different and the efforts are making a difference. What about you?  What are you doing that transcends the transactional culture of your firm to strengthen your leadership practices and perhaps to catalyze an evolution or revolution in your firm’s practices?

5 Ideas for You to Dare to Be Great-If You Dare

1.  Trust your gut on the need for quiet revolution. Again, if you are here reading this, you already intuitively understand how important it is to step up your own and your firm’s leadership practices.  It’s time to put your convictions to work.

2.  Forget waiting for permission and forget waiting for someone or some group to solve leadership problems with new programs. You don’t need permission to innovate around your own leadership practices and there is no program that magically changes a culture.  Great practices develop and spread one manager at a time.

3.  Think and act like a quiet leadership rebel. The greatest leaders that I’ve encountered have redefined the system over time instead of conforming to it.  Ensure that your “rebellious activities” are focused on allowing people to better serve, support and to create value for customers and for the firm and you’ll find that it’s difficult to end up in trouble.

4.  Let your results be your best recruiting efforts.  Like the colleague above who is now widely sought after for mentoring help, or that particular leader in a firm that everyone wants to work for, your consistent and genuine commitment to pushing the envelope on practices while delivering results will be your best recruiting tool.  You will gain converts from your peers.  Not all, but some.

5.  Once results are visible, draw the “establishment” into your activities by asking for help. You personally don’t need help, but it’s amazing how much support you will get when you appeal to someone’s expertise.  A conscientious executive team or HR group will jump at the opportunity to help you formalize a program that shows the ability to make a difference in a firm’s effectiveness. The difference here is that you didn’t go to them to ask for a program from scratch. You went to them with results and asked for help strengthening and formalizing.  Instead of conforming, you helped redefine the system!

The Bottom-Line for Now

Daring to be different is not without some potential pain and cost. Most revolutions and revolutionaries face resistance and take casualties.  Only you can decide whether you are comfortable putting yourself on the line.  It’s much safer to conform.  The only cost of conforming is your leadership soul.

Comments

  1. Wonderful and inspiring, Art. Another actionable, well-written post.

    Sonia

  2. Thank you, Sonia! -Art

  3. Quite a timely article. One inspirational transaction at a time.

  4. Very interesting article. I would love to see more of this kind of rebel, or ‘stealth’ leadership. In this ‘do-more-with-less’ era, many of the leaders I work with are feeling so maxed out – strapped for time and resources – that investing in this manner may put them over the edge. What specifically have you seen these stealth leaders do to invest in this kind of noble stealth employee development without sacrificing business imperatives and/or worklife balance? I’d love to learn more. Thanks!

  5. Robert Gerdes says:

    Minister to King: – “Your highness, the managers are revolting.”
    King’s reply: “Yes, aren’t they.”
    Nice post.

  6. Excellent post.

    I’d like to make one observation about your point 2, where you say “Forget waiting for permission…” – Unless you’re at the top, that only works if your revolution isn’t in violation of the organization’s culture. Getting buy-in on the initiative from the top my be needed if you want to be around long enough to accomplish your objectives.

    Even for a leader at the top, violating the established culture can send confusing signals and a message of instability. An abrupt change can drive key people away.

    There’s no question that what works today is different from what worked last year, and that in most organizations change (and even rebellious initiatives) are needed. The problem is that most people still resist change. Leaders should be careful to optimize the pace of their revolution, based on the organization’s culture and the individuals involved.

  7. Wendy Magnes says:

    In a word, “Brilliant!” – Enough said, time to get busy “quiet rebels” – Carpe Diem!

  8. I love the “Dare to be Different” challenge regarding leadership. in 1990-92, I served as state president for the Louisiana School Boards Association and that was my theme. Much as you did in your post, I challenged every board member across the state to “Be Different” with their leadership style.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on a much needed approach to leadership in the 21st Century.

    Keep up the good work and great words!

  9. Lynley C. Carr says:

    Excellent post, Art. I also agree with Bill’s comments.

    At a previous employer, I found myself in a very similar scenario. Unfortunately, there were a lot of lessons I’d yet to learn about organizational change, and I ultimately became frustrated and focused most of my efforts on changing those above me rather than trying to lead by example from the lowest rung of management.

    It’s hard to know for sure whether my efforts would have ultimately proved successful if I’d used the self-transcendant techniques espoused in this post and elsewhere, but I am sure that I learned a most valuable set of lessons from the experience. You can’t change a Theory X organization by taking a Theory X approach with its leaders! And I’m with Art: the personal cost of conforming to such a system is way too high for me.

    I can thank my previous career experiences for turning me on to studying organization development and I/O psychology, which I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in. One article that I’ve run across that speaks directly to the issue Art wrote about here is Changing Others Through Changing Ourselves, by Robert Quinn, Gretchen Spreitzer, and Matthew Brown, published in 2000 in the Journal of Management Inquiry. An excellent read and, in my opinion, core material for anyone interested in becoming an effective change agent, or “positive social deviant.”

  10. Your post made me remember Gary Hamel’s Leading the Revolution. If we were to design an organization where it’s safe to ‘disrupt’ then we need people that by nature are non-conforming.

    People get caught up in doing the same thing over and over again in a mechanical way that whoever does the opposite is automatically seen as the rebel going against the stream. It’s not that they’re doing anything different per se, they’re just ‘acting’ in a way that doesn’t make sense to others.

    As you mention being a rebel has it’s pros and cons but daring to be different is doing what others are unwilling to do, it’s really that simple. And what others are unwilling to do are the smallest details make the biggest difference, this what everyone else overlooks.

    Great post!

  11. Thanks, everyone for reading, commenting and sharing your thoughts!

    Robert, I am still chuckling over your comment. I’ve heard it before and it gets me every time!

    For those that highlight concerns about ending up as a former revolutionary, your advice has great merit. I’ve personally rarely followed it, but I absolutely agree that it has merit. For those less comfortable with inviting an air-strike down on yourself in the spirit of revolution, it’s well worth heeding.

    Much of my intent was around individual leadership practices, and I do believe that we as leaders have wide latitude in defining and customizing our approaches and daily practices. The culture might not place weight on mentoring as in my example, but that doesn’t preclude you from mentoring on your own.

    Lynley, I had a similar experience and share the somewhat painful lesson learned. I cannot wait to read the article that you suggested. Thank you!

    Billy, what a cool, practical example. It sounds like a case study worth writing and sharing! (Hint!)

    Bill, I absolutely love your cautionary guidance and your comment on “pacing the revolution.” The “pacing” concept is a meaty one that merits a follow on post.

    And Halelly, many of the examples fit the style and tone of the one on mentoring in the post. They are most often managers and leaders fed up with waiting for the magical program fix to talent development or frustrated at the lack of attention that these topics get. They tend to take matters into their own hands instead of waiting. They often become the leader that everyone wants to work for or as my example highlights, the unofficial mentor.

    Again, thanks to all and Viva La Revolution! -Art

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