Last week, I joined one of our portfolio company’s daily issues meetings. I was struck by the cast of “characters” and how the roles they were unconsciously choosing to play were trapping them in less effective thinking and actions.

I suspect you know some of these organizational characters and their destructive patterns:

  • The follower: a leader waits to be told what to do
  • The bureaucrat: a leader who waits for permission or delegates their responsibility
  • The politician: a leader tells others what they want to hear but isn’t all-in
  • The administrator: a leader who conforms to what they know, resisting anything new or out of the ordinary
  • The skeptic or cynic: a leader who sustains and spreads their doubting attitude to deny more effective action
  • The abdicator: a resigned leader who avoids or is full of reasons for failing in their responsibility
  • The victim: a leader who blames other people

Many leaders develop these self-protective tendencies to fit in, minimize conflict, stay out of trouble, or preemptively defend themselves. The problem: Anyone who routinely plays these roles cannot be trusted to consistently produce valuable outcomes. Why? Beneath each role’s orientation is the choice to avoid responsibility. While these compensating behaviors started years before you worked together, if you cannot observe, understand, and help your people escape their limiting tendencies, these leaders will continue to hold your organization back.

In 2004, Jim Clawson shared with my GE Crotonville cohort that neither title nor position distinguishes leaders from everyone else. Instead, it was their empowered point of view. From the moment I heard it, my ability to distinguish leaders who were playing defense from the consistent winners was profoundly changed. Since then, I’ve found value in explicitly defining the “point of view” that separates effective leaders:

  1. Seeing what needs to be done
  2.  Understanding the underlying forces at play
  3.  Demonstrating the courage to initiate actions to make things better

So how do you help a leader trade the limiting role(s) they’ve chosen for a more powerful point of view? In my experience, nothing beats:

  1. A direct conversation about what the character they’ve chosen to play reveals about them
  2.  “Contrasting” the difference between the character they’ve been playing and that of effective leaders
  3.  Asking the leader to articulate their understanding of the implications of the character they’ve been playing vs. stepping up to the effective leader’s way of thinking
  4.  Securing their promise to change their way of thinking and actions moving forward

Direct conversations that install explicit expectations for improvement can help leaders take responsibility for how they are holding themselves and the larger organization back. It can also help them see how casting themselves in the “leader role” empowers them to lead with full power.

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