Last week, I joined one of our portfolio company’s daily issues meeting. 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.
You know the organizational characters I’m speaking about:
- The follower: this leader waits to be told what to do
- The bureaucrat: this leader waits for permission or delegates their responsibility
- The administrator: this leader conforms to what they know, resisting anything new or out of the ordinary
- The abdicator: this leader is full of reasons for avoiding or failing in their responsibility
- The victim: this leader blames other people
- The politician: this leader tells others what they want to hear but isn’t all-in
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 them 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 distinguish 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 leaders:
- Seeing what needs to be done
- Understanding the underlying forces at play
- 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:
- A direct conversation about what the character their playing reveals about them
- “Contrasting” the difference between the character they’ve been playing and that of a leader
- Asking them to articulate the differences and probable outcomes of playing their character vs. embodying the leader role
- Securing their promise to show up in the “leader role” moving forward
Direct conversations and an explicit leadership expectation can help leaders take responsibility for how they are holding themselves and the organization back. It can also help them see how casting themselves in the “leader role” empowers them to lead with full power.