Nobody ever said leadership is easy. Whether I’m working with the CEO, a senior staff person, or a middle manager type, I’m told of pervasive frustration with executive team meetings. Don’t misunderstand–I hear of (and witness) some with great rhythm, harmony, and effectiveness…but I experience far more of those without.
I can’t help but cite three powerful observations from my bookshelf.
In Tribes, Seth Godin talks about belief this way: “People don’t believe what you tell them. They rarely believe what you show them. They often believe what their friends tell them. They always believe what they tell themselves. What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and about change” (p. 138).
Peter Senge points out that “[s]ystems thinking is especially prone to evoking defensiveness because of its central message that our actions create our reality. Thus, a team may resist seeing important problems more systemically. To do so would imply that the problems arise from our own policies and strategies–that is, ‘from us’–rather than from forces outside our control….More than other analytic frameworks, systems thinking requires mature teams capable of inquiring into complex, conflictual issues” (5th Discipline, 2006, p. 220).
Finally, in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni recasts the typical dysfunctions into positive statements of cohesive team characteristics: “) They trust one another. 2) They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas. 3) They commit to decisions and plans of action. 4) They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans. 5) They focus on the achievement of collective results” (p. 190).
So what can we make of these keen insights? One clear take-away seems to be that leaders control darn little–except their own attitudes and behaviors. No leader can persuade her/his team to act in a certain way. Instead, the desired attitude and behaviors must be modeled and sustained consistently over time. Senge’s dose of reality therapy is that “our actions create our reality.” Leaders–like everyone else–need to constantly remind themselves (or, painfully, be reminded by others and/or by events) that one’s behavior is a reflection of one’s attitudes, assumptions, and priorities. What you say matters less than what you do (consistently).
A second observation from the intersection of these three citations is the importance of getting the leadership team humming. Lencioni introduces the notion of one’s “first team.” Jim Collins rightfully decries the importance of the right people on the bus in the right seats. Even when the right people occupy the right seats and recognize their membership in their first team, the discipline noted above is essential for success (and professional sanity).
Without continuous attentiveness to the disciplines these three gifted observers lift up for us, the longer you’ll languish on the leadership treadmill–going at a fast and tiring clip without really getting anywhere.