The Leadership Treadmill

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.

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4 thoughts on “The Leadership Treadmill

  1. Great post, GH. You’re on a roll!

    What I’m wondering about though – is what about a very large system where many of the leaders are not highly visible? I think about my own organization for example. Sure, I have access to regular interaction with upper-level leadership. As dumb luck would have it, I attend regular meetings with senior executive types. But, what about the other thousands of employees who work the graveyeard shift? Or what about the technicians and clinicians who are completely and totally (and rightly so) absorbed in their work for every minute of their 12 hour shift?

    A quick and easy answer is – if the CEO cant be seen by everyone, then department leaders, and shift leaders, and floor leaders must be the ones to carry the banner. So, we must depend on each other to hire and promote the “right” leaders. Easy enough. Or is it?

    How scalable is leadership? Vision? Passion? Commitment to mission?

    One of the most fascinating questions we’ve been wrestling with lately is how to “integrate” our non-proft mission into the work of our 6,500 or so employees, across a massive geographical area. We have great leadership at the top, we have great senior leadership team, we even have some pretty great department and shift leaders. But, we’re still having trouble scaling our mission across our campuses, etc.

    Put a great leader in a board room and tell them to get 12-15 people absolutely on fire for a cause/mission/idea, and I think you can do it in an hour or less.

    But, tell a CEO to get 6,500 people to feel that way…?

    That’s when you need a consultant. 🙂

    1. Kevin:
      Scaling leadership, vision, passion, and commitment is tough. Nothing easy about it. What’s important to realize is that the work is NEVER done. We can’t afford to think about “integrating our non-profit mission into the work of our 6,500 employees” as if it was some type of innoculation. Rather, it’s a continuous process. Leaders need to contantly think about the best ways to create and sustain a learning organization, which helps drive a culture of alignment across all levels of leadership.

      By the way, I’m not convinced that it takes an hour our less for a great leader to get 15 people fired up in a board room. Charisma and a compelling delivery only go so far. 15 people can’t accomplish much in a big organization without alot of other supporting work. Yeah…I know….knit picky!

      1. Excellent points. In a large organization we spend an enormous amount of time on procedures, policies, standards and job descriptions. So, when an idea like “mission integration” comes along, our natural inclination is to treat it like a policy to be implemented, instead of a way of thinking about a corporate culture.

        It’s hard to make new, compelling and culture-shifting choices. The risks are high, and I appreciate the fear that comes along with that. But if we belive in who we are, we should be bold.

        This quote from Goethe landed in my in-box this morning, and I think it fits: “Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

        And, I accept the notion that charisma and smooth delivery only take you so far. But, as an old speech communications hack I wish more CEO’s could get a board room, or a conference room excited and fired up. Maybe that will be my consulting business career: “Persuasive Speaking for CEO’s: Don’t bore ’em, floor ’em!” Ha! 🙂

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