Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Illusion of Control

One of the big “aha” moments for leaders is when they finally realize that they control very little. The sooner they realize this truth, the sooner they can become an effective leader.

Leaders spend so much of their time trying to shape, guide, motivate, incentivize and energize people to go in the direction they want them to. Interestingly enough, when John Kotter wrote his book on Leading Change, he suggested that 70% of change initiatives and programs have failed. He went on to describe a prescription for leading change that seemed to make practical and logical sense. However, with all those efforts, and over 1800 books on the subject later, the results haven’t changed (McKinsey & Company).

The authors of the McKinsey & Company research article, The Inconvenient Truth About Change Management suggest several new approaches to change management that leaders would do well to consider.

The one illustration that stands out in the article is reference to research conducted by Ellen J. Langer. A group of researchers conducted a study in which one group was given lottery tickets with randomly drawn numbers, while the other group was allowed to select their own combination of numbers for their tickets. Prior to drawing the numbers the researchers offered to buy back the tickets. They were trying to find out how much (if any) more they would have to pay someone who wrote their own ticket, compared to those who were given random tickets. As illogical as it may seem to you who are reading this, it took five (5) times as much money to purchase the tickets with the numbers the participants had self-selected, even though the odds of winning were really no different.

This story illustrates that when we chose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome. With this being the case, it is critical for leaders to focus less on telling, rewarding, motivating, incentivizing, and more on asking, listening, and drawing out until people write their own story that engages them in our mutual effort.

I’ll never forget sitting in the office of the CEO of a very successful home builder as we discussed the reason people get up and come to work, i.e. the mission of the company, or the daily marching orders for the employees. As we went back and forth on this, I asked him to invite a random person in from the hall way and listen to them tell their story. It turned out that she was someone’s administrative assistant. I asked her why she worked at the company, or what really got her up and energized about coming to work every day. And in one sentence, she wrote the mission of the company when she said,”I love working here because ‘We provide more people with more home than they ever dreamed possible”.

The reality is that every person in that company has their own reason and story for what energizes them about what they do. These are stories that need to be drawn out and heard. It is these stories that elevate employee engagement and create the competitive advantage of great organizations.

Our job as leaders is to help them tell their story, and embrace it.

When Strengths Become Weaknesses

I have been working in the area of Executive Assessment, Executive Coaching and Leadership Development for several years. If we have learned nothing else about leadership over the past few years, we have learned that no one can be all things to all people, nor can one person have all the competencies required for all aspects of their role as a leader. Even the very strengths required for our success have their “shadow side” that has the potential to derail us, or at minimum, to create problems for us. If it is not bad enough that our strengths have potential to create problems for us, consider what happens to us under stress. Our stress behaviors, which under ordinary circumstances, are hidden from view, jump off the page, and tend to surprise everyone, sometimes even us. Here are just a few examples of the “Shadow Side” of Leadership Strengths:

  1. Sensitivity to Others – valuable for effective listening, collaboration, gaining cooperation, and building teams. However, the shadow side is the tendency to avoid conflict, failing to confront problem performers, or sidestepping a change that may create resistance.
  2. Organized, structured and detail oriented – great for pulling a plan together and driving to action. The shadow side may be the tendency to be rigid, inflexible and to micromanage people.
  3. Smart, confident, self assured and competitive – great for leading others toward achieving a vision or goal. The shadow side could present as arrogance and intimidation.
  4. Valuing education, learning and keeping up with the latest trends in their industry or profession may present a shadow side that looks like arrogance and being a “know-it-all”.
  5. Solid, data driven, analytical problem solver may tend to show a shadow side as one who is cold and unconcerned about or unaware of the impact of their decisions on others.
  6. Friendly, gregarious, approachable, always making a positive first impression may show a negative tendency to wanting to be the center of attention, dominating social interactions, failing to listen, interrupting others, and overestimating one’s own importance.

We have all witnessed the tragedy of leaders whose strengths turned into their greatest weakness and eventually led to their derailment. The good news is that the latest trends in leadership development, especially with the addition of Assessments, 360s and Coaching, are providing leaders with the opportunity see themselves for who they really are, to see themselves as they are seen by others, to understand their personal patterns of responding to stress, and providing them with an opportunity to develop strategies that can keep them on the trajectory for achieving the vision they have set for themselves.

Your first step forward is to be open to the development process and to take advantage of every opportunity to develop your self- awareness, identifying your strengths and their shadow sides, as well as your tendencies under stress. With that insight you can develop a plan for maximizing your strengths, minimizing the impact of the shadow side of your strengths and begin to eliminate your unproductive stress behaviors.