How To Become A Better Leader? Stop Telling, Start Asking!
The contemporary command-and-control workplaces are still very much dominated by a directive leadership style. Team leaders, supervisors, managers, vice presidents and directors who give order to their 'subordinates'.
This directive leadership style is based on control and fear where leaders are pushing their decisions down the chain of command. It is all about commanding others how to do their job. This leadership style is outdated as it neglects the wisdom of the crowd and it disengages those lower in the organizational hierarchy. There can only be one conclusion: the world is in desperate need of a new kind of leadership.
From directive to supportive leadership
Over the last months we spoke extensively to leaders and employees of, what we consider, the most inspiring and progressive organizations in the world. In all those months we rarely came across the old-fashioned directive leadership style that is commonplace in today's organizations. Instead, most leaders we met are very supportive to their employees and the organization. Instead of telling others what to do, they inspire others and subsequently ask them how they can support them. We've witnessed a unique combination of authenticity, modesty, rebelliousness and stubbornness. A style which we call 'supportive leadership'. Here are 5 of the distinguishing characteristics:
1. They craft an inspiring vision
Within the progressive organizations we see strong leaders that are supportive to those who are 'closest to the fire'. These leaders craft a compelling vision and inspire everyone in the organization to pursue that vision with them. They embody an uncommon combination of humility and rebelliousness as they have a strong vision while being very open to let employees themselves decide how to get there.
Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman's beautifully describes it in his book 'Being a better leader': "The number one responsibility is to provide vision for his or her part of the organization. A vision is a descriptive and fairly detailed picture of what success will look like for us at a particular point in the future. It's the big picture, the lofty and inspirational edifice that we're all working on. It should be inspiring to all who will be involved in implementing it. Strategically sound, we actually have a decent shot at making it happen."
2. They embrace their followers as equals
The leaders of the world’s most inspiring workplaces constantly ask their people want they want and what they need to be able to perform better. The leaders will act upon the employees’ requests and will do everything in their power to make their wishes come true, to get rid of barriers and thereby support their employees to thrive. The inspiring leaders constantly challenge the status quo - 'the way we've always done things' - and encourage the entire organization to do the same. They walk the talk, embody the organizational values and are a crucial part of the organization's culture.
Ari Weinzweig in 'Being a better leader': "I live our "10/4 Rule" - when I get within ten feet of my employees I make eye contact and smile, and within four feet I greet them. If they've worked here for many year, I'd probably greet them with the same sort of familiarity I would use with a regular customer. If they're new and I don't know them, I need to reach out and introduce myself and welcome them aboard. This last act isn't easy for me, I'm actually very shy, and a total introvert. The better I know them, the better I'll be able to serve them, and the better, in turn, they'll be able to serve the customers. Asking the staff member what I can do for them and then actually listening to the answer."
3. They destroy the ivory tower
Inspiring workplaces highly value intrinsic equality. Status symbols and privilege are destroyed. There are, for example, no reserved parking spots, special restaurants or elevators especially reserved for management. Most of the leaders don’t even own their own office because the fancy executive corner offices have been symbolically destroyed by the leadership (sometimes even by sledgehammers). Within these organizations authority is no longer linked to a hierarchical position, but rather by the ability to lead.
4. They ask for help
Inspiring leaders ask for help from employees instead of directing them to do things their way. It's their intention to involve and engage everyone in the process to reach the goals of the organization as they believe strongly in the wisdom of the crowd. They are not afraid to constantly ask for input from their employees because they know that asking for help is a sign of a strong and secure leader and that asking for help taps into the natural human reflex to cooperate with others.
5. They trust their employees
Inspiring leaders allow teams to work together to reach their goals and trust teams to execute projects by themselves in their own way. They do not micromanage but instead keep teams accountable for their own results and behavior. They don't treat employees like kids, but like responsible adults. There is one important disclaimer: the project and goals should be concrete, clear and achievable. Once leadership communicates goals that are fuzzy, vague or impossible to achieve people will give up even before they even have started.
Here are some best practices that organizations use to promote a supportive leadership style into an organization:
- Destroy ivory towers and get rid of status symbols, job-titles, and privileges.
- Let team members evaluate their supervisors
- Let employees select their managers
- Disassemble hierarchy through design
- Ask unasked questions
- Don’t assume you know best, ask your employees what it is they need to thrive.
- Organize regular town hall meetings
- Let employees set their own targets
- Pre-approve decisions
- Delegate decision making through the advice process
- Let employees handle conflicts themselves
Transform yourself into the leader of tomorrow
The predominant leadership style of the twentieth century will not work in the modern age of rapid change and uncertainty. Supportive leadership can be a successful alternative for the outdated directive leadership approach. This leadership style proves to be able to tap into the huge 'engagement potential' that is dormant in many of our traditional workplaces.
It's this supportive leadership style that needs to emerge and that has the power to transform many organizations from the inside out. But be aware: it is not an easy way to lead. It is perhaps the most challenging leadership style one can practice. It requires a strong personality, authenticity, vision, commitment, courage, humility, common sense and perseverance. But for the leaders who are willing to invest in this new way of leading, for the ones that have the courage and the perseverance, it could give rise to enormous success.
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How are work outcomes affected by the treatment of those who do it? I have been exploring this question for ~50 years. In that time, one comment stuck with me more than any other. It was made in 1998 when I interviewed a group of men in Indianapolis who had redesigned most of the US city’s waste collection and disposal operations. “We are no longer expected to park our brains at the door when we come to work.”