Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Paradox of Commanding AND Empowering Leadership

My Dad spent 30 years working toward retirement, and he retired with nothing. There are many reasons why his company shut down. Near the top of the list was lack of leadership. Specifically, the inability of company and union leaders to understand that managing the tension between performance and people is the heart of a leader’s job. How well do you manage that tension?

Leaders must hold people accountable for excellent results or there won’t be any profits for the people (i.e., shareholders, raises for employees, my Dad’s retirement…). Leaders must also care for their employees or the employees won’t care about the leaders’ goals (work without caring is compliance). Research by Russell Eisenstat and his colleagues have shown that there are seven strategies you can use to manage the performance/people tension. (1)

1. Earn trust. Without trust, people simply will not believe or follow the leader. To earn trust leaders must be brutally honest, open to feedback, competent, and practice consistent values. For example, when CEO Ed Ludwig took over at Becton, Dickinson, he commissioned a task force of trusted managers to conduct open-ended, frank interviews with executives about their challenges. Ludwig followed through on their recommendations even thou some of their findings spotlighted the failure of one of his pet projects. How can you be more honest, open to feedback, competent, and consistent in practicing your values?

2. Engage the people. High performing leaders who manage the tension between performance and people go to extraordinary lengths to communicate. One regional manager I worked with visited every one of his 100 bank branches at least once a year. He also sent e-mail notices to his team soliciting feedback from them and conducted weekly conferences calls. This leader also demonstrated an authentic concern for his peoples’ concern when he met. He understood that communication is not broadcasting. Do you?

3. Maintain focus. Shifting the focus of employees takes a tremendous amount of energy. People have habits of thinking and behaving. Bringing them around to a new way doing things is like turning a tanker around in the ocean. The leaders who manage the performance/people tension well do not change direction often, nor do they push many initiatives on their team. They focus on the fundamental few, not the meaningless many. What are your key strategic imperatives?

4. Leverage leadership. You can’t manage the tension between profits and people if you think leadership is all about you. The game is no longer “follow the leader,” it’s “unleash the creative energy of the people in a given direction.” That’s the leaders’ primary job. Professor Eisenstat’s interviews with leaders around the world found that high performing leaders used the word “we” more than “I.” They looked to others to complement their skills and style. How does your team make up for your weakness?

5. Communicate a shared purpose. Knowing the “why” behind the “what” motivates employees. They understand the need for performance accountability if they feel the emotional pull of a compelling vision. Leaders at Herman Miller discovered that encouraging employees to share stories about how they and their products serve the community was a great way to communicate their shared purpose.

6. Provide opportunities for growth. “People don’t get excited by cost reduction… People want to go to a job that is fulfilling and that they get excited about,” states Russ Fradin of Hewitt Associates. The best leaders create opportunities for their high-potential employees, conduct strategic people reviews, monitor the progress of their people, and teach leadership classes in their organizations.

7. Maintain perspective. I’ve had three near death experiences. I’m certain in 100 years I’ll be dead. You will be too. Leaders who excel at managing the profit/people tension know it’s critical to keep their job in perspective. They maintain some distance from the personal lives of their team, have outside interest, and keep their sense of humor.

My dad lost everything because the union and company leaders could not manage the tension between meeting the performance demands of the market and the humanistic desires of the employees. How can you adapt these strategies to manage these opposing and interdependent imperatives?

See you on the mountain,


1. Russell A. Eisenstat, et al; The Uncompromising Leader, ‘Harvard Business Review,’ July-August 2008, 51 - 57.

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