What is leadership? I mean, really, what does it mean to you?
I was recently speaking with an executive at a creative agency who was frustrated with his team. No one was bringing any ideas to the table, at least none that he felt were worth seriously entertaining, no matter how many times he invited, enticed, or even demanded that they do so. He felt that no one understood his vision and they weren’t contributing to creative growth of the firm. He would make suggestions or reference certain sources to provide creative inspiration, with little to nothing to show for it. In the end, he usually ended up providing the final idea himself after shooting down anything submitted by his team.
Having worked together in the past, I had an idea about the potential cause of his dilemma but I wanted to unpack it a bit further to see if he would come to his own realization.
Q. How much autonomy does the team have to produce their own work?
A. They have total autonomy. I want everyone to contribute.
Q. And are they talented and capable enough to do the job?
A. Oh yeah, they’re brilliant. I’ve seen their other work and it’s really fantastic.
Q. Ok, great. And how well do they understand your vision?
A. Of course they understand it, I’ve told them a million times. I want to be the biggest, most successful and brilliant creative agency in the world!
Q. So you’ve told them where you’re trying to go. Do they understand what it looks like to get there?
A. Yeah, I mean I told them what I wanted, so…
Q. You told them. And when they came back to you, did the work meet your expectations?
A. No. It wasn’t even close. I end up rejecting their ideas and doing most of the work myself because they just don’t get it.
It may or may not be obvious here, but what happened here was that my friend was inwardly deeply and painfully clear on his vision. So much so that it never occurred to him that others might not be on the same page. In fact, he was so convinced that his ideas were obvious that he couldn’t see where his external communication hadn’t been clear in the first place. And he certainly wasn’t making the connection between his taking the reins on every project and the team not bringing fresh ideas to the table.
Setting a vision is a vital step in building a resonant culture. Leaders should absolutely have a clear, compelling, brilliant picture of where they would love for their business to go. The only way to orient toward a goal is to have at least a representative image of what it would look like to get there. But far too often, we see people thinking that dictating an outcome with vague expectations is the same thing as communicating a powerful vision.
Leadership requires investment – we have to invest the time to gain an understanding of our audience in order to deliver our message in a way they will be able to receive. We have to share in the power of communication. If I tell you “I want something magnificent,” that’s aspirational but also pretty vague. If I give you some examples, “Here are some things I think are magnificent,” that’s a little better but still leaves room for misinterpretation. If I get clear on what I really want to convey, “What I find magnificent about these three examples are quality A, quality B and quality C,” then I’ve given you some details to emulate or design around. More focused, and likely will produce better results. But even still, I’m substituting tactical and technical considerations for actual values-based leadership.
The often overlooked element of communication is action. What I say will not inform you nearly as much as what I do, or don’t do, to support my words. This is where impact is either achieved or lost. The leader who says “bring me great ideas!” but consistently responds with “your ideas are no good!” will never be able to elicit brilliant work from his teams no matter how emphatically he insists on greatness. He creates a power vacuum by failing to bridge the gap between his vision and the lived-in experience of his team, and then further assures failure by conditioning the team to believe that their work doesn’t meet these ill-defined standards. The team becomes disempowered, and so relinquishes all capacity for innovation and creative ownership.
I have seen this play out countless times in many businesses. The leader assumes ultimate control and authority, and may even be the most skillful or talented individual in the organization to execute on the vision. So they are high achievers with equally high standards, which they brandish like a weapon. They then fall victim to a common dilemma – confusing the idea of leadership for that of power. They hope to create productivity by exerting force and dominance, but generally do more harm than good. Teams become demoralized, reactive, and generally disengaged. Creative energy is diminished and the people become dependent on the power of the leader, rather than the empowerment of their leadership.
Leaders have to be attuned to their own strengths and weaknesses, and the extent to which they tend to over- or under-utilize their core traits, before they can hope to influence, inspire, and move others. Truly great leaders are not those who solely dictate outcomes or activities. The best leaders do relatively little of this. The most resonant leaders will define and communicate the vision, and then help create or illuminate the path for their people to achieve it. They build value in the relationship between the mission and the individual, and create alignment between personal purpose and business success.
There will always be times where power is required. But if your goals are creativity and innovation, the question is: will you be in a position to know the difference, and make the difference, when leadership requires a loose grip and a nuanced approach, or will you be left standing there with smoke rolling out of your ears wondering why nobody understands the vision you failed to inspire by beating them into submission?
Also published on Medium.