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Are You a Dictator?

Richard Jary/

Are you a leader who is frustrated that members of your team aren't doing what you want them to do?

Perhaps it’s time to take a look in the mirror to see whether you might be the problem.

Merriam-Webster lists among the synonyms for “leader” the words channel, conduit, duct, pipe, line, penstock, trough, tube.

All are mechanisms that allow things to flow through them. While the modern use of the word leader in organizations is widely understood, there might be something to learn from what these synonyms suggest a leader is.

Channels, conduits, ducts, tubes: All have to do with being a mechanism to ensure the flow of something from one place to another. As a leader, do you see yourself as a mechanism for ensuring things get from one place to another? Note that the synonyms do not include anything related to being a spigot, source, gate or dam.

If you are leader generating ideas and pushing them down for others to implement and you aren’t getting the results you want, perhaps you might try a different tact. What if you gave up your need to be the spigot and source of everything and allowed yourself to simply become the mechanism for the ideas of others to travel where they need to go? I know, it requires you give up your need to be in charge and have the answers. Most significantly, it requires you trust others.

In many ways, this notion of a leader as a channel or mechanism through which things need to flow is consistent with prevailing theory around servant leadership.

Robert K. Greenleaf first coined the term “servant leadership” in The Servant as Leader, an essay published in 1970. Other well-known advocates of servant leadership include Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Peter Senge, M. Scott Peck and Margaret Wheatley, to name a few.  According to Greenleaf’s essay, his servant as leader philosophy had its roots in a work of 1958 fiction:

"The idea of the servant as leader came out of reading Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. In this story, we see a band of men on a mythical journey . . . The central figure of the story is Leo, who accompanies the party as the servant who does their menial chores, but who also sustains them with his spirit and his song. He is a person of extraordinary presence. All goes well until Leo disappears. Then the group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned. They cannot make it without the servant Leo. The narrator, one of the party, after some years of wandering, finds Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored the journey. There he discovers that Leo, whom he had known first as servant, was in fact the titular head of the Order, its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader."

The discourse about leadership is dynamic and varied and perhaps we will never collectively agree on what a leader should be (e.g., commander in chief, guiding spirit, coach). What we can do is continue to explore the textured nuances that weave together the fabric of our human experience. Perhaps the most important question we can answer is: “Who am I as a leader?”

If you are a leader who has leaned more on positional authority (titular power) or telling others what to do (delegating, directing, dictating) and you aren’t getting the results you want, perhaps an experiment is in order. What if you subverted your ego in favor of taking a test drive with servant leadership practices? What if you saw yourself not as the spigot but as the channel? Let others be the source and you be the mechanism for helping them and their ideas manifest as fully as possible.

Three things you can try to get started:

  • Stop solving (or thinking you are solving) your team’s problems. A Harvard Business Review article, Who's Got the Monkey, highlights the risks of solving other’s problems rather than helping others learn to solve their own problems. Helping others succeed is a fundamental tenet of servant leadership, but first you have to let go of your ego and realize that others can be successful if you let them; if you open yourself as a conduit through which they can contribute, perform, grow and thrive.
  • Stop talking so much. Yes, some of us (this author included) do way too much talking and woefully too little listening. Get comfortable with silence by practicing the seven-second rule: Wait at least seven seconds before answering your own question or filling the space of silence with your “brilliant” idea. You can also try taking a hint from Charlie Green, a leading authority on what it takes to create and build trust. He advises we limit our talking to two minutes. It’s tough. It’s also really important. If we don’t stop talking we don’t get to hear from others and hearing from others is critical to practicing servant leadership.
  • Get really curious. Years ago I had a client who was really frustrated with his team; he felt his employees had no ideas, didn’t take ownership for anything and were generally not very engaged. We agreed that he would try an experiment during their next team meeting. He was only allowed to ask questions of his team during the meeting. In sharing how things went during the meeting he said he almost jumped out of skin with the limitation of only asking questions. He said he almost couldn’t do it. And, he said for the first time ever his employees seemed to take ownership for things, came up with some great ideas to issues they had been facing for months, and for the first time he left the meeting without a long list of action items. A few weeks later he reported that his team continued to be on a course of transitioning from being disengaged to being collaborative, turning out some long awaited projects. Allowing the team members to find their own answers, to come up with their own solutions, ultimately created more empowered individuals and a thriving team and organization.

So, if you are a leader frustrated with your team and finding blame everywhere but in the mirror, maybe it’s time to become a channel, duct or conduit by taking a page from the playbook of servant leadership.

(Image via Richard Jary/

Sarah Agan is a regular contributor to Excellence in Government. She has spent the past 17 years working with clients across the federal government with a focus on helping individuals and organizations thrive.

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