Too many so-called leaders are nothing more than gatekeepers for the status quo.
A great deal of energy goes into reconstituting the same 10 core ideas around effective leadership the way a frugal home cook reconstitutes leftovers. At last count, my budget-stretching mother could make at least five dishes out of leftover turkey. The names of the dishes changed, but the taste never strayed far from that of the base ingredient. By the fifth night, we found excuses to miss dinner.
The hunger-killing memories of those particular meals aside, know that you don’t have to lead the way the books or blogs or anyone else says. In fact, given the muddled mess that exists in our world and in many of our organizations, it’s my perspective that you must lead differently.
There are five core behaviors of individuals who lead differently.
1. Defy the laws of organizational physics.
Almost everything about how our organizations are structured and managed exists to perpetuate the status quo. The inertial force from all of this status quo is like the gravitational pull of our sun on the planets in our galaxy. You might wobble a bit, but no one escapes the pre-ordained journey unless something extraordinary happens. This may be OK for periods where change is slow and measurable, but it fails miserably in today’s world.
Leading differently in this setting is making a habit of busting through arcane processes and ridiculous approaches designed and optimized under different conditions. I love individuals who dare to ask, “Why?” and then offer, “What about this?”
Too many so-called leaders are nothing more than gatekeepers for the status quo. They’re the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars, clumsy and bumbling in their defense of more of the same evil in a universe that wants change.
Those who lead differently, rewire processes and approaches to meet the new needs emerging every day. Some do this with grace, and some do this with the grace of a sledgehammer impacting a piece of drywall. But, they do it.
2. Speak truth to power.
My favorite employees were always the ones who pissed me off because they dared to challenge me. I loved them for that.
Much as organizations exist to perpetuate the status quo, a good portion of the population in every organization works to curry favor with senior managers and leaders by nodding affirmatively and failing to say what they think. This situation grows worse and more toxic as you climb the ranks of organizations, with a firm’s top executives often unable to tell the CEO why she is stinking up the place.
Those who lead differently don’t have the a**-kissing gene. Some are diplomatic and masters of the art and science of positive persuasion. Others wield the verbal sledgehammer—sometimes to their detriment, but always for the benefit of their organization.
3. See opportunities where others see threats to the status quo.
In one of my workshop programs, I tell a story about a product manager, “Amy,” who changed the fate of an organization (for the better) by seizing an emerging opportunity that looked nothing like the business the firm thought it was in at that time.
Amy’s ability to spot a trigger event in a far-away market and turn it to her firm’s advantage was one of the best examples of thinking differently I’ve yet encountered. Her ability to gain support, change processes to fit the needs of the situation and cultivate influence across the organization should be the core examples in a master’s program on leading differently.
It turns out, spotting trigger events and either mitigating their industry-killing risks or seizing fast emerging opportunities is what leaders are supposed to do today. Instead, too many feed the inertial force of the status quo.
4. Experiment with the line-up (structure and people) relentlessly.
Those who lead differently view organization and team structure as tools and people as players in need of a spot to deliver their best. While strategy must beget structure, these leaders understand that structure is less about boxes and more about where and how talents are deployed.
Much to the chagrin of status-quo seekers in administration departments, these leaders shift, adjust, experiment, and do it again, always seeking that right combination of talent and position to drive the needed results.
5. Deal with people differently.
Those I’ve encountered who lead differently are to a person fierce about the need to hire for potential (not past), right after they’ve assessed character. These leaders sometimes hire slow, yet they always fire fast, again, making those in charge of the status quo slightly crazy.
They push people, sometimes rudely, out of anything resembling a comfort zone, and then they coach and mentor with the care and concern of a loving grandparent.
And those who lead differently look for signs of all of the above in these individuals.
The bottom line for now: Organizations struggle and then die in large part because of a rigidity born of human hubris. This propensity to breed a culture dedicated to sustaining the status quo must be broken. It starts with you. It starts with your decision to lead differently.
Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.
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