"Is it better to be feared or loved?"
This is a somewhat cliched interview question for potential leaders that is intended to try and capture how a leader wants to be perceived. There are die-hard advocates of each answer as well as people who are deeply opposed to one or the other. I like to dissect this in terms of the goal of a leader, which I believe is to influence individuals, teams, and organizations to effectively deliver durable results.
Fear can certainly be a motivator to complete tasks. Team members who are afraid of some form of punishment, be it being yelled at, losing a bonus, or getting fired, will absolutely be motivated to avoid that negative outcome. There are leaders who take some pride in this - that their team members fear them a little bit. Again, this can drive people forward and get them to complete tasks and meet deadlines, but if we look at the “durability” goal for leadership, this approach ultimately fails. Most people don’t want to work in fear; the stress and unpleasantness of that kind of environment will lead them to find an opportunity to get out whenever they can. Even short-term results can be jeopardized because people are doing whatever they think will let them go unpunished rather than what they think is right! I’ve always felt that the moment someone fears losing their job is the moment they stop doing their best work.
Does that mean that it’s better for a leader to be loved? In truth, team members that love their leaders are often willing to do whatever is asked, and likely on a much more durable basis than when fear-driven. But sometimes this love is based on attributes that are somewhat tangential to our work - some of us love that leader that always brings in doughnuts, that’s ready with a quick joke and a pat on the back. This isn't necessarily bad, but if a leader is more focused on doing things to be loved than on delivering results, a happy team may meander through their work without a clear outcome. Also, as the saying goes, love can be blind. We can see this in the way people in the tech industry exhibit a hero worship of tech leaders that we don’t even work for and have a belief that they can do no wrong. At some point this is unhealthy, particularly within an organization. I know I make mistakes and I want my team to point them out to me, as unpleasant as that can be.
So where does this leave us in terms of the initial question?
Simply that it sets us up with a false dichotomy.
If there’s one thing I want my team to feel towards me, it’s trust. Trust isn’t easy to come by, and for a leader it goes deeper than simply being trusted that you’ll do what you say. As leaders, we should be trusted that we have our clients’ and/or organizations’ best interests in mind, trusted that we have our team members’ best interests in mind, trusted that our team members can come and speak to us when they have new ideas or concerns, especially if they have concerns with what we’re doing. Developing this kind of trust takes work, it takes relationship building, it takes consistent active demonstration that you can be trusted in these ways.
As a leader, I personally am not looking for my team to complete tasks (which can be driven through fear) or to simply do whatever I ask (which can be motivated by love). I want my team to deliver results, I want them to grow. I want them to succeed. I want them to challenge me and each other and make all of us better at what we do. Neither fear nor love can consistently create this kind of environment. In my experience, only trust can do this.
Ultimately, cultivating this level of trust gives you the ability to more effectively influence team members and organizations, and will drive truly durable results.
As often as not, when I get asked for advice on how to handle communication in difficult situations and walk through my approach, the person asking for help is a little disappointed. To be clear, they understand the approach and can see that it will work but they are hoping for a silver bullet to magically make it easy. The reality is that good communication takes work, practice, and most of all, it takes ownership.
If you accept that the role of a leader is to influence others to take action, communication becomes more than an optional “soft” skill; it’s essential to the success of any leader. Yet all too often I encounter people in leadership roles that give it little thought.
As an example, at conference sessions I’ll ask for a show of hands for how many people regularly have meetings where everyone leaves the meeting with truly a common understanding of what was discussed. The results are grim - most of us feel that this seldom occurs. Why do we let this happen? Why do we accept that we’ll walk away with different interpretations and just hope for the best?
We often put the blame on others for not “getting” us. Sometimes it’s a bit of ego or taking pride in the fact that not everyone can understand us. Sometimes we blame the listener for not understanding this and believe we couldn't be any clearer.
These attitudes all reflect a lack of ownership. Sure, there are some situations where a person simply can’t understand what you’re talking about, but that’s arguably rare. We use excuses and blame the listener to protect ourselves from thinking that the fault is in ourselves. The reality is, communication can be a tool, a skill, even a strategy, but unfortunately effective communication doesn’t come from a magic bullet or a mystical cure-all.
Successful communication comes through ownership
We need to be able to listen and hear what people are telling us: their concerns, their needs, their expertise, their perspectives. We as leaders own understanding them and asking questions to make sure we’re clear before trying to get them to understand us. And that’s the second half of the ownership; making sure we’ve been understood. Communication is more than just sending an email. It’s more than giving a single speech. It’s verifying that people actually “get” you, and finding different ways of communicating when people don’t understand you.
Some people that I've coached have felt that this isn't fair and ask why should they be expected to own both sides of communication if other people aren't expected to? The answer is that this isn't about fairness, it's about your success. If you want to be successful in any kind of leadership role you need to be able to communicate effectively, and doing that takes ownership.
It’s hard work at first but it’s worth it.
This is a well known phrase, dating back in one form or another to at least the late 19th Century in the English speaking world and perhaps going much further back in Chinese culture, that is often used to promote the notion of making people self sufficient.
I like to interpret it through the lens of leadership. Looking at the first line, you can micromanage (give someone a fish) and make them dependent on you for success. In other words, if whenever a team member asks a question or has a problem your reaction is to tell them how to solve it, all you’ve done is taught that team member to be dependent on you. This isn’t even always about micromanaging; I’ve seen this with one of my leads who was working with a developer struggling to learn a new technology. Every time she had a question, the lead found it easiest to simply give her an answer. Eventually the lead realized that he wasn’t doing her any favors and indeed had made her dependent on him.
So, true to the adage, a better approach is to teach, which in the example above would involve teaching the team member how to use the new technology. The problem is that we often simply do just that: teach the “what” or the “how” of things. Doing this certainly solves near-term problems. Imagine as a CFO you have a bookkeeper that had to ask you every day how to enter items in the ledger. You would quickly switch to teach mode and make sure the bookkeeper knew what information went where, how to enter receivables, and so forth. However, if you didn’t teach why the ledger was set up the way it was in the first place, why specific accounts were created for example, the bookkeeper will still not be able to solve next level problems.
Or take the fishing example. What happens when the particular fish you’ve been taught how to catch doesn’t go for the same bait anymore? Or that species dies out? Or the riverbed dries up? Or you move away from water? While in some regards this seems remarkably trivial we do this all the time: we focus our teaching on what and how, and yet wonder why people can’t solve problems without us.
Thinking About "Why"
This is where principle-driven leadership comes in. Principle-driven leadership is all about teaching the “why” of what you do. Leading through principles gives your team members the philosophy to make decisions in your absence. It’s teaching people how to think, not how to do.
Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, talks about the difference between algorithmic and heuristic work. Algorithmic workers essentially follow an established instruction set that leads them to a conclusion; in other words, there’s an algorithm for getting the work done. Heuristic workers are attacking problems that may need experimentation, research, creativity, etc. to reach an appropriate outcome. In other words, they are often dealing with a level of unknown.
I believe that knowledge workers are firmly in the heuristic category and as such require more than simply being told what to do (and for what it’s worth, I think algorithmic workers can benefit from principle-driven leadership as well). Your heuristic workers need enough autonomy to be creative in how they approach problems but tempered with principles to guide their experimentation in a meaningful fashion.
Don’t get me wrong, thinking about why you do things is daunting. That’s why most of us shy away from it. We might not know why we do things, or we might not want to explain it, we might even think we act solely on instinct. Digging deep into ourselves can be uncomfortable.
However, there’s no way a senior user experience designer could think of every scenario a junior designer will encounter in their career, nor could an experienced software developer explain every possible combination of code a junior developer will use in a lifetime. So we shouldn’t pretend we can.
Instead, we should lay down the principles that guide us in our decision making and use that to steer our teams along with clear guidance on the expected outcome of their work. If they understand where they’re trying to go and why you think the way you think, you’ve enabled them to accomplish great things in your absence. You might even be able to take a vacation without worrying!
So to embrace principle-driven leadership, I’ve revised the opening adage:
Not particularly catchy, but I believe this is the most powerful way to lead. If we arm our teams with well-thought out principles and set clear outcomes to guide their work, they will exceed our expectations.
Leadership is an overloaded word. It can be used to simply refer to people in senior level positions in an organization, to describe a certain kind of extroverted bonhomie that makes us feel good, or to describe what’s missing in an organization when things go wrong. Sometimes it’s simply defined as “I know good leadership when I see it’!
The problem with having such ambiguity is that it’s difficult to focus on improving our leadership skills if we don’t have a clear understanding of what it means to lead. Sometimes we’ll get advice like “be more like ‘Somebody Else’”. But in what way? What if ‘Somebody’ dresses nicely or always buys doughnuts on Fridays...is that what’s expected of us? They’re always punctual to meetings and return phone calls...is that what’s expected of us? I’ve even heard of someone telling their people “We need more cowbell! You know what I mean.” And aside from knowing that it’s an SNL reference, my friend had no idea what was meant.
In my years of coaching other leaders I’ve developed a simple definition that helps frame what I consider the right way of thinking about leadership:
There’s a lot going on in that simple sentence that provides good guardrails for developing leadership skills and will serve as a foundation for future blogs. For now, I’ll parse out a few important details to hopefully remove any ambiguity:
Good leadership doesn’t come from role power. You don’t magically become a leader just because you were given a title or assigned people to lead. Quite the opposite; leadership is sometimes best demonstrated in the absence of hierarchical control. A good leader is able to set a vision that influences people, teams, and organizations to take action and create desired outcomes regardless of where they sit in a hierarchy. Developing influence skills is a big success factor for leaders.
This is key to the definition of leadership: being effective simply means being able to successfully bring about intended results. This is different than efficiency, which is about maximizing productivity and minimizing waste. Those are good things to do, but the first goal of a leader is to get results. Leaders in the digital world are often faced with things that haven’t been done before or at least that they themselves haven’t done before, and so the focus needs to be first on delivering positive outcomes, then efficiency when you get into a repeatable process.
Thinking about durability of results and outcomes can really set you apart as a leader. Conceptually, it’s easy to accomplish a specific goal or deadline by forcing the team into a death march or threatening (and delivering) some form of punishment for missing the target. This approach can certainly yield a specific KPI but in my experience is not a durable approach to leadership. Said another way, durability is taking the long view; thinking about the team you lead and how they can continually grow and deliver results over the course of time. Of course near-term goals need to be hit, but if done with an eye to the future you’ll create strong teams that can take on anything.
All of these ideas bear further exploration but this should serve as a good foundation on what leadership is, and it’s been my experience that embracing these notions can really transform the way your organization operates.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.