Hidden Lessons in Leadership #2

Since examples can illustrate successful practice, many aspiring leaders often search for them to direct (their) action. And just as often those copying these examples fail.  Why?  Because they really don’t know what to copy! Rarely do people critically think about the examples in an effort to develop understanding of why the practice is effective.

A February 6, 2009 New York Times interview with Susan Docherty of General Motors revealed a key lesson for effective leadership.  In response to Adam Bryant’s question, how do you hire, Susan stated “…I’m looking at people for my team, it’s not just what’s on their resume—their strengths or weaknesses or what they’ve accomplished—but it’s the way they think.  I can learn twice as much, twice as quickly, if I’ve got people who think differently than I do around the table.”

The obvious lesson is that good leadership involves hiring the right people.  The right people—at least for Susan—are those who are ‘team players, innovative thinkers and willing to take risks.”  What is not explicitly discussed here is that good leadership is not just about surrounding one’s self with the right people but it is equally important that the leader be among ‘the right people’ as well.

It does absolutely no good—it is actually harmful—if you have all the right people around and you are not willing or able to be open to their influence.  If you haven’t sufficiently developed your self, then you surely won’t be ready to meet the challenge.  That is to say, those who are attached to what they know and believe—those with minds that are made up—are most likely to not engage the power of others.  Moreover the right people will become the wrong people when the leader doesn’t also create the space—both physical and psychological—within which these ‘right people’ could freely and fully exercise their capabilities.

Susan Docherty describes her space by saying “I’ve had to work hard at being inclusive. I may have an opinion, and I may already know where I want the answer or the decision to go. But I make my team members feel valued by asking them: “What do you think? What would you do? What would your idea be?”  As explained above, if the leader is not sincere when asking these questions—if the intent is merely to present an image of openness—then ‘these right people’ will learn quickly that their leader has no substance—he/she leader is not ready to be influenced by their ideas.  As the leader seeks to control, in effect, what is communicated is both his/her own inadequacy and mistrust.

Susan goes on to say she doesn’t do this to keep people on their toes: “I do it because I often get new insights and new ideas from people who are looking at things with a fresh set of eyes… It’s one thing to say that you’re inclusive, but it’s a whole other thing to be inclusive.”   To engage others you yourself must be engaged.  Having an open door policy is merely surface-level stuff.  It is far more engaging to be open-minded and inquisitive.  In leadership being is far more effective than having.

The leadership mind is an inquisitive critical thinking mind. The mind of a leader is not the mind of the expert but rather that of the beginner.  It is the mind of one convinced that what is known is just the beginning of what could be known.

What is your experience with people in authority positions—so called leaders—who couldn’t engage the talents of others?  What were the effects?

2 thoughts on “Hidden Lessons in Leadership #2

  1. I was a supervisor, and had a new boss. She was very busy paying attention to my colleagues’ areas, and I wanted her to see how well my area was performing. I was proud of my staff; dedicated, creative, improvement-oriented. Together, we’d developed self-directed teams that exceeded expectations, and enjoyed the encouragement of my former boss to push the limits. When I asked my colleagues how I might capture the attention of our new boss, they said “be careful what you ask for.” Eventually, she did get around to shadowing in my area, interviewing my staff and me, looking at our numbers, and deciding that we were achieving our results the WRONG WAY. She forbade our self-directed team system. She forbade our process improvement work. She even siezed my calendar and dictated with whom I was authorized to meet. I’ll stop there; you get the picture. What were the results? Productivity plummeted, morale plummeted, and I and others ran away to different jobs at the first opportunity. She was at an extreme end of leaders who can’t engage the talents of others, but effects are similar along the spectrum. We work best when we all teach and learn together, and contribute to our organizations with all of the talent and experience we have. Then our organizations thrive.

  2. I absolutely agree with the facts mentioned above. In order to achieve the goals of any corporate any project any product, the foundation of success is HIRING. HIRING should involve couple of parameters apart from normal stuffs like eduction.. experience mentioned in CV. The main focus should be if the person has capability to survive and produce good results under worst situation. Is he/she capable of driving things independently.. Above all to HIRE a right PERSON, the organization or project needs to have people who are open-minded and ask for suggestions. Truthfully speaking people who succeeds oftenly seeks / asks for help. This is where one makes team members feel valued by asking them: “What do you think? What would you do? What would your idea be?”

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