Hidden Leadership Lesson #30

In a New York Times Corner Office interview Kathleen Flanagan, President/CEO of Abt Associates, recalled her first meeting with management as the new 29-year old leader of a business unit of Abt.

“So I went in front of 35 people who were now my direct reports to talk to them about my vision, and most of them were older than me. I remember wondering whether they were going to take orders from this young whippersnapper. And a couple of them had pretty much determined that there was no way I was going to be able to pull this job off, and they said that to me.”

It is no surprise that the managers didn’t embrace their new leader from the start.  Although her young age was an obstacle, what made it even more so was the fact that she went before them to talk to them about her vision—underscore her.

Showing others that you are the boss is not the way to building a productive collaborative relationship, though on the surface it may get you compliant behavior. When faced with the challenge of seeking the support of others the first step is to demonstrate/show your willingness to listen to and possibly even follow those you wish to influence and lead.   Communicating your trust in them is paramount.


As Kathleen came to realize during her first year “you’ve got to respect people. You’ve got to listen. You have to be willing to get input from everybody.” Rachel Ashwell, founder of Shabby Chic, in a previous posting  echoed the importance of respecting people when describing her approach, “I’m going to treat you as a human being” thus recognizing the need for relatedness, respect and trust…so “when having a conversation, you’re really there and you’re interested and you’re interesting.”


Recall a principle expressed by Stephen Covey, “seek first to understand then to be understood.”  Why is this so critical?  To be a leader you must be the one to take the first step toward cooperation by showing your willingness to trust the other.  The essence of leadership rests on the intra-personal and inter-personal, not the positional.  Accordingly, trustworthiness and trust are the bedrock of leadership and productive relationships.


Providing leadership is not so much about being the one in-charge—of exercising positional authority over others—but rather being the one who knows how to engage the power of others.


Engaging others means accessing their will not employing incentives.  It is about helping people find meaning in the work not reducing the work to an economic transaction.  In a May 2006 Leadership Excellence article Francis Hesselbein noted  “listening is one of the most effective ways of learning what others value” and as such “it is part of the art of leadership.”


One way that Kathleen does this is by “asking people at every level of the organization for their input.”  Caring about what other’s think communicates that you actually have confidence in their ability to think and are willing to take action in response to their input.  In so doing, you facilitate them toward making a contribution in a meaningful way, and motivation follows meaning.


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