Engaging leaders take a stand!

by Didier Marlier on Saturday January 30th, 2016

In this beginning of 2016, I have the opportunity to observe business leaders, in different places of the world, at the moment that they share their “State of the Nation” speech and their encouragements for the near future. Two categories emerge: Those who succeeded (like the one mentioned in my post last week) to engage their people and those who “fell flat”, failing to generate passion, dream, energy and action. The world is simple for us, consultants…

I drew some lessons which I thought useful sharing with you, and they all can be summarized under one claim: Engaging leaders take a stand!

  • Logos, Ethos and Pathos: I was reported the speech of a very bright CEO. He is a graduate of the most elitist schools in his country. During his address, he deeply impressed his troops by his incredibly intelligent analysis of the geo-economico-politico context in which the world finds itself and how it impacts the company. Everyone was grateful… But the total absence of Ethos (“He seemed not to believe in it, he did not look at us in the eyes, he did not invite questions nor comments) or Pathos (“He showed no emotions, it was a well learned script… He doesn’t seem like he will rebel against circumstances”) totally ruined the goodwill he had earned by his intellectual brilliance. His handicap of imbalance (Logos at the exclusion of Ethos and Pathos) came out even stronger.
  • Content or context leadership?: Many leaders seem paralysed and prevented to take a stand by their absence of knowledge or certainty about the problem. This is one of the most dangerous and outdated “leadership orthodoxy”. Of course, it feels safer to the leader, to take a stand when he (thinks he) knows the topic. Of course his followers will be reassured. But the “disruptive context” in which we all operate, makes it difficult to be always on top on content. This is why we, leaders, will also need to take a stand when we don’t know. Leading when I don’t know, or “Context Leadership” is the signature of courageous leaders who will excel in the complex and chaotic context of the “Disruption Economy”.
  • Analysis or action?: Some leaders reminded me of those amazing psychologists who will find a very complicated (therefore bright) definition of the disease the person you care for is afflicted by… But it seems that, when it comes to leave the analysis field and enter the healing one, the brilliance and self-assurance disappear. Truly impactful leaders ensure that their speech, their behaviours and their engagement will be conducive to action, not just to reflection.
  • The buck stops here! Comfortably hide behind the collective failure or take a risky personal stand?: The story is that U.S. president Harry Truman had a sign with this quote (The buck stops here!) on his desk. By it, he indicated that he wouldn’t “pass the buck” to anyone else but would take personal responsibility for the way the country was governed. Neutral leaders try to secure their job as long as possible and will hide behind the inertia of the mass. As one participant to a poor presidential speech sadly commented: “One gets easier over the mourning of a collective failure”.
  • Blaming circumstances or showing a “resilient vulnerability”?: I love the quote of G. B. Shaw: “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them”. Strong leaders show their vulnerable side and by this simple act, encourage others to step up. In times of uncertainty or doubt, leaders who blame circumstances will transform their people in helpless victims: “What can we do, since our fate is not in our hands?” Engaging leaders will provide their people with levers that they can act on so that they become proactive actors of their journey rather than passive victims.
  • Execute failures or address underperformance?: Leaders who publicly criticized, punished, mocked or “executed” those who tried and failed, only managed to create fear, damp entrepreneurship and innovation and paralysed their organizations. Failures need to be analysed and underperformance needs to be addressed.
  • If not a rebel yourself, then protect your rebels: Look, here below, at this old black and white animation (shown to me by cross-cultural consultant and author Fernando Lanzer). Everything is nice and rosy in the “squares world”… Until (pushed by their intuition of a looming disruption or potential opportunity?) some squares decide to rebel and transform themselves into circles… Look at what the absence of a true engaging leader will provoke…

In summary, Leaders take a stand. They create conditions for their subordinates to shine, they protect their “circles” (see above): they are decisive and they do it with humility. Enjoy your leadership journey!

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