Leading from Within

A colleague of mine recently came to me distressed and anxious about a new role he was being asked to fulfill on a relatively new work team. The New Year brought on new goals, for himself and the young team. He was nervous; not about whether he could meet the demands of the new role—a position he has had high performance in for quite sometime within the organization—but rather he was discouraged that they did not ask him to manage the new work team.

“I never knew you wanted to be a manager, Jon” I expressed surprise in his disappointment.

“I don’t really,” he explained. “I like what I’m doing and I believe I do it pretty well, but you think I’d be asked to manage the team, given all of my experience in this role.”

“But you just said yourself that you don’t want to manage people. It would probably stifle your creativity if you had to be burdened with the details that come with management.”

Jon shook his head in discouragement, unable to pinpoint the source of his anxiety over the new dynamics of his team.

“What’s the real issue here?” I asked pointedly.

“The real issue?” he scoffed.

“Yeah, why are you so disappointed when you will still be doing what you’ve always done, perhaps even better with a new manager,” I tried to draw him out.

Then Jon poured out his emotions over the unsettled dynamics of the team and how they weren’t properly chartered and even potentially set up for failure. The new manager seemed nice enough, and was a good people person, but she didn’t know anything about the skill sets required by the individuals performing the daily duties of this work team.

“I’m the real leader of this team. I’m the one who has to meet with the client up front, get real clear on what they are asking for,” Jon offered a passionate plea. “And I’m the one that has to face the client when the rear their angry head when the job isn’t done exactly the way the want!” he added with exclamation.

Ahhhhh! There it is! A common misperception in workplaces all around the world. Managers aren’t always leaders, and leaders aren’t always managers. The business literature of the 80s and 90s, before the digital age dramatically changed the face of the workplace, often preached management and leadership as synonymous with one another. And to a degree, they still are. A manager needs to develop good leadership skills. Filling out monthly or annual reviews is one thing, getting down to the heart of the matter and drawing people’s potential and passion out of them is another.

On the other hand, there are organizations around the world that are full of great leaders as individual contributors and within teams—great managers of self—that know exactly what they are doing and how to make the team and the organization more efficient. These are individuals that don’t need to sit behind a title or be in a traditional position of power to make a significant contribution to the organization.

“Jon, that’s just it. You are the leader of this team. In fact, it seems that you have a team full of great Self Leaders. You don’t need a title to make yourself or your team more efficient. There is no secret to it.”

He shook his head in suspended agreement, until the light of reason brought a smile of revelation to his face.

“Leadership is an attitude, not a position,” he surmised like only a blossoming leader could.

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  • Comments (5)
  1. On a related point, I am long annoyed over the confusion of roles between e.g. administrator/administrative decision maker, decision maker wrt the actual work, “motivator”, …

    Too often, for my taste, are these various roles baked into one, often with the unfortunate effect that someone who is good at dealing with customers ends up making technical decisions that others are better qualified for, or that someone who is pushed to an administrative position for lack of competence ends up being in charge in other regards too.

    (This is somewhat understandable in low-qualification areas. There are many fields where the team has one bright member, with the remainder being average to dull, and he may then well be the best choice for every role. In e.g. my field, software development, the same level of brightness is not a stand-out criterion, but often the minimum in the group—with a correspondingly different situation as the result.)

    As an aside, an additional explanation in cases like Jon’s is often that merely asking shows a certain appreciation and not asking could be interpreted as a lack of appreciation. Here, and in many other cases, it is possible to want the offer but not the actual position.

      • Jason Diamond Arnold
      • February 1st, 2011

      Michael,

      You make two critical points in this story. The first point is that people are often promoted on past performances to an unrelated task. Your background in technology is a great example of how the workplace has changed over the past twenty years. Often, the individual contributor knows much more about the actual task than the manager does. But even if that manager was a great software developer, and got promoted because of it, doesn’t mean that he is going to be a great manager.

      I think now more than ever, work teams need to be properly charted and roles more clearly defined–especially when it comes to leadership of the team. One of our key dynamics of a High Performing Team, as we tech it at Blanchard, is the idea of Shared Leadership, based on what decisions need to be made.

      Your other point is great too! The executive decision maker could have talked to Jon before hand and gotten his input, explained the situation, and see how he at least felt about the role of management. Jon would have been more than happy to explain he had no interest in managing, but wanted to have an active role in making final decisions about projects. Trust would have been deepened and he may have avoided some confused emotions.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Good stuff.

    • Michael G
    • February 1st, 2011

    “Leadership is an attitude, not a position”

    Very good to keep in mind with self leadership. In the past, I’ve worked with individuals that have the title, but no leadership skills. It’s a recipe for disaster without proper direction to the leader.

    Although it’s much easier to lead for the individual if there is some position power attached. In Jon’s case, during chartering, if he were in some sort of a “team lead” position where client work decisions would naturally fall to him based on the team’s input, it would probably help the entire team, and their customers get what they need.

      • Jason Diamond Arnold
      • February 1st, 2011

      Michael G, that is a great reminder, especially to self leaders. I find so often, that when we go in to an organization that individual contributors feel limited in what they can accomplish without a position of power. The same is true when working with local communities as they relate to their local government. Just because you don’t have position power doesn’t mean you can’t get things done effectively.

      As to Jon’s case, what you suggested is is exactly what I would encourage him to, negotiate for some sort of team lead role so that he still has authority of client work decisions, while the manager focuses on helping the team function effectively. As I stated in the previous post, we encourage shared leadership roles within teams, as it can help take the burden off of the manager and put more decision making authority in the hands of the people that best execute it, making the clients and the team happy.

      Thanks for your comments,

      Jason

  2. “The first point is that people are often promoted on past performances to an unrelated task.”

    Unfortunately, I think that you misunderstand where I am coming from. The underlying point of my original comment was not about promotion-to-unrelated-tasks, but the assumption (be it by the organisation or the individual manager) that the manager is automatically the most qualified to make decisions about the work at hand. This can include unrelated tasks, e.g. a business student who starts as a project manager and ends up as department head—and who may be well qualified to decide on e.g. budget allocation or project planning, but has no clue about which programming language is the better choice for the current project. It can also include “sideways promotion” and similar phenomena, e.g. that a poor-to-mediocre developer is given administrative tasks, because he is the only one who can be spared at the time—and a year later is named team lead. It can involve a developer with an “outgoing personality” being given responsibility for customer and inter-departmental contacts and later, again unrelated to his developer skills, receiving authority over the group. Etc.

    “But even if that manager was a great software developer, and got promoted because of it, doesn’t mean that he is going to be a great manager.”

    Here we have a special case of promotion-to-unrelated-tasks that is a common issue when promotions and competence are under discussion (“The Peter Principle” is a notable example). However, it ultimately goes back to the confusion I mention in my first comment, in that there is an unnecessary mixture of roles. By more clearly differentating into e.g. a “chief developer”, who makes technical decisions and has other close-to-technology tasks, one or several administrators, and one or several liasions (towards customers, other departments, …), most problems could be avoided. (Where, obviously, these roles can be filled by the same broadly skilled person—the point being, however, that this is no requirement and that it will be rare for someone to fill all the roles.) In particular, the way many companies handle their organisation, there is an equality “administrator = boss”, which, on the balance, does more harm than good.

    (I am not familiar with your “Shared Leadership”, but going by the name it could be something in a similar direction and/or an attempt to address the same problems.)

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