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Are you leading leaders? Published: Sunday, June 6, 2010 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

What would it take to start thinking of you as a leader of leaders?  What would happen if you started treating the people you lead as interdependent leaders rather than compliant followers? Think about the stereotypical concepts you have in your brain about "followers."  Contrast that with the stereotypical concepts you have in your brain about "leaders." With one conscious choice, you could start leading leaders!  What might be different about your behavior if you were leading leaders?  How would your expectations change?

Would you hold people accountable in a different way?  Would you expect more proposed solutions to problems?  Would you expect more collaboration?  Would you expect more initiative? Most leaders are comfortable leading followers.  The thought of leading leaders may be threatening to some. It takes a lot less work to lead followers than it does to lead leaders!  Followers have questions about what direction we're headed, when we expect to get there, and how difficult it will be to accomplish the journey.  Their presumption-and probably yours-is that you will provide the answers to these kinds of questions.

When you lead leaders, your role shifts from "answer provider" to "culture creator."  You transition from being the person who people go to for answers to the person who people go to for mentoring and coaching.  You invite the other leaders to consider a variety of options for any decision they are about to make-and to evaluate the benefits and costs of each of those options more thoroughly.  Analytical decision-making becomes widely adopted across your organization.

When you lead leaders, however, they ask different questions.  "Why are we headed in that direction?"  "How does that approach fit with our overall strategy?"  "Aren't we overlooking what our customers will need next year?"  "How would we know success if we achieved it?" When you lead leaders, you no longer put pressure on yourself to have all the answers.  The pressures are different, however.  You have to stay in contact close enough that each person continues to collaborate rather than starts to work independently.  Independent capability is healthy, but the objective is to work interdependently with the other leaders in the organization.  All the leaders working together are far stronger than any one of the leaders working independently.

To achieve these objectives and transform the organization from the inside out, courage will certainly be needed.  Leaders must be bold to objectively evaluate the last action and to consistently challenge themselves and others to the highest standards - both morally and related to performance. In sum, there simply is no way to truly test one's mettle or to exercise courage without a "test." That test or trial comes as a daunting obstacle, throng of resistance, or future unknown. Courageous leadership will be required to:

  • Spur discussions of "undiscussibles." From honest, balanced individual feedback to criticism and objection to organizational norms, taboo subjects stifle an organization's ability to address issues. Leaders who drudge up these "off-limit" topics take the heat but also take the action necessary to move forward.
  • Fight complacency and strategize turnaround. When the business needs to change to survive, it takes a bold leader who can objectively evaluate past successes and failures, and use what's learned to help create a new direction.
  • Empower others, define accountabilities, and set expectations of excellence. Setting others up for success takes excellent leadership.
  • Move from "I" to "we." A high performance culture isn't possible if all members are working in their own best interests, not those of their organization. Teamwork is essential, but it takes courage to build value with others instead of alone.

Courageous leaders build cultures of leaders by:

  • Exploring the unknown. It's unsettling for many to navigate uncharted territory. But stepping out of the box, the silo, the rhythm or the status quo is a necessary discomfort to realize the next big idea.
  • Trusting one's 'gut.' A leader's intuition and instincts are honed by years of experience. Sometimes trusting them is a necessary leap of faith.
  • Nurturing the creative. Also potentially scary: removing boundaries, enabling time to think provocatively, and the breathing room needed to uncover a great idea together.
  • Taking measured risks. This calculation is often built on years of experience, but ultimately leaders must be able to pull the trigger and commit to an uncertain plan with potential but no promises.
  • Contingency planning. When the measured risk falls short, then what? Is there another direction to take, or a lesson to be learned. Courageous leaders think it through.

To enjoy sustained success in this new turbulent environment, organizations in all sectors need to develop a level of agility that matches the present unprecedented level of change and complexity. This means learning to navigate constant change and to effectively manage increasing interdependencies with customers, strategic allies and other stakeholders--including the planet itself. There is a huge need for effective leaders and leadership cultures that model and support agility across the enterprise. No longer the dichotomy of leaders and followers will be sufficient for the organization required in the new era. The call is for leaders to teach others the principles of leaders and to develop cultures of inclusion, innovation, self-responsibility and risk taking.


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