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Is Heroic Leadership All Bad?

I was coaching a marketing executive a few years ago who was very frustrated with her lack of career progress. She complained about how little her boss was doing to advance her career, despite her persistent efforts to raise the issue with him.

I said to her, ‘’If you were running your own business, how far do you think you would get by complaining to your customers for not buying your services?’’ A light bulb went on in her head and, after that, she started treating her boss and colleagues as customers.

As a result, she started asking questions about what they were trying to achieve so she could think of new ways of contributing to their success. She thus started to manage her career by searching for opportunities to show leadership.

The Dependency Mindset

Most employees feel it is up to management to offer them new jobs. Career frustration may be due as much to the powerlessness of employees to influence their career progress as the actual lack of advancement itself.

Because employees see management as holding all the strings, frustration leads the more vocal to complain while the rest simmer in silent resentment. The result is disengagement, negative attitudes, poor performance, passive resistance to change and early departure.

Paternalistic Approaches to Employee Engagement

Helping employees further their careers can foster employee engagement. But paternalistic approaches can make matters worse. Employees need to engage themselves to feel self respect. Without self respect, they blame the organization and disengage themselves. Doing too much for people is a problem if it erodes self respect.

Some organizations encourage employees to manage their own careers by offering training on how to prepare a résumé, how to take interviews and other conventional tricks for marketing themselves to management. But this approach to career progress can reinforce the power gap between management and employee, potentially sustaining the dependency mindset.

Intelligent knowledge workers are more self-sufficient when they take an entrepreneurial approach to managing their careers where the creation of new roles becomes possible. They search for new needs to fill rather than just looking for existing slots.

Career Engagement

Employees with a dependency mindset focus on their own needs: what the organization can do for them rather than the other way around. Turning this on its head, employees need to discover new roles for themselves by finding new ways of adding value to the business. They need to be leaders rather than pawns.

By viewing themselves as self-employed business people providing services to internal customers, proactive employees focus on their customers’ needs, not their own. Those most effective in managing their careers seek opportunities to show leadership. They work closely with the business and internal customers to discover new ways of adding value.

They champion changes for the benefit of the business in the first instance and, secondly, to generate new roles for themselves. The wrong approach is simply to ask managers if they have a job opening. This is a closed question that makes the manager do all the work of thinking how the employee might best be used.

Employees need to do the hard work of probing and networking to find out what prospective internal customers are trying to achieve and thinking creatively about how they might add value to a customer’s efforts.

Management’s role is to foster such leadership attempts rather than just be gatekeepers for existing slots. Otherwise, managers are seen as blockers not enablers. Hence the frustration and disengagement brought about by an overly paternalistic culture.

Searching for Leadership Opportunities

Organizations are full of leadership opportunities: problems that need addressing or new markets to be exploited. Asking the right questions to foster creative brainstorming is the way to unearth such opportunities. It is not a matter of having an idea in advance to propose but rather of initiating a business dialogue with prospective internal customers to generate new insights and opportunities.

Business minded employees take on extra responsibilities with a view to gradually shifting into a  new role. Everyone has had experience of a role evolving into something new. It's thus a matter of pursuing such "business development" more proactively. The key is to find or create new ways of adding value rather than thinking in terms of existing slots to fill.

Benefits for the Business

  • More proactive, engaged employees thinking creatively about how to contribute more by focusing on the business first, their own needs second.
  • Employees with more positive attitudes gained through a feeling of control and self respect rather than waiting for management to do something for them.
  • Greater team work as employees seek to work more closely with key players.
  • Better relationships when employees see managers as customers rather than as gatekeepers and overseers.
  • More leadership shown by employees instead of passive dependency.

Entrepreneurial Career Management

This approach to career management is bottom-up and entrepreneurial instead of top-down and planned. I once asked an executive who was between jobs what he wanted to do next and he said ‘’I don’t know but I’ll know it when I see it.’’ Thus it is not always possible to decide in advance what we want to do without some experimentation.

Career decision making is really a process of discovery based on trial and error, networking and career window shopping. It's like house-hunting. We can make a list of the main criteria we want in a new house but, once we start looking at houses, we often revise our criteria because we discover features we hadn’t thought of in advance.

This is like businesses changing their strategy regularly in the face of a constantly shifting, unknowable future. Entrepreneurs thrive despite uncertainty; they know how to develop and seize new opportunities thus not being afraid to take risks.

Changing the Culture

Paternalistic practices and the resulting dependency mindset work together to stifle employee engagement. The same disease kills innovation. Part of the problem is that organizations are built for efficient execution not creative, entrepreneurial thinking.

The get-it-right-first-time mentality discourages risk taking. Efficiency requires robotic adherence to roles and rigid processes while specialization and accountability encourage hierarchy.

Until organizations learn to balance efficiency with creativity, employees will continue to feel disengaged. Training employees to think like entrepreneurs won't work until managers learn to think more like customers, coaches, facilitators and catalysts and less like controllers, gatekeepers and decision makers.

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