Does the world need yet another leadership book? Probably not. But what if we conceived of leadership slightly differently to mean how our everyday behaviors and interactions often “lead” others to respond and act in certain ways?
Think of the person who honked at you as you drove into work this morning or the person who greeted you with a smile as your purchased your morning latte. In these instances, someone else changed your emotional state. These examples demonstrate how everyone is a leader, regardless of rank, age or title.
This idea that everyone has a leadership role, whether he or she knows it or even wants it, is at the core of our new book, “The Everyday Leader.” Our research delves into different aspects of everyday leadership, from our roles as family leaders or co-workers to recognized leadership roles such as coaches, teachers and CEOs. One major thread that binds our thinking on this topic is that many of us practice effective everyday leadership on a daily basis, without recognizing it. If you managed to get up this morning, make breakfast and squeeze in a 5K morning run, you have engaged in what we call leading self-motivation. Without prompting, you have been an exemplar to your partner, your neighbors and/or your kids. Thus, you’ve fostered (perhaps unbeknownst to them or even to you) a sense of self-empowerment to do their share of work and to take care of their minds and bodies.
“When education is most carefully attended to, the teacher issues his orders and thinks himself master, but it is the child who is really master. He uses the tasks you set him to obtain what he wants from you, and he can always make you pay for an hour’s industry by a week’s complaisance” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Emile”).
There is also another important aspect of everyday leadership. It focuses on common misperceptions about what leaders should do, how these misperceptions can lead us into bad relationship dynamics and how they can harm the organizations we are part of. In “Emile,” Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau highlighted the mistake that leaders — in this case, a teacher — can make when trying to convince others to do something. (To be fair, sometimes it’s not a matter of what the leader wants but, rather, what needs to happen for the organization to survive.)
Barking out orders, leveling threats or offering rewards might appear like an effective demonstration of authority. But, Rousseau reminds us, at that point, the teacher (or leader) abdicates his or her authority, and the pupil (or follower) has the power. It is the child who says “no” and then elicits a response from the teacher.
How to break this cycle? We advocate a less obvious approach, one in which the boundaries are still set by the people with greater experience and knowledge but that allows the people who are doing the work or engaging in the task to have the discretion to self-initiate and act without obvious constraints.
Rousseau’s teacher offered the boy a choice but — subtly, without fanfare — set limits on the choice. Rousseau points out the true power involved in leading from behind the scenes: “Take the opposite course with your pupil; let him always think he is master while you are really master. There is no subjection so complete as that which preserves the forms of freedom; it is thus that the will itself is taken captive.” As Rousseau understood, leading from behind is a key component of developing self-motivation.
This approach might sound duplicitous or Machiavellian approach to leadership — deception and manipulation for personal gain. Indeed, it is important to be aware of the possibility of becoming an innocent victim of the political maneuverings of others. You can be led from behind without even knowing it, particularly in large organizations. What separates a Machiavellian approach from a genuine desire to manage with less “in-your-face” control and direction is the genuine desire to foster others’ self-motivation and ability to lead.
Leading From Behind — but With Genuine Empowerment
In his TED talk, Ricardo Semler, former CEO of Brazilian company Semco Partners, said, “We have got comfortable working on a Sunday evening, checking emails etc., and yet we remain uncomfortable going to the cinema on a Monday afternoon.” He believes we have to learn to sit with our ice cream, popcorn and drink, free from all guilt when our colleagues are working.
Semler described his transformational leadership style in his book “Maverick”: In 1980, when he was 21 years old, he took over as CEO of the family business. Upon taking control, he fired 60% of the top managers, empowered front-line staff to make their own decisions and tore up the company rulebook. Over the following years, Semler was a consistent leader from behind, allowing employees to set their own working hours, pay and holidays, while encouraging ideas and entrepreneurial behaviors.
While this approach to employee empowerment has paid off handsomely, some of the original staff were uncomfortable with the new freedoms and have been replaced, through a process of natural attrition or what economists like to call self-selection: Employees who didn’t like taking on more responsibility left and were replaced over time by those who did.
Everyone Can Do It, but Not Everyone Wants to or Can
Although research clearly shows that most people do want more say in their everyday lives and especially at work, we have to be cognizant that not everyone does. Leading from behind will not work with people who have little or no interest in becoming more involved with the goals of the team, whether that team is a family or part of an organization. They may not want to participate in the decision-making, because their temperament and attitude are more isolationist.
In those cases, as a leader, you have to decide whether to abandon attempts to lead from behind, which would have given you more flexibility and time, or to resume or adopt a more autocratic style. If you decide to continue, you may have to replace the employees who find it difficult to work with more latitude. (In the case of families or cultures where consensus decision-making prevails, the issue is more complex and requires a different set of approaches.)
Final Thoughts and Recommendations
Here are some recommendations for effective everyday leadership that does not bark out commands but, rather, leads people with a more self-empowering style:
The everyday leader encourages the leadership skills of others and gives them more rope and scope than they initially think is appropriate … but not so much that they fall down the well and are unable to climb back up.
The everyday leader doesn’t demotivate others by adding “but” at the end of a pat on the back: “I think that’s a great idea, but …”
The everyday leader stands behind his or her followers.
The everyday leader always knows the goal or direction that the empowered team is heading toward.