We manage tasks, we lead people.

aggressive businesswoman screaming at small startled man over dark background

We can tell ourselves that we also manage people, but most people don’t want to be managed. There’s a connotation there of someone else being in control, that as long as I fit within well defined bounds, things are fine. Does that sound familiar? It’s my impression of the way prisons operate. When I am managed, all the value I bring as a human being is ignored and only the most technical, functional aspects of my capability are utilized. When we manage others, we hold the interesting bits for ourselves – the idea generation, the decision-making, the creative problem-solving etc. Managing people turns them into machines. If someone else is managing me, I just have to follow instructions. The very real downside to that in today’s business world is a vastly underutilized workforce, high turnovers and a weird oscillation of those ‘leaders’ between hero and burnout. Not appealing, nor a smart business move – at least to this writer.

We lead people not tasks. A task or a technical function doesn’t follow anyone, that’s impossible. But people, when encouraged to do so, choose who they follow, why they follow them and when they follow them. If we view our business as static, repeatable, status quo and a place where we don’t need to grow, then maybe managing can work as a dominant style. But does that sound like any company you’ve ever worked for, or want to work for?

The excitement, fulfillment and sense of purpose people get from work comes from being able to bring their whole self to the work. The best leaders of the 21st century will be able to recognize the potential in people first and work simply to help them realize that potential. We all know we can’t lead without followers. But our followers are increasingly – and rightfully – demanding. It’s not wrong of them to demand a workplace where they can impart the highest value they have to offer. In fact, every CEO in their right mind wants that. That’s the way you unlock business performance that you never thought possible.

In a very real way, leaders are invited to lead. When we step into that elevated position, let’s be sure we recognize who we’re responsible to first: our people. Some might argue that a leader’s responsibility is to the business first. But here’s the thing, if you inspire passion, interest and energy, then your people will adopt the mantle of being responsible for the business. That’s simple math: one leader vs. hundreds of people who are responsible for the business.

So this is the 21st century leader, unlocking the full potential of each human being they lead. What does that even mean? What does that look like? Well, the great news is that it’s not far off what we already know of great leaders. It is (and yes, this is in order of significance):

  • Genuine and sustaining curiosity about what others have to offer or what they could offer given the chance.
  • Convincing people of your sincerity in wanting them to bring their full power to bear. When leadership pundits speak about the use of emotional intelligence, social skills, your own vulnerability – it’s in service of exactly this. As much as each of us want to bring our whole selves to our work, we’re fighting against generations of work life that did the opposite so it’s a risky proposition. Leaders need to show, by their own example, that the risk can be taken and it’s worth it.
  • Discipline and rigour in checking in, not on the work, but on the person: what do they need, what will help them be engaged, what blockages are they facing and how can you help them.
  • Challenge and hold people accountable, again not to the work, but to bringing their whole self to the work. This is difficult, calling for greater skill at tough conversations, but with potential to have much more lasting, positive benefits.

If there is one reality of business in the 21st century, it will be the elevation of growth as a business tool. To respond to: flattening structures, economies built on intellectual vs. industrial capital, and the democratization of the way we organize our businesses because of technology.

Anyone reading that list who has experience teaching should find it familiar. It’s the way the best teachers have been reaching their students for generations.

So be a leader that grows your people’s whole selves at work.

November 24, 2016 • in Opinion
  • At The Refinery, we accelerate development of the leadership you need to achieve your organization’s full potential in a rapidly changing business world.


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