Great leaders don’t know everything…but they can find those who do.

People ask me for advice – regularly – about a ridiculous number of things. I wonder if they realize they’re asking me because I readily admit that I couldn’t possibly know about so many subjects. That doesn’t stop me from answering, however. I just don’t answer with solutions. Coming up with the solution is their job.

The same is true in management. Anyone who’s ever led a group of dissimilar colleagues (and I’ve never come across a totally heterogeneous one) has to accept that they all have specific strengths and capabilities. What one person does really well may be something that the person at the next desk hates doing – even when they’re in, basically, the same job. So giving a solution to either of those people could rip their confidence out from under them, make them feel dependent (or resentful), and lower their motivation from high to low or from low to sub-atomic.

executive_leadership_adviceAccepted Practice

There is, at this point, an Alexandrian library’s worth of literature about how to lead, how to manage, how to motivate, handle conflict, leap obstacles and every other topic you can think of involving the workplace. Any workplace. If there’s a common thread, it’s that employees who feel valued and respected will consider their boss, manager, senior manager or CEO to be a good leader. People who are made to feel like interchangeable parts will describe their superiors using words that often refer to anatomical parts.

Some companies excel at getting everyone to focus on solving problems and to ignore blaming anyone who might have caused them – as long as the problems arose while trying to find solutions. Those companies can honestly say, “It’s not personal. It’s business,” and no one will snicker. Other firms rely on managers to identify who’s weak and who’s strong on a team and work with those people to find ways to re-channel or amplify their abilities. (I addressed this earlier this year in a post entitled “Right Person, Wrong Job”.) Then there are those where managers don’t lead as much as dictate, which can actually work in certain situations – when storming the Bridge at Remagen, for instance, or overpaying people to get them to work for bosses from hell.

Time to Follow

Leaders also know when to stop leading. If their instincts say left but their team comes up with well-supported reasons to go right, they’ll ensure that the new direction has the fewest obstacles and the most support available. They’ll reassess whether everyone is working at the thing they do best and find ways to reassign the ones who aren’t, giving them or creating tasks that can make a real difference in the team’s progress…if the team itself doesn’t initiate those reassignments among members to leverage each one’s strengths. And, if a team is confident enough to do that, it’s probably a sign that they’ve been led well.

In my own experience, I’ve never been able to find “a way” that works consistently. People and situations are too variable. What worked yesterday with the same people might not work today under different circumstances, and the same circumstance won’t necessarily be well-handled when it involves different individuals.

The Situation in Question

So in all those situations when people ask me for advice, want to know what they should do or think I know their job as well as they do, I lead them in a different way. I lead them to find the best solution on their own in a very Socratic fashion – by asking questions.

  • What’s the problem?
  • How have you tried to solve it so far?
  • Have you worked with anyone else on the team to find a fix?
  • Do you think you have the necessary resources?
  • What do you think it will take to find a solution?
  • Do you need help from anyone else, either on the team or in the organization?
  • and anything else that’s relevant to the information I hear.

In almost every case, talking through the problem helps the employee consider a broader range of possibilities…and get the satisfaction of having done it themselves. Nothing’s more motivating than that.


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