Sep 18, 2013

Leadership Osmosis

You’ve seen it before…the young man or woman who is beginning their career and they are the star performer where they work. It could be at Ernst and Young, Lockheed-Martin, Sears, Target, or McDonald’s; you see the drive and ambition in their eyes, the confidence in their steps, the eagerness in their attitude. And, when you ask them what they want to accomplish next in their career and, without a moment of hesitation and with great enthusiasm, the answer is “To get promoted to manager!”

When you ask one of these individuals what is the underlying cause for their desire to manage others, many times the real answer eludes them. They come up with superficial answers like “More money” and “Have a title”. What they, and most people, don’t realize is that all human behaviors are outcome-focused, which means that these people believe that they will get to feel a specific way because managing others will allow them to behave different than they do now.  What I find interesting is that there is the same common denominator, whether they are employed at a large international firm or the local franchise down the street. So, what are the real reasons for wanting to manage others, since they want to feel a certain way? Here are a few thoughts:

  • In control
  • Important
  • Free from someone else’s management
  • They can do what they want

But, there are additional reasons, such as:

  • Help others to become better
  • They have a vision to lead others toward
  • Contribute through positive changes

What did you notice that was different about the two sets of reasons?  The first set is inward-focused, the second is outward-focused.  And, my friends, that is the where I start to define the biggest obstacle to leading others, when the reason a person wants to lead others stems from in inward focus.

Not surprisingly, people whose reasons for managing others that are inward-focused are found to lead and manage themselves in the same way.  It’s all about them.  Where do they learn this inward-focused approach?  It could be from multiple sources and here are the two sources I believe are most common:

  • Parents
  • Managers/bosses

People tend to imitate or emulate what they see others do.  So, after having observed their parents style of leadership, they believe it must be the right way to lead.  Now, if you’re the only child or the first child in a family, then you know you were the “experiment”, right?  Your parents had observed their parents and probably implemented their style of leadership.  But, they still made many mistakes in an effort to raise you “correctly”.  Here are some of the “errors” they may have committed:

  • Going into frantic mode when the situation wasn’t that critical
  • Disciplining out of emotion, rather out of the desire to progress your development
  • Telling you, “Do as I say, not as I do”
  • Telling you, “I’m the parent, so you have to obey me”

That’s why when you see your younger siblings being treated differently, you realize that your parents had learned to parent while raising you.  Now they know better what to do.  No wonder you’re a mess!

What about at work?  Unfortunately, you may have experienced the following from your boss/manager:

  • Going into frantic mode when the situation wasn’t that critical
  • Disciplining out of emotion, rather out of the desire to progress your development
  • Telling you, “Do as I say, not as I do”
  • Telling you, “I’m the boss, so you have to obey me”

Why the similarity?  Although there are parenting classes available, personally, I’ve never actually met anyone that took them.  Have you?  So, parents usually perpetuate their family’s parenting traditions.  How hard can it be?  It was easy enough to make a baby, right?  So, at work, you worked hard to excel and now you’re being offered a promotion.  How hard can managing/leading others be?

At work, Management and Leadership training are readily available and easily accessible.  But, my experience is that it is the rare organization that actually sends new managers/leaders to Management or Leadership training immediately following their promotion, if ever.  It is even more rare to find a quality leadership mentoring program in organizations of any size.  It’s as if top executives believe that there is a “leadership osmosis” that occurs at the time of the promotion of a person into a management/leadership position.  So, the characteristics of the current managers/leaders in an organization are imitated, emulated, and amplified…good and bad.  What traits will be imitated, emulated and amplified will depend on the real reasons a person wants to be in a management/leadership position.

To exacerbate the problem even more, recent discoveries by neuroscience tell us that the leadership and management training that was assumed to be effective, is now being shown to be totally counterproductive!  Notice these results of a Harris Interactive Poll about the effectiveness of American corporations in leading their people:

  • 37% have a clear understanding of what their organization is trying to achieve
  • 20% were enthusiastic about their team’s and organization’s goals
  • 20% of workers have a clear “line-of-sight” between their tasks and their team’s and organization’s goals
  • 50% were happy with the work they accomplish at the end of each week
  • 15% felt that the organization fully enables them to execute key goals
  • 15% felt they work in high-trust environments
  • 17% felt their organization fosters open communication
  • 10% felt their organization holds people accountable for results
  • 20% fully trust the organization they work for
  • 13% have high-trust, highly cooperative working relationships with other groups or departments

Here’s further information regarding neuroscience’s discoveries:

  • Most processes operating when the brain is at rest involve thinking about other people and yourself
  • Social situations (e.g., work) can stimulate the “Threat Response” causing impaired analytical thinking, creativity, and problem solving.
  • Too much uncertainty diminishes memory, undermines performance, and disengages people from the present.
  • People who are reprimanded, given an assignment that seems unworthy, or told to take a pay cut experience a neural impulse as powerful as a blow to the head.

So, what can organizations do to train their people in leadership roles to be the most effective?  Is it possible to change the culture of an organization and leadership style of leaders?  And, finally, what the heck is neural plasticity?

Creating life in forward motion,

Dr. Edward Lewellen