A Leadership “Sucker’s Choice”

By: John Grinnell

On-Purpose achievement is the goal of all leadership. When expectations and goals are clear and fully understood team members can then focus their energy toward this end. However, leaders often make the mistake of placing themselves between their team’s goals and their team’s members—with the weight of achievement falling squarely on the leader’s shoulders. This faulty positioning is what we call a “sucker’s choice.” It creates a “cult of personality” instead of a “culture of empowerment” populated with self-motivated achievers.

Betsy was proud of being action-oriented, with technical and management expertise. She never had much interest in strategic planning, considering it a huge waste of time, but, since it was required by corporate, she would half-heartedly go through the motions once a year to update her strategic and execution plans. However, since she gave little credence to the directional understanding a strategic plan with a clear mission, goals and values could provide, so did her people. This set up conditions whereby her followers, lacking clarity, needed to depend upon her for direction. She had inadvertently placed herself between the success of the team and the people who reported to her, c onstantly monitoring, evaluating and giving feedback. She, not the mission and goals of her organization, had become the center of attention. Betsy had made a “sucker’s choice” and inadvertently created a “cult of personality” (her personality) instead of a culture that would empower followers.

Achieving clarity is hard work for both the leader and their team, but with clarity team members can align their behavior with the requirements for success. They can spot areas where there are gaps in resources and knowledge. Without follower clarity, the leader is trapped between the team’s lack of understanding and success, resulting in a daily barrage of continual requests for direction and emotional support. This toxic situation leads to less-confident followers and burned-out managers. The deeper problem is that this leadership “sucker’s choice” is often unconsciously self-imposed. Also, in the short term leaders feel needed, competent, smart and capable, but longer term the heavy weight of responsible execution and the associated stress rest squarely upon their shoulders.

Betsy eventually began to burn out. For the first time she didn’t look forward to going to work. It was not fun and some of her best people were leaving. Her organization had been sending their top managers to a self-awareness-based leadership program that she had been avoiding for years. Out of desperation and following the advice of a trusted colleague, Betsy went and learned how her insecurity caused her to “take charge,” which had always been a point of pride and strength as a team member, but now, as a team leader, had become her “sucker’s choice.” Armed with new insight and intent she went back to work. It took about six month of her being uncomfortable behaving differently for her to begin to see a culture of empowerment emerge.

Betsy finally understood the importance of clarity and how that allowed her people themselves to align their behavior and decisions with key goals WITHOUT HER; they were empowering themselves. Instead of being at the center of all things she stepped aside and worked on ensuring clarity. Now she pointed out her team members’ “on-purpose” decisions and their achievement of “on-purpose” outcomes in alignment with the strategic plan and values. Although it was more difficult for her, she would also point out “off-purpose” decisions and behavior, but without blame or frustration, attributing error to a blindspot or a lack of clarity, which then became a point of discussion. Mistakes were seen not as threats, but rather as opportunities for learning.

As time went on she successfully weaned her team from their emotional dependence on her and they further recognized how smart, competent and capable they were; so much was now being done without her intervention. She established reporting agreements to replace the micro-managing she had been doing. An important agreement was that there would be no surprises and that a problem spotted early was a good thing, not something to fear talking about. She encouraged her team to seek input and ideas from each other to in order to solve problems before escalating them to her, but she also made herself a resource for issues that her team didn’t feel certain about. She found that over time very few issues needed her attention. Her new-found success caused her to go through a period of feeling useless, as she no longer could stroke her own ego with her “take-charge” attitude, but she had succeeded in building a culture that expected people to choose to empower themselves and work became fun again.

Steps for Avoiding the Leadership Sucker’s Choice
  • Recognize that a change or elevation in role will require a new way of managing. Seek out thewisdom of those who have successfully made multiple transitions before. If you are in a large organization the CEO and other executives who have “come up through the ranks” are a great, often overlooked, resource.
  • Attend a self-awareness-based leadership program that will give you deep insight into your own beliefs, motivations and drivers that you may not be aware of. We call this building the “observeroperator.” With awareness you can be at choice and act on behalf of the success you desire.
  • Work hard at helping your team fully understand its goals and your expectations. Use the strategic planning cycle as a process to further build clarity and alignment. Once clarity andalignment are in place you will no longer have to stand between the company’s goals and the people on your team. You will find this more objective and a less “personality-based” approach that will cause much less resistance to feedback and less off-purpose gamesmanship from teammembers.
  • Focus on building your team. We talk about the importance of internal and external customers, but the fact is that your #1 job is to build your team to serve the customers. Give yourself a “time payment” through proper delegation and reporting (see “Art of Delegation” article I wrote and is on our website so that you can focus more of your effort onbuilding a culture of empowerment.

The thousands of friends of Grinnell Leadership - if you enjoyed this article, I would greatly appreciate you sharing this article on LinkedIn.