Imagine you’re flying on an airline with an open seating plan like Southwest. You’ve found yourself an aisle seat. The window and middle seats next to you are open. As people stream down the aisle looking for a place to sit, what do you do?
If you’re not oriented toward other people, you sit down, put on your headphones, and bury yourself in a book. Maybe you put a section of the newspaper in the seat next to you. When someone tries to take a seat next to you, you look up briefly, scrunch up your legs, and let them fend for themselves.
But if you are oriented toward other people, you behave quite differently. You quickly make room, inviting them to take the seat next to you. You engage the person in polite conversation. You don’t resent it when they have to get up to use the facilities. Instead, you get up so they can easily move to the aisle.
This “Southwest Test” may not seem like much, but it says a lot about who you are and your ability to lead through other people. A lot of information is transmitted in those few moments—am I a person who can be counted on to look out for other people? Or am I primarily looking out for myself? It goes without saying which type of person is better able to build trust—and who triggers people’s cheater meters.
The book Leadership and Self-Deception illustrates how some leaders—those who put themselves first—operate under a cloud of self-deceit. First, they deceive themselves by thinking that they can manage other people as though they were objects. Second, they delude themselves by thinking that other people won’t notice their behavior. This kind of arrogance turns people off. It drives away talented people and leaves you managing a culture of mediocrity.
The authors distinguish between managers who are “in the box” and those who are “out of the box.” You’re in the box if you don’t see how your behaviors affect others. You’re out of the box if you treat other people as you would want to be treated yourself. When you lead through other people, you have their success foremost in your mind: “What does he need? How can I support her most effectively?” Often it’s something that takes just a few minutes, like briefing a colleague on the outcomes from an important meeting or popping your head into your boss’s office and saying: “Can I get your thinking on something?”
Every good leader is “out of the box.” It’s a critical part of building a high-performing organization.
A corollary to this idea is leading through influence rather than authority. People who lead through influence are not afraid to invest in people who are smarter than they are, more knowledgeable than they are. Nor are they afraid to lose the argument or admit mistakes. No person can be a great leader unless he takes genuine joy in the successes of those under him. Yet many would-be leaders stumble upon this rock. They put other people down, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. This may get you to the top—at least temporarily. But it’s not leadership.
To lead by influence rather than authority doesn’t mean to forgo your role and authority as a leader. But leading by influence means focusing on effective communication rather than on the bald exercise of power. It means making your case and listening carefully to opposing points of view. It means not only an open office policy but an “open mind policy.” Pride of authorship isn’t the issue—it’s pride in results.
Sitting in Los Angeles with a group of managers of a large national chain, I was impressed by how Julia, the CEO, asked each manager to express his or her goals for the company. And I was doubly impressed that her managers felt secure enough that they could offer alternative scenarios and visions for the company. Julia listened carefully and then summarized what she’d heard: “I think what we all are saying is that we want to delight our customers. That’s the only vision that matters. Everything else we’re talking about is just a strategy for doing that. And some of you seem to be saying that I haven’t been focused enough on that.”
There was a palpable look of relief on people’s faces. It was clear they’d been worried. Seeing Julia listen and synthesize their visions, and hearing her commitment to the importance of customer service, enabled them to work together toward that goal—one they accomplished with flying colors over the next year.
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