In recent weeks I have been in on a couple of email strings where I have observed something very interesting about the lead executive in an organization. In both cases, the initial emails were directed towards this lead executive in a not for profit society – the same leader in the same organization both times. The emails included some constructive ideas and suggestions for improving practice, along with some challenging questions for reflection. Initially, I was so pleased to see these emails, as it made me hopeful for this executive and his team, as it appeared he had created a culture of open and transparent dialogue between himself and team members on issues of performance and excellence.
Sadly, in both cases, the leader’s response was reactionary and defensive, and completely ignored the issues and the message. In fact, his responses did nothing other than scold the sender for including certain people in the email, while ignoring the richness and value of what was being offered through suggestion. By sadly, I mean sadly…I truly felt sad as I witnessed the way he responded.
I felt sad for this leader that he was using his energy and response to focus entirely on the fact that someone was copied on the email that he didn’t think should have been. He missed such a great opportunity for learning and growth, and earning greater respect and trust from his team. This is not to suggest that there is not room for follow up instruction and learning for the sender regarding who should or should not be included in certain matters. However, this leader completely missed the message and the learning opportunity. I also felt sad for the sender, as this sender was effectively being told that his commitment to excellence and reflective practice was not valued by the organization.
Several days after these email strings, a different senior team member that reports to this same lead executive reflected to me, “we don’t have leadership in our organization.” There is authority, but there is no leadership. I realized this team member (incidentally this person knew nothing of the emails I mentioned above) was right. The response to the emails above was an authority response, and not a leadership response.
There is a big difference between authority and leadership. In this example, authority was used to correct and instruct on who should or should not be included in the exchange. What was entirely missed was the leadership opportunity. This leader could have in fact done both, but should have prioritized and modeled leadership. How would a true leader have responded? There are three key things in my view:
Curiosity in this case would have the leaders asking, “What is my team member truly wanting me to know?” In fact, he probably would have asked for more information and truly wanted to understand the perspective of the team member who was offering the constructive feedback, mining for even more feedback.
A reflective leader is always looking for growth opportunities, and will take feedback and challenge seriously, wanting to continually improve. True leaders don’t need to make themselves look good…they are able to focus on continuous quality improvement of self, leading to greater outcomes.
A true leader in this instance would have been grateful to his team member for caring enough about the organization and the importance of its mandate, to offer reflective and challenge towards improvement. A leader surrounds himself/herself with people who can run circles around them, and is willing to be humble enough to listen to and learn from others. Defensiveness is not possible, when a leader invites input and feedback.
Cameron’s Call to Action
- Take time this week to ask your direct supports how you can be more curious, reflective and grateful as a leader.
- Assess the culture of your team. Is it a culture that invites the reflection, input and challenge from your team members?
- If there have been recent times and spaces where you have been leaning more into authority than leadership, make a conscious choice to lean into leadership, and lead. If necessary, reverse the clock and go back to a situation where you missed a chance to lead, and change your response. Watch the impact this will have on your team.