Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Fallacy of Leaders

There is a huge fallacy about the process of helping people change for the better. Sometimes the best leaders may be the ones least noticed.

We focus too much on the salesperson rather than the customer. We focus on the speaker rather than the learner. We focus on the coach rather than the person being coached. We focus too much on the leader rather than the people doing the work.

It's certainly true in my coaching. Of the great clients I have had the privilege to work with, Mike may be my star pupil. His coworkers judged him to have improved more than anyone I've worked with.

Mike managed a division of about 40,000 people in one of the world's largest organizations. His CEO recognized that Mike was a great leader and wanted him to expand his role by providing more leadership in building synergy across divisions. The CEO asked me to work with him.

Mike eagerly accepted this challenge and involved his team. Together, they established the most rigorous project-management process I've ever seen. Each person took responsibility for creating positive synergy. They regularly reported on their efforts in reaching out to colleagues across the company to build teamwork. They kept learning from all of their colleagues. They thanked people for ideas and suggestions and followed up to ensure effective implementation.

And yet, as I told Mike, "I probably spent less time with you than any client I have ever coached. What should I learn from my experience with you and your team?"

Mike quietly pondered my question. "As a coach," he said, "you should realize that success with your clients isn't about you. It's about the people who choose to work with you." He modestly chuckled, then continued. "In a way, I am the same. The success of my organization isn't about me. It's all about the great people who are working with me."

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom about leadership. If you read the literature, you'll see that much of it exaggerates -- if not glamorizes -- the leader's contribution. The implication is that everything grows out of the leader. She's responsible for improving you. She's the one who guides you to the promised land. Take the leader out of the equation, and people will behave like lost children.

Not so. As the ancient proverb says, "The best leader, the people do not notice. When the best leader's work is done, the people say, 'We did it ourselves.' "

That's why I don't hold myself up as "coach as expert." I'm much more a "coach as facilitator." Most of what my clients learn about themselves comes not from me but from their friends, their colleagues, and their family members. I just try to provide help when needed and assist them in not wandering too far off the course that they have chosen.

For example, let's say you want to do a better job of listening. It's possible that a coach can explain to you how to be a better listener. The advice will probably be reasonably logical, supportable, and hard to dispute. But it will be generic. It's much better to ask the most important people in your life, "Please give me some ideas on how I can do a better job of listening to you."

They can give you specific, concrete suggestions that relate to them -- how they perceive you as a listener -- not vague ideas that you can read in a book. They may not be experts on listening, but they actually know more about how to listen to them than anyone in the world.

I cannot make the successful people I work with change. I don't try. Too many people think that a coach -- especially an accomplished one -- will solve their problems. That's like thinking that you'll get in shape by hiring the world's best trainer and not by working out yourself.

Truly great leaders, like Mike, recognize how silly it is to think it's about the coach. Long-term success is created by the 40,000 people doing the work -- not just the one person who has the privilege of being at the top.

Life is good.


My newest book, MOJO, is a New York Times (advice), Wall Street Journal (business), USAToday (money) and Publisher's Weekly (non-fiction) best seller. It is now available online and at major bookstores.





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