Guest Article: Humility in Leadership (David McKenzie)

The following article is printed with permission from David McKenzie – who’ll be joining us for the Southern Soak 2017 in Queenstown next week.  I first met David when we were both working alongside one another in a large corporate in Australia, and we’ve kept in touch ever since.  Our regular phone chats, we often lament, should be turned into a podcast called “Dave and Danelle talk s*** ” as we’ve had some great rants and arguments over the years.   David is a very dear friend of tribe and someone who shares such similar values.  We’d be happy to put you in touch 😉

Humility in Leadership

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine, Rob, who had been promoted to a leadership position at his company. He mentioned how surprised he was with how things had changed, now that he wasn’t just a member of the team. I knew Rob had worked hard to develop his leadership skills to be ready when he got his chance, so I was interested in where the transition was challenging him.

“Everyone asks me to help them answer all the questions. They get my opinion on everything. I’m worried that I’ll make a mistake or that they’ll think I don’t know what I’m talking about”

Rob’s response was pretty common, and it reminded me of a great story I had heard recently.

A speaker walked on stage, ready to give his presentation. The slide deck was ready to go, and he headed towards the lectern, holding a cup of coffee in a polystyrene cup.

“You know I have presented here before. At this exact conference.

Last year I flew here in business class. When I arrived at the airport, someone was there to meet me. To carry my bags and take me to the hotel in a private car. When I arrived, they had already checked me in so I went straight up to my room.

In the morning, I came downstairs where the same person was there to meet me, and again, transfer me in a private car to this very function centre to do my presentation. They took me back stage and when I asked for a coffee, I was given one in a ceramic mug.

This year I flew here in economy class. When I got to the airport, I collected my bags and took a taxi to the hotel where I checked myself in. This morning, I took a taxi here and walked in via the front entrance and made my own way backstage. When I asked if there was any coffee, a guy pointed at a table where I made myself a coffee, in this polystyrene cup.

Last year I was the Senior Under Secretary of State. This year, I’m just me.

What I’ve learnt, is that everything that people did for me last year wasn’t for me, it was for the position I held.”

I explained to Rob that the issue was not about the questions or the answers. The real issue was about empowerment and why people felt they needed to ask him the questions in the first place.

Given that his team already knew him and his areas of expertise, there are two feasible reasons (and no they were not out to get him!).

  1. Team members genuinely don’t know the answers to the questions and are seeking help.

  2. Team members feel obliged or required to ensure that now he is the “boss” his opinion and input is included.

Given the previous point around Rob’s subject matter expertise, it seems unlikely that the first point is the issue. But if we assume that it is, the fix really is pretty easy. Invest in training and education to develop skills. But more than this, invest in peer to peer learning and develop a culture of collaboration in the team where each member can lean on one other for assistance to solve the problem or answer the question.

The best teams self-manage and resolve issues without the need for input from leadership.

The second potential explanation is more complex. It is learned behaviour and harder to shift. The team culture is one where team members feel obliged to make sure the “boss” is included, or process requires the boss’ approval. Now in some cases this is important, such as firing a nuclear missile on a submarine (as David Marquet describes in his wonderful presentations). In the work place though, when experts in their fields are asking management to approve solutions or help answer questions, it causes blockages and isn’t conducive to fostering a high performing and efficient team.

The solution to the second issue is empowerment and support for the capabilities of the team.

As leaders, we need to continually empower our teams to make as many decisions as possible. Ultimately our teams have more information, collective experience and knowledge then we ever will. Unfortunately in most of today’s organisations, this isn’t the norm. Managers are taught to take charge and make decisions. Staff are taught that if they don’t follow process and get the right approvals then they are at risk of losing their jobs.

Fear isn’t the way to create an environment where people are happy at work. Trust and empowerment are. Happy team members are better at their jobs. They help us be better leaders and create a more productive workplace.

So, what advice did I end up giving Rob?

  • Always remember that the questions are not about you, they are about the position you hold. Remember this helps us to stay humble, as it should always be about the team and not about you as an individual.

  • Create an environment that empowers your team to make decisions themselves. More often they know what they need to find the answers. Your job as a leader is to ensure that they have all the information, experience and knowledge they need to make these decisions.

  • Most importantly, as a leader you have to be brave. Some leaders may want to rule from the top down and your leadership style may be criticised. Take the flack and keep going. In the end, your team will respect you, trust you and work their asses off for you!

This is the difference between Leadership and Management.