When To Lead - And When To Shut Up
Sound familiar? In 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C. Maxwell writes that true leaders never accept defeat. Success is inevitable, and they will do whatever they can to secure the win. Whether they're leading tense negotiations with a rival, arguing which Beatle was the best musician, or campaigning for lunch at their favorite restaurant. They will emerge victorious. And, sometimes, they will - inadvertently - reduce their effectiveness as a leader. How? And more importantly, how can they avoid this?
"Classic Smart Person Behavior"
In "Adding Value - But At What Cost?" management guru Marshall Goldsmith relates a story that illustrates this "I must win" mentality. He was at dinner with Jon Katzenbach (now senior partner at Booz & Company, New York) and Katzenbach's then-partner Niko Canner. The two were planning a new venture, but it soon turned into a "long rally at Wimbledon."
Canner would make a suggestion or pose an idea, and Katzenbach would hit it back with a "That's a great idea, but it might work better if you..." Goldsmith, off-duty as a consultant, nevertheless felt compelled to tell his friend, "Jon, perhaps you should just go with Niko's ideas. Stop trying to add so much value to the conversation."
Adding Value...Or Are You?
The reality is that many leaders suffer from "success delusion." The more success we achieve, the more prone we are to thinking we're always right. After all, we've been rewarded for our behavior so far; we must be right! "The more successful we become, the more positive reinforcement we get - and the more likely we are to experience the success delusion." And to believe that we're right. All the time.
According to Goldsmith, Katzenbach was suffering from a variation of this: adding too much value. Leaders are aware that subordinates often (and should), know more about specific areas than they do. At the same time, many leaders can't help but add a "Yeah, but I know more" or "I know better" - worded with varying levels of subtlety.
The danger is this: a superior may improve an idea by, say, 5 percent. But at the same time, you've decreased your employee's engagement and commitment by 30 percent. The math is simple: when you're right, you don't always win.
The solution: apply the Law of Victory to more than just yourself. True leaders share the wins with their people. Let them have the good ideas. And if you can improve them by 5% - hold your tongue. By "adding value," you could well be subtracting value.
Goldsmith suggests that when you're tempted to volley back with a "Great idea, but..." just stop. Ask yourself if the value you can add is truly worth it. One of his clients, he reports, realized that once he did this, "At least half of what he was going to say wasn't worth saying."
Next time a team member poses an idea, take the time to listen. If you're "yeah, but" isn't worth saying, don't. Learn when you're adding value - and when you're subtracting from the morale, initiative, and drive of your people.
P.S. Paul's clearly the best Beatle. I should know; I'm always right.