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In Search of Leadership's "One Way" Street

With the hundreds of books about leadership that have been published, coupled with thousands of Internet posts and articles written on some aspect of that broad subject, those of us seeking to become better leaders can become overwhelmed. Some material seems to contradict other offerings and some seem to be just plain obtuse. It can be daunting to determine what, if any sources, we should tap into to become better leaders. We can easily be intimidated by all the content out there and realizing that we could not possibly ever absorb all of it, some of us may even elect not to even try to make sense of it. Confused and dazed, we may have even gotten to the point of ignoring it all and simply backing away from striving to become better leaders.

After completing a four year comprehensive leadership development program as part of my pre-commissioning training as a U.S. Air Force officer, I certainly had lots of content to wade through. Our instructors exposed us to the myriads of traditional human behavioral and leadership concepts from thought leaders such as Maslow, Herzberg, Blake/Mouton, Taylor, Macgregor, and others. With so much content rattling around within my limited gray matter, I sensed that at least for me, trying to remember, let alone correlate and employ, the plethora of leadership axioms and advice written over the last several decades was impractical. (My apologies to one of my outstanding instructors, Major Gerald McIntyre, for my being slow on the uptake). 

Trying to oversimplify broad, comprehensive concepts is one of my many character flaws. Looking toward leadership theory simplification or more accurately oversimplification, I embarked on a quest to find the easy, singular leadership practice or approach (aka the One Thing, the Holy Grail, the Silver Bullet) that could in and of itself be universally and exclusively employed across the board in every leadership situation or role to effectively lead others. I soon discovered that my attempt to simplify how I could effectively lead was equally as futile as the opposite extreme of dealing with the avalanche of leadership material available. So there I landed, on one hand not able to absorb and correlate all the leadership material that I was exposed to, and on the other hand, not being able to find the singularly effective leadership Silver Bullet.   

Fortunately, over the years, I had the benefit of working for a number of terrific leaders and in particular one gifted leader who made years of leadership training and theory come into focus, become surprisingly relevant, and simply make great sense just when I needed it most.

Those leaders helped me to realize that I would never find the “One Way” street, because “it” simply does not exist. Instead it became apparent that there are as many “its” out there as there are unique people to lead and unique leadership environments. Resigning myself to the fact that there are few shortcuts to effective leadership practices, I have become a big believer in Situational Leadership versus a one size fits all maxim or approach that I so futilely sought earlier in career. Situational leadership would advise us to lead a group of newly hired high school aged fast food staff differently than a group of experienced attorneys. Even within a seemingly homogenous group, each person will have unique wants and needs. The great leaders that I encountered sought to create a win-win scenario composed of helping each person to excel in their specific role which in turn better enabled the organization to achieve its mission.

Certainly there are some basic must haves that apply to most if not all leadership situations. Leadership virtues such trust, integrity, approachability, and authenticity come to mind. However, we should not seek to become leadership “clones” by trying to disingenuously imitate other leaders. Instead we need to remain consistent within our own values, personality, and world view. To do otherwise, rightly often results in being viewed as an inauthentic leader, eroding leader effectiveness. 

Leading people as individuals and not as faceless cogs on wheel, understanding their personal wants and needs and what motivates them are key.  That of course takes commitment, time, and energy to uncover for every person within our sphere of influence, both the Intrinsic and extrinsic factors that motivate them. Extrinsic motivational factors such as pizza parties and staff picnics are important but often not as influential as intrinsic motivational factors such as meaningful work, autonomy, a shared identity, and a sense of purpose.

As Abraham Maslow noted in his iconic Hierarchy of Needs, the lower levels of his pyramid/hierarchy pertain to extrinsic factors. Once those needs are satisfied, one looks more toward intrinsic factors as sources of motivation. Where extrinsic factors may be more consistent amongst our team members, intrinsic factors can differ greatly across the population. This typically diverse range of intrinsic factors certainly makes it more challenging for leaders to find a single, standardized leadership practice that meets the intrinsic needs of everyone that they lead. It is precisely that challenge that makes the role of the leader so necessary. 

So instead of searching for the non-existent “One Way” or conversely, becoming frozen in inactivity, overwhelmed or intimidated by the sheer volume of leadership ideas, concepts, and materials out there, let’s consider another approach. How about picking one good leadership book, or a mentor, or other source as a general guideline, and then working within our unique personality, values, and world view, commit the time and attention necessary to finding the extrinsic and intrinsic motivational factors central to each member of our team. That activity, plus a small, Incremental investment, perhaps like signing up for one of the myriad of weekly leadership tip websites on the Internet, aggregated and compounded over time can yield great returns. 

With all the “shiny” objects competing for attention as leaders, we can easily lose sight of the fact that leading, in the form of influencing and inspiring others, is a primary leadership responsibility, not an optional activity or additional duty. Let’s commit to exert truly effective leadership by finding as much as practical the ideal roles, recognition preferences, working environments, and assignments that mesh with each team member’s motivational profile, talents, and skills. Clearly these steps take time but in my experience, not as much time and effort needed to address the typical outcomes of poor leadership (think high staff turnover, low employee engagement, low customer satisfaction). To quote my new friend Kris Boesch, CEO and Founder of Choose People, the staff we manage/lead need to feel they are “known, that they matter, and that they are included.” 

Not only is it the right thing to do for our team members but in a world where automation, globalization, and other factors are redefining our workplaces, the need to become great people managers and leaders may be one of the few essential constants remaining.

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