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A Key To Effective Leadership? Resist The Temptation To Fly Solo

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A Key To Effective Leadership? Resist The Temptation To Fly Solo

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Think. Act. Lead.

It seems simple enough. But anyone who’s ever been in charge of a business—or even an individual project—knows there’s always room for slippage. As in, “Oops! That didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped.”

As most any successful leader can tell you, flying solo is rarely the smart way to operate. For one thing, you miss the serendipity that often comes with collaboration. You also miss the chance to help develop others, which is a primary responsibility of leadership.

Cleveland Justis and Daniel Student certainly “get it.”

They’re authors of Don’t Lead Alone: Think Like a System, Act Like a Network, Lead Like a Movement.

For the past three decades, Justis has been an organizational leader in the environmental and entrepreneurial arenas. He’s principal at Potrero Group, supporting innovators through rigorous planning and effectiveness. He teaches entrepreneurship at UC Berkley. Student is a senior consultant for Potrero Group, leading strategic planning and new program development.

Justis and Student say observing with curiosity is a critical skill in system thinking. And there are many typical day-to-day opportunities for developing and honing that skill.

“For example, consider a team meeting,” Student says. “You already have an excuse to be taking notes, and you typically have times when you aren’t expected to speak. Jot down some observations about the meeting system: who talks when, who defers to whom, who doesn’t contribute, who challenges the team’s blind spots, and then ask ‘why?’ and see what you come up with.

Student says that outside of your own workplace you have two choices. “First, you can observe someone else at work, say, a catering team at a party or a sports team at a stadium. Or explore systems that have nothing to do with work, such as taking a baking class or playing golf. Observe, ask why, and this time also ask yourself, ‘what can I learn or borrow from this for my workplace?’”

Student says this opportunity to completely change your perspective, no matter where or how you practice it, can be game-changing.

Managing resistance to a change initiative is a task that many leaders find challenging. Justis says reframing can be a valuable tool.

“Reframing is not just about setting your own agenda, but helping your collaborators understand how they fit,” he says. “You are releasing them from their prior limitations and desire to say something like ‘this isn’t how we do things.’”

Justis says many people resist change because they have “seen it all before” and watched it fail. We all do this, he says.“New Year’s resolutions are a common example. We say we want to change, but we also know it will be hard and, from our experience, likely unsuccessful.

“Let’s say you want to build a new product that solves an engineering challenge,” he says. “Chances are your engineering team is going to be excited. Your marketing team might bring a groan of frustration. They perhaps just see yet another new product to dilute an existing product’s market share. But bring the same product with a reframe focused on its market potential, and they are likely to stop resisting and start participating.”

In what ways can a leader’s networking skills be useful in building supportive coalitions to advance performance improvements?

“We encourage people not to network but instead to act like a network,” Justis says. “Networking often means we meet people like us with similar skills. We encourage people to do an exercise where they brainstorm their ideal network to accomplish what they need. Often this means meeting people you’d never meet at a ‘networking’ event. Fortunately, LinkedIn makes it so easy to consciously and methodically build out your network with people with new perspectives.”

Justis says acting like a network leaves you in a much better position to overcome your own blind spots and advance performance issues. “Your ability to introduce important people to each other grows the sphere of influence for all of you and brings diverse skill sets and networks aligned through common goal,” he says. “For instance, if you help your teammates see how their skill sets might add value to each other (‘Have you spoken to ____ about that? She has an interesting idea on ____’), you can multiply the impact of everyone’s performance.”

As most everyone has observed, a silo mentality can be costly. So what can leaders do to encourage people to step out of their silos and consider the value of fresh perspectives?

“Managers should create expectations for individual learning and growth in the field and then encourage some work time be spent reading, attending workshops, and generally exploring new ideas and approaches,” Student says. “Additionally, team meetings too frequently devolve into each person or department speaking directly to the boss, updating, answering their questions, and then passing the baton to the next person. Try making all team members responsible for sourcing conversation topics for the meeting and challenge them to make the topics pertinent to all team members. Invite the person who added the topic to lead and then open it up to everyone for discussion.”

Justis and Student say establishing feedback loops is critical to effective leadership. For this they have some favorite best practices.

“We find naming things gives them power,” Justis says. “Create some mantras for your culture that encourage feedback and risk-taking. We call a first draft a ‘door opener.’ This gives permission not to be perfect and to appreciate feedback. ‘Strong opinions loosely held’ is another mantra that allows us space to come in hard with an idea but also be willing to lose to a better idea. ‘Curious skepticism’ allows you to wonder about someone else’s idea without shutting it down. ‘I wonder if a challenge with that might be …’ is a great way to give feedback that spurs someone to think further and deeper about their approach. It encourages a learning and growth mentality for both parties.”

Of course with smart people on a team, there’s bound to be occasional dissonance. What’s the key to managing it?

“Don’t be a hero,” Justis says. “It’s not your job to magically solve disagreements. Instead, think of yourself as a coach. Teach your teammates or direct reports to solve their problems by themselves. Oversee the process, not the result. Set expectations around the time, place, and method by which a team can healthily disagree.”

Justis says you also can’t just sit back and wait for dissonance. You need to be scanning your environment for signs of change. “For instance, it’s entirely appropriate to check in with someone who is ordinarily vocal but has become quiet,” he says. “Invite them to connect one-on-one and remind them how they can engage in challenges directly with other team members that are safe and productive.”

Justis and Student are especially focused on demolishing the myth of the “hero leader.”

“When we celebrate outstanding leadership in our society, we tend to celebrate single individuals,” Justis says. “However, when you look closer, it’s almost always the case that those people were surrounded by other skill sets that made the sum of their accomplishments possible.”

“In fact,” Student adds, “perhaps what makes many of these leaders great is not that they can do so much but that they can recognize how to harness the strengths of others. That’s what we mean when we say Lead Like a Movement. Your power is not about being the best. It’s about being exponentially more impactful by building up those around you.’

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