message dissipation

Leading Others to Lead

There is a wealth of information available in popular business literature on how to lead others. What I’ve found is there’s a bit less information out there on how to lead leaders. And surprisingly little on how to lead others to lead.

Many of the articles, white papers and such on the topic of leading leaders still focus on the behaviors and competencies of the senior leader rather than the junior leader, or on the challenge that leaders as followers may present. But what do you as a leader need to develop in those below you on the organizational chart to help them on the path of becoming great leaders? 

Allow me to present three suggestions:

Facilitating effective team dynamics

Most leaders are tasked with leading a clearly identified team of people or a process or project which requires the engagement of people as a team even if they formally report elsewhere. Relatively few, however, are given any education on how to facilitate effective team dynamics. Which, if you think about it, is a shame. If they do happen to receive training or mentoring, it is often around how to lead other individuals effectively. Emphasis on the leader-team member interaction, not how to influence the team member-team member interaction. They are two different things altogether.

There is a something of a science and an art to leading a team to interact with each other in a way that leads to high performance. If you as a senior leader want to be able to focus on the big picture, make sure the leaders below you learn to facilitate effective team dynamics. If you’re not sure you know how to do this well enough to teach others, reach out to your HR or OD pro for help.

Translating orders from above

As leaders move up in the organization, they are often unaware of how the leaders below them are translating their messages to the masses. I most frequently see one of two issues related to this: either the senior leader’s message gets over-amplified when transmitted by the junior leader to the rank and file (too much impact) or it dissipates almost completely (too little impact.)

In the first case, when you have a senior leader that is emotionally reactive and a junior leader who doesn’t moderate the message or, worse, amplifies it further, you can end up with an over-emotional organization prone to knee-jerk actions and an atmosphere that is exhausting or even feels abusive to those in it.

In the second case, you may see a lack of action or a lack of consistency. If you have to ask why your directions don’t seem to be followed through at all levels or why no one is “getting it” you are almost certainly a victim of message dissipation. Either the junior leader is not communicating with clarity, or they may not be communicating at all. Ensuring your junior leaders know how to translate the message so that it results in action, but not panic or fear, will save you much heartache and headache down the line.

It’s a good idea to have some kind of feedback loop–skip-level meetings for example– where you can ask questions of those below your junior leaders about the information or direction they’re receiving. Then you can judge if your messages are getting translated effectively.

Leading up with courage

Senior leaders need junior leaders who are willing to share negative information, challenge assumptions and question conclusions. Why? Because senior leaders don’t know it all! They need to be able to tap into the wisdom of every person on their team. And the closer leaders are to the front-line employee or to the customer, the more likely they are to know how things “really work” in the organization. It is this knowledge that usually saves the organization from stepping on its tie.

The leader who encourages this is rare, though. An insecure or impatient senior leader doesn’t want to be questioned; they squash inquiry and recoil at dissent. They reward unquestioning action. Unfortunately, over time this leads to what I call a “yes, sir” culture and a whole lot of poor decisions. And, frankly, a whole lot of poor decision-makers.

A leader with confidence who values making good decisions welcomes questions from junior leaders. They see them as resources to vet ideas, as sources of information about what is happening on the ground,  as resources to help the organization make better decisions. No, junior leaders don’t have all the answers either. They may not see the big picture like senior leaders do but they are an important piece of the puzzle. And they’ll learn more about the big picture through their discussions with you. So ask yourself: what are your junior leaders learning about leading up with courage through their interactions with you?

These are three key skills to develop in all leaders. As a senior leader it is up to you to develop these in your junior leaders. Don’t wait. Start now. You’ll thank me later.

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