Leadership by Understanding

Nothing helps you manage employees more effectively than knowing what really drives them.

By Anthony Noel

Though called "Management Strategies," this column is usually aimed at employees at all levels of an organization. It attempts to illuminate topics of interest to people at any stage of their careers, regardless of job title. That's because the decision to take the plunge into business ownership - whether made independently or with the "help" of a suddenly former employer - is often a spontaneous one.

Once the decision is made, there is no turning back. Sure, it's nice to think you can return to the rank of employee again "if things don't work out." But the fact is, once the autonomy and responsibility that come with owning a business have been experienced, one's vision is forever changed. Even if you again become someone's employee at some point, your approach to the job will be colored by your background as an owner.

Whether your vision of leadership is imbued with the bold brightness of optimism or sullied by grays of negativity has everything to do with how well you understand people.

Business owners are psychologists. Not in a clinical, Ph.D. kind of way. But ask a psychologist to boil her work down to one sentence and she will likely say, "My job is to understand what drives my patients and to help them put that drive to positive use." Change the word "patients" in this description to "managers" or "employees," and you have a pretty fair picture of what most business owners are trying to do.

(Hopefully, anyway. If you think you can successfully run a business without putting a lot of effort into understanding the drives of all sorts of people, hear this: The door is over there, and you would be well advised to use it, now.)

Unfortunately, some owners don't even try to understand their employees' drives. They are so wrapped up in their own objectives that they actually believe they are able to not only impose those objectives on their employees, but also think they can do it so well that their employees will have the same enthusiasm about an objective that the owner does. That just ain't gonna happen.

Sure, once in a great while, an employee's vision may come close to "oneness" with that of the owner. But no human being is ever going to feel exactly the same way about any objective - and more to the crux of the matter, about the best way to achieve that objective - as some other human being does. Why? BECAUSE THEY ARE TWO DIFFERENT HUMAN BEINGS, that's why. Owners who realize this and work with it are invariably more successful, and happier, than those who fight it or refuse to accept it.

On the subject of successful leadership, there is a gem of Chinese thought from Lao Tzu that says it all:

When the true leader's work is done, The people say, "We did it ourselves!"

Now, we like to think of our organizations as great Viking ships, with everybody rowing toward the same destination. And in the best examples, that is pretty accurate. In other, not-so-best examples, everybody has their hands on the oars, but not everyone is sure how to use them. In even-less-best cases, folks can't find the oars. (And there are a couple of organizations, I hear, where the ships themselves are missing entirely.) But even in the best-case organizations, every rower is rowing for different reasons, usually very personal reasons.

It takes insight, patience and something we talk about a lot here - the ability to see things from the other person's point of view - to get all those rowers pulling together in the same direction.

You can't even begin to do that without a very good sense of why every person "holding an oar" is at your company. What does he or she want to achieve? What are his or her singular ambitions? What drives these people, on an individual basis?

People who study organizational dynamics will tell you that the answer to that last question is not the need to pay the mortgage or electric bill or make the car payment. Those are external needs. People are driven by the internal mechanisms of ego and personal development. In short, they want to affirm their own value and want to consistently get better at the things they do.

Bearing this in mind will go a long way toward making any owner more of a keen observer of how his people work and interact. But the powerful mechanisms of ego and the need for personal development are only two components of the bigger picture. The real source of what drives (or limits) any employee's or manager's effectiveness is the desire to achieve on one's own terms.

The owner described earlier who tries to impose his objectives on his employees without even a basic understanding of their personal drives, clearly couldn't care less about the truth in that quotation from Lao Tzu. If he did, he would see that pushing everyone to see and do things his way actually limits their effectiveness.

If he would instead take a moment to think about it, he might realize that it is his own desire to achieve on his own terms that drives him. And then he might begin to understand the sheer power he would unleash if he set his mind to helping his people achieve on their own terms.

With that understanding in place, even the greenest of owners can develop a leadership that respects employees' abilities while getting everyone rowing toward the same objective.

And when they arrive, they will say, "We did it ourselves!"

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