Although my hope is that this question would help anyone at any stage of their leadership journey, the leaders I would particularly like to call to attention in the title of this article are those who currently have the decision-making power, the title and the position.
That being said, having the title of a leader does not make someone a true leader. What makes someone a true leader is the display of leadership, and no title is required. I believe everyone has leadership potential, has displayed leadership at many points in their lives, and that it is a fluid state, like a dance of leading and following. As a swing dancer the last 8 years, I have learned that in a true social dance, leaders initiate a movement then follow the reaction and spontaneity of their partner.
What the title of a leader creates is status, the responsibility and the expectation from others to perform the duties of a leader. That is a lot of pressure to perform, but how do we put our best foot forward?
As a UX designer and researcher, an important part of my job is to ask questions and to seek the truth found in diverse experiences. It is amazing what we can learn from each other if we ask the right questions and we are truly listening to the answers.
Knowing when to ask questions and what question to ask requires empathy, and to take it one step further, compassion. Empathy and compassion make up our Emotional Intelligence/Quotient or EQ, previously under-appreciated and difficult to measure soft-skills most companies now wish they could identify and cultivate in their talent.
90% of high performers have high EQ — Talent Smart
Empathy is the ability to feel and understand another’s emotions. Compassion is the ability to react judiciously and with care to how other people are feeling, including ourselves.
It probably goes without saying that high EQ is great for companies, leading to better management and therefore better employee productivity, job satisfaction, and retention. Still, with all of these benefits, more often than not I have encountered leaders who struggle with asking the right questions at the right time in management roles.
“Average EQ scores have dropped 25 points while average IQ scores have increased 25 points in recent years.” — Rose Leadem, Entreprenuer.com
Unlike our IQ and our personality, EQ is something we can cultivate and improve over time, as long as we have the desire to understand and value it, which really means the desire to understand and value other people.
For those who do value empathy and compassion for others, yet are struggling, what they may have overlooked is that developing compassion for others goes hand in hand with cultivating compassion for ourselves. If we pressure ourselves to work overtime on the weekends, check emails while we are on sick leave, think whatever we achieve is somehow never good enough, we are not showing compassion towards ourselves. Whether or not we intend to, we will have less compassionate expectations for those we lead. If that is the case, what kind of example are we setting really?
Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.
In my experience, many managers and leaders with good intentions are asking themselves this blanket question, “How do I empower others to succeed?”
It’s generally accepted that this is a good question to ask, where empowerment is all positive, and leaders are there to enable and support those they lead and “create” more leaders. Even so, I had a nagging feeling that this question was not quite ideal. Let’s break it down.
- I realized that the word “empower” can be misinterpreted and driven by assumptions rather than understanding.
- Perhaps what a leader considers empowering may not actually be helpful to those they lead. The people we lead are diverse individuals with diverse circumstances and diverse skillsets. Naturally, a one-size-fits-all approach is not effective.
- The definition of empower is to “make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.” To “make” or to “create” leaders, seems to imply that we get the credit for them achieving their leadership status. What if they were already leaders to begin with and we simply need to provide them the opportunity to lead? Essentially support them and/or get out of their way?
- How a manager defines “success” may also differ from those they are trying to help and to serve.
Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated.
Platinum Rule: Treat others as they would like to be treated.
Jean’s Rule: Treat yourself as you would treat someone you cherish, treat others as they would like to be treated.
How might we believe we are “empowering” when we are not?
One scenario is where managers start acting like the engine powering a train, or a rocket launcher sending a rocket into the sky. The train or rocket does not get to choose the direction or the speed, and the manager is expending unnecessary effort managing and trying not to micromanage, then either exhaust themselves, or end up with all the credit for the achievements of their employees, whether intentional or not. The employees feel boxed in, rushed, stifled, and unable to take pride in any of their work. A demotivating situation all around.
Another scenario is where the manager asks for a conceptual high-level outcome with an indeterminate timeline and questionable support, then has confidence that a high performing employee will be able to “handle ambiguity”. This is the equivalent of sending someone into uncharted waters with no route, no map, and no supplies. Where they do not feel safe to backtrack in order to get what they need, and are somehow expected to come out ahead with some amazing results that help the company. Then when the employee fails to reach the undefined goals, the manager’s growing uncertainty and anxiety about the employee’s progress turns into disappointment, where they now believe the employee is unable to handle the “trust” and “freedom” given to them. The employee questions their own ability to self direct and loses confidence. A recipe for distrust all around.
“The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.”
― Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
What if managers and leaders instead asked themselves, “How do I create space for others to lead?”
Let’s break this question down.
Why “…create space…”?
- What do people need to feel safe, to feel empowered? A soapbox to stand on, psychological safety, mental clarity, emotional distance, creative agency, enough time, a focused environment; what are all of these but space?
- Take mental clarity for example: With limitations defined, the goals explained, now people don’t have to think about them anymore and are free to build on a solid foundation. The word space is open to interpretation, and intentionally so.
Why “…for others to lead”?
- People lead when they choose to, not when we tell them to, so it is far more effective to anticipate and make room for it than to overlook and stifle it.
- To me, surfacing new leadership is success in itself. Going back to “what makes someone a leader is the display of leadership, and no title is required”; this idea leaves the door open for anyone to walk through and take on the role without being given a title or asking for permission.
- Those with the decision-making power and the title create the “space”, whether psychological, emotional, or physical, for leadership to manifest. It may appear passive, but it is actually a very active yet patient form of leadership.
Space is always needed to succeed, it comes down to the question of who is creating it and maintaining it.
In any given leader and follower situation consider who was creating the space? Was it the leader or the follower? Because a follower without the decision-making power requires far more effort to define and maintain their space, ask for permission, and complete their own tasks. Half steps forward.
Was the decision-maker taking away space? Because now the follower is having to push back on the encroached space, then ask permission to create the space they actually need to get their work done, maintain that space while trying to complete their work. One step back, half steps forward.
It is also possible to create space while also taking it away. Is the leader creating space in one area but removing space in another? For example, giving creative freedom but not enough time? Providing a stage but no psychological or emotional safety? One step back, one step forward.
The followers mentioned here will have to take on the responsibilities of the leader without the acknowledgement or the effectiveness due to the lack of decision-making power.
“…the effort required by a job is not in itself stressful, but rather the imbalance between the effort we give and the reward we feel. Put simply: less control, more stress.”
― Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last Deluxe: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t
What if we just made it so they can take full steps forward?
Then when there is a chance to improve on the status quo, anyone can step up, it is no longer up to anyone else to give permission, the permission has always been there. Can you imagine a world where the expectation is that there is safety and support to traverse the gap, question the norm, and go beyond net neutral for positive impact however big or small, and wherever or whoever you may be?
As leaders it is our responsibility to believe in the legacy and potential of all who follow us. If we are unable to truly believe they are, have been, and will be leaders, we are asking the wrong questions.
We are not responsible for “creating leaders”, we are responsible for making the space for them to come forward.
We are not the experts on what form their leadership should take, we are not judges for the validity of their leadership. Decision-makers, we are there to provide opportunities, to recognize and foster their leadership when they choose to step into the role.
Once they have stepped forward, a title is in store. After all, the recognition, the status, the expectation from others and the responsibility to perform the duties of a leader, is in effect a space for growing leaders to flourish, a platform for them to achieve even more positive impact.
Any of the common mistakes that leaders make remove necessary space, hold back progress, and lock in the power for those who already have it, while leaving no room for anyone else to step up. If a leader limits space for a high performing, high EQ employee, that employee will most likely go somewhere else. Let’s practice understanding and compassion for ourselves, and for those we lead, who will in turn lead us.
So dear reader, how do you define “space”? This ambiguity is intentional, and I hope we can discuss how having the room to define space is (a little meta, and) potentially more helpful to those with the decision-making power, by allowing more resilience and diversity of approach.
To all leaders out there, before you act and before you react, with compassion for yourself and others, try just asking this one question.
“How do I create space for _______ to lead?”
Let me know how it goes. And while we are at it, how do you define good leadership?