Like most people who work in the field of leadership and organizational performance, I believe in empowering employees. In fact, empowerment, trust, and faith that your employees will rise to the occasion when given the opportunity, have become some of the core tenets of leadership thinking.
But is there ever a need for old-fashioned bossing? Are there still workers who reject new-age leadership in favor of an old-fashioned command-and-control manager that they can rally behind? I didn't think so -- until I experienced it for myself first hand.
I recently completed a consulting assignment with a former Inc. 500 company whose employees were crying out for a 'take charge boss. The owner of this company, Paul Kanarek, was easily the most enlightened leader I have ever encountered. He encouraged experimentation, cajoled employees to seize authority, and treated everyone with the assumption that they were intelligent. And yet, many people in his company complained that management and leadership were lacking. What was being lost in the translation?
In the years since his company made the Inc. 500, Paul had stepped back and added a layer of senior management between him and the core of his company. While he made sure his managers shared his leadership vision, the message was being distorted. Delegation of authority was being perceived as lack of leadership, while relaxed management styles were being interpreted as lack of emotional investment.
These findings were well-supported, but they left both of us amazed that his employees would react this way. More importantly, what was the root of this problem? Did the company need to implement outdated command-and-control management?
In seeking a solution, two things became evident. The first was that the senior managers who had replaced Paul at the head of the company had failed to establish their own foundation and credibility for leadership before engaging in the delegation of authority. Failure to do this often creates a chicken-and-egg situation in the perception of leadership efforts.
Managers who delegate responsibility do so with the intention that employees will eagerly seize the authority. The manager believes he is empowering his staff, but if he hasn't clearly established his own leadership credentials, his delegation can easily be interpreted as a failure to lead the troops into battle.
Worse, it may even be perceived as a personal fear of taking responsibility. On the manager's side, he often believes that if he assumes all the responsibility anytime people come to him, his people will rely on him as a crutch. Meanwhile, his staff wants to see him 'take a bullet before they are willing to assume more responsibility out of a sense of reciprocity and duty.
The second thing I realized during this process was the value of Tony Allesandra's Platinum Rule. While the golden rule states 'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you, Allesandra teaches, 'Do unto others as they would like (or need) done unto them.
While Paul and his managers believed in egalitarian delegation of authority, because that's how they would like to be treated, that isn't what their employees wanted or needed. They wanted a frontline general -- a boss who would lead the charge -- even if it meant command and control. Until the managers established personal credibility to lead, the employees perceived all the egalitarian efforts as rudderless leadership. Despite the good intentions -- and employee beneficial actions -- management was not giving the employees the type of leadership they required.
Once the managers actively engaged the staff and personally began making hard decisions, including some difficult-but-necessary firings, the staff responded in kind with their own higher level of commitment. Much like a parent needs to establish parental boundaries with their child before being a friend, managers need to establish the legitimacy of their authority before delegating it away to their reports.
Empowerment, trust, and faith in employees are still core tenets of modern leadership, but if the personal credibility of the manager has not been firmly inaugurated, even the most well-meaning efforts can be misinterpreted. People need to know the buck stops with their leader, and if that precedent hasn't been clearly established, all of the enlightened intentions of employee empowerment can easily go awry.