Lazy Leadership: Challenging Today’s Leaders
Much of what was once done by congressional legislation is now done by judicial decrees, agency rules or presidential executive orders. The New York Times 5/14/16
Baylor’s senior leadership lacked consistent or meaningful engagement. The New York Times 5/30/16
Lazy leadership is a growth industry: a President issues executive orders rather than engage congress and citizens to address his agenda; law-makers become warriors in “opposing” but deserters in “advocating”; deadbeat dads abandon their families fleeing responsibility; corporate leaders exercise force to obtain employee compliance while disengaged in building commitment; religious leaders find hate easier than labor-intensive love for advancing their cause.
Lazy leaders – like imperial rulers – in fits of fight and flight spare themselves the heavy-lifting of engaging difficult, conflictive issues. Whether transgender bathrooms, abandoned kids, disengaged employees or floundering flocks – lazy relational leaders make the devil’s deal: embrace short-term gain that yields long-term chaos, loss and pain. Disturbing headlines about deposed Baylor University leaders – found to ignore sexual assaults in support of a wildly successful football team – are but the latest example.
All of us are leaders in one way or another – the question is: are we relationally lazy leaders? Lazy is defined as “disinclined to work.” “Relational laziness” is a special strain. Many leaders are otherwise hard-working but disinclined to relational efforts like engaging conflict, hurt feelings, and estrangement. The yawning generational divide between baby-boomers, Gen X and Millennials has only added to the relational demands on today’s leadership. Perhaps the rise in assertive, highly informed stakeholders contributes more to the problem than any rise in lazy leaders. Regardless, there is growing demand for more relationally engaged and assertive leaders.
Relational leadership is often misunderstood as simply being nice. It is much more than that. Robust relational leadership aims for productive relationships through accountability, encouragement, tough-love, forgiveness, stretch goals, demanding skill development, a kick-in-the-butt, and visionary purpose.
Here’s the rub. It is impossible to have all the diverse attributes or endless energy to fully meet today’s needs – the demands of leadership always exceed supply. Plus, some traits are virtually mutually exclusive: being visionary, diving deep into details, wooing people, holding people accountable, administration, dealing with nay-sayers.
The good news: We don’t have to be omnipotent. Leadership laziness does not come from our personal inability to do all things, but from our lack of intention to develop a team that collectively might. Leaders often ignore or loathe those things they are not good at (remember General Douglas MacArthur’s dig at General Eisenhower, “best clerk I ever had”). The first job of relational leaders is to identify their strengths and then to account for, and provision for, their weaknesses – and then do the same thing for each member of their teams.
The great news: relational leadership does not require us to fake being what we are not. Rather real relational leadership requires three things:
Show up and do the work. Building productive relationships is hard work. Success requires committing to a workout routine no less rigorous and regular than those of professional athletes. The relationship routine starts with dedicating your most precious resource, your time to productive relationships. Carve out time for key relationships – direct reports, bosses, the troops, colleagues, customers, and other key stakeholders. Allocate time for interruption – another word for “stakeholder-led priorities.”
What if President Obama and key members of Congress had committed early-on to the hard work of building productive relationships? Things might be different. Ask yourself everyday: What difficult or frayed relationships am I avoiding? Ask about obstacles, listen, and work to remove them. It is a powerful way to show up for your team.
Delight in and organize around strengths: Relational leaders delight in levering their own and everyone else’s strengths. Gallup reports that team success ties most directly to this question: At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day? Yet, notice how different are the implicit strengths of great leaders. Steve Jobs: “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought possible.” Jobs’ reputation for being almost impossible to work for was offset by his strength in inspiring people to stretch for an unimagined vision.
Contrast that to Bono, Irish leader of the rock band U2 and worldwide icon in enlisting uber liberals and conservatives in fighting poverty. Fortune Magazine’s “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” featured Bono’s advice: “One, spread the credit liberally for every success. Two, remind people that they are essential to the mission. Three, ask for more. Repeat.” His signature move is engaging the strengths of people with intense differences.
President Abraham Lincoln led by getting the best out of a team of rivals at a time of fierce division. Getting that team to commit their strengths productively in the midst of the Civil War surely took special skill and energy. Relational leaders are in the business of finding and enlarging strengths every day – ours and those we work with. Often a team member (think human resources) is crucial in helping us organize around strengths and work on individual and team development plans.
Admit your weaknesses. Confession is not just a biblical or legal concept; it is simply admitting what everyone else sees. In leadership as in law, often it is not the crime that does you in, but the cover-up. Today’s leaders do not have the luxury of denial. We cannot manage what we will not admit.
Richard Rohr says, “All spirituality is about what we do with our pain…our wounds are God’s hiding places and hold our greatest gifts.” We cannot optimally engage other people’s strengths without knowing our weaknesses. Our pain can be not only our gifts to others but to ourselves when we name it and organize accordingly. It can free us and our resources for productive use. Admission of weakness leaves space that invites and empowers others’ strengths.
By hiding in denial, lazy leaders live immersed in the misery of unused and misused talent. Nothing tires a leader like the emptiness of unproductive relationships. Nothing energizes an organization like productive relationships – where strengths are prized.