Why You Should do the Opposite of What They Taught You at Leadership School

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 - 11:14

Guest post by Cris Popp

The preoccupying question for all organisations regarding their staff is: “How do I get the best or better performance?” For leaders and managers this translates to “how do I improve the performance of my team?”

Traditionally, the wisdom has been that leaders need to:

  • Show strength
  • Attend to the weak links in the team
  • Fix what’s wrong

The analogy that is commonly used is that teams are like chains, and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Hence find the weak points and fix them. I am using broad brush strokes, but essentially all leadership training has had these as their (unconscious) premises.

They are wrong. In fact, the opposite is true.

Leaving aside that teams rarely work on a single sequential task (so they are not like chains at all), this point-of-view is now being discredited by the new fields of positive organisational scholarship (POS), and positive organisational development (POD).

If you lead with strength, spend most of your time with your poorest performers, and concentrate on fixing what is wrong, then all you will ever do is raise sub-optimal performance to average levels. You will teach your team to be cogs in a machine and anchor yourself to the one spot, while all around you moves.

Now this may work in some organisations, but most organisations need to perform better or at the very least stay ahead of their competitors. That means they need to be better at handling knowledge, innovation, making decisions, and responding to an ever-changing marketplace. To do that they need to inspire staff to perform at their best, not just raise them to be average.

A good metaphor for this is to think of performance as a yacht. It may have some holes in the hull and it has sails that propel it to its destination. Repairing the holes is akin to fixing the weakest link. While fixing leaks will stop the yacht from sinking it won’t get you to your destination. To do that, you need to fill the sails with wind.

Similarly with teams, attending to the weakest link may stop things from going wrong, but only a strength-based, positive approach will fill your sails with wind, and get you to the finishing line first.

What new research in psychology is telling us is that you should lead with warmth, not strength and spend most of your time with your strong performers building on strengths rather than focusing on poor performers and weaknesses.

Lead with warmth

Recent research by Amy Cuddy (Harvard Business Review), Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger, posed the question “Is it better to be loved or feared?” (Cuddy, Kohut et al. 2013) They found that while both were important, people are much more receptive to your leadership and your message if you lead with warmth first, and back that up with strength (or more accurately competence).

Warmth builds trust, and only with trust are your people going to intrinsically adopt the values and mission of the team or organisation. The key word here is intrinsic; you want them to personally commit to what they’re doing, rather than just paying lip service.

A warm leader that is incompetent will garner pity and not respect. However it’s also true that a strong leader without warmth will only garner fear. You should lead with warmth to build up trust and then display competence (or strength).

Spend more time with your strongest performers

This advice will be controversial, because for many years leaders have been exhorted to coach their weakest links. However, Kim Cameron from the University of Michigan has found that “Managers who spend more time with their strongest performers (rather than the weakest performers) achieved double their productivity” (Cameron 2012).

That is not to say that you can simply ignore the underperformers and weaknesses, they do need to perform above a certain threshold. But it means shifting your emphasis, time, energy and effort to your stronger performers and strengths. (I can hear the collective gasps! I did say this would be controversial).

A large-scale study by the corporate Leadership Council (CLC) found that an emphasis on performance strengths lead to a 36% improvement in performance, while emphasising performance weaknesses, led to a 27% decline.

Positive leadership inspires

You don’t have to look far to see how positive leadership inspires. Consider the antipathy felt by Australians to negative election campaigns. Yes they can work in the short-term, but ultimately they don’t really inspire us to action. They don’t turn disinterested, disengaged staff into engaged and willing followers. It takes inspiring leaders to inspire – and you can’t inspire with negativity.

On the flipside consider people like Ghandi, JFK, Nelson Mandela even Jamie Oliver. They all believed in their people and had a positive vision. They all moved and inspired millions.

What you can do – 3 tips

We can all benefit from overcoming our negativity bias, and practising more of an abundance (positive) approach. Here are some steps you can take right away:

1. Give praise and thanks at every opportunity. Don’t praise things that are not praiseworthy. Do take every opportunity that you can to notice strengths and good performance. Notice it out loud.

2. Lead with warmth. Build a link with your followers and then demonstrate strength.

3. Begin to shift the balance of the time you spend with your weakest performers towards spending more time with your strongest performers. Don’t shift everything overnight, and don’t abandon your weakest performers altogether, simply change the emphasis.

You will find you start becoming more engaged, more proactive, and you may even find yourself enjoying your role a lot more. To paraphrase Kim Cameron:

Take a chance to err on the side of abundance thinking rather than deficit thinking and you will have more chance of achieving greatness, rather than just meeting a standard.

Cameron, K. (2012). Positive Leadership and Extraordinary Organisational Performance. Deans Lecture Series, Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Melbourne.

Cuddy, A. J., M. Kohut, et al. (2013). “Connect, Then Lead.” Harvard Business Review 91(7/8): 55 – 61.

Cris Popp delivers a wide range of leadership, innovation and change programs with a special focus on the latest thinking from Positive Organisational Scholarship and Positive Organisational Development. Some of his specialty programs include Inspiring Leadership, Work Smarter, Innovation, Taking Charge of Change, and Building Resilience.