Leaders as Creators of Creators
I have worked with, listened to, and often stood in awe of a number of amazing leaders. I have also seen the opposite. I have attended and built dozens of leadership development programs with the hope of understanding and helping leaders enhance their ability to lead change, lead people, and create exceptional results. I’ve witnessed various reasons for companies investing in their leaders. At times, the driving force was the need for greater support of an organizational change in strategic direction. Other times, it was to rally around a key set of traits or characteristics that were well proven to be fundamental to leadership success and organizational growth.
After over 30 years of practice, observation of and fascination with leadership, I have concluded that many traits, programs and approaches are important and valuable, but true success can be traced back to a single belief and the behaviors associated with it.
That belief is seeing and believing that leaders are creators of creators.
Few leadership mindsets are more important than a leader’s mindset of seeing her or himself as a creator of creators. It starts with firm belief in the amazing creation capability of your people, rather than a belief that you are the creator and your people are the implementers. It is supported by further belief that unleashing the care, creativity, judgement and discretion of people yields results far superior than the results that can be achieved by directing, telling, selling, or scripting what they need to do.
The unfortunate reality is that this is not the mindset in most organizations. More often than not, many leadership teams admit that the unwritten yet prevailing leadership belief reads something like this: “Our people won’t do the right thing unless you tell them what to do, and hold them accountable to do it.” Here is an actual statement from a Fortune 500 leadership team that finally admitted that basic truth – the one upon which they were running and building their business: “We claim that we are customer fanatics but, in reality, we are finance fanatics, and don’t trust if we took the controls off of our people that they would deliver the right numbers for our business and do the right thing for our customers”. Fortunately, through hard work, a mindset shift, and perseverance, this organization changed this belief and the business took off. It turns out this leadership belief was the biggest constraint holding the business back, not its people.
Then there was this time in Valencia, California where a distribution business was adding a product line. The “why” of the line and even the “what needed to happen” was communicated clearly, but the “how” was unclear, so the company took the challenge to its people. In partnership with this organization, we laid out the “why” and “what” for several hundred people, and immersed them in dialogue with the belief that they could find better answers on the “how” than leadership could script for them. The leader’s comments still ring in my ears and they went something like this: “I am totally dumbfounded at the untapped intelligence of our people. For the last ten years we have spent most of our time trying to tell them how to do their jobs hoping it would improve our business, but we never told them anything about our business. Why do we run the business this way? We are snow blind to their amazing ability to create a better business.”
What a wake up call, huh? Being a leader that’s a creator of creators requires you to let go of the ego-driven belief that your way is the best way. Easier said than done, I know, since most leaders are reactive to their situations rather than being reflective. They fail to fully grasp that the greatest impact and influence comes from creating capability in others. Because the impulsive gut reaction of not having the answer can make leaders feel less-than, so they continue to be the creator of ideas or directions, and direct, tell and sell others on their role as implementers – instead of opening people up and seeing what’s inside that could really make an impact.
The most successful leaders I’ve worked with and observed operate with a belief that people have the knowledge and desire to do the right things for customers and the business. Furthermore, when people are enlightened with a story about an organization’s purpose (why we do what we do), a vision story (what we want to create that doesn’t yet exist), and clarity on the standards or promises we make to each other, the majority has the knowledge and desire to do the right thing. And they will do it much better than we could ever tell them.
Whenever I ask leaders the question, “who was the most influential mentor in your life and why?”, the answers are as diverse as the people asked. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, pastors, colleagues, coaches, friends, spouses, and others all are mentioned. But the whys are all surprisingly similar and sound like this:
“They were able to see in me the talent and capabilities that I didn’t yet see in myself.”
“They had a belief that I had the potential to do things better, faster, and higher than they could and were insistent in drawing it out of me.”
“It was as if they knew that once I fully grasped my capabilities, the accomplishments I would create on my own would far exceed the accomplishments I would achieve by following their advice on how to do it.”
“They created in me the confidence, and nurtured the capabilities to accomplish things far beyond what I thought I was capable of creating.”
They were truly the creators of creators. We, as leaders, need to start letting go more, trusting more, and enabling our people to create. We need to create the creators.