Part Two of a Series on The Tempting Ten Wallow Words
(Click to read Part One)
A central theme of my fictional story of Pete Leonard in Moose on the Table: A Novel Approach to Communications @ Work was how he gave his power away by acting as if he was powerless. He and his team slowly learned how to be ever more helpless. It’s a problem we see too often in workshops and coaching. It’s a leadership and culture disorder that infects all levels of many organizations.
A Moose on the Table reader e-mailed me that she quite liked the book. She bitterly complained, though, about not being in a position of power or authority the way she thought Pete Leonard and the other characters were.
She was partially right. The book is directly applicable to those in supervisory or management roles. I targeted leaders because they so often disempower themselves. Everyone else in the organization sees them as being more powerful than “the Petes” often see themselves as being. Pete’s experiences were to provide a model for that group. This was also to provide a broader model for anyone struggling with communication and courage.
BUT…this reader fell into the trap of believing that power and authority come from position. As Alice Walker, social activist and American author who was the first Afro-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her book The Color Purple, said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
Why doesn’t somebody do something?
We’ve long defined leadership as an action, not a position. Strong leaders influence, connect, change, and deliver results regardless of — sometimes despite — their formal role or position. That’s especially important in influencing upward to the boss and even further up the organization.
Regardless of their position power, strong leaders develop their persuasion power. You’ll rarely hear effective leaders say, “They ought to do something about that.” Instead, strong leaders say, “I will do something about that.”
Geoffrey Bellman writes in his book, Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge, “You may be thinking, ‘But someday I will be in charge of the committee (or agency or division or team), and I will change things!’ Well, think again. That’s akin to getting married with the plan to start changing your spouse immediately after the ceremony. My research says that does not work very well…it is too easy for us to attribute power to a position that we have yet to hold, or that others hold, and to diminish the power we currently have.”
Choosing Whether to Wallow, Follow, or Lead
When Moose on the Table was published, I delivered a national series of one-day Breaking Through the Bull workshops. During one session, a participant blurted out, “Shouldn’t senior management be addressing the moose issues and providing the leadership you’ve been discussing?” My answer was, YES, of course they should. But many don’t.
That leaves three choices: 1. Live with the status quo (too many people who do that then jump on the Bitter Bus with lots of criticizing, condemning, and complaining). 2. Quit. 3. Provide strong leadership within your own team or area while practicing upward leadership.
In his book, Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss so You Both Win, Michael Useem rightly points out, “Leading up requires great courage and determination…. We all carry a responsibility to do what we can when it will make a difference. Upward leadership is not a natural skill, but it can be mastered.”
Going Viral: Don’t Catch the Poor Me Leadership Bug
Good or bad leadership is highly contagious. In executive coaching, we sometimes work with leaders who’ve unconsciously chosen to be a victim of a bad boss or ineffective senior leaders. Many coachees have bad bosses. Yet 360 feedback ratings of their leadership can be at opposite ends of the rating scales.
The poorly rated leader feels victimized by a bad boss. The highly rated leader sees their bad bosses as one more challenge to deal with. And their bad bosses provide up close and personal lessons in what not to do.
Weak leaders often don’t recognize how they’ve been infected with the Victimitis Virus. They’re in leadership roles but don’t act like leaders. They end up demoralizing their teams. And they frustrate themselves by choosing to be disempowered by their boss or others above them in the organization. They give away their power by believing that they don’t have any. They believe that leadership cascades from above.
Take the Lead in Managing Your Manager
Boss management or leading upward is one of the most popular topics on our website. It’s also the most read of my columns in The Globe & Mail (Five Ways to Deal with a Bad Boss). I condensed years of writing and coaching on this topic into five steps:
- Strengthen your credibility and relationship
- Check your timing and approach
- Don’t wait, initiate
- Speak up
- Fire a bully boss
Don’t Wait; Initiate
A reporter once asked the Dalai Lama why he didn’t hate the Chinese Communists. The Dalai Lama replied, “They have taken over Tibet, destroyed our temples, burned our sacred texts, ruined our communities, and taken away our freedom. They have taken so much. Why should I let them also take my peace of mind?”
Too many people working under ineffective managers stay in unhappy situations, don’t strengthen their own leadership, and choose to become victims of poor leadership from above. If you’re one of them, maybe it’s time to pull yourself out of the muck and head toward the leadership stairs.
Don’t wait for your boss or someone else to open the door. The handle is on the inside.