Leaders, Seize the Wide Ground (as well as the High Ground)

(This newsletter relates to Chapter Six of our new book, What Happens Now? Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You.)

Leaders can be lulled into taking their leadership authority for granted. After all, they have the title, the seniority, the decision rights, and the big corner office. But the best leaders we have worked with—the ones with sustained careers and successful track records—constantly ask themselves one powerful question: “Why should anyone follow me?”

That question is not a Hamlet-like exercise to throw a leader into a crisis of self-doubt. But rather a useful, indeed necessary, reflection. Why you?

If you rose to your leadership role based on your expertise in a key area, your credibility will likely fade over time as you assume broader management roles and get pulled away from the data, working-level processes, and key tasks.

If you became the leader because of your seniority (which is still a significant dimension of leadership selection in many institutions), your followers will likely do what you say, but your status or position on the organization chart alone will not be enough to inspire their best efforts or retain their dedicated followership when the going gets tough.

We have seen many leaders put their own personal stamp of enduring authority on their organizations—an authority that can inspire trust and commitment in their followers. Regardless of style or circumstance, most of these leaders had their authority as the leader cemented by their ability to take the what is often called the high ground, making hard calls on right versus wrong (or even “right versus right”) questions.

But in addition to that high ground, truly effective leaders must also demonstrate their ability always to connect decisions to the broader picture and the longer-term mission—what we call “the wide ground.”

We were reminded recently of the importance of “the wide ground” approach to leadership when talking with a young, high-flying executive serving in the federal government—we’ll call him Carlos. Incredibly talented, Carlos has been on a fast promotions pace and is one of the youngest senior civil servants in a key government agency. Given the hierarchical and tenure-based culture of our government, he is used to having his authority challenged by older and longer-tenured executives whom he now outranks.

Carlos described to us one long difficult meeting he was chairing, for which he had the decision-making authority. His “juniors” in the meeting included experienced government executives and experts, some of whom were almost twice his age! Their body language told him that they were skeptical of his quick rise and his ability to hold his own in the program under discussion, not to mention resentful of his de-facto challenge to a time-in-service tradition of seniority.

But the meeting ultimately turned from painful to successful, and Carlos emerged triumphant—with his followers on board. How was he able to bring about those results?

As the meeting went on and the experienced older experts pulled the discussion down into deeper levels of tactical detail and activity, debate ensued about this kind of process or action versus that kind. The discussion demanded expertise and experience in the complicated details of the program itself. After letting it go on for a bit, Carlos started injecting questions not about the details but rather, in this debate, which path was “the right thing to do.” That is, which path represented a better commitment to their duty as civil servants, their responsibility to taxpayers, and their mission to serve public policy in fair and just ways?

Well, that line of questioning resulted in a period of silence and reflection, followed by some interesting discussion about the questions the young leader had posed. Whether aware of it or not, Carlos was channeling timeless wisdom from leadership guru Peter Drucker, who once wrote: “Managers do things right, but leaders do the right things.” Carlos affirmed his leadership authority with these skeptical followers by posing and then helping them answer the pressing questions of leadership rather than the ones merely of technical management. He had seized the high ground—the domain of a leader.

Carlos also raised questions of strategy and broader impact—not just operations, process, technology and methods. As discussion wound on, the young leader constantly turned the debate about details, tactical choices, and activities to questions of what best served the mission; best positioned the program and the agency in the way its Secretary has articulated; and best promised the long-term outcomes that citizens and legislators demanded.

In doing so, Carlos further cemented his authority by commanding not just the high ground but also the wide ground: questions of strategy and purpose. He took the lead in connecting the activities under debate with the purpose, mission, and vision of the organization. By the time the long meeting was over, there were far fewer executives in the room who questioned why the youngest one amongst them was in charge.

If your authority as a leader is in question—in your own mind or perhaps in the minds of your followers—you’d be well served to follow Carlos’s lead. Ask (and be prepared to answer!) the questions about doing the right thing. Don’t shy away from having moral or ethical conversations—that's what the best leaders do. And keep the conversation, no matter how detailed, rooted in the long-term strategy, the purpose and mission, and the vision and values of your organization.

Seize the wide ground and the high ground!

"Managers do things right, but leaders do the right things."
-- Peter Drucker