Other People’s Onlyness Matters, Too

Wake up an hour earlier to get a jump on things. Answer all the emails because it’s polite. Spend part of every Sunday strategizing so you can better direct your team during the week.

The underlying message during the start-of-year-frenzy is that success is yours for the taking if you just show up and, try a smidge harder. As if, the reason you’re not succeeding is a lack of discipline or effort.

While it’s important to work hard and show up, the idea that your success is totally self-reliant is a myth. On a personal level, this myth leads to profound stress and burnout. Less obvious, this myth hurts our organizations by what we value in our leaders.

Leader as Ultimate Source
In American culture broadly, and in business culture specifically, we celebrate a singular leader as the ultimate source of action, meaning, and responsibility.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, for example, is widely celebrated as the creative genius behind the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Hamilton. Meanwhile, the co-creators of the blockbuster, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and music director Alex Lacamoire, are hardly household names.

As you read this, you may be thinking, “yeah, but it’s Lin-Manuel who had the big inspirational leader, the creative genius of the whole thing… so, of course, we celebrate him, the hero of our story.” The business equivalent is akin to celebrating Jeff Bezos instead knowing of Andy Jassy, who runs AWS (the cloud), and Jeff Wilke, who runs its consumer products and marketplaces, including Prime.

When we focus on the heroic leader, we neglect a fundamental truth about how the work of innovation happens: ideas and sparks of creativity are important but equally so is the manifestation of that idea into reality, which, to state the tacit …never (n-e-v-e-r) happens alone. Sure, original ideas are born of a person, from that place in the world only you stand, or onlyness. And those nascent ideas are shaped, and honed and made manifest by many. Both parts matter, but they are not celebrated equally. The creative spark is widely celebrated, while the collaborative work is undervalued.

The Heroic Leader Myth Disempowers… Everyone
I was recently working with an entrepreneur, the founder, and original visionary on her organizations’ growth strategies. As we talked, it was clear she thought her job was to direct all the action, make sure the organization meaning was known, and create accountability throughout the organization. She was, unsurprisingly, spending her Sunday’s planning out the week for the team, or defining the agenda for the Board, or simply “getting a jump on things”.

She was exhausted but she also didn’t know what else to do. As she looked to drive an exponential growth strategy, she couldn’t imagine working any harder. I asked her if she believed in her people. She said yes. So I then asked, then why are you treating them like they don’t know what to do without you directing every action. It was the model she had been sold; that of the leader as a hero. She’s not alone. The story we celebrate is the leader is “on top” full of agency, and everyone else is “on the bottom”, as passive followers.

If we keep celebrating the individual-heroic construct of leader, we are signaling to our prospective leaders to conceive of themselves as the ultimate source of all forward motion, meaning, and responsibility. “The buck stops here,” we all chorus as we do our near-24×7 thing. Clearly, this is a limited construct at a personal level. Organizationally, it also limits the creative engagement of some 87% of all people.

A collaborative leader is different than leader-as-hero because scaling is achieved not by directing work, by being inviting effort. Light a big fire of purpose that says “here’s where we are going.”

I talked with this entrepreneur about an alternative construct: being a collaborative leader; that her work is not a matter of getting “them” to do her, the leader’s bidding; instead it is to invite people to do what they already want to do, towards a common goal. A collaborative leader is different than leader-as-hero because scaling is achieved not by directing work, by being inviting effort. Light a big fire of purpose that says “here’s where we are going.” Then the co-creative people come and light their own candles at this fire and carry out the work as if taking the light out into the darkness. This lets everyone do what only they can, sharing the load, thus unlocking the talent and creativity of each individual. Collaborative leadership builds energy, activates new approaches, and liberates people to do their best.

Leadership through the lens of heroic leadership starts in creativity and ends in certainty. Leadership through the lens of collaboration starts in questions and ends in a community.

This shift in leadership approach changes how to achieve “scale”. The individualistic heroic leader believes that they must direct scale. The collaborative leader expands ownership of the goal to many.

Hold Ideas As If In An Open Palm
And to be 100% clear, elements of both are usually needed: The visionary founder still will anticipate things others won’t. But now you want to open up how that information is held — no longer in a tight fist but in an open palm — so that many can use it and build on it and improve it and grow it. This HBR video talks to this.

As I described collaborative leadership, my entrepreneurial leader started to envision an experience like the story of the Little Red Hen. In that fable, the hen envisions a solution. And then, wanting to be a collaborative leader, she asks for help, but her friends (the dog, the cat, etc) are uncooperative. In the end, the hen winds up doing all the work: planting, sowing, reaping, milling, etc. When she finally, heroically, bakes the bread, all the “friends” are eager to help eat it.

But I pointed out that the story of the Little Red Hen is in itself reinforcing the heroic story of leader. The story could have been quite different. The “hen” could have talked about the mission by asking her colleagues, “hey, doesn’t bread make sense?” Then, inviting everyone to sign on and to help in their specific way.

Because we in America overinvest in the “leader as individual hero” model, we propagate the myth that self-reliance and hustle are the only way to win. As a result, it takes an act of faith for most of us to believe that we might find collaborative co-creators willing to co-own a purpose.

But consider how this model opens up possibilities.

  • To not just create an idea but to share that idea so it’s mutually owned.
  • To not just be directive of tasks but relational in meaning.
  • To not just scale thru directing people’s actions but by engaging their deep passion.

Most leaders I know are already pretty tired, exhausted even. (Aren’t you?) And the answer is not to do more, email or otherwise. Instead of signaling the message to do more, we should encourage our peers, ourselves, and the leaders we work with to let go. And then to let us join together to do the work we want to do. This will let us build together what we need next.

Leave a reply

Leave a Reply