This post is excerpted from “Breaking the Trust Barrier: How Leaders Close the Gaps for High Performance,” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, June 2016) by JV Venable.
The two biggest accolades you can receive as a team leader are popularity and success. Unfortunately, most of us are driven more by our fears than by the promise of accolades. The two greatest fears for most leaders on point are the fear of failure and the loss of popularity within the team.
Few people willingly accept the stigma associated with failure, and it is hard to fathom anyone actually wanting to be unpopular. The question becomes which of the two holds the greatest leverage on you — is it the loss of popularity or a fear of failure? The answer may not be readily apparent, but it can be detected through your style and willingness to use your authority to move those behind you.
Just about any style of leadership can be effective so long as it is balanced and the leader’s primary focus is on performance. The graph Popularity or Success depicts the likely impact of a leader’s balancing those two driving fears — loss of popularity and failure — on organizational performance. The vertical axis depicts the performance of any team, and the horizontal axis depicts (in the extreme) units led by individuals driven by popularity on the left and by fear of failure on the right.
Any organization can function and deliver some level of service without credible leadership. You can call the individual on the left side of the scale a pushover, cheerleader, pawn, or figurehead, but, for whatever reason, that person sits in a position of authority that he or she will not use. Leaders at this extreme are placeholders. They keep their chairs from flying up and striking innocent bystanders, but they aren’t likely to inspire the performance of, or take disciplinary action on, their people.
On the far right are leaders who are so driven to succeed they are willing to figuratively crush those who fail to measure up. Call these leaders tyrants, dictators, autocrats, or drug lords, but you get the picture. As onerous as they are, these folks are typically more successful than those at the other extreme because of their willingness to use their authority.
Although it is interesting to speculate about where different leaders in our lives fit on the continuum, it is much more effective to look at the curve from inside the mind of a single leader.
It doesn’t matter whether you view yourself as a pushover or a tyrant; there is a center point, a place that lies between the extremes, where you live and lead day by day. Put yourself in the center of this graph and think about the positions to the left and right of you.
If you strive to make the work environment enjoyable for your people, at what point are you willing to put your popularity at risk to improve your team’s performance? If you see yourself as a nail driver, when are you willing to back off your drive for perfection to build morale and retention into your team?
No matter where your comfort zone lies, you must be willing to move off that center to maximize your team’s performance.
Venable is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force’s Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) and has flown fighter aircraft all over the world. He has led individuals, teams, and organizations as large as 1,100 people at the highest ends of performance and risk in both peacetime and combat. Most notable was his time as the commander and demonstration leader of the USAF jet demonstration team, the Thunderbirds. Venable is an inspirational speaker, seminar leader, and coach on building and leading high-performance teams. He lives with his wife, Lil, and two sons, Harrison and Walker, in northern Virginia. For more information, visit his website and connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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