Updated: Why do organizations have leaders?

This phenomenon is true for many leadership roles: If the leader doesn’t show up for work, the business will still run. When the CEO of a hospital misses a day of work, some work may slow down, but the hospital still can run and deliver care. When a trauma surgeon must miss work, their work needs to be covered to save and serve patients, and the operations of the hospital could grind to a halt without coverage.

Sometimes, you will see people in an interim leadership role or leadership roles being vacant for extended periods of time. You see that dynamic far less for positions that interact with clients or customers or who work in support organizations that make the business run. Short staffing is a problem in leadership, yet it is a crisis when it happens at the front line.

Why do organizations have leaders?

If most leaders are not “essential” to run the business, why have leaders?

The reason is that groups of individual contributors often cannot see the larger picture of what the organization is trying to accomplish. Organizations with high leadership turnover are often unstable. Before long, these organizations drift and cannot survive without planning and coordination. These organizations often face operational and financial issues. When an organization is failing and needs to “turn around”, it is usually the result of a failure or absence of leadership.

The Example of Ford Motor Company

One example of a turnaround in an organization due to failures in leadership is the case of Ford Motor Company in the late 2000s. Ford was struggling with declining sales and a loss of market share, and its CEO, Jacques Nasser, was criticized for his leadership style and strategic decisions. Nasser had pursued a diversification strategy that had failed to produce the desired results, and he was also accused of being too focused on short-term financial gains at the expense of long-term growth.

In 2001, Nasser was forced to resign, and William Clay Ford Jr., the great-grandson of Henry Ford, took over as CEO. Ford Jr. recognized the need for a fundamental shift in the company’s culture and strategy, and he embarked on a comprehensive turnaround effort that included a focus on innovation, quality, and sustainability. He also took steps to improve the company’s relationships with employees, suppliers, and customers.

Under Ford Jr.’s leadership, the company began to see improvements in its financial performance and market share. Ford introduced a number of successful new models, such as the Ford Fusion and the Ford Edge, and the company’s overall product quality improved. The company also became more focused on sustainability, developing hybrid and electric vehicles and reducing its environmental footprint.

Overall, the Ford turnaround was an example of how effective leadership can turn around a struggling organization. By recognizing the need for change and taking bold action, Ford Jr. was able to restore the company’s fortunes and position it for long-term success.

What a Leader does in a Company

A leader’s job is not only to keep things running day to day, but to optimize the work and drive results. Leaders are entrusted to oversee all aspects of their areas of responsibility to prevent the falling behind that inevitably happens without leadership. So while most leaders are not “essential” to run the business on any given day, they are “essential” and responsible for making sure the organization continues to grow and thrive into the future.

This orientation to what the work of a leader truly is, can be a difficult shift for new leaders. It is critical to make this shift and not revert to being an individual contributor. Leadership, as you will continue to see, is a fundamentally different job than showing up and performing your function each day. A leader’s point of view must be wider, learning all aspects of who and what make the organization work well, and longer, taking a point of view that extends out weeks, months, and years.

The Ford example illustrates another important point: Leaders that do not drive results often do not last long in leadership roles. If you lead in a business, producing financial results may be the top priority. Non-profit leaders may be measured by whether the number of people served is growing and whether the business is financially stable. If you lead your home-owners association, other homeowners may measure you on how you manage snow removal.  In any of these examples, if the leaders are not achieving the goals of the organization, senior leaders or boards of directors will look for different leaders who can achieve those results.

Knowing what results you are expected to achieve as a leader is extremely important. Accomplishing them in reasonable timeframe is the leader’s primary responsibility and what will either allow the leader to continue in their role or not.

I have seen leaders who have high employee engagement, high quality scores, and high customer satisfaction scores who are removed from their roles in leadership because they were not able to manage the finances of their department effectively in achieving those other results. New leaders must make sure they have clarity about what results are expected of them and in what timeframes. Then it is their responsibility to plan out how their teams will achieve those goals.

The Importance of Quick Wins

The results-oriented dynamic is one reason why it is vital to achieve, “Quick wins,” when entering a leadership role. “Quick wins” are usually small victories and must be respectful of the cultural context of the group. “Quick wins” give both supervisors and followers confidence that the leader is ready and able to produce results that drive towards their goals either directly or indirectly.

One of my favorite examples of a “Quick win” comes from the Apple TV+ show, Ted Lasso. The show is about an American football coach named Ted Lasso who is hired to coach a professional soccer team in England. In season 1, episode 2, Coach Lasso asks for suggestions for improvements he can make for the team, and finds one that says, “The shower pressure is rubbish.” He fixes the shower pressure so that it is stronger, which sends a positive message of support to his team. While not a big change, it is one that showed that Coach Lasso was able to create change in a way that the team suggested.

The “Dark-side” of Leadership

With that example in mind, a note of caution. A leader cannot achieve results at the expense of the psychological safety of the team. There is a “Dark-side” of leadership to watch out for. If a leader makes it all about themselves and sacrifices certain results over their teams wellbeing, they risk being perceived as a narcissist, jerk, or psychopath. When the relationship between the leader and the team breaks down, positive results will only be temporary as the leader will have lost their team and the team will eventually stop allowing the leader to lead them. They will rebel in either covert ways like “Quiet quitting” or overt ways. If you read this post and fall to the “Dark-side,” it will be a failure.

In summary, the sooner a new leader recognizes that the work of a leader is fundamentally different than the work of an individual contributor and requires a different approach, the faster they will be able to make the transition to impactful leadership.

Key Takeaways

While most leaders may not be essential for running the day-to-day operations of the business, they play a critical role in optimizing work and driving results. Leaders must have a wider and longer point of view to oversee all aspects of their area of responsibility and ensure the organization continues to grow and thrive.

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Team Accountability Isn’t What You Think it is

The idea of team accountability is important, but often misunderstood. Many organizations struggle to hold people accountable. Leaders must have a good understanding of accountability to be an effective leader.

Gone are the days of rewards and punishments to drive team accountability. When most leaders discuss “holding people accountable,” they usually mean terminating low performers or punishing them in some other way. Accountability, by this definition, does not work. Instead, it becomes a recipe for turnover and disengagement.

When Accountability is Confused with Punishment

When I speak with leaders, especially leaders in middle management, there is frequent frustration around team accountability. What they tend to talk about as we unpack accountability is dissatisfaction about politics, treatment, and behaviors. Other leaders want to tie accountability to performance, similar to how General Electric CEO Jack Welsh used “Stack rankings” in the 1980s. In this model, the bottom 10% of performers would be fired at years’ end.

Tying team accountability only to outcomes is problematic because it discourages appropriate risk-taking. In addition, even high performers miss targets for legitimate reasons. While there needs to be recognition that the person did not meet their goals, punishing them is usually unwarranted. Tactics like “Stack rankings” are ineffective due to their short term orientation and punitive nature. “Stack rankings” only served to create a cut-throat and disengaged culture.

So that brings us back to the middle manager definition of team accountability. What they refer to when they describe a lack of accountability is witnessing inconsistent treatment based on favoritism, rude behavior, or a lack of performance among their peers with no obvious consequences. Using that as a starting point helps us to better understand how effective leaders understand team accountability.

Working-Definition of Team Accountability

With these leaders in mind, my personal working definition of team accountability involves two aspects: Empowerment and Transparency.

Team Accountability is really about empowerment and transparency

An organization cannot have accountability without empowerment. If leaders are not able to creatively and uniquely develop strategies and tactics to achieve their goals, accountability is not possible. There must be space for leaders to maneuver in an organization. This means that senior leaders need to set clear performance goals and expectations for behavioral standards that all team-members must follow. Leaders should have plenty of room to achieve their goals within those well-defined boundaries without being micromanaged. Creating a clear boundary like this simultaneously encourages mid-level leaders to think more like owners of their book of business, rather than managers executing someone else’s playbook.

Effective leaders use transparency as the other powerful tool in creating a sense of team accountability. By publishing relevant data regularly, it becomes abundantly clear who is high performing and who is not. In these instances, the healthiest cultures will see high performing leaders helping lower performing leaders. Further, the leaders who are struggling are aware of it and are given additional help and support.

When empowerment and transparency occur together, there is rarely a need for punishment. Everyone in the organization understands the expectations and whether they and their teams are meeting those expectations. In these cases, the conversations around accountability almost disappear. This is because often these organizations are achieving their goals and because the organization’s expectations around performance and behavior are communicated openly and repeatedly.

Using Accountability in your Leadership Practice

When a leader defines accountability as the sum of empowerment and transparency, they can achieve incredible results. I know this from personal experience. I once inherited a team that was low performing and high-drama, often asking for accountability for other team members. When we introduced clear boundaries for empowerment and transparent weekly data reporting, we never heard about accountability again.

The desire for accountability is usually a symptom of under-defined expectations and a lack of transparency. Using this model, leaders can have an immediate impact of getting the team focused on what matters most: Driving results and growing the organization in a way that supports and empowers the employees of that organization.

Key Takeaways

Team accountability is the sum of a culture that has empowerment and transparency. Clearly defined goals and behavioral expectations, coupled with transparent reporting, help to create clarity and focus on results.

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Why New Leaders Should Embrace Rituals and Inside Jokes to Foster Team Identity

Many high performing teams have something in common that is rarely discussed: Rituals and inside jokes.

Recently, ESPN released a 30-for-30 documentary called, “The Bullies of Baltimore” about the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV winning team. I was amazed by how many rituals and inside jokes that team had, which I believe helped them to win a championship.

Rituals and Inside Jokes helped bring the Baltimore Ravens together to win a Super Bowl

If you are football fan, you may recall that the 2000 Ravens were known for their defense. While their defense was historically dominant featuring all-stars like Ray Lewis and Rod Woodson, their offense was lackluster. In fact, the team went five weeks that season without scoring a touchdown. When their head coach, Brian Billick, was asked about the team making the playoffs, he didn’t want to take any chances; he banned use of the word “playoffs” among the team and subjected anyone who spoke the word to a fine.

In response, the whole city started referring to the “playoffs” using another name– “Festivus,” which was a reference to the popular 1990s sitcom Seinfeld. Players and coaches started using the word judiciously and it became a running joke both inside the team and with the media and fans. Some fans even had t-shirts made referring to “Festivus”.

The story of the 2000 Super Bowl winning Ravens for the 30-for-30 documentary series is told through a panel discussion including both players and coaches. In addition to the “Festivus” inside joke, there were several others, like the back and forth pranks between Shannon Sharpe and Tony Siragusa and even the joke that Brian Billick hated to call plays to run the football and the team pulled him aside to beg him to call more running plays, which energized the Ravens struggling offense.

Creating Language

I remember the first supervisor I had when I was an intern, who fostered an incredible work environment through inside jokes. He almost had his own language that he shared with everyone in the office that only we understood. For example, he would refer to things being extreme using the term “Squared” like saying, “That person was intense…squared.”

It was one of those things where, “You had to be there,” for it to be funny, but that is kind of the point. Teams come together when they are in an environment that creates such an atmosphere to bring people together. Human experiences on a team are shaped by shared experiences, especially unique shared experiences. In leadership, that is the power of an effective off-site meeting, giving a team a memorable shared experience outside of the office that only they can refer to.

The best part of this common language was that everyone was included, which helped to bring the team together, not create cliques or factions. If the group is creating inside jokes to marginalize a member of the team, that is often bullying, not bonding.

Why Inside Jokes Work

These inside jokes serve a dual purpose. First, they help to build team identity and belonging by creating a sense of shared experience and camaraderie. When team members share a common language or joke, they feel like they are part of a tight-knit community, which can help to boost morale and foster a positive work environment.

Second, inside jokes can be incredibly motivating for team members. When your team is working towards a common goal, having a fun inside joke to celebrate each success can help to create a sense of momentum and excitement. Team members will feel more invested in their work when they feel like they are part of something larger than themselves.

Leaders have the power to help instill the camaraderie of many successful teams. Leaders can use tools like unique language, mantras, or stories to create a team dynamic. Even more powerful, leaders can create the space and opportunities for team members to get together and create those inside jokes themselves. Leaders who want to micromanage or hear back on interactions lose out on many opportunities for the team to share something unique together.

From an anthropological perspective, rituals and routines are a cornerstone of human behavior, helping to create a sense of stability and predictability in our lives. This is especially true in the workplace, where employees thrive on a sense of structure and routine. As a leader, incorporating regular rituals and routines into your team’s workflow can help to build a sense of trust and consistency.

The Importance of Rituals

In the “Bullies of Baltimore” documentary, Ray Lewis’ pre-game ritual was to watch the movie “Gladiator” before every game. It was a reference point for him to get himself mentally ready to play at a high level. Throughout the documentary, he quotes the movie and the key points that got him ready and psyched up for every game.

High performing teams have group rituals as well. In healthcare, we use a tool called a daily huddle to get together and share information. It gives the people on the team an opportunity to see and hear from each other every day. It keeps everyone informed and communicating.

The best leaders I have observed understand human psychology and human behavior. Rituals and inside jokes are a part of the human experience, dating back thousands of years, and are therefore part of the experience of being on an excellent team.

While rituals are important, they can’t be forced or manufactured by a leader. They happen as team members spend time together and build trust with one another. A leader’s responsibility is to create opportunities for teams to engage together in a meaningful way that may create these important bonds.

One small word of caution: A leader should be careful that they do not become the inside joke like Michael Scott does in the comedy series The Office. While a leader may not be included in every inside joke, becoming the joke is obviously not positive. Create the environment for bonds to happen, not to target a common enemy or leave anyone out.

Rituals, common language, and inside jokes, developed in an inclusive way can help teams thrive. The teams that bond together stay together, support each other, and pursue the best ideas in an environment of trust.

Key Takeaways

New leaders can use the power of rituals and inside jokes to build a cohesive team. These tools create a sense of identity and belonging that can boost team morale and inspire employees to achieve great things. When used inclusively and appropriately, inside jokes can help new leaders foster a positive work environment and build a strong team.

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Reconnecting Teams to their Purpose Through Daily Inspiration

One of the most under-appreciated skills that talented transformational leaders possess is the ability to inspire their team daily. Even some of the most challenging and important jobs, like a clinician saving lives or an engineer working on a spaceship can become routine or monotonous.  Talented transformational leaders help team members see the importance of their work even when it becomes regular and normal to them.

Leaders use inspiration to motivate teams and combat the mundanity effect

This phenomenon is known as the “Mundanity effect.” The “Mundanity effect” describes how an activity can begin to feel less exciting or special and instead seem more routine or ordinary. It has been studied in cases like business ethics, emergency rooms, and Olympic athletes, all with negative effects if not addressed.

That is where the leader comes in. Providing daily inspiration can help connect team members reconnect to the exciting parts of their work.

One of the best examples of using daily inspiration in practice is from Ritz-Carlton hotels. Every day, all Ritz-Carlton employees across the world participate in a 10 minute meeting called the “Lineup”.  The lineup consists of four agenda items: Review the Ritz-Carlton gold standards, share stories of great guest service, celebrate birthdays and work anniversaries, and discuss property specific information. The first two topics are standardized and are usually developed at least one year in advance.

One of the goals of the lineup is to showcase memorable examples of exceptional customer service, a hallmark of the Ritz-Carlton. These include stories like Chris Hurn’s about his son’s favorite stuffed animal, a giraffe named Joshie. Chris’ son accidentally left Joshie behind at the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island, Florida. When the hotel staff found Joshie, they didn’t simply box the stuffed animal up and send it back to Chris’ son. Instead, the Ritz-Carlton ladies and gentlemen (how they refer to their employees) produced a photo book of scenes showing Joshie having an “Extra long vacation,” like hanging out by the pool or driving a golf cart. This story shared an example of incredible customer service and inspired the team to create moments like this one for other guests.

A leader helps to communicate to team members that what they do matters. Leaders show that the work people do every day has meaning, especially for the customer.

The Ritz-Carlton understands the value of daily inspiration to combat the “mundanity effect,” but most organizations to not provide similar resources to leaders. It can be difficult for leaders to find inspiration to share with their teams daily. Luckily, there are variety of resources to help leaders inspire their teams, such as books of inspiration and daily 365 books like the Daily Stoic or the Daily Drucker.

Still, the best sources of inspiration will come from the leader’s and team’s experiences with their customers or with each other. Leaders should continually keep their eyes open for inspiration, collecting customer feedback that can be shared with the larger team. A leader should know their team members well enough to figure out what material will connect them to purpose and seek out relevant examples.

The ability to inspire is an undervalued characteristic of high performing leaders. While it is not intuitive for every leader to find or share inspirational stories, it is a skill that leaders can certainly use more often. Whether it is a customer story or inspiration from a book, leaders should not avoid this responsibility and fall victim to the “mundanity effect.”

Key Takeaways

Leaders use daily inspirational messages to keep their team members connected to purpose. They can find daily inspiration to share with their teams through a variety of resources like customer stories and books.

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3 Ways New Leaders Can Start Strong

Impactful leaders are usually excellent listeners, able to organize lots of information, and communicate effectively. To master those three skills over time, there are a few things new leaders need to know and understand at the outset.

First, a new leader will usually inherit a team and that team’s current results. In these cases, assumptions are your biggest enemy. Do not assume that because the area you are leading is achieving its desired results now, the success will last forever. Do not assume that the team was achieving results because it was being led well. In fact, assume as little as possible. Learn as much as you can.

How New Leaders Can Start Strong

Build Relationships

The first few months for any new leader is about developing relationships and educating themselves on the department. The first few months will be focused on getting to know your team, supervisor, peers, and customers. By approaching conversations with those groups with authenticity and curiosity, letting them also get to know you in the process, you will be off to a great start. Engage with everyone you can during those first few months. Have lots of coffee and lunch dates. Meet with groups and meet with individuals. Ask lots of questions. Listen twice as much as you talk.

In some cases, a new leader will be starting a new department from scratch. The rules here are a little different. Learning as much as possible about the goals and expected deliverables will serve a new leader well in this context. Action planning based on those goals and resources will be an important next step.

Define the Work

Second, define the work. Answer the following questions. If you do not know the answer, start by asking supervisors, colleagues, your team, and your customers for their perspectives. Remember, these are their perspectives, not facts:

  • What results am I responsible for?
  • How are those results measured and in what timeframe?
  • Who are my customers? What would I like my customers to say about their experiences with my team? How is the team currently meeting customer expectations?
  • What is the value of my area of responsibility to the business? If my area of responsibility did not exist, what would it mean for the business?

Change Your Mindset

Third, a new leader must change their mentality from being that of a guest to that of a host. Simply coming to work, doing your job, and going home will not be enough in most leadership roles. To clarify, I am not suggesting that you will be working longer hours or will never have any time for vacation, but you are taking on a much more demanding set of responsibilities.

Instead, when anything happens impacting your new area of leadership, it is your responsibility to identify problems and come up with solutions. When something is going well in your department, you can explain why it is going well because it was intentional on your part. When something is not going well, you own both the problem and the solution to improving it in a lasting manner.

While you are still expected to operate in your scope, your direct supervisor is likely leading multiple areas of responsibility. The good supervisors will count on you to know what you are empowered to do with your team and what requires your supervisor’s permission. In instances where your supervisor has ultimate decision-making authority, most will appreciate giving them multiple options and thinking ahead about the possible consequences, both positive and negative, for each option.

In leadership, especially in a first role as a leader, it is important that new leaders get to know their area of responsibility top to bottom, which means understanding how each part works separately and together. As a leader learns the different parts of the business, they should also focus on the following areas where results may be expected of them and their teams.

Key Takeaway

Strategies for new leaders to succeed include avoiding assumptions, developing relationships, defining goals and responsibilities, and taking ownership of both problems and solutions. Effective communication, learning, and a mindset shift from being a guest to a host will help new leaders have a greater positive impact in their new role.

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