Can we get 'leadership' down to a single core idea?

Here’s an article on Fast Company entitled “How To Implement Change Without Making Your Employees Hate You,” which certainly seems like a noble goal for any organization. The key paragraph of said article can be found here: 

Typically, employees want choice, flexibility, and the ability to do their jobs the way they think will work well. Employers want employees to follow best practices and achieve a uniform, predictable level of performance. Employees want safety and security in their jobs. Employers want bigger profits and better results.

So here’s what we’ve established thus far: the disconnect between ’employer needs’ and ’employee wants.’

OK, good so far?

This chasm is the crux of many workplace issues and battles, and I’ve previously called the employee-employer relationship ‘doomed’ in some respects. There are many reasons why this continues to unfurl, including:

What is ‘leadership,’ really?

It would seem like a potentially good definition of leadership, aside from this oft-shared cartoon —

— would be “Someone who can overcome the major chasm in what employers want vs. what employees want.”

The ‘leadership industry,’ as it were, consists of billions of dollars of books and jet fuel and elaborate PowerPoint presentations on stages all over the world. There are catchy terms everywhere — The Four-Way Win! — and everyone is pitching some suite of products and/or ideas that will get at the essential question here:

  • How do you drive business growth through people when the people and the business have different needs?

There are basically two ways to solve that problem, and neither has been fully figured out yet. Those would be:

  • Automate everything and screw people. Who needs ’em?
  • Develop better leaders and managers throughout your company

Now let’s pause and pivot over to another website.

Can we distill the idea of leadership down to a core idea?

Let’s try, via an article from Kellogg School of Management on ‘Five Ways to Motivate Employees.’ The article has a bunch of good ideas, including:

  • Clarify expectations
  • Do what you say you’ll do
  • Have difficult conversations
  • Be self-aware
  • Etc.

Most of these concepts are common to leadership discussions — I’ve even written about self-awareness, difficult conversations, and clarifying expectations, for example — but when you get down near the bottom of that article, there’s this:

“Leadership is not about putting in place a single strategy and assuming it will unfold just the way you planned,” Cates says. “It means you’re always engaging, always adjusting. You can read all the management books you want, but eventually you will have to engage your employees more seriously, and that takes time. It’s not rocket science, but it does take time.”

(Cates is Karen Cates, a professor at Northwestern.)

I would say the above quote is a good description of what ‘leadership’ essentially is — you can read all the books you want, attend all the lectures you want, go to all the off-sites you want, work with all the consultants you want, download all the TED Talks you want to your iPad, message all the people you want on LinkedIn, and keep going in circles and circles on those ideas.


Eventually you need to engage with the people who work for you.

And you need to do so in a way where ‘the relationship’ — the connection between you two, or the employee and the work, etc. — is more important than the revenue.

Relationships Before Revenue might really be the crux of any ‘future of work’ discussion we’re having right now out in the Twitter world.

So what’s the big leadership idea here?

Value people. Invest in people. Learn about people. Know their strengths. Help them grow. That’s leadership. It’s not about tips and tricks and seminars and early bird entry fees. It’s about actual human connection back to shared ideas.

Here’s a thing that many leaders/managers (inherently different concepts, of course) miss: Money (salary) is a transactional tie back to an organization. There are millions of people in the world who stay at jobs “… because the salary is so good.” That’s a fact, and an unavoidable one. But are they deeply committed to that organization? If something major shifts, are they on board? Or are they chasing the exit? I’d guess the latter.

Even though it’s fraught to compare ‘marriage’ to ‘work’ (different in so many ways), you build commitment in a relationship through things such as:

  • Trust
  • Shared Values
  • Shared Experiences

That’s the same way you build an employee’s trust in a company or organization.

In fact, the only major difference between ‘a marriage’ and ‘an employment contract’ in terms of ‘foundational elements’ would be:

  • Both parties want the same thing

You rarely see people get married — or work out if they do — if one side wants kids and one doesn’t, for example.

But virtually every employment contract in history (or at least the last 40 years) starts — literally begins — with one side wanting something (“revenue and growth!”) and the other wanting something very different (“a sense of purpose and some respect for what I do here”).

Organizations don’t operate according to social reciprocity, which is a shame because that’s pretty much the entirety of human social fabric right there.

But we can cross this yawning leadership chasm if we just understand that leadership, for all the fancy seminars and tips and tricks and books and flights, is about:

  • Human connection
  • Human engagement
  • Some degree of empathy
  • Some degree of understanding
  • Some degree of shared belief

Leadership and management are not intuitive; we think of it as managing targets and goals, when in fact it’s about managing energy and expectations.

The only way to make that bridge logical is to understand the relationships and connection element.

What say you?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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