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"Because I said so" isn't the answer

I’ll never forget the first time I blurted out, “Because I’m the dad,” to my kids. I don’t recall why I said it, but at that moment I realized (with a chuckle) I had become my father. Saying it also made me cringe a bit, because I knew that answer wouldn’t do for long.  

My kids obeyed because they had to, as they were at an age at which I had complete authority over their lives. But I knew the time would quickly come when they wouldn’t comply, would submit in my presence but not in my absence, or would openly defy me. Any of those scenarios would lead somewhere I didn’t want to go. Raw power is not the way to achieve lasting harmony in a family.

As author and speaker Josh McDowell wisely put it, “Rules without relationship lead to rebellion.”

It’s also not the way to achieve harmony in a company -- or a country. Governors all over the US are learning this lesson the hard way as the citizens of their states increasingly refuse to comply with lockdown-related orders they perceive as somewhat arbitrary. Big-box stores can remain open but small retailers can’t. You can go to the grocery store but not the doctor’s office. People can sweat at the gym but not sing at church. All of these are recent, real-life examples from my state based on mysterious models that for some reason remain undisclosed to all but the palace court.

If you’re going to be an effective leader, rare should be the times you expect people to comply when they don’t understand what’s happening. A child will refrain from chasing his ball into the street at the sound of mom’s “Stop!” only because he’s learned to trust and respect her voice. If she abuses that trust, or fails to cultivate it when times are normal, it won’t be effective in times of crisis.

Temporal compliance is just that -- temporary -- if people don’t understand the reasoning behind your decisions. Sometimes you need to show your work.

That’s what Airbnb founder and CEO Brian Chesky did when he reluctantly announced the company’s first-ever layoffs. In a detailed, 1,700-word missive, he explained to his staff the “hard truths” the organization was facing, the rationale his management team used in determining where to cut, and the hope he still had in the company.

I shared Chesky’s note with the head of HR at my firm who, after reading it, said, “I was emotionally connected, and it didn't even have anything to do with me. Admirable approach to a difficult situation.”

An admirable approach indeed. Leaders build trust by demonstrating empathy for people’s need to know the why behind the what of their decisions. It’s the age-old distinction between power and influence; both can get something done, but one is ephemeral and the other lasting.

King George had power. Thomas Jefferson had influence. Segregationists had power. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had influence. The Polish United Workers Party had power. Lech Walesa had influence. All tyrants start out as leaders, but not all leaders become tyrants.

That’s as true at the conference table as it is at the dinner table. What’s more satisfying -- telling someone what to do and ensuring they comply, or seeing someone doing something without being told? Is it better to command or not have to? There’s no better government than self-government.

Years ago, child-rearing expert Tedd Tripp introduced me to the concept of the authority-influence continuum. It’s simple: When our kids are born, we have absolute power over their lives. We decide when they will eat, what they will wear, when they will go down for a nap -- everything. When they’re adults, we have no power over their lives -- who they will marry, where they will live, what they will do for a living. But we can have influence on them indefinitely, as long as we don’t abuse our power while they’re young.

The key to good parenting is understanding the difference between power and influence and managing the transition from one to another.

That’s the key to any form of good leadership, really. Most of us are leaders because we’ve earned the right to lead. But that doesn’t entitle us to blind loyalty. We must continually earn the respect of those in our charge, and pronouncements perceived as arbitrary (even if they’re not) destroy our credibility. If we want people to follow us, we must enable them to follow the reasoning behind our decisions. If we don’t -- or can’t -- that’s on us.

If compliance is all we’re after, compliance is all we’ll get, and in declining measure. Lasting influence comes from concurrence, which is self-sustaining. Trust your people and show your work. They won’t disappoint.

 

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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