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"Everyone leads" cultures need less storytelling and more story-doing

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Increasingly, you hear the argument being made that CEOs need to allow their employees to do more -- that is to say, to take part in the leadership process.

The upshot? As the senior leader, it's no longer about asking your team to blindly execute a job description or tasks you feed to them and judge them by, then wonder why they seem less than engaged. Instead, leaders must actively engage their teams in the process of leading.

While that idea is terrifying to some, it’s an important suggestion, especially in an environment where things are changing rapidly, unpredictably and beyond the ability of any one executive to manage. Indeed, the expectation that any one person can lead in full and effectively is an artifact of a version of leadership long past its expiration date.

But for most leaders, even when well-intentioned and sincere in their desire to share leadership, talk is often all they offer. Action, not so much.

Take culture, for example. Most leaders agree that culture is important. That said, culture isn’t something you simply mandate, nor does it magically appear if we just wish it to be so. It takes the ideas and efforts of many to materialize. In other words, leaders must allow people around them to actively help to define, pursue, realize, test and constantly refine culture.

At a surface level, it’s easy to believe that CEOs understand and support this notion. In a study by Deloitte, as one example, 94% of senior executives declared that they believed that a clear, distinct, and inclusive workplace culture was vital to business success (88% of employees agreed).

Yet, when Deloitte asked CEOs, middle managers and employees questions like, “Do senior leaders regularly communicate core values and beliefs?” “Do those leaders act in accordance with those values and beliefs?” and “Do the values and beliefs of leaders line up with those of the rest of the company?” the initially encouraging percentages plummeted by half for people below the CEO level. Deed didn’t match word, and little changed.

Deloitte concluded that pivotal factors of success for organizations and leaders alike cannot simply be given lip service. Truly exceptional organizations, and those most likely to thrive, must have “core beliefs that are unique, simple, leader-led, repetitive, and embedded,” all of this across the entirety of the organization.

The question is, how? First, assumptions need challenging.

The biggest problem for most senior leaders as they seek to share the lead lies in a faulty set of assumptions. They assume, for example, that sharing the lead will only invite chaos. (Not if the organization has a clear shared purpose that’s used as a guide for all they do – and where all are invited, encouraged and enabled to contribute to.)

Related but different, leaders fear a loss of control. (Turns out that, especially in uncertain times, instability, lack of innovation and poor adaptability result from battening down and overtly trying to control everything and everyone.)

And far too often, senior leaders assume that the shift from a single person or a small team of executives leading to a culture of leadership, is something that can be accomplished in a single plan or act. (In truth, it’s a gradual accumulation of acts collectively conceived and undertaken.)

But there’s another deceptively simple thought that senior executives often unknowingly harbor that trips everything else up. They assume that they, as the person with the top title, must:

  1. Have all the answers
  2. Then assume the duty of telling everyone else what to do and how

The notion is really laughable when you stop to think about it. The complexity of work today no longer allows anyone to know it all or do it all, no matter what our leader-as-hero myths tell us. And yet, all of these things are part of the story we tell ourselves, leaders and followers alike, and keep investing in.

Ready for a change? Consider practicing more story-doing instead of storytelling.

Because they are seen and see themselves through the leader-as-hero filter, most senior leaders inordinately do more talking, more storytelling to their employees, their stakeholders and even to themselves, in their daily routines. What’s heard, what’s shared, what’s pursued and how it’s pursued then springs only from a single source.

In a complex world, no solution with any staying power can be single-sourced. Story-doing is a very simple way to begin to change things. How do you get started?

It’s simpler than you think. In your daily work, consider what part of a meeting, a task, even expression of an opinion you can leave to others to do or fill in.

Story-doing isn’t just about letting others in. It’s about progressively breaking the habit of top-down, single-source leadership and creating an environment where leadership is treated as central to the culture -- the right, the responsibility and the encouraged habit of everyone.

The simple act of letting others do in place of you telling positively erodes the idea of there being one and only one gifted leader, even as that concept is so deeply embedded in our storytelling around leadership. It’s time to change this false narrative. And story-doing is one simple, powerful way to do that.

 

Larry Robertson is an innovation advisor who works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. Robertson was named a Fulbright Scholar in 2021. He’s also the author of two award-winning books: "The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity" and "A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress." As founder of Lighthouse Consulting, he has for over 25 years guided entrepreneurial ventures and their leaders through growth to lasting success. His third book, "Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times," was released June 1, 2021.

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