The rise of influence
I’m reading David Marquet’s book Turn the Ship Around! this week. The book is a fascinating account of a former nuclear submarine commander’s success in transforming a bottom performing team into one of the best rated in the fleet. It’s a great story, full of insightful messages on the nature of leadership in the 21st Century.
One of the most inspiring aspects of the story is the fact that it takes place in the military, an organization that an outsider might assume is the very epitome of the “command and control” style of leadership. Yet Marquet proves that even the most rigid organizations has the potential for successfully adopting a new way to lead.
The book has me thinking about various methods of leadership styles; of “command and control” as it compares to “influence” as a primary method of management. Here’s what I’ve come to:
Control works well when the person you’re controlling has limited options. When the perceived loss is too great to consider rebelling against the person doing the controlling, the system works. No one’s particularly happy with it, I don’t think, but it works nonetheless. So long as the person at the top has a sense of where they’re going, and can expect full compliance from those that report to them, the organization moves forward.
But what happens when the fear of loss is reduced, or eliminated all together?
Then we get into an altogether different relationship.
My path to management and leadership has been unique, and I believe has played a major role in shaping my beliefs around reporting structures and the responsibilities of the leader.
It started in high school, “managing” a group of friends in various entrepreneurial endeavors. While I may have been the de-facto leader of the project, there was nothing stopping my “co-workers” from abandoning the work at any time. I had no control. We ran successful businesses anyway.
In film school (university), I was again in the driver’s seat on several film projects, and again, my team was comprised of volunteers. I had no way to control them, and they, in turn, had lots of opportunity to jump ship and start their own projects.
And then, in my first real working experience, I found myself running an office for a Direct Sales company, where the entire army of sales reps (I was up to 120 at one point) were “independent contractors”, meaning they could work when they wanted, and had no real “responsibility” to me.
Thankfully, in all three experiences, my team(s) and I did well. We consistently outperformed the competition and hit all the success metrics we’d laid out for ourselves (summer spending money, awards and recognition for the films, and one of the top three offices in North America, respectively).
When I look back on it, I see the common leadership theme as one of Influence, rather than Control. I never had the opportunity to manage by control because no one was contractually bound to listen to me. Which is a good thing, in hindsight, because as much as I’d like to think I’m more “evolved” than the command style of management, the attraction to control is pretty seductive. I think our egos quite like the idea of having an army of supplicants doing our bidding.
As attractive as it is though, I believe the control-style of management is in its death throes. Your best people have options. It’s becoming completely acceptable to jump from one company to the next every 18 months. If “control” benefits from a lack of options on the worker’s end, then the 21st Century work world means the end of control as a viable model. We – and those we work with – have options like never before. It’s naïve to believe that they’ll kneel down and bow to our wishes.
Influence is another animal entirely. When, as leaders, we’re influencing effectively, we’re tapping into the personal desire of each member of the team to create and to contribute to the collective good in their own unique way. The role of the leader, then, is not to provide specific directions, but to clearly articulate the vision of where the organization is headed, and support the individuals in their own efforts to advance in that direction. To be clear, this is not a soft version of anarchy with everyone doing what they feel like, as the hierarchical leader is still responsible for the wellbeing of the organization and the people that it includes. As such, certain decisions remain in the hands of the leader, just as other decisions are made by the other individuals in the organization.
I believe the role of the leader has become more nuanced in the past several decades, but more rewarding as well. When we can inspire a group of individuals – individuals who have options and choose to work with you, anyway – we can take joy in the fact that we’re not only advancing the business objectives, but the lives of those who have put themselves in our camp, as well. As has always been the case, leadership remains a privilege, and an extremely rewarding one at that.