Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Best Leaders Don't Exist

"The best leaders of all, the people know not they exist. They turn to each other and say, we did it ourselves."
-- Zen Proverb

Invisible leadership is perhaps the most powerful form. It is difficult to practice, however, because we all have an innate desire for personal recognition. It is a well-known management axiom that people support what they help to create. Thus, if leadership is the art of enlisting the aid and support of others to achieve a common goal, then helping others get credit is a critical leadership skill.

I've never been good at tooting my own horn. As a consequence, at various times in life I've fumed when someone else stole the credit for my idea. I think that's a reasonable reaction at the beginning of your career when you need your good work to be noticed by those in a position to promote you. But when you're the one leading, instead of fuming when this happens, you should be celebrating. Job well done. That's invisible leadership.

Effective delegation is another means to invisible leadership. When others take the ball and run with it, the credit for the score is all theirs. Few take note of the coach that called the play or the quarterback that handed off the ball; they just notice the running back that made it to the end zone. If we always gave credit to the play callers, the other members of the team wouldn't be as motivated to score.

Creating an open-minded environment conducive to creativity and innovation from all levels of the organization is another great way to enable people to say "we did it ourselves." Quality management principles posit that the best ideas for continuous improvement come from the line-level worker, not management.

Finally, don't toot your own horn unless there is a specific benefit to the team, not you. Celebrate everyone's contributions except yours. Few people respect leaders that are constantly calling attention to themselves and their accomplishments; in fact, they have the most respect for those that are highly accomplished and yet humble about it.

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