Being in Charge Doesn’t Need to Be a Lonely Charge
The venerable Steve Jobs gifted us many things to enhance productivity. He also gifted us an aphorism which, like my mother’s iPhone, is often not utilized to its full potential —
“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Jobs appears on all the standard leadership rosters — the lists of people to whom we look for guidance, emulation, and professional growth. The lists are also replete with Peters, like management guru Peter Drucker and leadership scholar Peter Northouse. The latter’s pivotal compendium titled plainly, Leadership, explores a theory called leader-member exchange (or “LMX”). LMX differs from much leadership scholarship in its favor of dyadic (or interactive) relationships between leaders and followers. And not simply that such relationships exist and are important, but they must be nourished.
With the perspective of bosses in mind — and specifically, improvement within the role of being a boss— Northouse points to utilizing LMX in support of what he calls “leadership making.” He delineates three phases of leadership making which can grow incrementally over time, from (1) stranger to (2) acquaintance to, finally, (3) partnership. He suggests the final partnership phase is marked by —
“…high-quality leader-member exchanges. People who have progressed to this stage in their relationships experience a high degree of mutual trust, respect, and obligation towards each other. They have tested their relationship and found that they can depend on each other.”
Partners’ roles are negotiated (not scripted); their influences are reciprocal (not one-way); their exchanges are high-quality (not low-quality); and their interests are focused on the group (not the self). These partners are exceptional colleagues, and we want them in our corners.
I often missed this boat as a younger colleague, relying less on relationships and more on rudimentary skills and behaviors. Lawrence Kohlberg might have said my psychological (professional) development had not yet evolved beyond being pre-conventional — primitive and focused on consequences, thinking in simple, myopic terms of good or bad behaviors as they relate to good or bad outcomes. I lacked the experience to understand the importance of playing a strategic, supporting role, and how — if done well — such efforts could transform myself and the organization as well.
Something shifted about 10 years into my career; I had a great boss guiding me, and I had something even better I did not realize at the time — a brilliant number two we’ll call “TT.”
A dark horse… of sorts
TT was a force. He spoke his mind, was outlandish in his work, and would even cry… on occasion. When I landed at the company, I had the opportunity to speak with TT’s former manager, who painted a mildly unimpressive picture. In my inward, selfish, pre-conventional way, I took that metaphorical painting at face value, which informed many of my early interactions with TT. Over time, I learned about his innate thoughtfulness, attention to detail, copy-editing prowess — all complements to my own abilities — and in this acknowledgement there was a revelation: I was becoming a fundamentally better boss not simply with TT, but because of him. He never hesitated to (respectfully) challenge my decisions or reasoning, and over time I even learned to encourage this behavior. I did not simply have a smart person who could tell me what to do, I was an active participant in ensuring they did so. Jobs might’ve been proud.
It can be this way nearly everywhere: nonprofits, startups, higher education, and beyond. Numbers two may indeed be the unsung heroes of business, and they take myriad shapes — chiefs of staff, program assistants, board vice presidents, and other like colleagues.
Thinking back, this was a ground-shifting realization in my career. Even now, I have a team I trust deeply and encourage to help guide and inform my thinking and my decisions, and in turn, our collective vision. This is an active practice, and is often paradoxically absent in the workplace. I can make an educated guess about why based on someone else from our list of Peters — Laurence Peter.
The “Peter Principle”
Laurence Peter’s Peter Principle cautions: employees will “rise to his [sic] level of incompetence” which may help describe every boss you’ve ever known who was really good at doing Task X, but failed at managing people who do Task X. Essentially, they are promoted beyond their abilities, which can be detrimental to organizations. One consistency about such people in such positions is, they often lack strong numbers two, or avoid having them altogether. But why? What prevents us from seeking or building these powerful relationships with deputies to help drive our best work?
Hearkening back to LMX, Northouse found these relationships result in “positive payback behaviors that [benefit] the leader and the organization.” However, this assumes these colleagues are already in the fold, doing the good work. The challenge may be that developing impactful numbers two is not always a clear, linear path, and many times those who excel in their roles will continue transitioning up (or out) as they progress in their careers. I think of excellent numbers two in the way Kim Scott defines “rock stars” in her book, Radical Candor. She notes —
“Rock stars have found their groove. They don’t want the next job if it will take them away from their craft… If you honor and reward the rock stars, they’ll become the people you rely on most.”
Scott juxtaposes rock stars with “superstars” whose growth trajectories are more steep — they are ambitious change agents who constantly seek new opportunities. Much existing professional development focuses on encouraging steep, upward growth, with not enough energy devoted to encouraging growth in depth and breadth for rock stars.