When I first began studying leadership years ago, I’d find myself in conversations when someone would invariably share a leadership challenge with me. Sometimes, I’d even know how to solve it. I’d usually reference a book or an idea I had recently studied. Sometimes in my enthusiasm, I’d even go out and purchase the resource for them. Unfortunately, when I followed up a few weeks later to find out what had happened, they had rarely bothered to look at what I had provided them.
Several years later, I got a lead role on a consulting assignment to develop a plan to significantly improve an organization’s corporate culture. In fact, I was told this was my chance to “really shape the project.” I spent the next few months analyzing employee survey data, referencing strategic plans and carefully crafting a solution. Finally I got to present my plan to a senior client in a boardroom meeting and was thrilled when he accepted it. Now it was time to get to work. But much to my chagrin, a bigger problem soon emerged: no one wanted to take responsibility for seeing the plan through.
These experiences confirmed for me a simple but poignant lesson: you can’t want something for other people more than they want it for themselves. It doesn’t matter how much you care if they don’t.
This seems to go against the nature of empathy and basic altruism. But as a leadership principle, it’s proved to be true for me.
So what do you do when you do care? Here is the approach I’ve learned to take:
Inquire About Priority
When you talk, coach or consult with others, hopefully they trust you enough to share their challenges with you. I always try to ask three specific questions to quickly understand where another leader is coming from. But just like our own thoughts or mindless complaints, at any given time their concerns can range from short-term or inconsequential to long-term, significant or overwhelming. Not every problem carries equal weight and requires an immediate solution – or even any solution at all. Instead of assuming that a person is looking for answers, try to get a sense of the priority the challenge represents. There is a big difference between a level 1 “would be nice to fix” challenge and a level 5 “front page headline” challenge.
If I had to do the culture transformation project over again, I would have asked a simple question before I even got started: who from the client team will be the executive sponsor for this solution after the planning phase is finished? Not understanding local commitment was an oversight on my part. You can avoid that mistake by pressing the issue upfront. The perfect plan with no commitment provides no benefit. It’s a complete waste of time and effort. Not only will commitment help you manage your expectations, it will help the other party decide if a solution is worth pursuing in the first place.
Ask the Ultimate Question
I mentioned above how I used to take the responsibility to try and solve the leadership challenges I encountered. I don’t do this anymore. It was hard to resist at first, but I’ve learned a much better way. It comes in the form of what I call the ultimate leadership question:
How would you like me to support you?
This question almost works like magic. It leaves all the responsibility where it belongs: with the party who has a challenge. But it communicates that you are willing help. And it gives the other person a variety of choices to make: do they prefer to tackle this challenge on their own, would they like a helping hand or do they prefer to leave it be for another day?
Jack Welch said that if you don’t like people, you should find another job because leadership is 70% people development. If you’re going to be a leader, you need to care about other people. But caring about them shouldn’t supersede the principle of boundaries. To empower others to drive change, you must keep your initiative in check. If you find that you care more about their outcome than they do, you may be headed for trouble.
Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader. Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or follow him on Twitter.