Three-Legged Leadership

There are countless approaches to leadership. This one is mine.

I never wanted to be a “Textbook Leader” or a “Paint-by-Numbers Manager”. My goal has always been to be authentic, unique, and teachable. Also, I have a terrible memory and find complex leadership methodologies unhelpful. So, I’ve recently been attempting to distill all the knowledge and experience I’ve gained so far into a simple framework that can be applied repeatedly. It’s already helped me navigate a variety of real-world issues.

Maybe you’ll find it helpful too.

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THESIS

An inexperienced leader is like a three-legged dog: Although incomplete and often awkward, it can still run.

If you’ve ever seen a three-legged dog run, you’ll notice a specific pattern: It places one paw after another in rapid succession, but always in the same order. The two hind legs propel it forward, while the front leg provides direction and braking power.

Likewise, a leader really only needs to take three steps to progress over any terrain:

  1. Be strategic
  2. Get input
  3. Be decisive

Now let’s look at each step in detail.

STEP 1: Be strategic

Leaders are confronted with complex problems every day. It’s how they deal with those problems that makes the difference between a good leader and a bad one. The most common mistake I make, for example, is reacting to these problems. Whenever I learn that something is broken or dysfunctional, my first instinct is to fix it. Now. And yet every time I try to fix-it-now, I usually just end up making things worse.

Why is reacting to a problem problematic? There are at least three reasons. First, when you’re hearing about an issue for the first time from another person’s perspective, you definitely don’t have the full story. By reacting, you’re in fact only responding to incomplete and/or inaccurate information. Second, when you immediately propose a specific solution, you aren’t considering other possibilities. Finally, by responding with a solution of your own, you aren’t empowering the person who’s raising the issue to take ownership of it. As a result, your “solution” likely won’t solve the problem, and the other person will only learn that they can run to you for help whenever things get difficult. This leads to poor results and a low performing team.

A good leader, however, takes a step back and thinks about the situation critically before actually doing anything. In essence, being “strategic” simply means breaking something down and then figuring out possible ways to build something better than before (not just “fixing” something prone to breaking).

For example, when something isn’t working, I force myself to ask some critical questions, like:

  • Who are the stakeholders and/or team members involved, and how are they being impacted?
  • What is the impact on the business or its goals?
  • What are the risks if the issue isn’t resolved?
  • What are all the potential solutions?
  • What are the short term and long-term benefits of those solutions?
  • Based on the above, which potential solution should you explore first? Which one last?

…and so forth. By doing so, you can uncover the actual problem while revealing more opportunities to make a bigger, better impact.

It sounds simple. Yet in practice it often feels unnatural to spend time analyzing a problem before attempting to address it — especially if that problem is urgent and/or acute.

 

STEP 2: Get input.

To be clear, being strategic is not the same thing as having a strategy. The former is a process for critical analysis. The latter is a concrete plan of action based on facts you’ve gathered during that analysis. In other words, being strategic allows you to get the right inputs necessary to define a strategy. One leg follows the other.

But getting the right inputs is also harder than it sounds. Whether you realize it or not, you already believe something about the situation, or the people involved, when analyzing a problem. If you’re not careful, you can end up reinforcing your prior (mis)beliefs instead of learning the actual truth. This is called confirmation bias. For instance, you might only ask specific people certain questions because you know that they’ll tell you what you want to hear — therefore “justifying” your beliefs and reinforcing your biases. As such, your potential solutions will only address an issue from that limited perspective. Depending on the size and severity of the problem you’re trying to solve, this can lead to disastrous results.

It takes intention and courage to get input from those who have wildly different perspectives than you. It also takes skill to ask the right questions without betraying anyone’s confidence or alienating those you’ll need support from in the future. The trick is to ask direct, open-ended questions, but without accusations or assumptions.

A few examples:

  • Instead of asking “What went wrong?”, ask “What did you observe?”
  • Instead of saying “Tell me what happened”, say “Show me what happened.”
  • Instead of the question “What should have happened”?, ask “What is the result you would hope to see going forward?”

In essence, your goal in gathering input should be to separate personal interpretations from factual information. If done correctly, you can more easily identify the root of a problem while building a coalition of support to execute a potential solution (and then pivot if one particular solution doesn’t work). If done incorrectly, those who are to “blame” for a problem will become further isolated and deprived of the opportunity to improve gracefully. Or, if nobody actually did anything wrong/incorrectly, then nobody will take responsibility for making things better.

The same applies for proposing solutions. When coming up with ideas, it’s all too easy to have a favorite. This is the most dangerous form of confirmation bias, because otherwise avoidable mistakes can quickly become major problems — perhaps worse than the original one. So, it’s always best to get input regarding any possible solutions, and to investigate opportunities with an open mind. It all depends on what questions you ask.

A few more examples:

  • Instead of asking “How can we make sure this never happens again?”, ask “How can we improve the process going forward?”
  • Instead of saying “Here are my ideas for fixing the problem”, say “These are some possible solutions.”
  • Instead of the question “Which solution is best?”, ask “How would you prioritize these possible solutions in order of greatest potential impact?

At the end of the day, you should want everyone to feel motivated and responsible for delivering better and better results over time. That isn’t possible if you don’t truly understand the issue to begin with, or seek only to implement the fastest/easiest/most convenient solution.

 

STEP 3: Be decisive.

So far you’ve taken a strategic approach to responding to a problem, and have gathered all the input necessary to define a plan of action. Now it’s time to decide to act.

As a leader, “acting” isn’t telling other people what to do (in the corporate world, at least). It’s about communicating — both who you communicate to, and how.

For example, maybe the problem can be solved by tweaking a process shared by a small number of stakeholders. In this case, communication across the team/department/company isn’t necessary — only the people involved need agree and commit to changing something. You just need to make sure those important conversations happen, and document the outcome.

Or maybe the problem is complex, and/or will take more time and effort to address. In such instances it may be necessary to inform a larger group what the issue is and how you intend to solve it. Then you might need to work directly with a few smaller groups to implement a solution. Once a potential solution has been implemented, it’s then always a good idea to follow up with progress reports and end results.

The point is that you must stand up as a leader and take a position, educate and/or work with others, and remain present throughout the process. It requires courage, energy, optimism, and thoughtful communication. A leader who acts is basically putting themselves on the front lines, while sharing ownership of the outcome. Otherwise, they aren’t actually being decisive — they’re just maneuvering in order to gain the most by doing the least.

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The world of business is complex. There are many factors that contribute to any one problem, and there is almost always a human component. As such, there is no perfect formula for problem-solving for as long as there are imperfect people who must contribute to any solution.

You might be new to leadership. You might have some experience, but still lack certain skills/abilities. That’s okay. Like a three-legged dog, you can still run with the others. For as long as you respond to problems strategically, get the right inputs from the right people, and then demonstrate decisiveness through action, any problem is solvable.