“The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.
The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.
Next comes the one who is feared.
The worst one is the leader that is despised.
If you don’t trust the people,
they will become untrustworthy.
The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.
When she has accomplished her task,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!” Lao Tzu
This concept of invisible leadership may go against the grain of many people’s belief systems. Most feel that a person running things needs to brash and bold and out in front. In fact, there have been many successful leaders who are anything but invisible: Steve Jobs for one. He is well known for being opinionated, somewhat abusive, and yet responsible for one of the most successful companies of our time. But in my experience, if you want to become the leader that Lao Tzu describes in 6 BC, the most effective leaders are the ones who align the organization around a common and well-communicated purpose and get out of the way. Notice I said purpose and not goal. Certainly, metrics around strategic initiatives are important. But if you want a self-organizing culture, you need to be centered on a well-developed reason “why” to get people to come into work energized. As Simon Sinek conveys in his well-received Ted Talk, it’s not about what an organization does or how a company does it, it’s about understanding why they do what they do.
Your work as a leader then becomes easier. If you create a constant feedback loop to reflect reality, people almost on their own will course correct and move the organization forward. Tools are more readily available where you create an ongoing dialogue with even the most far-flung employee base. (Check out the site Accompany.io. I’ll write about that separately later).
At Charles Schwab, they have a purpose to “ champion every client’s goal with passion and integrity”. They’re not just in the investor relations business; they’re in the business of helping people. The results reveal employee engagement scores of over 80% and Schwab was named by Gallup as one of the United States best places to work.
It’s hard to be an invisible leader. You have to get your ego out of the way. Visible leaders crave the attention of others for getting the job done. They need to have their employees feel like they are taking them to the promised land because of their intelligence and decision-making abilities.
I’m not saying that in the purpose driven company a leader does nothing. She is there to reflect reality; to make sure the team is rowing together; to harvest the best ideas. By doing this you make their jobs more enjoyable and they’re more likely to stay. It’s your job as a leader to put your people in a position where they are using their signature strengths. Not just putting them in jobs, but designing work that fits their interests and talents.
Lao Tzu’s second key message “ if you don’t trust the people, they will become untrustworthy” requires you to create a safe environment for them. In a word, empathy. It’s vital that people can freely share ideas and feelings. Treat employees with respect and dignity and results will flow.
In his book “ Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies”, neuroscientist, Paul Zak shows that when you trust a person something chemical happens. Oxytocin, a hormone that plays a role in social bonding, surges. This enables a trust-building cycle that can change a workplace for the better.
So, if you want better results, align your organization around purpose and strategies. Then step back and trust your people to deliver the results.