If management views workers not as valuable, unique individuals but as tools to be discarded when no longer needed, then employees will also regard the firm as nothing more than a machine for issuing paychecks, with no other value or meaning. —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
A 2012 white paper published by the Dale Carnegie organization and MSW Research noted that the three key drivers of employees’ engagement are relationship with one’s immediate supervisor, belief in senior leadership, and pride in working for one’s company. The behavior of the immediate supervisor is the most fundamental determinant of employees’ engagement, but beyond that, it’s senior leadership’s “willingness to take their input, lead the company in the right direction, and openly communicate the state of the organization.”
If an employee feels cared for and respected, and believes that the organization reflects his or her personal values, then engagement and loyalty follow. And when people feel engaged and loyal, they don’t leave—saving the company the costs of recruitment and training.
Study after study concludes that a caring manager is essential to employee engagement. Employees want their managers to care about their personal lives, to take an interest in them as people, to care about how they feel, and to support their health and well-being. A manager’s ability to build strong relationships with employees, build strong team interaction, and lead in a person-centered way creates an environment in which employees perform at their best.
“Can’t we all just get along? Can we stop making it horrible?” —Rodney King
Everyone is behaving in selfish ways, so we become malignant cells that suck resources and make the company sicker. And it’s all because of our KPIs. We can’t play for the team, and if we try to change the situation by giving everyone the same incentives, that would only make things worse.
Disorganization is not the kind of disease that can be cured with a pill. You can’t solve the incentive problem. You can only manage it. The treatment requires behavioral modifications on the part of the leaders. If you have a tumor in your body, you need to change your diet and other habits to increase your chances of beating the cancer. If you have a tumor in your corporate body, you need to adopt healthy habits like having a shared purpose, clear strategies, strong interpersonal relationships, and employee engagement. If you and the other leaders make consistently healthy choices over time, you’ll reduce risks and get better at recognizing the first signs of the tumor.
So oft in theologic wars, The disputants, I ween, Rail on in utter ignorance Of what each other mean, And prate about an Elephant Not one of them has seen! —“The Blind Men and the Elephant,” John Godfrey Saxe
The leader needs to get people to share their information about local opportunities, risks, costs, and benefits, so that they can compare alternatives and make a rational decision. This requires that leaders put down their egos and adopt a position of humility, openness, and service to a higher goal. In doing this, they serve as an example for team members who can put their egos aside and give their best to implement a decision they would not have made if it were their call. Every team member needs to redefine “winning” so that it’s not about who’s right or most influential, but rather who has collaborated with the others to make the best, most informed, most rational possible choice in the circumstances—the choice most likely to help the team win.
This seems obvious when considered dispassionately, but it goes against some of the most basic drives of human beings. We want to be right in order to feel intelligent. We want to dominate others in order to feel powerful. We want to get our way in order to feel validated. We want to win (even against our team members) in order to feel that we are better (than they are). We want to protect and favor those closer to us (our constituents). In short, we want to prove to ourselves, to our followers, and to others that we are worthy, and we do this through behaviors that are the exact opposite of the ones required to play well as a team.
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect the wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Organizations that engage their people rely on “four pillars” of intrinsic motivation:
- Purpose: Significance, meaning, impact, service, self-transcendence
- Principles: Integrity, ethics, morality, goodness, truth, dignity
- People: Belonging, connection, community, recognition, respect, praise
- Autonomy: Freedom, creativity, achievement, learning, self-mastery
Transcendent leaders see through the cultural and psychological illusions that alienate people. They understand that the vast majority of us are not moved primarily by money. We are moved by meaningful purpose, ethical principles, and connections to other people. We value autonomy, mastery, and learning. We are at our best when we’re in the creative and playful flow and when we’re challenged to stretch ourselves in the face of exciting challenges. We don’t live from the outside-in, seeking to fill our emptiness; rather, we live from the inside-out, seeking to express the fullness that we are. To get our best, companies must recognize us and treat us according to our true nature.
Culture is a segment of the meaningless infinity…on which human beings confer meaning. —Max Weber
“Culture might eat strategy for lunch,” the great management guru Peter Drucker supposedly said. Yet culture seems like an abstract concept, for most of us, difficult to grasp and impossible to design. But ignoring culture is an expensive mistake. When Ram Charan and Geoffrey Colvin asked why CEOs fail, they found that it was because they were unable to fully execute their strategy. What these CEOs don’t understand is that culture is the key to strategy execution.
An effective culture addresses the hard organizational problems of disengagement, disorganization, disinformation, and disillusion. It engages employees around a noble purpose, ethical values, and meaningful goals. This elicits their internal commitment and provides a sense of individual and collective identity. It also coordinates employees’ expectations and behavior. Most important, an effective culture does this without depending on formal control systems or reducing the autonomy required for excellent performance in complex, ambiguous, and constantly changing situations.
The less leaders direct employees, the more ownership they take and the better they perform. In 1983, for example, Toyota took over a failing General Motors assembly plant in California. Toyota didn’t change the equipment or the workers. The only thing the company changed was the production system from one based on formal rules to one that gave workers much more autonomy. The result was a dramatic improvement in productivity and quality. Labor costs dropped almost 50 percent.
Unlike formal rules, culture empowers employees to think and act on their own, increasing their engagement and the bonds among them. Letting their colleagues down is much more of a concern than breaking rules. Thus, organizational members monitor not just their own behavior, but also the behavior of their colleagues against the organization’s strategic objectives. This frees up their managers, who do not have to micromanage them and can instead focus on the really important work of leadership: engaging their employees in pursuit of the organization’s goal.
The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse. —Don Juan, Mexican shaman
It’s tempting to appear as a “victim” to duck from responsibility and avoid embarrassment, but the price of an excuse is high. If you want to be a transcendent leader, you need to accept full accountability for your actions in any circumstance, even in circumstances that are not of your doing. This means consciously choosing your response to events, rather than telling a self-justifying story in which events drive you. If you want your organization to control its destiny, you must lead from the front. Instead of seeing and presenting yourself as a victim of forces beyond your control, you must see and present yourself as a player responding to a challenge. Only then will you have the moral authority to demand that everyone else do the same.
Response-ability is the foundation of transcendent leadership. Consider two ways in which the people in your organization can explain a delay: (a) “The project was too hard. There were too many difficulties, and nobody helped us.” (b) “The project was challenging and we didn’t know how to deal with those challenges effectively. We failed to ask people for help in a way that would elicit their commitment. And we were so focused on finishing on time that we didn’t let people know of the delay with enough time to minimize the disruptions we caused.”
By exemplifying response-ability as a leader, and holding people accountable for their own response-abilities, you can turn defensive behaviors into creative ones, and negative feelings like resignation and resentment into genuine enthusiasm and commitment.
Get Over Yourself
The wicked leader is he who the people despise. The good leader is he who the people revere. The great leader is he who the people say, “We did it ourselves.” —Lao Tzu
Imagine that Ego is like a character in a play about your life. Ego adopts defensive or aggressive behaviors when its value is in question. Ego endlessly asks, “Do I look competent, smart, attractive, powerful, right, good, in control? Am I respected, admired, liked, appreciated, envied, revered?” When the answer is yes, it feels pride and peace; when the answer is no, it feels shame and anxiety.1
Ego wants endless acknowledgment, recognition, and success. Under its spell, each of us yearns to be the best, the smart one, the hero. We want others to need us, to look up to us, to follow us. When we know the answer or deliver the impossible, we feel worthy, powerful, superior; we glow with pride. Our brain is on fire with dopamine flooding our pleasure centers, just like a drug. The problem is that Ego’s insatiable need for acknowledgment causes us at times to knock others down. Too many leaders crave power over people and groups because Ego tells them that they’ll be worthy only if they are on top.
Ego is competitive. It’s always comparing us to those around, trying to increase our status by making us overvalue ourselves and undervalue others. It considers colleagues as potential threats—if they look better, we fear we look worse in comparison. Consequently, it prioritizes our individual success over the team’s mission—especially when measured by individual performance indicators.
But if you lead from Ego, you will never engage your employees or your colleagues or your customers. Ego is so concerned with itself that it doesn’t leave room for anything or anyone else. It’s impossible to truly understand and support your employees and your customers if you’re self-absorbed. Unfortunately, unless you do your personal development work, Ego will remain in control.
Die Before You Die
And so long as you haven’t experienced this, to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth. —Goethe
It’s easy for anyone, even transcendent leaders, to conduct too much of life on autopilot, constantly distracted by everyday busyness. We can sleepwalk through life, focusing our attention on the trivial and frivolous. We indulge in too many activities that leave us empty and unfulfilled. But instead of filling this emptiness with a disciplined pursuit of meaning, we soothe our anxious nerve cells with more empty busyness and trivial pursuits.
Imagine that you have only three minutes to live, and you want to make one final phone call to someone. Whom would you call? What would you tell that person? And what are you waiting for? When you have just three minutes to live, you may not even be able to make that call.
Once we understand that the clock is ticking and there’s no time to waste, we want to elevate our sights, pursue something worthwhile, make every day count. The prospect of death directs us to focus on what truly matters: truth, happiness, meaning, love, friendship, gratitude, awe, compassion, peace, fullness, and freedom. And this responsibility is even more true if you aspire to be a transcendent leader, helping others fulfill their most meaningful purposes in the organization and in their personal lives.
Be a Hero
Please call me by my true names, So I can hear all my cries and laughter at once. So I can see that my joy and pain are one. Please call me by my true names so I can wake up. And the door of my heart can be left open. The door of compassion. —Thich Nhat Hanh
The plot is always the same: The hero is called to a daunting quest that forces her out of her home and into an unfamiliar, strange, and dangerous world. Along the way she receives help from some kind of messenger or ally. She faces all kinds of challenges on the way—she may have to solve impossible riddles, escape from a trap, avoid a seducer, slay a monster, or all of the above. Then she must face an enormous challenge that ends in crisis, typically a near-death experience. The journey is frightening and terrible, and the hero undergoes loneliness, pain, exhaustion, illness, and despair. If she survives, she wins a gift (including that of greater self-knowledge) and returns home to bestow the gift and her wisdom on others. In the process, the hero is transformed from a mere mortal into a wiser and more transcendent being.
Heroism is necessary for transcendent leadership. The hero earns the moral authority to lead others by going first. She has to prove her values in the face of challenges in order to become a guide. Upon her return she can be trusted to lead wisely and compassionately, since she wouldn’t have survived without those qualities.
All of us are capable of becoming heroes, but not all of us muster the courage to undertake the quest by ourselves. The journey requires digging deep, going into unfamiliar and threatening territory, and overcoming enormous challenges. It requires further that you discover the truth about your self, which reveals to you the truth about every self: we all long to connect to something larger than ourselves, to join it, to contribute to it meaningfully in our own unique way, to uphold what’s true, good, and just.