Unpicking leadership habits.

The curious way to get more from your people

Nobody sees themselves as autocratic, but if you can see yourself as a decisive leader, with sound intuition, who comes up with great ideas and continually pushes the pace of the team to deliver them, I may have some news for you.

There are many occasions in the life of a business when leaders need to be focused, strong-minded and decisive. When an organisation is under pressure and the situation’s not good, that's when people gravitate towards those who seem to have the answers, who intuitively call the right shots and aren’t afraid to stick to their guns.

These are the leaders who can get stuff done when clearly stuff needs to get done.

It’s as true for employees of a mid-sized business as it is for the voting public of an entire country. In a crisis, leaders either become habitually more autocratic or get replaced by those who are. And thus, benign dictatorships evolve within stressed businesses, where ideas and solutions increasingly come from the top, and everyone else’s job is to deliver them as fast as possible.

The problem with those leadership habits: decisiveness, reliance on intuition, the top-down ideas and burning desire to get things done; is while they’re easy to develop and can be invaluable in a crisis, they’re hard to break once the crisis passes, and they come with a big, long-term price-tag.

That price is a centralisation of power and decision-making, with everyone else increasingly delegated to deliver. It’s an inevitable and unavoidable outcome of those habits. The resulting loss of autonomy and empowerment means colleagues with ideas and ambition leave or get pushed out, and those that stay slowly stop thinking for themselves.

I’ve seen it again and again, from family businesses and founder-led non-profits, to corporate behemoths that have navigated successful turnarounds. The price of autocracy is the slow death of creativity, responsiveness, diversity of thought and leadership succession.

It may be that you recognise those leadership traits in yourself, but not the emerging issues. In which case, the problem is either one of perspective (they’re there but you’re not seeing them), or time (you’re just not seeing them yet).

But here’s the good news: It’s hard to stop doing something that’s become a habit, but it’s easy to replace a bad habit with a good one – it just takes self-awareness and a short spell of concentration. This is how leadership traits can be changed and all those issues avoided.

When I work with leaders who want to get more from their teams, one of the most common observations I get from their people, is around stifling ideas and cutting off discussions. Typically, the leader responds to a suggestion, idea or challenge, with an immediate, intuitive response: “No, we’re not doing that, it’s a terrible idea”; or equally frustrating: “Yes, good idea. That’s one for you to pick up, Sarah”; then immediately moving to the next item.

It’s easy to change that habit by adding just a pinch of curiosity. Instead of instantly responding, ask why they think that’s a good idea and what others think of the pros and cons – do it consciously to begin with until it becomes a habit. This is one example, but it’s a microcosm of the process of unpicking autocracy, and even by itself, it will create a sea-change in atmosphere and attitude, drive better decisions and dramatically improve the wider leadership calibre within the business.

One of my first, really good bosses once told me: “Leadership isn’t hard, you just have to care about your people, be curious about what they think and what they want to do. Everything else follows from there.” Twenty years on, I still find it a hard statement to argue against.

If you want to empower your people to help your business to improve, step one is simply to engage your own curiosity. You can’t hope to get more from anyone if you don’t allow them the time, space and freedom to give you more in the first place. So, stop, take a breath, then take an interest.