the blog of dan pontefract | The Strength Of A Leader Comes From The Tree Trunk
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The Strength Of A Leader Comes From The Tree Trunk

general_shermanEmployee engagement research recently surfaced by Answers – a company that empowers consumers, brands and organizations by connecting them with the information they need to make better informed decisions – suggests only 27% of employees are engaged at work, whereas 45% of employees find themselves in the middle of the pack of engagement. Not surprisingly, 28% of the employee population is not engaged at all. This particular data point isn’t new, per se, as other firms have very similar data points.

What’s more interesting has to do with the additional insight depicted from the 4,115 American employees who were queried on their work experiences. From the interviews and surveys that researchers at Answers conducted, results suggest the top three drivers of employee engagement are:

  1. Leadership
  2. Job
  3. Supervisor

Furthermore, employees yearn for “company leadership that supports long-term growth over short-terms gains and that can provide a clear vision of the company’s direction.” Timely feedback, recognition for a job well done, feeling included, understanding how their role contributed to the overall success of the organization and providing a general sense of accomplishment at work were also factors that contributed to highly engaged employees.

If it were easy to achieve, every organization would be highly engaged, but that’s not happening, is it.

How can leadership and the supervisor enact and perhaps revitalize the workforce such that everyone’s ‘job’ feels more like their ‘purpose’?

Let’s turn our attention (again) to the ‘Giant Sequoias’ …one of nature’s finest gifts, for a metaphor that just might help. In terms of volume, they are the world’s largest trees and the biggest is none other than 2,300 year-old-ish General Sherman, a tree weighing over 5,400 metric tons, spanning 83 meters in height and 1,486 m³ in volume. Its roots reach out some 60 meters influencing roughly four square acres of the Sierra Nevada, California land it inhabits in beautiful Sequoia National Park.

As we discussed in last week’s Forbes column, “The Roots of Becoming a More Effective Leader,” many of us could learn a lesson from our friend General Sherman. In fact, leaders of any stripe might try to emulate this magnificent natural spectacle, analogously of course.

To become such a giving tree, full of life and strength, General Sherman is made up of three key elements:

  • Roots (becoming attributes)
  • Trunk (being attributes)
  • Branches and foliage (going beyond attributes)

Let’s investigate the true strength of the tree; the trunk.

The trunk provides the power in which to cast both depth and breadth of a tree’s span, to equally achieve success and beauty. Like General Sherman, the core of the tree provides the nutrients and foundation that helps one to grow and to reach new heights. Without it, stunted growth is assured and a mediocre if not futile leadership example will manifest.

The leadership trunk – otherwise known as the ‘being’ leadership attributes – are the 5 leadership behaviours that ensure the leader can effectively work with the team to accomplish goals in a manner that is precise, yet coupled by collective participation. It’s a way in which the leader can also create a fun and creative environment in which to operate. It is through the long and strong tree body of our General Sherman analogy where leaders help their people (and themselves) turn ideas into action. It’s the trunk that might bridge the gap that surfaced from the Answers research between leadership, job and the supervisor.

It is the ability to help employees execute on the chosen path, and it comes with a responsibility to ensure the leader continues to be open and harmonious yet capable of getting things done. It is being able to execute on given and/or agreed upon actions, but doing so in a manner that is participative yet not wasting anyone’s time.

The five behaviors and attributes I believe that make up the trunk of the tree (the being attributes) are as follows:

  • Analyzing
  • Deciding
  • Delivering
  • Cooperating
  • Bantering

Each of the five attributes that make up the trunk of the tree can be further defined as follows:

Analysis: Leadership is about being able to analyze situations, not only in terms of profit and loss or goals and objectives, but in terms of the human condition. A leader who is conscious of their team culture and levels of engagement is one who analyzes situations with their people in mind. Analyzing is to observe the pro’s and con’s of various situations before actually making decisions. But it is with grave cultural danger when the leader analyzes situations when only profit, loss, deadlines or self-fulfilling promotion are the outcomes. It is deleterious to the health of a team or organization to do so otherwise. President Obama in his famous “I’m going to sleep on it” remark regarding the potential killing of Osama bin Laden may have been mocked by some for taking 16 hours to give the operation a thumbs-up, but he in fact was continuing the analysis of facts and data in order to make the right decision for the health of all those involved.

Deciding: The Latin root of the word “decision” — cis — literally means to cut. Seems simple enough, but leaders shouldn’t think of the act of ‘cutting’ as a negative term. Deciding is a process rather than a one-time action. By defining it as a process we take away the illogical thinking it’s an absolute. Deciding (or cutting) as a process is really about ‘being’ a more effective leader while including others. Those leaders who utilize the deciding attribute as a basis to collaborate with their team and the organization are indeed engaging with employees. Deciding, as a process and in the context of a team or organization, should involve others. Deciding is not about consensus but it is about inclusion. Deciding is a verb not a past tense. Leaders should shift the focus from the weight of making a decision themselves to involving others in the process. If so, it opens the lines of communication and breaks down some of the entrenched disengagement issues of employees. John Yap – Parliamentary Secretary for the Government of British Columbia – made decisions to update the antiquated liquor laws of the province not by unilaterally making decisions, but involving the entire province in the discussion.

Delivering: In his quirky yet fascinating official autobiography, “Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way“, Richard Branson writes:

“My vision for Virgin has never been rigid and changes constantly, like the company itself. I have always lived my life by making lists: lists of people to call, lists of ideas, lists of companies to set up, lists of people who can make things happen. Each day I work through these lists, and it is that sequence of calls that propels me forward.”

Doesn’t that sound to you like a leader who is delivering? It’s a leader who knows all too well that in order to achieve strategic growth and business results, specific order is required but it’s coupled with an eye towards the human condition. It’s no wonder he is personally worth over $4 billion and revenues earned at Virgin Group come in at over $20 billion, but the organization and Branson never forget societal contributions either. To deliver, a leader will use SMART objectives to ensure clarity, adjust as necessary and remain malleable, address issues as soon as possible, build in proper resource management processes, ensure roles & responsibilities of the team are clearly articulated and inspire and fete the team throughout delivery of the action or project.

Cooperating: In research conducted for her book “Hot Spots: Why Some Teams, Workplaces, and Organizations Buzz With Energy: And Others Don’t author Lynda Gratton summarized an environment that was more cooperative as follows:

“… the energy of the cooperative mindset comes not from a mindset of competition but rather from a mindset of excellence. The focus is on the excellence toward which people are striving together rather than the competition of beating everyone else to the goal.”

A leader may work tirelessly in the ‘being’ level of our tree metaphor to analyze, decide and deliver … but if it’s being done in a competitive atmosphere – if the team feels as though it’s being less than cooperative – it is unlikely to produce the results long-term that we are seeking. It may stall a leader’s efforts to improve employee engagement which will ultimately stall levels of productivity and business improvements. Cooperating – it is ‘to work with’. As you work with your team, as you create a community amongst the team, you are bound to achieve excellence.

Bantering: One of the fourteen characteristics Etienne Wenger suggests that makes up a true community of practice is “local lore, shared stories, inside jokes, knowing laughter”. Several researchers – including Sigmund Freud himself – have also emphasized the function of humour in the organization as a relief trait. They suggest humour offers a safe release for feelings at work which ultimately prevent anti-social behavior while fostering organizational harmony. Bill Gibson was the Chief Operating Officer at Crystal Decisions, a company eventually bought by Business Objects. Throughout his tenure Bill knew the importance of banter. During the Sales Kick-off Conference in 2002, Bill spent most of the time in a boxer’s outfit playing on the tag-line of “We’re going to knock the BO out of BO”; Business Objects being a competitor to Crystal Decisions at the time. Throughout the office, Bill was known to kid around with anyone that he came into contact with. He knew what it meant to get down to business, but through his humour and down-to-earth humble and clowning around attitude, Bill was a legend. People wanted to be around him; people would go the extra mile because he made things fun. Bill knew the link between people and emotional intelligence. As COO, he didn’t have to employ such an attitude, but everyone throughout the organization wanted to be a part of his environment. To banter is to be human, but it can also help achieve business results in a more hospitable, and engaging manner.

In summary, being a more effective leader is having the ability to drive results while inspiring and motivating employees to act as one. The ‘being’ attributes (the trunk of a tree) build off the ‘becoming’ attributes (the roots of a tree) to achieve those desired results … while engaging the workforce.

As Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan wrote in their book, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done:

“Execution is the great unaddressed issue in the business world today. Its absence is the single biggest obstacle to success and the cause of most of the disappointments that are mistakenly attributed to other causes.”

I agree, however, it’s through the attributes of analyzing, deciding, delivering, cooperating and bantering where the leader is ‘being’ more effective at execution and engaging.

Note: originally posted to Forbes

2Comments

  • Theresa Nordstrom / 29 January 2015 5:25

    Great article…Bantering without the common goal of excellence is great point. If a team is focused on the end ‘aligned’ result then bantering makes a good team become great because they challenge each other and don’t settle.

    • Dan Pontefract / 1 February 2015 10:44

      Thanks Theresa for popping by, much appreciated.

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