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Good leaders help people become more, not different.

By Randy Hall

My kids have taught me so much about leadership and the way good leaders help people become more rather than different. As a result, I sometimes connect leadership concepts I develop with moments in their life. For example, if you have school-age kids you might help them with homework this year. If you don’t have kids or they aren’t in school, play along with me here for a minute as I try to make a leadership analogy.

Helping people find answers beats giving answers

When a child asks you a question about math homework, you might look at the problem and immediately know the answer is 18. Now you have a choice. Do you just tell them to put 18 down so they can get a good grade? Or, do you help them learn how to work through the problem? If you said, “I help them work through the problem,” why is that important to you?

Many of my coaching conversations with leaders revolve around the concept that they told someone to do something, or not to do something, and the employee failed to heed the advice. So managers and leaders are looking for ways to have the conversation to help the team member take a different action. It’s often how managers spend most of their time. They are trying to get other people to do something differently. So, it’s not surprising that it’s a common focus of coaching conversations. 

Good leaders cause others to take different actions

Good leaders cause others to take different actions

Here’s something I have noticed about leaders that make real progress: They help people take different actions tomorrow than they did yesterday. They are focused on who that team member becomes, not just what they do.  

Of course, they want the actions the employee takes to be correct, productive, and successful. But, they also understand that who they become actually drives the actions they take next. The thoughts, habits, capabilities, and level of engagement they have matters. So does their focus on success and the learning they experience. Driving actions is not all about giving instructions. 

Good leaders make people more capable

As those leaders help a team member tackle a challenge, they are working to make them think differently. This includes thinking differently about the problem and the way they solve it. It means a new look at the variables involved and the bigger picture of what success means.  Successful leaders are working to make the team member more capable, not just more correct.  They are working to make them better at their job, not just help them get through the task. And, they are working to help them learn, not just be accurate or fast. 

It is easy for all of us, especially when we are trying to solve our own challenges and the challenges others interrupt us with, to focus on getting the right answer fast. Often we want to deliver it directly to the person, with instructions so they can fix the problem. We can even believe that by telling them the answer, they will learn and know how to apply it to similar problems in the future. But that would be like telling the kid to write down 18 and expecting them to learn math. Yet, we only know the answer is 18 because we learned math already. 

Help your team members build good habits

Good teachers want kids to show their work for a reason. They need to evaluate the thinking that went into a solution, not just the result. If we are trying to help someone change their results without changing their thinking, we are ignoring the realities of being human. 

Most of what people do is driven by habits. The next big chunk of what people do is driven by their thinking and their choices based on that thinking. Only new thinking and practicing new actions can build new habits.  

Telling people the answer, except in the most basic of situations, circumvents the learning and thinking part of the process.  This means that even though they get the right answer once, they might not know the next answer. For them to know, it would have to be exactly the same problem. 

Think of your team’s potential

Good leaders think of team’s potential

If you wrote down what each of the people on your team could become, how would it look? Who on your team has enormous potential if they work, learn, develop, and think a little differently? Would focusing on helping people become better problem-solvers instead of helping them solve problems cause you to do things differently? What if you could take another minute or two and help them become more capable? And, how would you change that conversation as they bring a problem or issue to you, or as you notice a mistake they made?  Do you want your team to think that you have the answers to their challenges, or that they do?

When people need our help dealing with a challenge, or when we need them to shift their actions to be more successful, we have two choices: we can tell them the answer or help them develop into someone who is more capable of finding the answers.  We can tell them what to do differently, or we can help them think about what success looks like with that task, and then help them think about how they will get closer to that success in the future. 

We can focus on what they do, or focus on who they become. 

It’s not easy. Work is chaotic, speed is important, and sometimes we just need them to act differently right now. Telling them to just do something seems faster. But, if we want to change the future of our team or business in any kind of significant and sustainable way, helping people become, rather than do, is our only lasting path.

Leaders have an incredible responsibility to leave people better than they found them. I know I haven’t always gotten that right but when I see leaders thinking that way, I usually see better leaders.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.

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