Leading Together – Taking the Hard Road

By John B. McGuire

 When did taking the easy way out become the way to do business? Or to boost the economy, build communities, improve our schools, raise our kids and solve our problems? When did we decide that leadership was a cushy job?

Deep down, don’t you remember the thrill of taking the hard road? The anxious anticipation of uncharted territory, the uncertainty of crossing into new frontiers?  The surprises and different views encountered as you stepped into new territory, the ability to do what seemed beyond reach? The pride of personal achievement and the camaraderie of shared experience?

For too many leaders, it’s become all-too-easy to win “their way”, drive the numbers, or hammer home their point of view.  “I did it my way” was great for Sinatra, but is a failed pathway where collaboration across boundaries is a requirement for doing business.

Others take the route of avoiding the big, long-term challenges in favor of their own short-term gain.  The two year—I got mine (take the money and run) personal economic ethic is too prevalent in too many corporations.  Sustainable, strategic, long-term organizational health is a hard road.

Leaders take on the big complex challenges—managers take on the easy, quick wins.  In today’s complex, interdependent world, big challenges always requires working together across multiple groups effectively.  The short-term, task orientation of just kicking the can down the road is an all-too-easy, well-established strategy in both business and public life. Even compromising – which only gives a nod to multiple views ­– has become just an easy out.

The problem is that none of these easy roads take us where we need to go. They circle around the tough stuff and drain our energy. Meanwhile, the complex challenges loom above.  Like building clouds that threaten dark days ahead, these tactics of avoidance make certain that storms of calamity are pushed off for uncertain tomorrows, rather than leading through them today.

So, how do we tackle conflict and complexity? How do we move beyond “Us versus Them” and create genuine win-win options? How do face up to options that are good for customers, constituents, consumers and our employees simultaneously? How do we look at the challenges and integrate all the right answers into innovative, best-for-all solutions? How do we – together – take the difficult journeys and become even stronger and more capable?

At CCL, we’ve seen business, government and community leaders answer these questions through collaboration, creativity and commitment.  Working together across groups, organizations and even countries  is tough.

Collaboration moves beyond compromise in which everyone loses something in hopes of gaining a little. Collaborative work uses dialogue, not debate, to deeply understand the problems we face. Then it generates multiple options, integrating the best ones into sustainable solutions. Collaboration fosters a creative process that combines and integrates the perspectives of the many into something new.

Collaboration is a shift to problem-solving. It is a shift away from blame and political one-upmanship and, instead, demands that collective leadership take 100 percent responsibility for outcomes. This is the no-blame zone. In this zone there can be no “Us versus Them” because the we are them.

The complexity of our leadership challenges requires creativity. We need new mindsets—bigger minds–and new processes to explore multiple right answers and to integrate them into the best solution available now.  Creativity is an attitude of learning in the moment, paying attention and telling the truth about root causes. Only with creativity will we find collaborative, sustainable solutions to the complex problems our institutions, businesses and communities are experiencing.

But to collaborate and create effectively, we need to build the trust and stamina that comes from deep commitment. The hard work of leadership across boundaries involves setting direction, creating alignment and fostering shared commitment. It is especially challenging – and essential – when facing a situation that is big or complex, messy, unclear or emotion-laden.

You strengthen and show your commitment when you:

Resolve to stop arguing and start talking. Forget about “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Listen to understand and learn.

Resolve to stop blaming.  Leave behind fault finding. Instead, focus on outcome-based bridge building.

Resolve to stop fighting for resources. Taking what you can, when you can, because you can is no way to lead (and no way to live).

Resolve to take responsibility for shared success. Let go of the illusion that you are not connected.  Leadership isn’t about your own success; it’s about the success of your clients and customers, your suppliers and employees, your local neighbors and your global connections.

Resolve to grow bigger minds. Take time out for learning, reflection and possibility. Consider the problem or opportunity through a larger or different lens.

Finally, resolve to take the right, hard road. It may be painful at times, but I promise: the view is worth it.

 John McGuire is a senior faculty member and Transformation Practice Leader at CCL and co-author of Transforming Your Leadership Culture.

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