On Leadership in the Experience Age

I tend to take note of pieces that focus on leadership and management style so when I stumbled across a piece in Entrepreneur entitled “Move Away From Shame-Based Management to Inspire Productivity,” it struck a chord (many moons ago in bandwidth-strapped October 2017). Now that I have a little time on my hands, I can tackle some of the blog backlog starting with my reflection “on leadership in the Experience Age.”

The article began with the “goal of all leadership is to create success.” A very true statement that I will extend by including the responsibility to create the conditions for success to naturally grow. To me “creating conditions for success” includes both understanding the capabilities of your staff and empowering them to realistically achieve results beyond minimum viable expectations. Some leaders forget to create the conditions to foster success, so success ends up becoming a sequence of minimum viable point results of limited organizational impact rather a realization of and continued growth in capability that extends beyond expectations. If the conditions don’t exist to grow and learn from success (and failure), best intentions slide into management based on fear, shame and intimidation. More to the point, the short-term measure becomes more important than overall the medium-to-long term expansion in experience, capability and confidence that results in exponentially more.

While I won’t go into detail here, the article focuses on surfacing the destructive nature of shame-based leadership, which in my experience often degenerates into micro-management and underachievement. Not an ideal situation for the leader and his/her staff – survival through fear tends to result in the minimum activity to “stay off the radar” and attain the lowest measure of acceptable performance. Under these conditions, for example, business and performance metrics intended to inspire and promote transparency quickly transform into weaponized data that demotivates and disenfranchises the very people the leader is trying to motivate. In short, fear and intimidation will surface and take many forms – intentional or otherwise (think Office Space or any number of scenes from Brazil) – and if not recognized and addressed appropriately by the leader, will undermine the best of intentions and unravel an organization with superficial “one step forward, two steps back” regression and baseline or worse, chronic under achievement.

Regardless of age or generation, staff today want to not only feel productive but also experience the result of success. Well-executed leadership rooted in ownership and responsibility creates pathways to learn from failure and build upon prior success to naturally exceed the minimum. Having both authority and responsibility to attain seemingly unattainable goals is a powerful motivator provided the leader takes his/her time to understand those who work for them.

Unfortunately, definitions of success and directions borne within echo chambers rarely, if ever, succeed. More troubling for today’s leaders is that echo chambers and bubbles are now more common than ever. A good leader knows how to define attainable results and engineer “stretch goals” that don’t start from an echo, within the bubble or from an unattainable fiction. A leader should be able to identify what’s achievable beyond what is minimally viable. He/she must be able to take into account operational and strategic realities and incorporate demanding yet realistic parameters in order for his/her staff to attain a meaningful goal.

Since 2008, organizations have changed. Understanding the conditions that can lead to success involves (re-) discovering the organization’s culture, strengths and weaknesses. Information, data and communication (gossip) flows through multiple channels with different moment-to-moment interpretations and assumptions that have long-reaching effects. Leadership decisions made by applying metrics-in-a-vacuum, platitudes, weakly researched assumptions, and/or grandiose visions don’t cut it. Industrial Age notions of leadership simply don’t have a place in today’s workplace. Staff want their work to matter and have the means to research decisions on their own, which in turn will have an effect on performance and productivity. If direction falters in a systematic way, doubt will likely surface, fear will follow and the conditions that give rise to shame-based leadership will appear.

The negative result of shame-based leadership is a lesson I learned back in the early 2000’s. Since then, I’ve found that creating the conditions for attainable success is a far better motivator for teams and staff than anything else. When leading, consider both what is needed for success as well as how to build the capacity to experience more as a team. The net result should be incremental success today and exponential success (and confidence) tomorrow.