Independence Day Teaches Us About Leadership

July 6, 2009

We have more individual choices than ever. We can choose from sixteen movies at a mega-plex, eight different kinds of orange juice (low acid, some pulp, not from concentrate, etc.), and countless shoe brands and styles. Is it any surprise that we want to be free to make choices in our jobs as well?

If you grew up with only four TV channels to choose from, you might believe the command-style leadership is still viable. You might believe in shared values and needs, the way we did in the ‘60’s. Unfortunately, centralized leadership does not work with this new generation. They want to work their way, not your way. They know what motivates them, how they best achieve results and obtain information, and they want to receive full credit for their efforts. If you try to steamroll their Independence, you will wind up with flattened cartoon characters, not productive employees.

As a leader today, you must decentralize the power and authority. With leadership opportunities, your employees will find personal meaning in the work they do. And they will do it well, provided you meet their needs. Your challenge—accommodating leaders on all levels of the organization—is daunting, maybe even terrifying. How do you align each employee’s needs with the needs of the organization? With so many leaders, so much independence, will chaos be far behind? Not necessarily. Not if you build in some safeguards.

It’s important to understand that total independence is often desired, but not always healthy. Individualism can lead to a sense of helplessness, and this helplessness can lead to depression. Despite fiercely independent childhood heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, we want and need to be part of something greater than ourselves. We want the support of a community. We want to feel like the work we do has meaning not only to ourselves, but to others. Chances are, this meaning has already been established—in the form of your organization’s founding mission, vision, goals, and values. These pillars were originally set by the founder and then enhanced through time by the organization’s leadership teams. As a leader, you can bring this meaning to your employees by frequently asking how their needs and goals match the organization’s. In doing so, you give them the respect they want and need, as well as communicate a sense of belonging to a larger community. Do you believe in your organization’s mission, vision, goals, and values? If so, you will be able to impart this sense of togetherness to your charges. If not, you will be herding cats.

Authentic leadership requires allowing everyone to lead at times, but to instill one cohesive purpose, so that these leaders will work together and move in one overarching direction. For each and every project, ask yourself, “How does this contribute to our organization’s mission, vision, goals, and values?” Ask the same of your direct reports. And have them ask the same of their direct reports.

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