People Are Better Led Than Driven!

As I’m writing this month’s tip, I am patiently waiting between events at my daughter Amy’s track meet. I’ve got a big smile on my face, as Amy has won the first two events she competed in.

While Amy was competing in the high jump event, between jumps, the high school boys were running a long race that consists of several laps around the track.

Not too far from me was a coach of one of the teams competing today. When his runner came around the first lap, he hollered sarcastically at him, “Run, turtle!” I can’t tell you for sure if the boy’s name was Turtle or if the coach was merely trying to drive him to run faster. Regardless, as the race went on, the boy kept falling farther and farther behind. Each time the boy came around the track, the coach would holler, “Run, turtle, run!” I had to hold back tears from laughing so hard. The coach was calling the boy a turtle and telling him to run faster in the same sentence. I’m sure you know that turtles aren’t very fast. So calling the young boy a turtle isn’t exactly the best way to motivate him to run faster, right? Do I need to tell you where this turtle finished in the race, or can you guess? This started me thinking: is he demeaning only this slow runner, or is he doing this to his whole team in some way? If he is doing the latter, turtle won’t be the only loser today; the whole team will lose.

The coach or top manager (in many cases, the owner) at most companies is often a workaholic who is willing to drive himself 60–80 hours per week to get the job done. He probably works most weekends, because weekends are just another work day in his mind. Being so driven, these individuals often forget that the soft skills and interpersonal relationships that build morale are what actually holds a successful business team together — not their work ethic alone.

Let’s take top manager Sam, for example. Sam is driving himself as hard and as fast as he can go. He feels that if he can drive himself this hard, everyone else should be able to do the same. He doesn’t ask for others’ advice, input or feedback — this would only slow him down. After all, Sam is driving the bus; he knows where he is going and plans to get there fast. He continues to drive the bus harder and harder and faster and faster, to the point where he has become stressed. Sam’s stress has led to an unintentional arrogance, and he is now making sarcastic remarks to his team members for not driving every hour of every day like he does. To the employees, what used to feel like a team effort now feels like a dictatorship. When Sam turns around in the driver’s seat to see who is left to help him drive the bus, he finds that the seats are empty. The fact is, no one is left on the bus, because Sam drove them past their limits.

After he realizes his bus is empty, Sam has to begin rebuilding his team. While many have probably moved on to entirely new positions at different companies, some of his staff remain. But those who remain are not the same as they once were, i.e., while they’re physically coming to work every day, they’re no longer mentally invested in the success of the business. Their energy, drive and passion are gone. It’s a sad but true story for so many companies.

As a leader, your leadership style is being evaluated by your people every day, especially during the hard times. Your company’s most challenging times may be due to taking on too much work, a long streak of unfavorable weather, suppliers not producing or delivering on time, or a customer who just can’t seem to be satisfied.

During those times, team members are already stressed out over the situation. This is not the time to drive your people harder than they are already driving themselves. Instead, it is time to listen to their concerns and ideas on how to find solutions to get the job back on track.

The leader who leads through inspiration instead of through intimidation will still have his best people in place (on the bus) when the dust settles. And with the best people still in place, the company is likely to see another day to prosper on the next big job.

I challenge you to reflect on your own situation: do your employees feel confident enough to approach you with suggestions for improvement? Or are they scared that you’ll throw a fit, humiliate them or — even worse — take it out on them during their next performance review? Are you yelling, “Run, turtle, run”?

Make sure you’re leading your people by listening to their concerns and their ideas to make your operation better. With encouragement and a trusting relationship, they will drive themselves. Frankly, this kind of leadership is what the world needs more of.

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