by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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“To kneel or not to kneel; that is the question…” is the way that Shakespeare would probably rewrite his famous line from Hamlet to fit today’s society. All media outlets are enveloped by the story of a growing number of NFL players choosing to forego the tradition of standing for the National Anthem. It is a hot-button topic for Americans everywhere as lines are drawn as to whether you support this action or not. While I have no interest in weighing in on that debate in this blog, I have been fascinated by the leadership lessons that exist in the process.
Colin Kaepernick, who at the time was the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, was the epicenter of this entire movement, having sat down during the National Anthem during a preseason game last season. What began as a single man’s choice noting equality and equity has since ballooned into a convoluted scheme of individuals frantically moving in all directions. Some players are sitting, some are kneeling, some are standing, some are linking arms, and some simply don’t know what to do. Teams are taking all sorts of measures, some well thought out, others loosely thrown together at the last minute. At this point, the entire story is a dizzying array of movements that lack alignment and focus, but are wrought with barbs being thrown out, ultimatums being stated, and sides being drawn.
There is no denying that leadership, and in reality the lack of effective leadership, has been instrumental in putting this process where it is today. So I thought it would be interesting to look at leadership lessons that can be learned from this process:
Lacking a Singular Focused Mission: Ask 100 people on the street corner what the ‘Take the Knee’ movement is all about, and most likely you will come out with a slew of answers that would mimic the hundreds of options on a fast-food restaurant’s menu board. Some would say it is about equity and equality, others about race and ethnicity, others about civil rights, others about police brutality, others about military, and others about the President’s recent condemning words. While many of these items are in fact inter-connected, the ‘why’ has not been clearly established for this movement. Change processes, such as this one, need a singular focus, a common mission that everyone can rally around. The problem is that a person might not agree with players kneeling for the anthem, but might be totally against Trump’s words about the players. So then what do they do? Do they kneel or not kneel? If they kneel, what are they kneeling for? If they stand for the anthem, are they supporting the President or simply standing in respect for the military and the country? To be truly effective leaders, we must establish a focused and clearly communicated mission for a movement, something that has clearly not been done in this situation.
Technical Fixes for Adaptive Problems: Ron Heifetz, a noted leadership expert from Harvard University, theorizes that leaders face both technical and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges are ones that can be easily remedied through directives and steps of action (e.g., the power goes out and we have to get the lights turned back on). For Heifetz, adaptive challenges are big and messy problems (e.g., racial discrimination, poorly performing schools, homelessness) that cannot be solved through technical fixes. They take innovative thinking and shifts in the culture of the organization or society. One of the biggest problems in leadership is when leaders try to apply technical fixes to big adaptive problems. Technical fixes to these adaptive problems (e.g., affirmative action policies, tents for the homeless) simply do not work because they cannot possibly get at the deeper, societal issues behind the challenges. While the Taking the Knee movement looks to be an NFL problem, it is instead a deeper, societal issue involving race relations, equity, and civil rights. This huge adaptive issue (one that this country has been struggling with for many generations) cannot be fixed through technical solutions. So when some people call for the NFL to set a mandate that all players have to stand for the anthem or when President Trump calls for the firing of players who kneel, these technical fixes only solve the immediate kneeling issue, but do not impact the larger underlying challenge around equality and rights.
No Charismatic Voice to Motivate Others: When you think of all of the movements that have truly been successful throughout the history of the world, you can always connect them to a singular leader who led either through voice or example. Think Ghandi, Mandela, MLK Jr., Reagan, etc. At the tip of the movement is the voice that lets the group know where everyone is heading. These leaders share the vision for change, set the tone for actions, and exemplify what it means to be a part of the movement. Every movement needs this type of leader to set the course and motivate others so that the movement gains momentum. The Taking the Knee movement has lacked that singular voice and example which has caused it at times to sputter. A few spatterings of actions and words have been provided over the last year from various players, but there is nothing that is unifying these actions and words. Kaepernick would have been the natural selection for the leader, an incredibly skilled football player who others looked up to. But as the year moved forward after his initial act, he sank out of the limelight. People called for him to step up to the mic and let everyone know what should be happening next, but he faded from the limelight save for a series of texts aimed wildly in multiple directions. When he did not take up the leadership mantle, a vacuum of leadership was left, which left the movement rudderless… that is until President Trump stepped to the mic.
President Trump’s words, and later his tweets, instantly galvanized the movement but not in the way he expected. His actions awoke the movement from its slumber, and a giant arose in its wake. Last Sunday marked the largest number of players, coaches, owners, employees, etc. who stood together in opposition. Suddenly the movement had a new direction, a common mission, but it was not exactly what it had originally started as. It was now about opposing the President, his condemning and offensive words, and his actions towards this group. It was about showing him that players were not who he said they were. It was about showing the world that they would stand up, or in this case kneel, against what they felt was wrong. But President Trump’s remarks left thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, in its wake. No one clearly knew what side they were on. Hence, if you are for standing for the anthem, but against President Trump’s words and actions, what are you to do? And for those who simply just want to watch football for entertainment and a way to escape the doldrums of life, I guess you are simply out of luck.
The entire Taking the Knee situation has been wrought with a lack of effective leadership on all sides of the issue. It is why so many are displaced with their emotions and thoughts, unable to decide where they stand on this issue. This is not how movements gain momentum. This is not how change occurs. True leadership is needed, not rhetoric, not grandstanding, but truly effective, clear, and motivating leadership is needed. Thus far, this has been impossible to find in this avalanche of wild emotions and unchained actions. It will be interesting to follow this movement and more particularly the role that leaders play in it as it unfolds. I don’t know about you, but for me, as a leader, I can learn so much about how not to lead a change process.
by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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In a recent leadership development workshop I was conducting with a group of elementary school kids, I asked them a basic starting question, “What is a leader?” They responded with things like:
The main theme to come out of their responses is that they were not actually describing leaders, but rather BOSSES! This is part of the issue when we talk about leaders and leadership, we often intermix our concepts of leaders with bosses. As these kids pointed out, we tend to automatically assume someone has leadership qualities because they hold an impressive title such as President, CEO, Principal, Director, or Captain.
While most likely the people who fill these positions have some natural leadership skills that helped them get to where they are, we cannot assume that bosses are leaders. To move up the ladder in any organization, a person has to show leadership in their actions and words. People who move up are the ones who are taking up leadership of small groups and projects. They live the leadership life on the way up the ladder, and others rally behind them because of their leadership skills. People don’t have to follow them because of some title, but rather they choose to follow them because they see and feel something powerful and motivating in working with these leaders.
The problem is that while leadership skills are used to climb up the ladder, once a positional title is handed out for all of that great work, the leadership skills are often left behind. Leadership skills are replaced with management techniques. Leadership is replaced by authority. Leaders are replaced with bosses. Part of the reason why this happens is that management, power, and authority are so much easier to implement than leadership. It is easier to tell someone what to do then to motivate them to choose to do it. It is easier to tell everyone the plan for success then to build it organically together.
Now don’t get me wrong, being a boss is not always a bad thing. Using management techniques is not a bad thing. There are times that these techniques and approach are absolutely needed. Sometimes you just have to get things done. Sometimes you don’t have the time to build organically. Sometimes you don’t have the time to motivate others. Sometimes you don’t have the time for others to choose to join in the path. Sometimes the boss just needs to get things done.
But when we are not in these dire situations, there is a need to use the leadership skills and techniques that helped us to climb up the ladder. Instead of using positional authority to tell others to do something, we need to find ways to motivate them to do these things. It is crucial to our success as leaders to remember a few key points about the difference between leaders and bosses:
1.Bosses expect respect, leaders earn it
2.Bosses give directions, leaders motivate actions
3.Bosses tell the vision, leaders build it with others
4.Bosses need a title, leaders do not
5.Bosses have employees, leaders have followers
Think about the actions and behaviors of people that you want to follow and then think about the bosses that you never liked working for. Think about the differences between them and then think about your own actions and behaviors. Which group do you fall into? Do people do things because you tell them to do it, or do they do it because they want to do it? Again, as I wrote earlier, there are times where bosses are needed to get things done, but when we have the choice, don’t we want to be leaders? Don’t we want people to achieve greatness because they believe in us? Don’t we want to motivate them to be their best, rather than just doing exactly what we told them to do? So as you climb the ladder recognize the skills, abilities, and actions that others love about you and don’t forget about them because you now have a fancy title! Be a LEADER, not just a BOSS.