When asking people to reflect on how they achieved their current status, the following process helps surface what shaping or encouragement they have received:
“Please raise your hand when I describe the reason that has lead to your rise in this organization. There are three paths people follow. When I mention the one most appropriate to you, please raise your hand.” (We also add that they cannot hear all three before they vote and that the tendency some folks have to wait for the last category as a”conservative” approach, isn’t recommended in this survey.)

  1. The first way is to develop a reputation as a “highly reliable problem-solver.” These folks have been rewarded, promoted and otherwise lauded for their ability to handle assignments, fix critical issues and provide the people around them a consistent sense of comfort that if they are on it – things are going to be okay.
  2. The second path comes from people’s ability to recognize how others work together. Given their insight, this kind of person can access those relationships –  like a network – to get things done through others. The cynics think of this group as “suck-ups” but those of us in that group prefer to think of it as a skill called “political savvy.”
  3. The third is for people who have developed a reputation for “disappointing their own people at a rate they can absorb.”

Experience suggests the first category generates the most raised hands, followed somewhat by category two with few if any in the third group.This comes as no surprise given the hierarchical tendencies in most organizations. Of course the people in charge will appreciate and reward people who take care of things. Similarly, people getting things done through others are also valued – albeit slightly less than the problem-solvers.
The fact that so few people are recognized for it, even understand “disappointing your own people…” points to the challenge of exercising leadership in most organizations. The first two categories offer the predictability and reliability of things as we know them. Both are vital to execution and “getting things done.” Neither will generate new possibilities or adaptations required by a constantly changing environment.
“Disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb” is what is required to lead people through the uncertainty, even loss, that comes with letting go of what we know for something better and more appropriate to the world in which we find ourselves. Just as the people in charge reward reliability, so do subordinates. Making people comfortable doesn’t help them face change or loss. But disorient them too much, the merits of the adaptation will be overwhelmed by a collective need to survive and the threat (in this case – you) will be eliminated to restore equilibrium. This “just enough” discomfort is more art than science but is what leadership is all about.
Whichever path has led you to your present role and approach, it is important you develop your ability to work across all three. Being “unreliable” or impossible to work with, will serve no one, including you. However, if you can’t learn to disappoint your own people, you will relegate yourself to maintenance roles going forward. Not a bad place to be – it just doesn’t have much to so with leadership.
Good luck. Lead on!