When Should a Leader Engage?


Years ago, a colleague of mine, Harold Knutson, was faced with a difficult decision: support the company plan to outsource, or take a stand for his belief that it was a bad idea at that point in time. As one of a handful of vice presidents, he could have put his head down and gone with the flow. But while aware of the personal risk, he made his position known. He made the decision to engage.

How do you decide when to engage?

Maybe you’re aware of an ethical issue in your organization. Perhaps you see an injustice. It’s possible that you know someone who is struggling. Or maybe there is conflict in your midst.

What criteria do you use to evaluate opportunities for jumping in rather than just going along?

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It’s something I’ve pondered myself over the years, so I asked Harold to reflect on his years of leadership experience. Together, we developed the following criteria to determine when to engage. It’s important to note that you don’t necessarily need to have any positional power to apply these criteria.

Consider engaging when:

  1. Accountability will increase alignment. On my university rowing team, it was painfully apparent when someone was falling out of line. If they drove the oar with less power, if their blade caught the water out of sync or if their attitude wasn’t committed to the team, everyone paid the price.

    The same is true in organizations: accountability is critical when it comes to expectations, culture, vision, mission and values. It’s everyone’s job to manage the boat.

  2. Discovery will enhance understanding. Through the coaching and training that I do, along with my own experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that questions and stories are the two most under-leveraged methods of communication. Asking thoughtful questions and sharing personal stories are the basis for understanding. And most relationship break-downs come from lack of understanding.

    If relevant understanding can be gained, it’s time to engage. Sometimes this happens reactively in the face of misunderstanding. But even better, this happens proactively when we schedule and protect time to connect with others through questions and stories.

  3. Visibility will strengthen awareness. Busy schedules, personal technology and geographic separation limit awareness of reality. To see and be seen, both literally and metaphorically, prioritize frequent and transparent engagement with others. Untether from the computer, walk around, get on a plane, hang up the phone, stop answering email. Be more aware.
  4. Development will grow others. Have you ever had someone help you grow even though they didn’t have positional responsibility for your growth? Years ago I was struggling in sales. My confidence was low. Two people noticed and knew that they could help me. So they did.

    People who make an impact in the world continually assess the needs of the people around them and then provide the relevant support, coaching, opportunities or encouragement.

  5. Involvement will be helpful. When mulling over that issue you might jump into, ask yourself: Can it be resolved? Is it important that I’m involved? Will the other parties benefit from my involvement?

    With some issues, the answer to all of these questions will be yes. Others will, in fact, create unhelpful emotional triangles. Edwin Friedman wrote so well about the risk of potentially “triangling” in A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix:

  6. The general rule is this: One can only change a relationship of which one is directly a part. The stress on leaders…primarily has to do with the extent to which the leader has been caught in a responsible position for the relationship of two others. They could be two persons…or any person or system plus a problem or goal. The way out is to make the two persons responsible for their own relationship or the other person responsible for his or her problem, while all still remain connected. 

While these criteria do not require positional authority, they do require three ingredients: the courage to take a risk, the confidence to be vulnerable and the critical thinking to be thoughtful.

Facing demands on his time and the social pressure to conform, Harold met with senior leaders to question, challenge, advocate and recommend. In the end, the company proceeded with its plan to outsource. And Harold Knutson preserved his integrity, increased his awareness and grew himself and others in the process.

What opportunity is waiting for you to jump in?

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