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I could have titled this article The Destructive Potential of Leader-Follower Relationships, but sometimes I prefer to see the positive side of things, you know.
This article is based on the theory according to which people behave exactly the way they are treated. In short, if we treat people as leaders, they will behave like leaders. If we treat them as schoolchildren, they will behave as such as well.
At the time of writing this article, I am reading the book Remote: Office Not Required, a book about remote work, written by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of 37Signals. Here is an excerpt from this book:
People have an amazing ability to live down to low expectations. If you run your ship with the conviction that everyone’s a slacker, your employees will put all their ingenuity into proving you right. If you view those who work under you as capable adults who will push themselves to excel even when you’re not breathing down their necks, they’ll delight you in return.Source : Remote : Office Not Required, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
After reading this excerpt, I challenged my memory to find situations that could help prove this theory. I found some, and they are good ones.
The Corporate Kindergarten
In 2006, I worked for a few months for a company that was… special. It did not turn out to be a great experience, to the point where you won’t find it on my LinkedIn profile or in my resume. In this company, employees were treated as kindergarten children. No kidding. Just like a daycare.
For example, every Friday afternoon we had a 30-minute period where everyone had to actively clean their desk. It was not an employee initiative, but a business initiative, and it was mandatory. They would come and watch over to make sure it was done. Each time, it reminded me of the end-of-year days at the primary school where we used to clean our desks for the class that would inherit them in September. But these Friday afternoons are anecdotal compared to what follows.
Every day at 3pm (yes, our work schedule was from 7am to 3pm, you see, because the boss was an early bird, so all his subjects had to be too), we had to pick up our belongings, and wait in line near the door.
And when the boss was satisfied with the way the chairs were placed, the overall look of the office and our attitude, we had the right to leave the office and go back home.
So you imagine the kind of environment all of this generated. Many pretended to go to the bathroom at 2:50PM so that they could leave earlier, and of course, those who stayed were paying the price. Others would make it a point, in a spirit of contradiction, of joining the queue a few minutes late just so that the boss would also have to wait for them before leaving.
This company was able to successfully turn a bunch of adults into 6-year-olds. People were putting more energy into not getting caught by the bosses than doing their job. Small conspiracies, gossip, and denunciations had become the daily life of this business. After 6 months, I was the one with the most seniority there, because most ended up leaving or being fired. I did not wait for my turn to come, and like a rat following his survival instinct, I left the ship before it sank deeper.
This company still exists to this day. They moved, and changed their business model, but they still exist. I’m not really curious to know how they pulled it off. They probably deserved their school children. I do not know if their higher management learned anything from this situation.
Turn the Ship Around
On the other hand, I would like to give you a short summary of the work of Captain David Marquet of the United States Navy. Captain Marquet wrote the book Turn the Ship Around, in which he recounts his first experience at the head of a submarine.
David Marquet had been studying the USS Olympia submarine for months ahead of his captaincy. He had studied all the pipes, cables, parts, he knew the files of his crew members by heart. He absolutely wanted to be a good captain.
Some time before his nomination as the captain of the USS Olympia, he received a call informing him that he would instead be the captain of the USS Santa Fe, a newer submarine, but very different from the Olympia. Oh yes, and by the way, the crew of the Sante Fe was the worst performing crew in the entire US Navy. Just a detail like that.
Mr. Marquet, with confidence and pride, accepted the challenge. He thought that he would be a good captain, and if he gives good orders everything will be fine. So he became captain of the Santa Fe. On his first outing, the crew ran some simulations, Captain Marquet gave orders, the crew executed them, everything was fine. This was repeated a few times, without pitfalls.
One day, Captain Marquet decides to simulate a crisis situation. The idea was to pretend that the nuclear reactor of the submarine had melted, and that they had to return to port using the emergency batteries. During this exercise, Captain Marquet decides to add a little stress to the situation. He gives the order to adjust the speed to 2/3.
— Ahead 2/3, he orders to his second officer.
His second officer repeats the order aloud, so that all may hear it.
— Ahead 2/3!
The captain walks towards the officer in charge of executing this order, and asks him what is wrong.
— 2/3 is not a setting that exists on the Santa Fe, captain.
Captain Marquet turns to his second officer.
— Were you aware of that?
— Hem, yes
— Why did you give the order then?
— Well … Because you told me to…
Oh. It was at this point that Captain Marquet realized that the system was optimized for his officers to do whatever he ordered, in a nuclear submarine of which he knew nothing about and that spent most of his time in deep waters… “This is how we die,” he thought.
It took no more for him to gather his crew, and announce that from now on, he would give no more orders. He was going to announce his intentions. In short, rather than saying what to do and how to do it, the captain began to express the results he wanted to achieve, and then let his crew find the optimal way to achieve these results.
Captain Marquet adopted and maintained a leader-leader relationship with his crew. This dynamic allowed his crew to give free rein to their agency, their expertise and their sense of initiative. Captain Marquet started treating his crew members as the leaders they naturally were.
Guess what happened?
At the next evaluation of the crew, they got results that were not commonplace: they received the best score in the history of the army, all countries combined.
In a submarine crew of about thirty members, one or two officers on average eventually climb the ladder to become captains themselves. This represents 3% to 6% of a crew. In the crew of Captain Marquet, nine officers finished their career as captains. One in three!
Captain Marquet had managed to turn a nuclear submarine into a leadership factory.
From that moment, captains and crews from other naval units began visiting the Santa Fe regularly to see what was happening there. When he retired from the navy, Captain Marquet became a speaker and an author, wishing to share his story in other areas where it could be useful.
Obviously, I have removed a lot of details from this story by summarizing it. All of this did not work the first time, and the crew had to do a lot of trials and errors before finding what worked for them. But the essential is there.
Now, just do it
It was while reading the book Turn the Ship Around that I decided to change my career path and to return to a management role. I wanted to apply these principles. And I confirm, it works very well with a motivated team that craves autonomy.
Today, leader-leader relationships is a topic I talk about in my conferences, and I reproduce this approach in work units from all walks of life with Moabi. Besides, we are very comfortable to compare traditional management to “telling children what to do”, and modern management to “trusting adults”. The same goes for leadership.
The world of work has everything to gain by getting rid of the tired old dynamic where it’s commonplace to treat employees like schoolchildren, soulless executants, obedient cattle…
We harvest what we sow, and we deserve what we harvest …
Owner of Primos Populi, partner and coach at Moabi. As a former manager, I prefer to use a “people first, the rest will follow” kind of approach. My favorite topics are organizational culture, safe work environments, and lowering the center of gravity of the decision making process. I cultivate people’s awesomeness.