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The Work of Leaders

Bookends Book Club: Episode #4

The work that leaders do—the work that really matters—is boiled down to three areas: crafting a vision, building alignment, and championing execution. Vision, Alignment, and Execution are the “magic words” that take the goal of leadership and turn it into tangible steps.

With passion and insight, the authors of The Work of Leaders draw from the best-known leadership authorities and hundreds of organizational development consultants to access unparalleled data from thousands of leaders and followers. Interwoven with humor and real-world scenarios, The Work of Leaders distills leadership best practices into a simple, compelling process that helps leaders at all levels achieve immediate results.

Susan’s interview with co-author Julie Straw walks through the key points in this book while providing great background on this carefully researched work on Leadership. Although not covered in the interview or in the book, the DiSC Model of Behavior can be successfully applied to the various relationships of leaders.

Podcast Transcript

Use the table of contents below to navigate to parts of this interview that interest you or to revisit parts of the interview you really liked. Use the “follow along” time stamps to listen to that particular part of the podcast above.


Origins of "The Work of Leaders"

Follow Along - 00:38

Susan: I enjoyed reading about the extensive process, Julie, that you and your team of co-authors completed to create this book, The Work of Leaders, and the Vision, Alignment, Execution (VAE) model. Tell us a little bit about the literature search process. How did your team actually curate the books that you ended up reading as a group? Was there one specific golden nugget from your readings that stayed with you from this reading immersion process you went through?

Julie: Well, it was actually a process that began almost six years ago, so we really spent about a year reading just about everything we could get our hands on. And, I’ll be honest, I’m glad there were four authors. We didn’t all read the same thing, but someone would say “I read this…” and we’d get together and we’d talk about it. 

What was interesting about that process was sort of trying to make sense out of all of it. Because sometimes what one leadership guru would say would totally contradict what another leadership guru would say. Or sometimes one author would take a deep dive into just one part of leadership. But we had to try to figure out how to make sense out of all of that. 

And I say, you know, we read things that were classic like Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis. We read things that were a little bit more contemporary like Marcus Buckingham and Seth Godin. We tried to make sure we were reading a wide range of things, things that thrived in the nonprofit sector like Francis Hesselbein and Gloria Duffy. And we read things from leaders who have really done well in the corporate world like Harry Kraemer.

The one book that I kept coming back to was just a really simple book. It’s Tribes by Seth Godin. I don’t know if I like it because it’s a really short book, but one of the things that he does early in his book is he really talks about the difference between leadership and management. And we really felt like we needed to draw a distinction between the two because that’s where a lot of learners and readers get hung up. They get hung up on trying to define what’s the difference between leadership and management. 

And, quite honestly, if you look at a thesaurus it will say that the best synonym for leadership is management. It’s no wonder that it’s confusing. But in his book Tribes, Seth Godin says that management is about manipulating resources to get a job done, and leadership is about creating change that you believe in.  

So we really stepped back and used that and said, “Okay. In this management relationship it is a one-to-one relationship. A manager is managing a person, and how I manage John might be different than how I manage Heather.” So it’s a one-to-one relationship where leadership is a one-to-many relationship. As a leader, your job is to lead a group of people. They are following you. That really helped us differentiate leadership from management.

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The Myth of the Mountaintop

follow along - 03:58

Susan: In the book, Julie, you talk about something that you called myth of the mountaintop. Tell us about this. How did it develop, and what’s its impact on organizations?

Julie: Well, I think the myth of the mountaintop is when we talk about leaders, we think about these fantastic leaders like Steve Jobs or Juliette Gordon Low who formed the Girl Scouts. You think about these leaders who just did something. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” — that’s a leader!

Unfortunately, I think we get that image in our mind that only that type of person can be defined as a leader. So the myth of the mountaintop is really about this idea that there is some robed mystic who sits high on the mountaintop. Or, in the corporate world, they sit in the C-suite. They have an idea and the vision appears. Then, they come down from the mountain, or come into the company meeting, and they share their vision, and that’s it. Job done. 

We really wanted to dispel that. First of all, it’s not just that group of people who are leaders. Leaders exist at every level in the organization. So at every level–the team leader at the Wash and Lube, the production manager at a cereal plant, the radiology supervisor at a regional hospital–those people are all leaders, and they have to lead. And we wouldn’t think about them as the mountaintop visionary.

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follow along - 05:47

Susan: I once heard a local professor from a prestigious school here in our area of Pennsylvania make the comment that if the only thing a leader ever does is create a vision, perhaps that’s enough. This statement really bothered me, and I wasn’t quite sure why. After reading your book, of course, it’s one thing just to have a vision. But if there’s not alignment and execution, you really haven’t taken that far enough. Your team also did a correlation study on leaders and vision. 

Tell us about what you learned.

Julie: Yeah, that was an interesting study. We have access to a lot of people in an online format who take our assessments, so we can gather a lot of data quite honestly. In one study we asked almost 4000 people to rate a specific leader in their organization. 

What we were really wondering is: does that person create a strong vision for the group’s future? And, at the same time, we’re able to actually correlate those responses which basically means we can also measure how well regarded that person was as a leader. 

So we were able to look at people who said, “Hey, this person is a fantastic leader, and this is what I have to say about whether they create a strong vision for the group or not.” Or, we looked at people who were middle-rated leaders, or even poorly rated leaders. 

Here’s what’s interesting in that data. We had looked at the best-rated leaders and whether they create a strong vision for their group’s future, and 87% of people who rated leaders as best rated leaders said, “yes, this person creates a strong vision for the future.”

And then, if you look at our middle-rated leaders, only 32% of those leaders create a strong vision.  Bumping down to our worst-rated leaders that people didn’t really want to follow, only 10% of those people were reported as actually creating a strong vision for the group’s future. 

So, that tells us that when somebody says, “Yep, that person is a fantastic leader,” chances are they are very good at figuring out what the vision is for the group’s future. And that was really striking to us.

Susan: Yeah, I found that a really interesting study.

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What kills curiosity?

follow along - 08:12

Susan: You also opened the first part of the book describing vision with a stinging statement. You say that curiosity is one of the first casualties of responsibility. I agree. Tell us about that.

Julie: Yeah, you know, if you think about your life in general as human beings, we are naturally pretty curious. So you know, if children are very curious, they ask about things. They’re inquisitive, they’re imaginative. 

And yet when we walk into work on Monday morning, we tend to park that curiosity. We tend to park our imaginations because we’re basically almost taught and encouraged to just, you know, do what you’re asked to do, nothing more. And that aspect of being part of an organization really kills curiosity. It really kills the inquisitive nature of us. 

So it’s that sense of exploration. People aren’t given permission or are encouraged to take that exploration and to think outside the box. And I see that all over organizations across all markets that it just really kills the curiosity. You come in, you do your job, you do what you’re asked, nothing more. 

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Who drives the vision?

follow along - 09:37

Susan: You say that 65% of leaders admit that they struggle with remaining open. Can you explain why this is an important driver for this stage of the process: vision. And could you share some of the strategies that you offer to help people be more effective in this area?

Julie: Yeah, I think that when it comes to being a leader, there’s a couple things going on. One is, some leaders have this sense of “I’m the leader. I should know what to do. I should declare what we’re going to do, and then I should lead people to that.”

And the reality is, when you are crafting a vision, you have to have this sense of remaining open to ideas that are outside of what you’re currently thinking about. You have to be open to ideas that come from different industries or different markets. To be a really effective leader when it comes to crafting a vision, you have to stay open. You can’t lock down too early, and a lot of leaders do lock down to it too early.

Psychologists even have a name for this. They measure something called “need for closure.”  It even has an acronym: NFC. This is really defined as a desire for a quick, firm answer —any answer–to a question. 

So this need for closure is about getting rid of uncertainty. It’s about getting rid of the ambiguity of not knowing. A lot of leaders rush to that because it gives them a better sense. So this remaining open is uncomfortable. A lot of people have a really hard time with it, and yet when you’re crafting a vision, it’s really important that you remain open. 

You have to just pull back and resist that temptation to run with the first idea and really just play around with it. And don’t reject ideas just because you’re not sure how it might get implemented. Keep those on the board. So it’s that uncertainty, which is, for many of us, quite uncomfortable. But that’s what leaders need to do when they’re crafting a vision is to stay open.

Susan: I liked the contextual nature of this model you’re talking about right now–remaining open–as it relates to crafting a vision. And yet, we certainly know that there are times where it’s really important for leaders to be able to get closure. Then we think of how the pace of business and how much leaders have on their plate actually ties into this need to, “Ok, let’s just get this done. Put a check in the check box. Move on.” Yet, a vision is much more than just a task that is on your plate.

Julie: It is, and that process takes time and you are absolutely right. In today’s world, we often don’t allow the time to just wander around and explore ideas and remain open. We don’t give it time. We’re so much of a hurry that we want to lock it down. We hear a good idea, and we say “Yes, that’s it. Let’s go!”

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Our strong desire to conform

follow along - 12:41

Susan: Another important driver of vision is boldness. You share an interesting illustration of how hard it is to be bold in a story that you talk about the research that was involving a group of students. Tell us a little bit about this and a few of your tips for practicing boldness.

Julie: Absolutely. That was actually Dr. Mark Scullard, one of our co-authors. He teaches part-time at the University of Minnesota, and he likes to perform a little experiment with his students each semester. And it went like this: he basically would ask the students to guess how much time elapsed between hearing the words “start” and “stop.” 

The first time they would do it, he’d ask the students to write down their guesses on a piece of paper and then hand them in, and he would tally them on the board. In the second trial, the students actually reported their answers aloud, one right after the other. What Dr. Scullard discovered was there was a big difference between the two experiments. 

When the students guessed out loud, there was a lot less variability. So let’s say we said; “Start” and then we said “Stop.” The first student said, “Oh, that was 14 seconds.” Right down the line, a second student might say 13 seconds, then 14 seconds, 15 seconds, 14 seconds, 12 seconds. It never varied. Even if a particular student might have thought, that was more like 20 seconds, they wouldn’t say it. 

As human beings, we have a strong desire to conform. When students recorded their answers on a piece of paper and then handed them in, there were always outliers. There were always people that were way above or way below in terms of guessing how much time had elapsed. 

So what Mark discovered was in a group setting, we don’t want to look stupid. It’s sort of built into our DNA to not look stupid. So we tend to conform, and that narrows our thinking. So when we talk about being bold, we’re talking about having the guts, having the confidence to speak your mind, even if it’s not what everyone else is saying. Because, sometimes, out of that comes a really good idea. Or sometimes we discover something that we haven’t thought about. 

So instead of everyone conforming and going “Yup, yup, oh, that’s a good idea. Let’s go with that.” It’s like, ”You know what? I have another idea. It’s totally off the wall, but I’m gonna share it because I’m a bold thinker, and we’ve created a culture where we appreciate bold thinking and we encourage people to say what they think.” That’s being bold.

Susan: When I was reading this, one of the thoughts that came to my mind was the research that came out about a year or two ago on brainstorming. People were saying “No, no, this really doesn’t work when you take a group of people in a public kind of environment” the way we’ve always done it. It was really interesting how Mark’s research supported techniques such as Nominal Group Technique, or something like that, that’s a little bit more private. You could still pull a group of people together, but give them the chance to do more private brainstorming and then pull together as a group. It was pretty interesting the parallel between that.

Julie: Yes. Sometimes in brainstorming we have these ground rules, and we apply them while we’re brainstorming: “No idea is a bad idea.” We don’t want people to say, “Yeah, but we did that before.” And when we’re in a formal brainstorming session and we declare those rules, people tend to abide by them. What we’re saying is when you are crafting a vision, you sort of have to apply those brainstorming rules:

  • No idea is a bad idea
  • Don’t judge
  • Don’t just say “no” (Or “yeah, but..” and give 10 reasons why something won’t work)
  • Remain open

Being bold in your thinking is really part of all of that.

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follow along - 16:58

Susan: I do a great deal of supervisory training in my work, and I found the research that you shared regarding pay to be really interesting. It was a new way of looking at a discussion that I have with supervisors regularly. Tell us about this and how what you learned ties to the second dimension in the model, which, of course, is alignment.

Julie:I think anytime you ask anybody what’s important to their job, we work so that we can support our families and have the things that we choose to have in our lives, so pay would be expected to be important. And in fact, it is. We did a survey, and the largest role in determining a person’s happiness at work when we asked the question: “What would increase your job satisfaction?” better pay, by far, surpassed every other factor.

But here’s where you can actually kind of dissect the study. On the back end, we asked questions about how happy people were in their jobs, and then we could correlate that with current job satisfaction. So we’re looking at people who say, “I like my job. I love what I’m doing.”

Then we asked them, “What factors would increase your job satisfaction?” And when we did that, pay was actually more than halfway down the list. So people think pay is going to make them more happy, but really, it ends up being, by far, less important.

The factor that had the highest correlation with job satisfaction was “a chance to have my opinions heard and considered.” People want to be listened to. They want to feel like they can contribute and share their ideas. That’s really an important part of alignment. So even if we don’t take your idea, the fact that it was heard is really important for people to get on board.

Susan: Yeah, it seems like such a simple thing, and it is not. It’s huge.

Julie: But again, I think, as leaders, we say, “Okay, we’ve got our idea. Let’s run with this.”  And we turn into “telling” mode. Once you have the idea: “This is our vision, this is where we’re going,” in order to get people aligned with that vision, you have to allow them the opportunity to ask questions, to share their thoughts, to have a dialogue so that you’re exchanging perspectives.

Even if you know this is where you’re going to go as a leader, you have to get people on board. You have to get them aligned. Having that dialogue and listening to people is a really important part of that process.

Dialogue is a two way street. “Dia” means two, and it doesn’t mean one person talks and one person listens. It means that two people have a conversation, and they’re both asking questions. They’re both listening to one another. That’s where leaders have to really make sure that they’re listening to the people who are following them, or they’re not going to be aligned with them. They’re not gonna be on the same page.

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A real "head nodder" for leaders

follow along - 20:11

Susan: So, to be successful at dialogue, we must be receptive. And, of course, in these fast-paced business environments that we already talked about a little earlier, this is really challenging to do. Do you have a couple of tips to get people to slow down and really do this effectively?

Julie: Absolutely. I think one of the unspoken methods of dialogue is really your body language. As a leader, slow down and be aware of your tone of voice. Rather than using a tone that says, “My way or the highway!” slow things down. Open up, ask questions, and get feedback. Watch your body language. 

Sometimes leaders tend to suggest, “This is my way or the highway!” They bear down and their body says that. And yet, we’re saying: really listen to people. And when you do listen to people, make sure that your body isn’t being skeptical or that your body language isn’t being disapproval. So work on that.

Some leaders might have to practice that in front of the mirror because sometimes our body language doesn’t convey what we’re trying to convey, even though we think it is. So, pay attention to your body language. 

And then secondly, I talked a little bit earlier about this: what I call “yeah-buts.” A  lot of times we’ll listen to somebody and say, “Yeah, but…” and you’re really not saying yeah at all. You’re totally just going with your own idea.

So I would encourage leaders to not counter what someone has said. Instead, say things like: “Tell me more about that.” or “Tell me why you’re thinking that?” That opens the door for them to say more about that, and you’re being much more of an empathic listener; your emotion is aligning with it.

Those are really two things that I would absolutely do.

Then, just looking for signs of people telling you what you want to hear. If you’re really just trying to call out people that agree with you, and you’re ignoring the people that are not on board, that’s not a good strategy. You really need to focus on the people who are not on board, find out why they’re not on board, get them enough information so that they want to be working with you. They want to be following you.

Susan: So often, I think the error in not doing that is thinking it’s the easy way out. But, in the long run, you’re killing alignment, and you’re not going to get the result that you’re looking for. So, it’s really critical to call those folks out and really engage them in the process on the front end. I really appreciate that tip.

Julie: And you know, Susan, alignment is the one thing that is a real head nodder for leaders. They know, of course, that you have to have people aligned. But when it comes to actually getting alignment, people have not had formal training on it. They don’t understand what they can be doing to create that alignment. So, they realize that it’s important, but they expect it to just happen. And it can’t just happen. It’s hard work. But I’m telling you, if you get people aligned, then you have things moving in the right direction. And as a leader, you can’t possibly be with every single person, every step of the way. People are making decisions on their own. They’re doing their work. And if you want them to be making decisions that support your vision, they have to understand what the vision is and be aligned with that vision.

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follow along - 23:51

Susan: My favorite part of the model was actually execution, and this really surprised me. In fact, I found the idea for leaders to engage in this activity to be a challenging idea. Just like we were just talking about alignment but perhaps even more so. But I really feel this is something that leaders need to hear and pay attention to.

You share, in the book, some wisdom from some of the thought leaders through the ages–going back as far as Newton all the way to people like Tom Peters–as you describe the first driver in this part of the model, and that driver is momentum. Tell a little bit about some of the big ideas from these well known gurus that support the importance of this particular driver.

Julie: It’s an area where a lot of leaders sort of say, “Okay, my work is done, and now I’m gonna leave this up to the managers to get the work done.” And that’s actually why we were very deliberate about choosing the phrase championing execution. The leader has to champion execution. And you’re absolutely right, building momentum is very important in this aspect. And it is really well documented. 

Tom Peters talked about this in his book, written in the 1980s, In Search of Excellence. He talked about the idea of bias for action…so, getting things done. John Maxwell called momentum a leader’s best friend. Bron Shrum wrote an entire book on execution. And an important part of that is getting things moving. So momentum is really important. 

If you ever played sports, you know how important momentum is. You get momentum going. We use the story of a swimming pool–an above-ground circular swimming pool–in the book. If you can imagine jumping in that pool and getting all the kids to walk in the same direction, and you create a whirlpool, right? And once you stop walking, the water keeps going. Now for kids, that’s a lot of fun. You can float in it, or you can try to walk against it. 

But the point is that once you get that momentum going, it’s hard to stop in an organization. 

For a leader to champion execution means you have to create that momentum. And it is hard to get going, but once you have momentum, it keeps going. That’s where Newton comes in. Newton’s first law, if you remember back to your physics class, is the law of inertia. And that’s the idea that a body at rest tends to remain at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Well, that’s momentum. So think about it as a leader. If you can create momentum, then things will keep moving. 

And it is. It’s your responsibility as the leader to create momentum. You have to keep things moving so that there’s a sense of urgency. The leaders can do this by establishing targets and dates. And not just the end dates, like in five years, but what are we going to do this month, this quarter, this year to keep things moving? What are our targets? How are we going to measure our stepping stones?  And, put those things in place and then celebrate the successes and redirect when you need to redirect. But keep that momentum going.

Susan: Those are great ways to build momentum, and I think a lot of leaders missed those opportunities because it feels too tactical to them. And that’s where I’d like to go as we bring this to a close today, Julie.

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Leading vs. Managing

follow along - 27:53

Susan: I get the feeling, and perhaps I’m wrong, that I will encounter a lot of leaders who will look at this execution part of the model and have a little pushback. They’ll say, that’s not a function of my role. I’m a leader. That’s a function of management, not leadership. 

And that’s why I think that this was my favorite part of the book because it was a little revolutionary against perhaps traditional contemporary thinking. But it is challenging and so right on!  So enlighten us. When you go back to your research, what could you share with us about this? Why is this a function of leadership?

Julie: Well, remember, the thing that I liked about the Tribes book was that Seth Golden basically said there is a difference.  But you are absolutely right. A lot of people get confused about what is leadership and what is management. 

So, we actually dug in. One of our coauthors, Barry Davis, is a little bit of a historian. So he dug in and he said, “Where did this come from?” And he actually traced the roots of the thinking– that managers manage tasks and leaders lead people–all the way back to the 1900’s. There was a managing director of a French mining company by the name of Henri Fayol, and he was delivering a speech at an international mining congress in Paris. 

Now remember, this is the 1900s, so he really encouraged the audience to start giving the administrative function as much attention as the technical aspects of running their companies. And that’s really kind of the dawn of management theory. So later, you know, 1916 his work in this business administration was actually published, and they identified five functions of management:

  • Planning  
  • Organizing
  • Commanding 
  • Coordinating 
  • Controlling

So management became this really well-defined task. And when you look at execution, you think well, that’s what execution is all about. It’s about planning, and organizing, and commanding, and coordinating, and controlling. 

And yet we’re saying that yes, those tasks need to be done. But as a leader, you have to stay engaged in this process, and you have to champion that execution. So it’s your job as a leader to create that momentum.  It’s your job as a leader to say okay, we’re going to implement this. We’re gonna roll it out, but we need structure here. We need to have a plan. We need to do some analysis of things, and I have to champion that. 

I may not do those tasks as the leader, but I have to create an environment in which people understand that this is important, and it’s contributing to achieving our goals as going to where we want to go.  We’re getting to our vision by doing these things, and people also need feedback, and the leader has to be part of that. 

The leader should be in there offering praise. The leader should be in there addressing problems. You can’t just step back and say, “Okay, I’m done with that!” and disengage.  As a leader you have to stay engaged when it comes to championing execution. 

Susan: I think this was such an important part of the book. It brings everything all together. So often leaders complain that they don’t really know what is going on out there. And I really think this is why, Julie. They’ve delegated this.  And, you know, in doing so, they don’t have their hand on the pulse of the organization any longer. 

Julie: Right. Yep. And this is their opportunity to stay engaged. They’re not doing every single task, but they’re in the game. You don’t see a coach leave the game in the fourth quarter.  They’re there encouraging and directing. They’re there leading that team. Even if they’re 20 points ahead, they don’t leave the game at that point.

Susan: That’s a great analogy. I love it.

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Learn More

We have only scratched the surface of The Work of Leaders in our interview with Julie Straw. Our firm has had the opportunity, first hand, to really see the power of this model in action. Pick up a copy of the book today to learn more about the model of Vision, Alignment and Execution.

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