A Chicken and Egg Question About Leaders and Teammates

A Chicken and Egg Question About Leaders and Teammates


I’m a Democrat, but especially a democrat when it comes to work.  I wrote a book called Everyday Leadership: Getting Results in Business, Politics, and Life and I have a radio show called “everyday leadership,” because I believe leading is an activity and NOT a position. Everyone can lead.  And people without positions can often lead more and better than those who have the title, power and salary. And that brings me to this title: my chicken and egg problem.  At the end of this, I ask you: which is it? Chicken or egg?

Apparently, we collectively believe that something separates a great manager/leader from a great teammate.  In particular there’s an expectation we have for a leader whom we’d “willingly choose to follow” that’s different than what we expect from someone we’d like “on our team?”

So says my mentor and friend Jim Kouzes and his co-author Barry Posner in their new book, The Truth about Leadership: The No-fads, Heart-of-the-Matter Facts You Need to Know.  If you’ve read their classic, The Leadership Challenge, you’ll enjoy this latest offering as an accessible recharge for your leadership batteries; if you haven’t read their classic, well, The Truth About Leadership is a superbly readable introduction to their research-tested work. “Truth 4” answers the question with which I began. It is this: Focusing on the Future Sets Leaders Apart.

Since 1980, Kouzes and Posner have asked “tens of thousands of people” from around the world what characteristics they want “in a leader they’d willingly follow.” Four characteristics continually rise to the surface: honest, forward-looking, competent and inspiring. Forward-looking is named by 70% of respondents. Interestingly, when people are asked not about “leaders” but about “teammates,” only 27% say they need someone who is “forward-looking.”  That huge discrepancy disturbs my democratic sensibilities! Why don’t, or why wouldn’t we want our teammates to be forward-looking? Why such a gap? What do you think?

Is it the chicken:  Because teammates simply don’t focus people on the future, that creates the perception and expectation that teammates shouldn’t have to focus on the future? Or is it the egg: that because we don’t expect teammates to focus on the future, well, they just don’t? And in turn we don’t expect it from them? Maybe more important: Is this okay? And if not, how do we change it?

Whether in business, family or politics, we can’t afford not to have everybody looking towards the future.  Conditions around us are changing too quickly, challenges keep cropping up, so we can’t look to the past, nor even just stay in the present. And we surely can’t just rely on the bosses in our worlds to look ahead. We have to cultivate the practice of looking ahead and being proactive.  Agree?  And if so, how do we start to build this capacity in our followers and in us as followers?

Look forward with me to a more engaged, proactive, responsible and forward-looking people,

Leading with their best self!


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  • Dan, this a great question. Here are my thoughts!
    Yes, we want our leaders to be all things to all people. We want them to “walk on water” or at least “part the red sea” so we can get to the other side. We don’t expect for our teammates to lead us, but we expect our leaders to bring the team together to take us into the future.
    We still must deal with the day to day work and we expect our teammates to do their “day jobl and let the leader worry about the future (because that is what we pay them to dol) top be contnued…

  • Hi, Dan,
    This is another one of your very interesting, thought provoking, articles. I wonder if the question about forward looking as an element is quite the right one. Perhaps it is really about orientation: problem Vs Outcome. Certainly in the political world, a problem orientation dominates. Most politicians talk about the problems, and then try to mobilize people to agree with their solutions. This is hardly forward looking. It is very hard to overcome the short-term structure of the election cycle with longer-range vision which may take years to accomplish. With the current news cycle, it becomes even harder, because to get any attention at all these days, you have to be negative to the point of hysterical, it seems.
    Leaders and teams have an organizing principle, and usually it is either problem or outcome (vision) based. But these are vastly different orientations. The most effective will always be outcome rather than problem. You can solve all the problems and still not have what you want. You can create what you want, and various problems will still be with us, but they are less important. Problem solving is taking action to have something go away – the problem. Creating is taking action to have something come into being – the creation. Most of us have been raised to think in terms of problems not desired outcomes, and so, the most forward looking most people can be from that orientation is the absence of what they don’t want, not the presence of what they do want.

    Thanks for the question.

    • Robert,
      Thanks for weighing in. I don’t think this is an either/or proposition. People can be forward-looking and outcome or problem-oriented – as you indicate. And on top of that, many don’t think that teammates need to be forward-looking. Seems to me that we want people to be BOTH forward-looking and opportunity and vision-seeking.

      I also agree with your assessment that there is so little appetite for longer-term visions, e.g., “every child learns,” and instead we get embroiled in different means towards improvement and all kinds of side battles around those solutions.

      But I am not sure I agree that there is a anything near consensus on the big end vision. Instead, I think that we’re seeing two really different visions that are not consistent. One vision is: a wild and wonderful system of each man to himself; let capitalism prevail unchecked; this is an end-state for many people these days. It’s an end of freedom, yet most of them would also argue it’s a means to prosperity. In this view government is the enemy. A very different vision sees people acting politically for the common good, seeing an active citizenry as a very cool thing in itself with the possibility of agreements to sacrifice for others and a common good. This vision is also said to lead to greater ends: more educated, healthier, productive citizens.

      So, what do we do in your “structural tension” model when two “sides” point not only to different means or solutions-to-problems, but actually point to very different end states. I say go left 20 degrees, and they say go right 80 degrees? I’d love your theoretical application of structural tension here. What do you do when in your diagram you need one circle to represent vision, but we just can’t agree where we want that circle to be?

  • Human nature is the issue of those who are forward thinking and those who are not. Democrats it is generally thought are not forward thinking, and so we have the famous quote of FDR, “People do not eat in the long run.” And “Necessitous men are not free men.” So much is encapsuled in those two statements.

    The Republicans have been seen as the long run planners, the ones who want low interest rates, and low government spending, because those are good for the long run. We can hear Ronald Reagan saying “that in this present crisis, the government is the problem,” and George W. Bush saying that “you can spend your money better than the government.” So we see again the mastery of compressing the whole of a manner of leadership in simple sentences, a chief skill of leadership.

    I think it is in human nature that there are leaders and followers. Today, I see so many peson who are isolated from others, by technology, and by changing personality traits, the loss of empathy for their fellows. Exactly how we lead the younger person who sees little connection to others, sees themsevlles are teh star of a movie, and who does nto join organized groups is hard to say. It turns much of what is leadership on its side.

  • Great article. Leadership is always expected to include vision, but is always faced with the reality of those that follow, or team members, who don’t have it or even want it. This increases the weight of the “future burden” on the leader.

    • Hurley,
      For some reason I found myself wondering about the myth of the sword of Damocles. Check it out. It’s exactly what you’re talking about: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damocles Be sure to look at the painting and “the story.”
      Which is more important a job for a pastor, Hurley:
      1. To offer a vision to which the people can subscribe?
      2. To evoke visionary lives in the “followers,” so that they are articulating and owning a vision?
      Love to hear your thoughts!

  • Forward-looking indeed is important, especially in these very difficult times. Along with forward-looking a leader must also have the ability and courage to stand up to the nay-sayers to convey a possitive message when it’s so darn easy to just follow the flow of negativity. Like a prize fighter our little community, bruised and battered takes one thunderous blow after another.How important that is to have one person stand in the middle of the ring and say “We can and we will get through this “.

    • Scott,
      You’ve shared a very powerful image. But isn’t it even more powerful when the secretary or the janitor or the paralegal is the one who stands in the middle of the ring and says, “We can get through this. I see a better world, and I’m all in for getting there!” I agree there’s a role for “the” leader in envisioning the future and, as you say, standing with hope and courage. But I wonder if the bigger reserve of energy and potential is not in “the” leader but in the so-called followers.

  • Hi Dan:

    As someone who is paid to spend much of his time looking into the future, I’m going to push back a bit here.

    Looking ahead is time consuming — you spend a lot of time trying to figure out possible scenarios for the future (if X happens, if Y happens, or if Z happens, what should we do? Then, how likely is X vs. Y vs. Z?).

    Furthermore, looking into the future can be scary. Scenarios will occur in which one’s job is at risk or the job of one’s friends or other unpleasant outcomes are possible. So there’s a tendency to get emotionally involved in the outcomes, which makes thinking about them harder.

    For this reason, I’d argue that, most of the time, most people would do better not to focus on the future, at least in their job, and simply focus on doing their immediate tasks well. I’ll reinforce this by pointing out, having experienced multiple big corporate mergers, that the #1 lesson of mergers that I was both taught by others and saw through experience, is that the organizations that put their energies into worrying about their future in the newly merged company were the organizations most likely to find they’d taken their eye off day-to-day work and made themselves candidates to be eliminated.

    Now, having said all that, I do believe that getting everyone involved in thinking about the future occasionally is a good thing. Setting aside a day a year to have a group meeting about the future, led by one or more people who have been tasked to spend some time ahead of the meeting thinking about possibilities, can be invaluable. Everyone benefits from thinking ahead about how to do things better and what resources (new software, better training, etc.) might help.

    So, trying to answer your question — yes we want everyone to be forward looking — but we want to limit the time that folks spend being forward looking, such that most days they are focused on what needs to be done today or this week.

    • Craig,
      It’s hard to argue with your addition to the future-focused discussion. I have a question for you about mergers – good and bad.
      Isn’t a major problem with mergers caused when people can’t let go of their past ways of doing things, in the old company culture? And so isn’t a focus on the vision of how this new company works – its measures of success, its impact on customers, its vision of where it will be – essential to getting people moving in the same direction? (I may be arguing against myself in that I think a time like that is a time for vocal, strong, singular leadership, where we ARE looking to “the” leader for a our future focus.) I’m curious about how you think vision/forward-looking plays into mergers.

    • Craig,
      Hard to argue with that.
      Question though about your merger experience: Isn’t time spent on vision – and especially on a shared vision of the future – critical to mergers. So often, it seems to me, people hang on to their respective old cultures, and there isn’t a clear and convincing future – both articulated from “on high” but also grasped, argued, teased, and otherwise SHARED from below.
      Curious about your learning and experience. How important is vision to a successful merger?

  • Chicken & Egg Question: Making the decision to be a leader

    There are three painful realities about moving from service and governance roles to a leadership role:

    1. No one will tell you to do it.

    2. There will always be people who tell you to stick to the role you are now playing.

    3. You have to earn the right to play a leadership role, often by succeeding in your current role first–which in turn only increases the expectation that you will keep playing that role.

  • It’s the “looking” part. The notion of “forward-looking teammates” sticks in our craw because we want our teammates to be focusing on the leader’s vision and direction–hence the humor of that bumper sticker “Unless you’re the lead dog, the view never changes.” If you were to reword the teammate criterion from “forward looking” to “anticipating the needs of the team,” the response would, I believe, be different–even though these characteristics are essentially the same thing.

    • Sam,
      Thanks for weighing in.
      What’s kind of cool about your imaginative formulation is that your idea of “anticipating the needs of the team” is not just something most of us would love in our teammates, we’d be thrilled to have it form our bosses.
      As a manager myself, I have had a hard enough time “meeting” the current needs of my peeps let alone “anticipating” their future needs.
      Gave me something to really think about!

  • Interesting thoughts to ponder. I see the answer to your question, Dan, as a “both…and”, meaning it is BOTH the chicken AND the egg. In my experience, teammates are the ones getting the job done – and in getting it done, are more likely to be “now-focused”. The leader, by being future-focused, keeps the work moving in a forward direction, but not without the team’s input. Because I am a visual person, I’ll describe what I mean in terms of ocean waves. The leader is like the wave, rising up, seeing what’s ahead, and moving the water forward onto shore. The leader then moves back into the team, supporting the work as it gets done in the ‘now’ and incorporating their future vision. While the work is being done by the team, the leader is incorporating it into rising up and seeing forward again. However, the leader cannot be the ‘wave’ themselves- it must include every ‘drop of water’.

    Thus, the interplay between leader/team is fairly seamless, with everyone doing their distinct yet integral work. The leader’s vision does not get realized without the work of the team, and the work of the team does not move future-forward without the vision of the leader. You can see how, in this model, team members will see pieces of the future via the work being done (i.e. they’re in the leaders’ ‘wave’)

    The best leaders are those whose role is that of visionary and community-builder – those who can see what’s possible, from the projects being worked on as well as in people doing the work. They are the ones who create a sense of community (like the waves) where every person, like each drop of water, is important, valued and integral. When this happens, everyone becomes responsible for the future.

    • Lovely image, Linda. I’m partial to the geese image, in which different geese take the lead position, although I don’t think science has told us how the direction is set, i.e., is there a lead goose who knows, or do they all know where they’re going?

  • Dan,
    Past/futureChicken/egg. Observations:
    Alan Watts wrote in “The Two Hands of God” that we must find balance to move ahead, we must know darkness to understand light, we must know small to understand large… We must not dwell in chickens and eggs but get to the real function of making the world a better place.
    Marshal McLuhan suggested that we “should not go through life looking through the rear-view mirror.”
    George Santayana said that those who do not learn from the past are destined to relive it.
    Attributed to George Harrison, the Chessier Cat in Alice-in-Wonderland, Ezra Pount, Albert Camus and others: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.”
    B.F. Skinner noted that “If we don’t plan for the future, the future becomes merely the accidental by-product of the present.”
    We need balance. Leaders need to find their own hearts and minds and their own words for leading.
    We need to learn from the past, to understand what is missing, and TO TAKE STEPS TO CREATE THE FUTURE THAT EVERYONE DESERVES. “We must become the future that we want the world to be” (Mahatma Gandhi).
    The question is never merely about Leadership, but about Leadership Toward What. People need to create a good vision and to take action steps to move in that direction. Lincoln said: “To sit in silence makes cowards out of men.” The world of the future and our children and grandchildren deserve better than ill-conceived by-products of the present.
    Don’t just have another meeting to talk about it.
    Take a breathe and take action for a better world.
    Mother Teresa said that she didn’t do good things but that sometimes she was like a pencil and the spirit of God could flow through her.
    Was it in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” where it was noted (paraphrase) that we don’t have to be Martin Luther King or Bill Gates or Henry Ford, we have to be the best Us (fill in your name here) that we can be. Anything less is unacceptable.
    Learn, listen (with your heart, ears, and mind), love, lead well.
    The futre is what we (individually & collectively) make it.
    Jerry Leismer

    • Wow! Jerry, that’s a lot of people looking ahead!
      Makes you wonder how often each of us is talking about all kids succeeding, America leading in innovation and freedom and mercy, making Michigan spectacular, uplifting the elderly in the prime of their life, etc.
      Makes me want to paint a vision!

  • In teammates, we want folks who’ll work to get the job done now, without rhapsodizing about their own version of some ideal future, and trying to “sell” us on it (meaning distract us from our daily duties, the things that get things done, the things theat pay the bills).

    In a leader? Well, it’s my belief that most of us don’t really want a leader. We want to live our own lives without someone telling us where to go, what to do, lording it over us.

    Those who ARE true leaders probably got to that place by “listening” to lots of indicators in the environment, whether subliminally / subconciously, or via ESP, or perhaps some inner spiritual voice, and thereby become able to discern and articulate the next big thing–something that captures the imagination, engages people, makes people want to join in something larger than themselves. They’re leaders because they put a human voice on inner, heartfelt yearnings for something better than what we have now, and are somehow able to map out a way to get there via simple steps that anyone can take. Be serving in this prophetic role, the leader inadvertantly finds that people are eager to “own” the vision, sign onto it, join into it and thereby become part of something larger than themselves, erasing that existential loneliness that afflicts so many in our mobile society where relationships tend to be so impermanent, and people as disposable as yesterday’s coffee grounds.

    …or so I believe at this point in time.

    • Norma,
      Your take is always so darned real – right down to the coffee grounds! Or as somebody burned into my head, “good to the last drop!”
      For my coffee, I’ll take a rhapsodizing co-worker!

  • Good article. I have always believed that there is someone that is better at doing what I am doing they just haven’t showed up yet. If they do show I am going to do what I can to get them on my team. Another thought that I have held for a long time is “I would rather be a Prince of a mountain than the King of the hill.

  • To Robert Fritz: I so agree! Yet so many human service delivery systems insist on an Individual Service Strategy that identifies “barriers.” Yet what is a barrier? Something impenetrable, right? Why bother thinking about things we can’t get through? Better to think of them as a hurdle–something to get over, under, around, or through… or maybe just a speed bump!

    Here’s where Appreciative Inquiry comes in. Let’s focus on strengths, on assets, on what a person’s good at. I can’t translate Russian, but I’m pretty good at resumes. Why beat myself up about my “barriers” about learning Chinese or whatever? Maybe all of us should concentrate on what we’re good at, moving forward into a future full of possibilities, not held back by a past that’s full of failures?

  • Perhaps your experience with co-workers who dreamily propose their concepts about what everyone else should do to get us to their version of an ideal place–whether anyone agrees with them or not!–is different from my experience. For my money, although I value brainstorming, ideas are cheap. It’s the one who gets things done that I value… or maybe we’re both partly right and it’s a partnership. Consider the excellent CEO who has the wit or confidence or courage to hire an extremely efficient administrative assistant who can be trusted to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s and make it happen within deadlines. In this scenario, it’s usually the CEO who gets the credit and the administrative assistant who takes the generous attitude that it doesn’t matter who gets the credit; it matters that the job gets done. That kind of partnership works when such an administrative assistant is available, trustworthy, and generous.

    Often in this scenario, the administrative assistant is female–someone who generally earns considerably less than the CEO. Often, the CEO is male. It’s why feminists become resentful about the pay gap and frustrated at women who are so grateful to serve in a supportive role even if they’re underpaid. Fortunately, there are CEO’s who make sure that the administrative assistant remains available by paying them something more commensurate with their value, based on the key role they play in bringing the CEO’s dreams to reality.

  • Very kind of you, Dan, to assume that my past is not full of failures. Still, how many people do you know who have been fired numerous times, even from volunteer jobs? My perfectionist tendencies are not always easy for co-workers to deal with. No one wants a “rate buster” on the team. I am one who hopefully has learned from my mistakes to cut co-workers a little slack… or maybe I’m just fortunate to have joined a team of people who set very high standards, so I’m a better “fit” in this workplace…? Or maybe it’s because of the giftedness and compassion of a superior manager? God knows! I’m just grateful to be employed at a job I love, where I’m appreciated and feel that I’m doing meaningful work, making a difference in people’s lives, helping to make the world (or at least my clients’ worlds) a better place–in my own little way.

  • Hi Dan:

    Regarding mergers. I can only speak from my experience and the experience of friends and colleagues. But here are the broad strokes.

    There are two major activities after a merger and they run at different tempos. Activity #1 is achieving at least some of the financial benefit that the merger almost inevitably promised. Activity #2 is building a shared culture.

    The financial benefit needs to be near immediate — within a year, preferably within 6 months. That speed does not leave much time for careful thinking, so the general approach is to ruthlessly shut down redundant operations (e.g. you have two HR groups — decide which one is better and close down the other) and money losing operations.

    Building a shared culture takes longer. Information has to propagate through both the formal and informal communications networks in each company. People need to gain experience working across the two cultures being merged. And it has a cost — people are less efficient when they are learning to do things a new way.

    So a classic way to get in trouble in a merger is to have your organization focus on the shared culture, such that the organization’s numbers dip, possibly even to a small loss. If you have a loss, no matter how small, in the first year, you end up on the list of organizations to cut to make those financial numbers.

    The better route tends to be, stick to the tried and true way of working initially and make your financials. Allow the cultural changes to come at a measured pace, such that their financial impact is small.

    Final comment — failure to join the joint culture is also a way to get in trouble, but it tends to come about year 3 after the merger. Year 1 is cutting to meeting financial targets. Year 2 is management wrapping their head around what is left. Year 3 is when people finally get to sit down and say, “OK, what’s working, what isn’t, and where do we have viable business that doesn’t fit the larger organization?” and it is in year 3 that a failure to have integrated with the new culture becomes visible and a liability.

    Hope that’s useful!

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