Leaders Generate Commitment

In my last post, we explored different definitions of leadership and ended with one of my favorites, “Leadership is the art of making declarations that other people commit to.” (Bob Dunham).  As leaders, how do we generate commitment and what happens if we don’t?

According to Forbes magazine, “employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.  This emotional commitment means engaged employees actually care about their work and their company… when employees care – when they are engaged – they use discretionary effort.”

Gallup, which has been tracking employee engagement for a decade, defines engaged employees as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their workplace.”  They have consistently found that 70% of U.S. workers are not engaged at work.  (However, an August 26, 2018 posting  reported that 34% of workers in the U.S. are engaged and only 13% are “actively disengaged,” tying this trend to positive business outcomes.  People like being part of a winning team and achieving goals.

From my work in and with organizations, it’s apparent that many leaders don’t know how or aren’t intentionally practicing ways to generate commitment.  With a lack of commitment, there’s also a lack of engagement and accountability.  I believe there are four contributing factors that lead to this lack of engagement (there may be other factors you may see).

  • Lack of understanding of leadership
  • The leader’s and follower’s stage of human development
  • How people intentionally or unintentionally choose to show up for work
  • Not using a proven process or the right conversations

In this post, we’ll look at the first contributing factor and over the next several weeks, we’ll explore the other three.

Great Leadership Matters (But We’ll Settle for Competent)

Many (most?) leaders of small-to-medium sized organizations (and even some large organizations like school districts) have to learn leadership on their own.  They often are promoted for their technical expertise and the assumption is that when they become a manager or supervisor or C-suite executive, they are automatically “expert” at this new job when, in fact, they are beginners.  In each subsequent promotion, they miss out on the important learning that can only happen when they start from being a beginner.  The conundrum is that these leaders are often so overwhelmed trying to deal with the realities of their environments and the dramatic changes in which they find themselves that they become so focused on the technical and business dimensions of what they’re doing that they forget they’re leading people.  Leadership is now their profession yet they’re not intentionally learning leadership.

With no clear idea of the focus of leadership and importance of leadership development and no coherent plan for their own and others’ ongoing development, combined with a “do-it-yourself” mentality, the results can be catastrophic.  If leaders approached the work of their profession this way, they’d be accused of malpractice.  At some point, leaders have to ask themselves, “What does it mean to lead people?  What don’t I know I don’t know?”

In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner write, “If people anywhere are to willingly follow someone, they first want to assure themselves that the person is worthy of their trust… No matter what the setting, everyone wants to be fully confident in their leaders, and to be fully confident they have to believe that their leaders are people of strong character and solid integrity… For people to follow someone willingly, the majority of constituents must believe the leader is honest, forward-looking, competent and inspiring.”

In Learning Leadership, they connect behavior to engagement. “Our studies find that how one’s leader behaves explains more than any other variable about why people feel engaged or not in their workplace… [This can be] accounted for by how frequently they see the individual they report to engaging in leadership behaviors… How you behave as a leader matters the most to others…” (Kouzes and Posner, Learning Leadership, p.16)

Based on their interviews with more than a million leaders, worldwide, over the past thirty years, they’ve defined Five Practices of Exemplary Leaders – five behaviors that can help generate commitment and engagement:

  1. Model the Way – establish principles concerning the way people should be treated and the way goals should be pursued.
  2. Inspire a Shared Vision – leaders passionately believe they can make a difference. They envision the future, creating an ideal and unique image of what the organization can become. People see exciting possibilities for the future.
  3. Challenge the Process – leaders search for opportunities to change the status quo and accept the risks of experimenting, seeing disappointments as learning opportunities.
  4. Enable Others to Act – leaders foster collaboration and build spirited teams. They actively engage others, creating a culture of trust and human dignity.
  5. Encourage the Heart – leaders recognize contributions that individuals make and celebrate accomplishments together.

Learning Leadership, Kouzes and Posner, p. 26

If you want to engage people and generate their commitment in the most effective way, you have to start by examining your own character, leadership competence, and capacity and willingness to learn.  Who you are and what you know matters to the people who follow you.  In order to commit to and engage with their work, they need to be able to trust their leaders and believe that they’re competent in the areas that matter most.   Understanding leadership is one of those areas.  Make leadership your profession and begin the pursuit of learning about it (see the Leadership Bibliography tab for a great place to start).  But there’s another factor that can stand in the way – the stage of human development you inhabit.  That’s what we’ll explore next post.

© Geoff Davis, 9/21/18

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