The military has a strict hierarchy of ranks, followed by no-nonsense discipline, rules and structure. These are perhaps aspects that a leader secretly wishes they had in their team. Nevertheless, the concept of a wingman intrigued me. There is no intent to be gender specific here and turn a wingman into a wingwoman; it’s more the concept that I want to share with you.
In the military, in particular as a jet fighter pilot, you never fly solo, but always with a wingman at your side. Think about the famous Hollywood movie Top Gun. A wingman is someone who you trust unconditionally to protect you from disaster and even death.
In the work environment, the possibility of death is not that high, but it may be depending on your industry. A wingman is a person who is by your side, looks out for you, makes you aware of risks you may not see, communicates what you need to know, and someone you can trust with your life. The result is that you are stronger together and will have a greater chance of success and survival.
You may be equating a wingman to having a best friend at work, but it’s much more powerful than that. Truth be told, you don’t have to like your wingman, get along with them personally or even want to socialise with them. With a wingman there is a higher regard of respect and a shared goal. This is something that you may have the same with a best working friend, but that’s more the exception than the norm.
Then why is it that as leaders we often fly solo without a wingman at our side? Think about the executive leadership or management level in a company. There are more likely to be many solo flyers than fighter pilots with wingmen by their side. Perhaps these concepts can’t be compared, as they may not be similar, but they may be? Wouldn’t you benefit from having a wingman by your side who you could count on no matter what? Someone who gives you honest feedback that you need to hear, as opposed to what you want to hear. What about the wingman that knows your strengths and weaknesses so well that they can make an objective assessment? Being a wingman isn’t an easy job and requires character traits of integrity, honesty, commitment, discipline, focus, transparency and fairness. You have to demonstrate these to be able to receive them from others. And herein lies the caveat: as leaders we don’t like to show vulnerability, we prefer not to count on others and do things by ourselves, we need to uphold a tough image, and also, we’re so busy that we don’t really have the time to watch out for others.
Let’s take it a step further. As an effective leader, are you a wingman to your team? Do you support them when they need it, and do you trust them to perform the work? Being mindful that a wingman doesn’t fly next to you all the time, only when you need them and they see when you’re in danger. When they see that you’re safe, able and competent they’ll comfortably allow you to fly solo.
I’ll leave you one thought: with a wingman by your side you could be raising that success bar. Think about what it would take to implement this concept in your leaders and/or teams?
Middle management is the entry leadership level in an organisation and is attained because of delivering exceptional performance all the time. Leaders recognise potential in middle managers and advance them based on technical skill-competency. However, what happens after the promotion and when the novelty wears off?
Middle managers often share with me that being a leader at this level does not meet their initial career expectation. They are given more responsibility without the necessary authority to make certain decisions without senior management’s approval. Seldom do senior leaders share strategic information or ask for management’s input, ideas or opinions. However, what senior leaders do ask for is a more active leadership role that drives company efficiency, innovation and change. Common complaints are that middle managers are held at arm’s length, and they are not invited to attend strategic or organisational brainstorming meetings where they could meet with their peers or actively contribute to decisions that have a direct impact on their teams. Middle managers are kept in their respective divisional silos without interacting or cross-functioning with other departments. The indirect message middle managers are interpreting is that they are “sort of” leaders. They have the title, but in the end that doesn’t mean or allow for too much. They are doers who make daily team tasks and processes run smoothly ensuring that productivity, performance, quality and service excellence is upheld while motivating the team to be star employees. They often feel ignored and even side-lined by senior leaders.
Perhaps the time has come for the traditional middle management role to be made extinct, and to replace the transactional management style with a unique transformative style. Shifting from the middle management responsibility of maintaining the status quo to actively stimulating change. It is through having permission to participate, being involved and being part of the organisational change process that middle management can make deep and lasting change within their teams. Middle managers are capable, able and responsible adults who want to be empowered and inspired to lead. Let’s re-invent the middle management role!
Here are some possible ideas to go about this:
Redefine the middle management role
Allow and encourage managers to part take in important strategic and operational decisions that have a direct impact on their team.
Raise their strategic thinking caps
Strategic big-picture thinking is an acquired and learned leadership skill. Pair up managers from various divisions and task them with real-life work processes that need re-vamping. Provide sincere feedback, mentor them and measure their outcome. When all has been ironed out, implement the change.
Listen, learn and encourage
Senior leaders regularly block ideas made by middle management thereby stifling innovation and creativity. Change the organisational culture of getting it right first time to learning through evolutionary processes. Brilliant ideas go through multiple iterations.
Be comfortable with change
To lead means to be comfortable with change and to establish a new way of being and viewing one’s world. Leading is not about being an authoritative person who has the power to exchange resources and rewards. Train and develop managers to transition from letting go of their technical mastery to inspiring a vision within their team. Expand their consciousness and support them to transform and reinvent themselves.
Give managers the authority to question the status quo, and to think differently. Don’t pay them for not rocking the boat and being competent. Raise middle managers to step into the shoes of leadership with the title, authority, responsibility and competency.
Many thought leaders use external independent coaches to help them to gain new perspectives and solutions to complex situations. Insights and awareness gained in a coaching session come from asking powerful questions, and the absolute art and science of coaching is to listen, to be curious, to explore, to ask questions and to repeat this virtuous cycle until new insights, awareness and perspective arises. Coaches don’t provide advice, lead the conversation, direct towards a predetermined outcome, or solve the problem for the leader. Sometimes leaders refer to a coaching session as their think-tank, and an uninterrupted time for them to reflect, explore and go inward to look for their unique solutions.
However, coaching is neither for the elite nor exclusive for thought leaders only. It is a skill that every leader managing a team should master and can learn with practice. From experience, we have all encountered a situation where telling someone how to attend to a problem has not provided results. Most likely, nothing was done, or the incorrect thing was actioned. The leader will feel frustrated, annoyed with the employee and perhaps a tiny bit undermined. The reason for the deadlock is that he or she probably told the employee how to fix the problem according to his or her own values, standards and experience. There’s nothing wrong with that as leaders we should do that, right? His or her role is to have solutions to every problem all the time; that’s why they have the title, right? Leading is about inspiring, growing people and unlocking their potential and to achieve that we need to discuss and learn the art of asking powerful questions.
We will share with you six techniques to get you moving in the right direction. But before we go there, I would like to deviate for a moment. What do you associate with the word “questions”? Perhaps the thought of being interrogated by your teachers at school or your parents during your upbringing? You can relate to the type of questions that closed you down, made you disengage and think “Whatever”? Those are not the questioning skills I am referring to.
The purpose of asking powerful questions is to:
- gather background information on a decision or action being made
- go beyond the story or excuses presented
- check understanding
- explore where in the process the person is stuck
- eliminate making assumptions
- fix the incorrect cause
- empower the person to resolve it themselves
- gain commitment to execute the agreed change
- give the responsibility back to the employee
Does this sound like a dream come true? Start developing your questioning skills by using these six techniques:
- Ask simple, direct questions. Refrain from rambling.
- Ask one question at a time, and when answered ask the next one. Asking two or three questions straight after each other can be confusing to the listener which makes them unsure as to which questions they should answer. It may also feel intimidating and interrogating.
- Ask a question with a specific intent and purpose.
- Ask questions to gain understanding of the situation. Closed questions that can be answered by Yes or No are not helpful as you are unlikely to have gained any new information.
- Refrain from starting a question with “Why” because it makes the person feel attacked and they are likely to become defensive and shut down. Then your questions have closed down the enquiry and real information you were actually seeking to obtain.
- Ask questions starting with “How”; “What” or “When” instead.
Here are some examples of rephrasing questions.
- “Why did you miss the deadline?”
- Rephrase to: “What made you miss the deadline?”
- “Why will this solution work?”
- Rephrase: “What makes you certain that this solution will work?”
- “How often do I need to explain this for you to get it right?”
- Rephrase: “What will guarantee that you action this correctly next time?”
- “What were you possibly thinking?”
- Rephrase: “I am curious as to what your thoughts were at the time?”
For the next couple of days play with the concept of asking open, curious and neutral questions. You can use anybody you are having a conversation with and begin with someone you feel comfortable with. Reflect on what happened in the conversation. Learning a new skill is clumsy, uncomfortable and odd, but push through that. The more you practice, the more natural it will become and you will be on your way to becoming an even more phenomenal leader.
Leaders are the catalysts that transform vision into action and this is why they fulfil a critical role in driving organisational success as well as ensuring team members’ well-being. It’s a role that is tricky and complicated because the leadership competency determines an organisation’s level of success. Organisations can only grow and progress at the speed of their leaders, which means that leaders need to be healthy, fit and take good care of themselves. In 2010 researchers coined the term “executive well-being” and defined it as a leader’s whole state of health and happiness that impacts on the individual leader, the family, the organisation and the community. Executive well-being has a much wider and more collective impact than individual well-being. As much as the leader is an individual, an organisation’s health and state of well-being filters down to the leaders. This has a direct ripple effect on the leader’s relationships and connections, be they in a personal or professional context. Well-being can either be negative or positive, but commonly there is a degree of overlap and inter-connectivity. Negative well-being is nothing new to us and presents itself in the form of stress, anxiety, burnout, depression and a negative mood. So then surely positive well-being would be the opposite phenomenon? It might come as a surprise; however, that these five pathways are what lead to positive executive well-being.
Strength of character underpins a leader’s integrity, ethics and courage to earn trust and equally be accountable. It’s about fortitude and staying power in the face of adversity, as well as temptation in the form of money, power or morality.
Self-awareness is central to positive executive well-being and often the pathway many leaders are low on. Self-awareness is the foundation that supports strength of character. Without a healthy dose of self-awareness, self-management and self-regulation of emotions, thoughts and mindset leaders have an 84% chance of failing to develop good interpersonal and social skills.
Socialised power motivation sounds like a conflicting term, and that is precisely what it is. It’s the ability to balance internal needs and tension with a healthy dose of motivation to influence others to make a positive difference. It’s also about combining moral high-performance goals with working well with others.
Self-reliance is the fourth pathway and it refers to drawing on interdependent relationships and support structures to provide emotional care, feedback and guidance. It’s a reciprocal relationship where you are a support system for others in their time of need and can be humble enough to ask for the same in return.
The last pathway is diverse professional support or otherwise known as supportive networks. This relates to getting input and insights from people above, below and next to the leaders and tapping into the richness of people’s diverse experience, skills and perspectives about decisions as well as the leader’s own level of performance and competencies.
What comes out of these five positive executive well-being pathways is that it is so important for leaders to understand themselves well and to strive to lead from a healthy state of well-being. Leaders need to be mindful that their energy filters through the entire company as well as their family and friends.
Quick, J., & Quick, J. (n.d.). Executive well-being. In Oxford Handbook of Happiness (pp. 798-810).
Most companies have a “Peter” who has been promoted into a management or leadership role based on past excellent performance. The assumption is that if Peter is brilliant on a technical basis he will naturally be a good leader. But the opposite tends to happen and we may have promoted Peter to his level of incompetence. That is the idea behind the Peter Principle which was discovered by a Canadian researcher by the name of Dr. Lawrence Peter in 1969.
Years later and after copious research on management theories, best practice and case studies, companies still use the Peter Principle. To be fair it is getting less and less but it should be stopped completely. We are not doing anybody any favours by promoting them to a level of incompetence. If we continue to honour the Peter Principle, companies will end up with loads of Peters who will no longer be promoted as they hit their natural leadership ceiling. In addition to that we have an abundance of leaders who are ineffective, poor performers and unable to do their job.
The cost of incompetent leaders
Take a moment to think about the absolute cost of incompetent leadership to the company. This is without even having weighed up the cost for the individual. Knowing he has hit his ceiling will most certainly impact Peter’s confidence, self-worth, moral, performance and overall well-being. Even if Peter decides to change jobs I am sure that this feeling of incompetence is etched into his memory for life – like a scar that heals but leaves its ugly mark.
What can we do to not support the Peter Principle in our company? Here are some ideas:
- Be clear on what management and technical competencies are needed in the new role. Match your potential candidate to the role being fair and honest in the process.
- Identify areas of development and grow the person in those areas through training and mentoring. People learn the fastest from observing others which means shadowing a current inspiring leader is an effective manner.
- Establish if the person wants the promotion. We often make the assumption that everyone has an instinctive desire to move up the leadership ladder and some people truly don’t. They are happy to stay where they are and excel in their technical skills.
- Provide frequent feedback and allow Peter to grow and develop using failings as learning opportunities.
Take stock of who your current Peters are in your company. We might have coaxed them into the role which means it is our responsibility to provide them with the leadership tools and competencies. If people really don’t want to lead, then be a leader and role model and have an open conversation on how to manage the situation. Being re-allocated to another role does not necessarily equate to a demotion.
We need inspiring leaders that can grow our companies and economies, not more Peters. Find out how our leadership coaching can help.