Timeless Principle #1: Leadership Is a Partnership

My son, Scott, and I have been working together on a book about six principles that are essential to great leadership. These half-dozen principles reveal fundamental truths about working with others that every leader should know and practice. Today I’ll be introducing the first principle: Leadership Is a Partnership.

When I was in graduate school in the 1960s, scholars identified two leadership styles: autocratic and democratic. Autocratic leaders direct people to perform and use their position power to get results. Democratic leaders, on the other hand, use their personal power and involve others in problem-solving and decision-making. Back in the 1960s, leadership was viewed as an either/or proposition between these two styles.

While the autocratic/democratic leadership debate was raging in graduate schools, in the real world of business, top-down leadership was the most widely practiced style. The leader was generally viewed as the person in charge who told people what, when, where, and how to do things.

In our 1969 book Management of Organizational Behavior, Paul Hersey and I presented a situational approach to leadership, which our company now calls SLII®.  This approach is based on our finding that the best leadership style is the one that matches the developmental needs of the person you’re working with.

Using SLII®, leaders partner with people, using directive and supportive styles as needed to help them reach their highest level of development. Regardless of what style a leader uses, the principle underlying SLII® is that leadership is a partnership between the leader and their direct report.

In the mid-20th century, the idea of a leader partnering with their direct report was revolutionary. It was generally believed that once you got into a position of power, leadership was something you did to people. We believed then—and we believe today—that leadership is something you do with people.

Over time, our belief that leadership is a partnership has become accepted as valid and true—at least in academic circles. Unfortunately, too many leaders in the real world still operate from the antiquated notion that leaders should make all the decisions and dictate all the tasks.

Shift to a Partnering Mindset

Leaders must make a conscious choice to reject the command-and-control mindset. This requires a major shift in attitude. The most crucial place where this shift must occur is in the mind of every leader. This is not always easy to do, as the autocratic mindset is embedded in business jargon. For example, the word “subordinate” is still sometimes used to describe a direct report. This implies that the leader is somehow superior to the follower, rather than a partner. Another example is the way some managers still talk about disciplining employees, as if their role is to punish their direct reports like children.

For many leaders accustomed to the autocratic style, it’s hard to switch to a mindset that shares responsibility with their direct reports. They feel it is their responsibility as leaders to tell people what to do, how to do it, and why it needs to be done. They believe they would be avoiding responsibility to ask direct reports what they think needs to be done and how they would go about achieving those goals. These leaders may need encouragement and support to change to a partnering approach.

Discover the Power of Partnering

Research has shown that when people are empowered to make decisions and take initiative, the organization benefits overall. Why? Because, as Don Carew, Eunice Parisi-Carew, and I wrote in our book The One Minute Manager Builds High Performing Teams:

No one of us is as smart as all of us.

When leaders adopt a partnership mindset, they realize that they and their direct reports play key parts on the same team. Rather than leading through control, they gain people’s trust and work together to achieve success on the goals they are both responsible for. This partnership approach leads to impressive results that are simply not possible when all of the authority has moved up the hierarchy and leaders shoulder all the responsibility for success.

What are your attitudes and practices around leadership? Are you setting goals and reviewing progress together with your direct reports, or are you dictating what needs to be done and how? If it’s the latter, it may be time to update your leadership style.