2 leadership gears

The 2 Leadership Gears

“Hierarchy mode” (the leader calls the shots) vs. “Flat mode” (the leader shares power).

According to an article in HBR, effective leaders toggle between these 2 leadership gears. They “shift power” back and forth at the appropriate time.

Leaders who are adept at shifting power modes let the team know when it’s time for divergent thinking (idea generation and debating options by the team), and when it’s time for convergent thinking (decision-making and clarifying next steps by the leader).

Effective leaders send clear signals when they want to step back and give power to the team to offer their suggestions, raise concerns, and debate the options. They also signal when they are taking charge again, to end the discussion, make a decision, and delegate actions.

“According to Ed Catmull, who co-founded Pixar and was its president for its first 32 years, the company uses power shifting in the meetings of a group dubbed “the brain trust.” At these meetings filmmakers – including story artists, producers, and directors – help directors develop their films by offering suggestions and criticism and debating different solutions. While outside the room, one person may have more authority than another, inside the brain-trust meeting everyone’s voice has equal weight. The people in the room must view one another as peers. To help “remove power from the room,” the most prestigious people “keep quiet for the first 10 or 15 minutes” and allow others to speak. At the end of the meeting, after the group has finished sharing and debating ideas as peers, the hierarchy kicks back in: “The final decision on how to solve a problem is always the director’s,” Catmull said.”

Similarly, Navy SEAL teams switch from the command-and-control mode of conducting military operations, to After Action Review debrief meetings where everyone is expected to share their opinion about what went well, what could have gone better, and suggestions for future improvements. At AAR meetings, everyone takes off their signs of rank to signal a temporary flattening of the hierarchy.

I have observed client teams conduct ineffective meetings where they go through excessive cycles of brainstorming and debating. The leaders seek group consensus, and this is often a recipe for mediocrity.

There comes a time in every meeting when the leader needs to step up and force closure. One way to formalize this is to specify “discussion and debate” as an agenda item, with the amount of time that will be devoted to this purpose, followed by “decision and next steps,” with the name of the decision-maker.

Leaders can verbally signal when they want the team to share and debate ideas: “What’s happening here?” “What options do you see?” “What would you recommend?” “What are the potential downsides?” (make it safe for people to play Devil’s advocate). I often use the GROW framework to structure these coaching conversations.

Peter Drucker wrote, “The first rule of decision-making is: Do not make a decision unless there is disagreement first.” Start by stimulating disagreement and alternative opinions. If everyone agrees at the outset, tell them to go away and come back with some counter viewpoints.

Now the leader verbally signals that it’s time to shift leadership gears to end the debate. “Ok, we’ve explored the options. I need to make a decision.”

Business leadership is not a democracy, and you are not a politician. Leaders must lead, and that means making clear decisions. A decision is a judgment. It’s rarely a choice between right and wrong. It’s usually a choice between different courses of action. Decisions require courage as much as good judgment.

So do your job. Go and make a good decision!


Until next time…