Some employees go to work to do what they’re told. Some know their company’s vision and try to follow it. But there’s a third choice, what I call the Extremer’s choice, which is to actively imagine how your company could achieve its vision and find ways that you personally can contribute, beyond whatever your job description might say. Leaders become leaders by taking that third option. Their challenge, then, as leaders, is to help those they lead to do the same.
How do you set others free to do their Extreme best? It starts with what you don’t do. The opposite of bringing out the Extreme in others is making them afraid. If only one person starts making others feel that risk-taking will be punished, that the boss is running out of patience, or that old procedures must be followed to the letter, then the crucial collaboration between leaders and followers starts to fall apart. It happens in corporations the world over. The entire place seizes up with fear.
The most effective leaders I’ve known counter fear with curiosity, always looking to explore unknown territory and reward people for being innovative. They know that their most important role is as mentor and supporter. If you’ve picked a team for their skill and expertise, let them use it! Don’t edit them down, drive them away, or try to dictate how to do their jobs. Once your team of Extremers gets to work and they’re headed in a productive direction, let them follow where it takes them. It’s truly the most rewarding feeling in the world to see other people take an idea and blow it out farther and better than you ever could.
But leadership is not about passively waiting for the team to deliver. Your role is to hold them to the highest standards of performance while at the same time supporting their approach to getting it done —no matter how novel and unfamiliar it may be to you—and protecting them long enough for them to succeed. It’s not a choice between tough versus nurturing. Extremers need both.
When I was researching my book, EXTREME YOU, I had the chance to discuss leadership with the psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, who has made a career studying the “grit” that enables people to succeed. I asked her about how she applies her ideas about fostering grit to her own team of scientific researchers. She said, “I am relentlessly demanding. People know that if they come to work for me, their work will never be good enough. There’s no first draft of a scientific paper anyone could write that would make me respond, ‘Great—we’re done!’ They are going to get reams of feedback from me about how we could do better, so we are all continuously improving. But also, when you come to work for me, it’s like now you’re in my family. I will do anything for you. If you need me at two in the morning, call me. If you need forty letters of recommendation, I’ll send them. I’ll introduce you to anyone I know. It’s this combination of letting people know you are demanding but you’re supportive.”
That’s been my key to leadership, too: push hard, but support harder.
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