And what if leadership was a permission?

What could be different in your personal style of leadership is you started considering it as a permission and a privilege granted by the people you lead?

Steffan Surdek
June 20, 2014
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The workplace is changing. The new and exciting workplaces are focusing on creating an environment where employees will feel more engaged and involved in their work. We are going through a generation change in the workplace where old leadership methods are no longer working with the younger generation of employees.

There are different types of leadership styles you may see in the workplace such as leading by authority or leading by example. Personally, I used to lead by example a lot in my life. I would join teams in whatever role and just do what I do, to the best of my ability and somehow, people followed.

Leading by example is usually fine in companies that are more results or performance oriented but more and more we hear talk in the workplace about the importance of work-life balance, respect of the individual and workplaces where people are treated as human beings instead of replaceable pieces of a puzzle.

In this context, the kind of leadership you bring to the workplace to be an effective leader needs to change as well. I believe that leading by permission is key in the new workplace.

To show and maybe exaggerate a bit the new workplace, let’s walk through an example from the world of professional sports. Back in the 1940’s, 1950’s, 1960’s, the hockey world was quite different than now. Players were making fairly low amounts of money and they were very much lead by authority and the fear of being sent down to the minors. Some of what was happening was wrong but the message was clear: Do as we tell you or risk losing your spot on the roster.

Now, with many players earning more than their coaches and the security that money brings, what motivates them to follow their leader? Does leadership by authority work as well now as it did 40 or 50 years ago or even just 20 years ago? There is an expression when a coach loses his job that says that he lost his locker room. When I hear that now, I strongly believe the team just took away the permission they gave this person to lead them.

The new real-life workplace, i.e. the one where we want to treat employees as people because we want an engaged workforce is very similar to new hockey world (without the humongous salaries of course)!

Leaders used to tell people what they wanted and how they wanted it done and all the employees needed to do was carry out what was asked of them. In an engaged workforce that balance is shifting now because to have an engaged workforce, you need to let them make some of the decisions their leaders used to make.

Let’s get back to my hockey metaphor and reflect on how does a hockey coach convince a group of millionaires to give him permission to lead them? I think we can agree that when a coach is fired and someone new takes his place, the players will often give this person the permission to lead them, at least temporarily.

Before talking about the role of permission in leadership, we should discuss the distinction between a leader and a manager. In my daily work, I often encounter managers who have no leadership at all. Grossly, we could say that a manager takes care of his employees, ensures compliance with the processes in the company, reports on projects. Basically, the manager is responsible for the day-to-day grind.

A leader can lead a group towards the unknown and people follow and contribute to what is happening. A leader mobilizes people and leads them to willingly go through a change they may not be comfortable with. A leader also creates leaders around him.

To better view leadership as a permission people grant us, we need to discuss some of the reasons why others would grants us permission to lead them. One possibility is a compelling vision we share with others that lights them up. Another possibility is our accomplishments, what we represent or even just because we show up as who we truly are and treat others every day.

Let’s return to the hockey metaphor for a moment. Does the new coach treat his players well? Are his strategies efficient against other teams? What motivates his decisions? Is it what is best for the team or is it his own personal interests? There are many different factors but my message is that people grant permission to lead them through many little things that happen every day.

Considering leadership as a permission presents us with a new challenge as leaders: can we live and act from our core values and beliefs every day? This is hard because it means to fully show up and bring the authentic leader that lives inside of us. Just wearing the mask of the leader we want to be is not enough anymore. If we cannot be this authentic leader and walk our own talk, the beauty of this style of leadership is the people we lead can revoke the permission to lead them at any time.

What kind of leadership do you bring to your daily life? What could be different in your personal style of leadership is you started considering it as a permission and a privilege granted by the people you lead?