Brains and brawn alone used to define powerful leadership. Not anymore, argues Daniel Pink, the bestselling author (most recently of To Sell Is Human) and a leading thinker on all things related to work and management. Here, Pink describes how — and why — the leadership role in business today has evolved from one of absolute authority to one of quiet persuasion.
You say that leaders are in the business of selling — to their peers.
I call it “non-sales” selling. They’re not necessarily selling their products or services. They’re selling their colleagues on different ways of doing things and the denomination isn’t money; it’s time, attention, energy, effort, belief, commitment. They’re probably doing more of it than they’re doing any other kind of function.
Do they see themselves as salespeople?
I’m not sure they use the term “selling,” but instead they think about it as “influence” or “persuasion,” which are synonyms for selling. Managers today have far less coercive power than they ever have had. They have far less formal authority, far less capacity to simply dictate. Without that kind of formal coercive authority, they have to rely on other forms of persuasion, which is a form of selling.
Since managers have less coercive power, can they ignite change?
When individuals themselves have more autonomy and more authority, there’s still a need for some coordination, oversight and leadership. The leadership isn’t the command-and-control kind; it’s leadership based on imprinting the organization with a certain set of values. It’s leadership based on serving other people. It’s leadership based on being a good role model for other people. It’s a quieter, less commanding form of leadership.
Today, traditional notions of power are often counterproductive. Let’s take attunement as an example. Attunement means you can see something from someone else’s point of view. It is a core principle of moving people effectively today. Research shows that when people feel powerful, their perspective-taking skills degrade. If they’re in a position of nominal authority and nominal power, managers can be more effective by briefly reducing their feelings of power to become better at taking other perspectives.
How can managers hold their feelings of power in check — and learn to see other viewpoints?
Let’s say that I’m your boss, and I want you to do something in a different way. I could tell you to do something, and you probably would do it, but you’re probably not going to do it with gusto or talent. So I might be better at moving you to do this if, before I ask you to do something, I recalibrate the position of power. I say to myself, “Even though I’m nominally your boss, maybe I’m not the powerful person in this relationship. Maybe my ability as a boss to carry out my goals heavily depends on you being all in. Maybe on some level, you need me much less than I need you.”
By reducing my feeling of power in that moment, what happens is people become more adept at seeing the other side’s perspective. Why are you, the employee, resisting? Maybe there’s an obstacle that I can take out of the way. Maybe I can ask, “What’s in it for you to do this differently?” It’s kind of quieter power — the power that comes from listening, asking questions, seeing people’s perspective — that is ultimately more effective today.
Do managers need to redesign how they’re managing?
Managers need to talk less and listen more to foster a quieter muscularity. Some managers are great listeners — they’re more servant leaders. But I think there’s still a legacy that says leadership is about loudness, force, a chest-thumping display of power. That form of leadership isn’t very effective today where the people being led have as much information as the people leading. It isn’t effective in a workplace that has multiple generations. It isn’t effective in a workplace where the things that people are doing each day require creativity, conceptual thinking, judgment and insight, which are the things that people do well only when they have some amount of freedom.
Describe a leader who displays quiet leadership?
One example is Doug Conant, the former CEO of Campbell Soup. The way he led was by holding town halls and listening to what people had to say. He asked questions a lot. During his tenure, he wrote thousands upon thousands of handwritten thank-you notes to employees to express his gratitude. He has a quieter, humble power that comes from gratitude.
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