John C. Maxwell, the prominent leadership speaker and author, said famously, “Your talk talks and your walk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks.” Today, we want to shine the spotlight on one place in business where this truth can result in severe losses: namely, when a “benevolent dictator” talks about becoming a “collaborative leader,” but their walk says otherwise.
Let’s do a quick definition of terms:
- A collaborative leader is one who works with the leadership team to make decisions and then works alongside the leadership team to execute those decisions. Such a leader might be viewed as “first among equals.”
- A benevolent dictator is the exclusive decision-maker on the leadership team; it is then the team’s responsibility to execute those decisions. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, calls such a leader “a genius with a thousand helpers.”
Successful businesses have been built by both types of leaders. But, here’s the rub. Benevolent dictators are frequently attracted to the idea of collaborative leadership. They recognize that by running their company single-handedly, business growth and sustainability will be limited by their own capabilities and longevity. So, they say that they want to implement a collaborative leadership approach within the leadership team. All too often, however, they are unwilling to make the changes in their own behavior necessary to actually become a collaborative leader. They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.
Here are some examples of how the disconnect between their talk and their walk can play out:
- The leadership team collaborates to define a core focus for the business. But the benevolent dictator later decides that he wants to add a product line that is outside that core focus.
- The leadership team works together on an organizational restructuring. But the benevolent dictator says afterward that he doesn’t think one of the agreed-upon individuals is the right person for a key role.
- The leadership team assigns a certain responsibility to one of its members. But the benevolent dictator snatches the responsibility back and completes the task himself.
In each case, the leadership team decided on a certain course of action with the apparent full involvement and endorsement of the benevolent dictator (who is, of course, part of the team), only to have the decision subsequently reversed or undermined. Bear in mind that these are decisions the benevolent dictator took part in making … or at least appeared to. But after the fact, he or she makes it clear that their personal decision is really the only decision that matters and is the only decision that will be executed.
The effects of talking the talk but not walking the walk are very damaging – both to the leadership team and to the business:
- Trust is lost. When leadership team members are told that their input matters and their decisions carry authority, then find out otherwise, they lose trust.
- Motivation is lost. When leadership team members find their hard work discarded, they feel devalued and demotivated.
- Innovation is lost. When leadership team members realize that their ideas are ignored, they will no longer offer them.
- Momentum is lost. When leadership members find the rug pulled out from under them, they will no longer take the initiative to move forward.
- Talent is lost. When leadership team members are frustrated by having their contributions cast aside, they will take themselves and their capabilities elsewhere.
If you are and want to remain a benevolent dictator at your company, that is a perfectly acceptable choice. Make it clear that that is the leadership culture your business follows. Hire people who are enthusiastic about carrying out your vision. But if you want to transition yourself from a benevolent dictator into a collaborative leader, recognize that you will have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. That involves changes that are going to be hard for you. You will have to accept that your way is not the only way anymore and that the decisions the leadership team makes are binding – even on you. The worst thing you can do for yourself and your business is to tell your leadership team members that you are empowering them and then refuse to let go of that power yourself. Remember, “Your talk talks and your walk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks.”