Thursday, October 19, 2017

Are you a Leader or a Lemming?


Guest post from Sandy Coletta:

I know what you are thinking - a lemming is a follower and by its very definition, a leader isn’t a follower. It is absolutely true that within a given group, the leader is setting the direction and guiding those who follow. But what happens when you assemble a group of leaders? Perhaps it starts within your organization, then within your industry? How many “leaders” are present at your college reunion, your country club, or your annual conference? At some point in your career journey, have you started to focus more on status as a leader than the job at hand?

Regardless of our station in life, there are always others who share similar roles.  All of us have a peer group and within that group a select few are viewed as the role models and the others aspire to reach that level of peak performance.  Said more simply, some are leaders and the majority are followers.  So even the Chief, President, Provost, Chair or other applicable senior title within your organizational structure are leaders while at the same time mimicking the practices established by those they aspire to be.    These individuals, Lemming Leaders, are less focused on adapting best practices to their specific setting and more concerned with being at the “industry standard”.

Signs of a Lemming Leader:

Use of jargon:
Do you use the terms restructuring, high reliability, six sigma, just culture, strategic sourcing, population health, or employee engagement in your organization? How about reengineering, total quality management, performance management, learning organization, value analysis, managed care, or employee satisfaction?

The trappings:
Look in your driveway.  Does your car reflect your “status”? List your favorite restaurants. Do you bump into employees when you are there or other executives?

Your friends:
When is the last time you spoke to a friend from high school? Who would you call in an emergency if your family was unavailable? Are your social activities limited to work and business colleagues?

Your bookshelf:
Are they all leadership books?

The other employees:
Do they know you? I mean, do they really know you?

So, if you are a Lemming, join the club! It is human nature to look towards others who are successful in a similar position and try to emulate them. The problem rests however in how this pre-occupation with being acknowledged as a “leader” by your peers is perceived by your employees. This job you are in isn’t about enhancing your standing relative to others, but is about enhancing your organizations’ performance in the market, which can only be achieved through the combined efforts of your entire team.

To break away from the lemmings, give these techniques a try:

1. Use plain language to describe what you are trying to accomplish. If you are trying to make your operation more efficient, then say so. “To continue to have our product priced competitively so we can increase sales, we need to reduce our costs. To do that, we are going to identify any work effort that doesn’t make our product better and eliminate it.”    Sounds a lot clearer than saying “we are going to embark on a six sigma project to improve efficiency,” doesn’t it?

2. Encourage the customization of best practices in your organization. Learning from others is appropriate, copying is not!

3. You should be able to enjoy your life and the economic rewards that you have earned. Just be sure that what you want is the driving force, not what looks best. My most recent peer review included a comment that I needed to get a better car. I drive a Fiat 500. I worked hard to earn a salary that allowed me the discretion to buy what I love, not just what I can afford. I love my Fiat, whether it fits my role in the company or not!

4. This one is IMPORTANT: When the time comes for your career to end, and it will one way or the other, your friends and family are the ones who will still be there. If you have those kinds of people in your life, treasure them. If not, find some who don’t know and don’t care what you do for a living.

5. Remember back in your undergraduate liberal arts classes when you had to read the classics? That was when you learned to think for yourself. Keep reading the leadership books if you must, but branch out a bit. Read a novel. Study history. Write a poem. Think beyond what other leaders have discovered, discover on your own.

6. Be open with your staff; share who you are and what you care about. Be fair, not frightening.

As my career progressed and I got drawn into a “lemming leadership” identify, my mother would quite bluntly point out that the higher one climbs, the harder the fall. She reminded me that I am privileged to have a great job, but it does not define who I am.

Know who you are and be yourself first and lead from there. When it comes time to hand off the job to the next rising star, you will still have your feet on the ground to break the fall.


The Owl Approach to Storytelling: Lead with Your Life, the first book from Sandy Coletta, is available now. Originally published in early 2017, The Owl Approach combines a how-to guide for leadership storytelling with examples of actual stories shared with Coletta's staff at Kent Hospital in Warwick, RI during her tenure as President. The book offers insight into when to use personal stories, where to "discover" those stories and why the moral matters. 

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