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The most effective leaders will be invisible leaders

An old boss of mine walked the halls twice each day to see who was working. If you weren’t there when he arrived in the morning, you “lacked dedication.” If you left before he did, you “lacked commitment.” (In case you’re wondering, both quotes came from my performance review.)

In the early years of Microsoft, Bill Gates took a stealthier approach to evaluating employees. Gates, who worked weekends and said he “didn’t really believe in vacations,” memorized every employee’s car.

“I knew everyone’s license plates,” Gates said, “so I could look out in the parking lot and see when people came in and when they were leaving.”

As Gates later realized (but my boss never did), number of hours worked is a terrible proxy for productivity, much less effectiveness.

Over time, Gates realized that managing by results was more important – and a much better use of his time as a leader.

Because results matter. Not hours worked.

Because outcomes matter. Not perceived effort.

Monitoring hours worked also results in a false sense of control. Plenty of people spend long hours at work while accomplishing relatively little. They come in early… but spend that time easing into their workday. They stay late… but use that time to piddle and surf and schmooze.

And complain about all the hours they put in.

Employees at work – whether physically or logged into a Slack channel — aren’t necessarily working.

At least not on the things that make the most difference to your business.

When Purpose Is the Real Leader

My boss kept track of who worked late in part to assess commitment, but also to exert authority. To him, leadership required his presence: Ours, and his.

The same was true for Gates, who said at the time he “had to be a little careful not to try and apply my standards to how hard [employees] worked.” (With admittedly limited success.)

Like most leaders – and like all company founders – my boss and Gates cared.

And felt their job was to ensure their employees cared: Through authority, through command-and-control, and through force of personality.

Which, at least at first, can sometimes work.

But not over the long term. (Ask any authoritarian coach who has “lost the locker room,” or any manager who has “lost the change room.”)

Engagement – corporate-speak for a much better word, caring – is impossible to create, much less foster, through extrinsic motivation. Seeking a reward or avoiding a punishment can spark certain behaviors.

But genuine engagement – genuine caring – comes from feeling a sense of meaning. From feeling part of something bigger than ourselves. From feeling that sense of esprit de corps and togetherness that turns a task into a quest, a goal into a mission, and a collection of individuals into a real team.

Caring – and just as importantly, fulfillment – is largely based on autonomy and independence. I care when a goal or project or mission is “mine” or “ours.” I care when I, or when we, feel in charge – and feel trusted and responsible for doing what is right.

All of which requires a leader: To set the course, to set the stage, to create that sense of purpose and meaning.

And then get out of the way.

And become nearly invisible.

The Invisible Leader

According to Lao-Tzu,the founder of Taoism, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists… When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say: ‘We did it ourselves.’”

Which sounds great – but how do you actually become an invisible leader?

Start by giving your employees a sense of purpose. Help them care by helping them understand why they should care.

Extend that sense of purpose in a personal way. Good bosses inspire their employees to achieve company goals. Invisible bosses show their employees how their hard work will benefit them as well.

After all: employees who feel a sense of personal purpose almost always outperform employees who feel a sense of company purpose.

Support without seeking credit. Supporting your employees –even if doing so temporarily places you in a bad light – is the right thing to do. And therefore unexceptional.

And should go unremarked.

Don’t just be authentic. Be vulnerable. As Moneypenny CEO Joanna Swash says, “Don’t pretend you know everything. Be honest and open. And if you have to make tough decisions, tell people why.”

That’s especially true where emotions, rather than logic, is involved.  Making a data-driven decision is easy. Correcting a data-driven mistake is easy. Overcoming the impact – whether intentionally or not – on an employee’s self-esteem is nearly impossible.

Unless you cast the right shadow by first being open about your own mistakes, weaknesses, and shortcomings.

Make fewer public decisions. When a decision must be made, most of the time the best person to make that decision isn’t the boss. Most of the time, the best person is the employee closest to the issue.

Good bosses are decisive.  Invisible bosses are also decisive, but in a different way: They decide they are not the right person to make a decision… and then decide who is the right person.

Never see control as a reward. Many people want to be the boss so they can finally call the shots. Invisible leaders don’t care about control – especially perceived control. Because of that, their employees don’t see their boss as the person who exercises control.

They see their boss as the person who helps.

And finally, speaking of “helps”…

Help your employees have the ideas.

When I worked in manufacturing, a (different) boss sent me to help relocate the production control offices. The work was basically manual labor, but for two days put me in a position to watch, and hear, and learn how the plant’s production flow was controlled.

I was fascinated – those two days sparked a lifelong interest in productivity and process improvement – and I asked my boss if I could someday train to fill in as a production clerk.

Years later he admitted he had a larger motive. “I knew you’d go in there with your eyes wide open,” he said, “and once you got a little taste, I knew you’d love it.”

Invisible bosses see the potential in their employees – and find ways to let them have the ideas.

Even if – especially if – the outcomes is what you hoped for all along.

About the author

Jeff Haden is a keynote speaker, contributing editor of Inc. magazine, LinkedIn Influencer, and author of The Motivation Myth.

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