Second Wave Leadership

First a story.

Two waves in the ocean are heading towards a cliff.  The first wave speeds along, followed closely by the second wave.  Seeing the anxiety and the fear in the first wave, the second wave asks, “Why are you so worried?” The first wave replies, “Why should I not be worried?  Can’t you see that we are going to crash into that cliff? And when we do, I am going to vanish”.  The second wave was unfettered. Prompted by the calm and serene nature of the second wave, the first wave asks “ And why are you so calm at a time like this?” The second wave replies, “When we crash into that cliff, I am just going as part of  the ocean. Hopefully, under the right gravitational conditions, I will rise once again as a wave.”

I’ve seen many leaders struggle with the balance between leading from the front, as the first wave did, and leading from the back, a place to support and enable others, as the second wave did.

Leaders have been conditioned to believe that inspirational leadership requires them to be an omnipotent, charismatic force, catapulting their organizations towards great feats and transformational results. Ironically, in many organizations this myth is actually supported through recognition and rewards early on in their careers.  These leaders stand out. They are effective communicators and tend to get the attention of senior management.    While they may ride the golden ticket for a while, they’ll begin to experience difficulty as they begin to occupy bigger roles. These roles come with responsibilities that span across multiple businesses and geographical areas. As these  leaders begin to operate at fever pace with ever-growing complexity, their effectiveness starts to diminish.  At higher levels, leaders are required to steer the organization strategically and weather issues that can arise. These superstars, however, have not been properly trained nor have they the experience or a track record of success across multiple functional areas they come to lead.  They must  rely on the knowledge, experience, and cooperation of others in their organization.  In these settings, the leader’s job is to facilitate, orchestrate and create conditions for others to succeed. To go back to the story, they must employ the Second Wave mindset.

The rising star faces considerable challenges as his/her career turns. Post-promotion competency deficiencies present themselves fairly quickly, and usually organizations often do not prepare these rising stars adequately.  Leadership, at this level, must display the proper balance of humility and wisdom to manage egos in the service of the optimal organizational outcomes.  The leader must invite the collective intelligence of the organization with the clear understanding that great answers and creative solutions can come from anywhere in the organization.

I have witnessed many leaders derail their careers because they were not able to make this shift in their leadership style.  Exceptional organizations create cultures that encourage the Second Wave leadership competencies early in the development of their high potential talent.  There is no better example of this than the transformational change at Chrysler under the leadership of its current CEO, Sergio Marchionne.

In 2011, Chrysler revenues hit approximately $55 billion, which allowed them to pay off their government loans six years ahead of schedule and return from the brink of bankruptcy to profitability.  Upon assuming the leadership of the organization Marchionne quickly disbanded the executive tower and moved to be next to his engineers.  He then reached down in the organization and elevated the highest potential, best performing, and most creative employees to positions of leadership.  Most importantly, he kept out of their way to ensure that these leaders were enabled and had the resources, support, and conditions to utilize their energy, passion, and drive. Through this, Chrysler employees were able to deliver astonishing results. It is evident that Marchionne’s tacit yet supportive leadership style enabled his team to achieve and surpass projected results.

What are you and your organization doing to foster and enable “second wave leadership”???

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