A Lesson in leadership vulnerability and missed opportunity (or: How a bubble-headed manager seriously jacked up what might have been a great opportunity)

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Before I write any further, if you’re not following Nilofer Merchant on Twitter then you should–she’s a brilliant author and business mind.  Huge thanks to @nilofer for her influence and insight recently.  

Vulnerability isn’t something that most business leaders that I know like to talk about.  It sounds weak.  This is especially true of owners and managers that have grown up in and around command-and-control leadership structures (‘here’s what we’re going to do, now do it’).  They find it challenging to relinquish control, or ego, or whatever modicum of perceived authority their job title or office number provides.  The question, however, is how much opportunity is actually lost because an owner or manager is unable to open herself up to the possibility that command-and-control leadership can, at some point, strangle growth and potential opportunities?

I had a brilliant breakfast meeting this week with a highly motivated outside sales person.  He’s killing his numbers, well above his sales plan in key metrics, adding new points of distribution and building compelling value propositions for his existing accounts.  His customers are product-loyal, participating in his programs, and engaged in training and development.  He’s been tapped by the corporate office for a middle management leadership role.  In other words, he’s the guy that ‘gets it’ at many levels.  Best of all, he’s passionate about helping his customers.  The man truly cares.

We met to discuss digital lead generation strategies for the salesman’s clients.  And, over coffee, we designed an actionable strategy for his key clients in two cities.  It was affordable, measurable, there was already a high level of buy-in from his accounts, and they were ready to move forward with initial meetings.  We agreed on a schedule for the respective steps and were excited about the opportunity for his account base, his sales numbers, and my business.  It was a real win.  

An hour later the phone call came…

“We have to stop the plan immediately,” he said.  In the interest of total transparency he’d excitedly called his manager and explained what we were going to accomplish together.  His manager, however, felt very differently.  “He wants everything to run through him and wants to control it all.”  He wants to control it all.  The manager’s adherence to command-and-control leadership, and his lack of vulnerability in allowing for the possibility that he may not be able to control everything–especially a hard-driving, well-meaning salesman–was so challenging that he killed the plan.  He killed a plan that would have grown sales in his region.  It would have improved client loyalty.  It would have encouraged independent decision making from a qualified territory manager.  It would have introduced innovation into his market.  It would have been great.  

The ONE thing our plan wouldn’t have been was his.  And that was too much of a challenge.  He pulled the reigns in tight.  There was palpable disappointment in his salesman’s voice.  I felt it too.  

We’re doing business in a beautiful age of sharing, collaboration, innovation, revolution, and change.  There may have been a time when a command-and-control management style made total sense.  But not any longer.  Smart leaders recognize that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness nor does it ask them to be less of a leader.  To the contrary, their command-and-control influence actually increases the moment at which they open themselves up to fresh possibilities and exciting new ideas.  There will always be times for leaders and managers to make ‘tough calls’ and ensure that corporate agendas are instituted.  But there’s a balance that needs to occur in order for the best ideas to work their way UP the corporate structure. Modern business leaders must recognize this and adapt accordingly.

Later that day I called the manager in question to explain my position and excitement for our plans.  It went to voicemail.  I haven’t received a call from the man in over 72 hours.  I don’t expect I will.  And that, I feel, best illustrates what a lack of vulnerability looks like.  One way communication, no reciprocity, and zero tolerance for outside perspectives.  

I’ll pursue our original plan on my own.  Thankfully I don’t need permission.  To the manager in question I’ll simply say: “Your loss.  You’ve discouraged your sales team from trying to create new opportunities for growth on many levels.  Good day sir.”

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