Leadership, like life, is built on habits. An inspirational video, an enlightening speech or a great book can deliver a boost of energy, or a new way of seeing things, but they’re momentary; transient. No matter how powerful the insight, it ultimately means nothing if it isn’t translated to action, and the most important actions of a leader are performed regularly. Every day, in most cases.
One of the most crucial habits I’ve developed as a leader is something of a mental reframing technique. I’ve learned to ask myself, in every situation:
Am I part of the problem?
I’ve developed the habit of asking myself this question whenever an issue arises, before I do anything else. I try to think the answer over before coming to conclusions or judging people. Of course, to a certain degree nobody can truly control their emotions or their default thinking, at least in the short term. But the effect of asking yourself this question, over and over again, in every situation, is two-fold:
You train your mind to default to this question, rather than to unhelpful emotional reactions like anger, frustration or despair.
Even if you do experience those emotions, which are sometimes out of your control, you can at least ask yourself this question before you act. And your actions are always within your control.
This question is not about being a martyr: I’m in no way suggesting that individuals shouldn’t be responsible for their own behaviour. After all, it’s a “yes or no” question - sometimes, you aren’t part of the problem. But asking yourself consciously, and determining the answer properly, will allow you to know confidently and completely when you’re not part of the problem. The real danger is when you assume you’re not part of the problem by default.
What is most common, however, is that you will be part of the problem, because culture is a reflection of leadership, and this question is a reminder of that fact.
As a leader, I have a responsibility to ensure people are aware of what is right and wrong in a given situation. In turn, I am responsible for ensuring that people, guided by those ethics, do the right thing. When I encounter problematic behaviour, my very first response is to ask what my role is in that behaviour. Have I clarified what is right and what is wrong?
If I haven’t, then I am indeed part of the problem. This is often a positive: you can’t possibly outline every single hypothetical issue that might occur within an organisation, and the ethical frameworks you outline when joining or building a new team will not be perfectly clear to everyone and for every situation from the get-go. When a problem arises, and you realise it is, at least in part, due to a miscommunication or under-communication, you have an opportunity to clarify and deepen team’s expectations of one another.
On the other hand, if you have previously outlined what is expected of people in such situations, and the given person has knowingly done the wrong thing, you have a frame of reference through which to correct that person’s behaviour. You can acknowledge the mistake from a position of credibility.
In either case, knowing your role in a problem is an opportunity to have an “alignment conversation”. A true leader is not a dictator - the values and expectations of a healthy, productive organisation cannot be written entirely by one person. As such, the goal is not to clarify your values and expectations, and then enforce them with an iron fist. The goal is to hear the values and expectations of the whole team, which will undoubtably differ to some degree, and then to align them so that they become the organisation’s values and expectations.
In my experience, most people innately know the difference between right and wrong at a fundamental level. Circumstances and particulars can get complicated, sure, but at that basic level, most people have pretty similar core values. So, it’s pretty easy to establish agreement among a team (alignment) about what is right. When you have that open dialogue - not a lecture - as a team, most people will happily get on board.
As a result, most people will also recognise when someone isn’t upholding those standards and when someone is knowingly doing the wrong thing. Over time, a culture that is aligned becomes a culture of accountability. When someone does the wrong thing, the outcome is not: “I broke the rules and now I’m going to be sent to the principal’s office”. Instead, it’s: “I’ve let everyone else on the team down, and I haven’t lived up to my own standards”. This kind of collective accountability and sense of responsibility, or high value social capital, is the ultimate goal for a productive leader.
The creation of high value social capital begins with the self. Leadership begins with leading yourself, and that includes questioning yourself. As a leader, it’s my responsibility to question myself more than I question anybody else. As Jim Collins writes in Good to Great, great leaders don’t look through a window to find someone to blame, they find a mirror to see what the person in the reflection could have done better.
Sometimes, it’s more granular than the over-arching values or “character” of your organisation’s culture. Asking yourself Am I part of the problem? can help you to detect smaller blind spots. For example, if I’ve delegated a task, and it hasn’t been executed correctly, asking the question might make me realise that I didn’t maintain a position of control where I could adequately monitor and support that person (as in Discipline 7 - Maintain Control). You might realise that someone was picking up your slack, covering for you when you weren’t keeping up.
In all circumstances, it pays to develop the habit of asking yourself this question. Judging people is easy; elevating their performance is the heavy lifting of leadership. The most effective way to elevate the performance of your team members is to elevate your own performance, and let your example to do the work for you. If nothing else, it is a credible platform from which to question someone else’s performance.
You may be a part of the problem, but it is important to remember that you are also part of the solution. Ask yourself this question, and you’ll know when you’re in a position to start solving.