It Turns Out, It’s What We All Want

by Bluewater Advisory

January 23, 2020


“They do what I ask, but not what I need.” – nearly every Owner, President and CEO we work with

I heard this incredibly powerful and insightful statement for the first time nearly two years ago from an Owner and President of a midsized, successful manufacturing organization. He was stating that the leaders in his organization were decent leaders, but he needed more from them.  Since that day, we have heard the same sentiment repeatedly (though usually not as succinctly stated from our Dallas client) from leaders around the country and in nearly every industry.  It is a powerful statement, as there are three big lessons about leadership all within these nine words.

The first part, “They do what I ask…” He was lucky. He had good, solid employees. They were good at what they do. They show up, they care, they work hard, they are experts in their discipline, and they lead teams that do not blow up (too often).  Who doesn’t want employees like that?

The next part of this statement is also powerful, “…but not what I need.”  While they did the “blocking and tackling” of their daily work, what he really needed them to do was …lead.  He needed people to think more critically about the processes in the organizations, to push the boundaries of the way things have always been done, to research new ways, new technologies and new options.  All too often we see true leadership missing in organizations.   This leaves those in charge feeling frustrated.   One of our favorite colleagues, Steve Morris, is the master of culling this out.  While the following dialogue may not be word for word, Steve’s infamous lightning bolt conversation goes like this:

Exec:     “We have a problem.  We have a lot of dead wood on our team.”

Steve:   “Why did you hire dead wood?”

Exec:     “We didn’t hire dead wood.  Something happened since they’ve been here!”

Steve:   “So what did you do to kill it?”

Reference: RealTime Coaching by Randy & Ryan Lisk

The magic of this conversation, however, becomes clear all too often while working with mid- and senior-level managers across the country who want to do just that… lead.   These managers want to think differently about old processes, identify obstacles in the way of success and to ask the hard questions.  In theory, the Execs and the managers both want the same thing. So where is the disconnect?

What we have found sadly often is – while senior leaders want employees to lead – they do not create cultures where that can truly happen. Employees are scared to ask hard questions of their superiors, they feel the weight of the institutional hierarchy when suggesting new approaches, they feel pressure to just get the work done and put out the fires in front of them. In Originals by Adam Grant he cites a study that found, “Of more than forty thousand employees at a technology company, half felt it was not safe to voice dissenting opinions at work. When employees in consulting, financial services, media, pharmaceuticals, and advertising companies were interviewed, 85 percent admitted to keeping quiet about an important concern rather than voicing it to their bosses.”

Here is the hard truth: employees want to lead, but often don’t feel safe doing so.  So, how do you break free from this conundrum?  First, you must develop a culture that allows for true leadership.  This is not just about hiring the right people and letting them run.  This is about intentionally creating an environment that has – what we refer to as – “I’ve-got-your-back trust”.   This requires (at a minimum) ….

  • open dialogue
  • one that culls out the information choke points (a powerful concept in Leadership Beyond Belief by John Grinnell)
  • dialogue that rewards those who ask the hard questions in respectful, thoughtful ways
  • dialogue that teaches people how to think critically and perhaps more importantly, communicate in ways the make people feel heard and considered.

But wait!  You can do this, as we’ve seen it leveled-up time and time again.   All parties want the same thing: leaders to powerfully impact their organization.  Lastly, we respectfully challenge you to think about this:   at whatever level you are in your organization, intentionally building trust and cultivating a culture of listening and making others feel heard can be the key to having leaders who do what is needed and what is wanted.



Lindsey Weigle, Partner