Leaders Stay Intense, But Not Tense

One eye-opening—and painful!—part of Multipliers detailed the fine line between the Liberator and the Tyrant. Early in my career, I fancied myself a Liberator.

But I was quite wrong.

Well-meaning leaders can become Tyrants by creating a tense environment, which is just one step away from an intense environment.

When I was a young teacher, I had two goals pulling at me:

  • I felt a need to prove to the world the small school band program under my direction could become a success, and such a shift would take hard, dedicated, and consistent work.
  • It’s important to be nice to people.

Ideally, this would be a recipe for the best kind of intense. But in my early years, I committed the missteps which lead to tension. I was a Tyrant because I committed the missteps leading to tension.

  • Lack of goal-sharing
  • No transparency
  • Low trust and high control
  • Dominating the space
  • Creating anxiety in others by being judgmental

What did this look like?

One minute I would be smiling and saying, “Nice work out of you, Mike!” Then the next minute, I would be snarling, “If you don’t sit up straight, Dan, I’m sending you to the principal’s office!”

I fit the description of a leader described in Multipliers. “There needs to be a storm warning for [him]. People need to know when it’s time to duck and cover” (p. 68). Instead of getting the best work out of others, Tyrants create environments where people—

  • Hold back but act engaged on the surface
  • Offer only safe ideas in which they know the leader will agree
  • Work cautiously to ensure they have an excuse or explanation for every mistake

Looking back, I remember having a boss who fit the above description. I was very careful around him. I worked hard, but it wasn’t my best work. And, looking back even further, I know I created a similar environment for my early students.

What to do?

Instead of being a Tyrant, become a Liberator. A Liberator is one who creates intensity, but not tension. Liberators expect top-notch work, yet they do so by asking questions and collaborating.

Solid steps leading to the right kind of intensity include:

  • Create space for others—restrain yourself, talk less, and listen more.
  • Demand the best work—define and defend clear standards, and distinguish best work from outcomes. In other words, give positive feedback on the work itself rather than the end result.
  • Generate rapid learning cycles—admit your mistakes, show how everyone can learn from them, then make it safe for others to share mistakes, which enables learning.

In what ways do you create an intense (not tense) work environment?

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

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