Leading a Team of Super Heroes

When XLC surveyed visitors to its website with this one question: “What % of your talents are used every day at work?” a full two-thirds replied that their employers were using “less than half” of what they had to give or said  “they have no clue what to do with me.”


To some senior executive groups we teach at XLC, these findings seem hard to believe.  But I would suggest that if you think about it more deeply, these findings are not hard to believe.  It starts with recognizing that the problem has more to do with your leadership than the limitations of your team members.

As a leader, wouldn’t it be great if all on your team were like Super Heroes?  Well this may be more possible than you think.

Consider the graphic below which lists a spectrum of skills that a person has (the darker ones represent areas of strongest ability).   At the same time consider a spectrum of things that you value as important, and overlay the two.

There is an intersection point between what you are good at, and what you feel is important.  This represents for us a point of deep personal pride.   It is the place from which we derive our own sense of self-identity and indeed, self-worth.    As such this runs pretty deep in us.

Let me illustrate with a personal example.

If you were my boss, and criticized me for being “careless with details” that would be an accurate depiction of me.   I’m not really good at that. I admit it.   Instead, I see myself as a “big picture” person . . . a strategic thinker . . . visionary . . . an innovative problem solver.

So if you criticized me for my lack of attention to detail, while true, it wouldn’t really bother me too much.   I don’t really care about that and I absolutely would not aspire to be good at details.  To me, details seem boring.

However, if you criticized me by saying “Len, your business plan lacks vision” or “your solution to that [big problem] seemed very superficial” . . . OUCH!   These criticisms would really sting me because they connect to the essence of how I see my professional self.   I would not see your comments as a criticism of my “plan” or my “solution” but as an attack on me personally.

However, if you came to know me well enough to assess my sense of deep personal pride, and saw your leadership mission as influencing others, you would be in a position of great personal power.   Think about it.   If you really understood what makes me “tick” all you’d have to do would be to approach me something like this:  “Len, we have this critical problem, and I can’t see anyone other than you who would be able to come up with the kind of solution we need now.” THOSE WORDS would be about the most energizing way you could approach me.   It would be the equivalent of injecting me with a mega-dose of caffeine.  I’d be out the door in a second, grabbing my laptop and a flash drive with data and then heading to a room with flip charts and white boards . . . and I’d still be going as strong at 8 P.M.  as I was at 8 A.M. when you gave me the problem.   And for me, it WOULDN’T EVEN SEEM LIKE WORK!

What’s more, I’d likely be thinking about it all weekend – even while I was cutting the grass.   My unconscious mind would be continually on it even while I was asleep, sometimes propelling me to wake up at 1 A.M. to go into my home office and put a few more ideas down.

Have you ever thought it would be a good idea if you could get 120% out of your employees?   Well what I just described is one way to do that.   All you need is:

An understanding of who I am. Leadership is not only about standing up and delivering the inspiring speech, issuing new policies or assigning people to work on aspects of your agenda.   It requires that you consider yourself UNIMPORTANT.   Those you are leading matter . . . not you.  Your job is to serve them and their needs.   This is the essence of “Servant leadership.”  This means you need to invest some personal energy getting to know your team in more than superficial ways.  Talk to them.   Listen to them.   One great exercise we like a lot in this regard is asking people to create and share their “Personal Leadership  Story” (feel free to contact me at XLC to receive the assignment description).

Some thought about how my spiritual gifts could most benefit your mission.  Once you know the places of greatest personal pride for each of your employees, then, execution planning for you takes on a different complexion.  It now becomes about designing work assignment that tap into the core strengths of your team members.   This means adapting your plan to them, rather than asking them to adapt to it.  Too often we let arbitrary job descriptions get in the way of assigning work to people.   There was I time when I would create an organization chart that made sense to me, and then pushed people into the boxes.   It took me quite a while to figure out that this was completely backwards.

A flexibility to assign work based on my needs. There is  a Jesuit principle called Cura Personalis, which means caring for the WHOLE person with a special appreciation for the OTHER person’s gifts and insights.  In a leadership context, it means we are obliged to lead others NOT the way we think is best or convenient for us . . . but to lead others based on how THEY NEED to be led.   That means it is extremely personal, and uniquely adapted to each of your direct reports.

Leadership should be personal . . . belt-buckle to belt-buckle, eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul.  All you need is to think a little differently about your leadership.


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Filed under Leading, Managing Teams

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