The Five Omissions of Reward-Centered Leaders from “The Motive” by Patrick Lencioni

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In The Motive, a leadership parable by Patrick Lencioni, he shares two types of leadership approaches:

Reward-centered leadership: the belief that being a leader is the reward for hard work; therefore, the experience of being a leader should be pleasant and enjoyable, free to choose what they work on and avoid anything mundane, unpleasant, or uncomfortable.

Responsibility-centered leadership: the belief that being a leader is a responsibility; therefore, the experience of leading should be difficult and challenging (though certainly not without elements of personal gratification).

In organizations that succeed, leaders fully embrace the responsibility-centered leadership approach and overcome the pull of reward-centered leadership. Lencioni provides more context by presenting five “omissions” of reward-centered leaders, behaviors that reward-centered leaders are more likely to evade in favor of doing things that they feel are more engaging or come more naturally to them.

Below are each of these omissions. Along with them, I share some of my lessons learned on each of these omissions as well.

1. Developing the Leadership Team

Reward-centered leaders don’t invest the time and effort to build out and nurture their leadership team. They often leave this to HR and avoid putting in the work to improve teamwork and communication among team leaders.

It’s been a long road for me to fully embrace this responsibility. The first ten or so years of Barrel were spent with an unwillingness to cede much control to anyone outside of myself and Sei-Wook. This meant we kept a pretty flat team structure with a very loosely defined leadership team.

Over time, as we came to appreciate the value in trusting others to make important decisions and contribute helpful insights, we elevated a couple of long-term employees to the partnership level and also built out a layer of team leads, Director-level department heads who had their own team of direct reports. These days, I spend a good deal of my time coaching and providing support to our leadership team as well as planning for biweekly and quarterly meetings where we can exchange feedback, align on goals, and learn new skills together.

2. Managing Subordinates (and Making Them Manage Theirs)

Reward-centered leaders argue that they fully trust their subordinates and therefore don’t want to “micro-manage” them, which often leads to no management at all. Lencioni writes that these leaders don’t understand what true management really entails and defines it as such:

“Managing individuals is about helping them set the general direction of their work, ensuring that it is aligned with and understood by their peers, and staying informed enough to identify potential obstacles and problems as early as possible. It is also about coaching leaders to improve themselves behaviorally to make it more likely that they will succeed.”

Beyond managing their direct reports, it’s important for leaders to ensure that these managers are managing their own direct reports in the same way.

For me, the ability to effectively manage my direct reports has been an on-going education. For much of my time as a manager, I did not do a good enough job of setting a general direction for their work and was also more intent on checking on the status of things versus being a sounding board to help navigate issues and problems. With greater awareness of what needs to be done (thanks to a slew of business leadership books and articles), I’ve embraced frameworks and talking points to help improve the way I manage. I find managing people to be a craft that one can never fully master and can always find new ways to get better at. As we remind ourselves on Partner calls, “People are complex and often unpredictable. Managing people is hard.”

3. Having Difficult and Uncomfortable Conversations

“One of the main responsibilities of a leader is to confront difficult, awkward issues quickly and with clarity, charity, and resolve. What kind of issues am I talking about? Everything from a team member’s annoying mannerisms to poisonous interpersonal dynamics and politics. There isn’t a leader out there who hasn’t balked at a moment when they should have ‘entered the danger’ and had a difficult conversation about these things. This makes sense, because I know that almost no chief executive likes to do this. Most loathe it. And yet, when leaders dodge these situations, they jeopardize the success of the team and the organization as a whole.”

I’m reminded almost daily that up and down our organization, and especially starting with me, there’s room to be more courageous and forthcoming in having challenging conversations with people. This is especially the case when it comes to giving and asking for feedback. It’s so very tempting to gloss over and ask leading questions like “everything’s good on your end?” while knowing the answer will be an agreeable “yep” that allows us to end the convo and get back to checking our emails.

We’ve embraced Candor as a Core Value at Barrel because we know that diving right into the difficult and uncomfortable conversations are the only ways to spur growth in each other. One practice that’s been helpful in getting used to some discomfort is taking anonymously submitted questions for our quarterly Town Hall meetings and answering them publicly. Some are tough and have challenged myself and our team leaders to answer with honesty, vulnerability, and humility. But a quarterly meeting is hardly enough–every week is an opportunity to “enter the danger” at some point and confront things on my mind and on other people’s minds, no matter how unpleasant they might initially be. There’s just too much upside in learning to pass up.

4. Running Great Team Meetings

I’ve reflected in the past on the importance of being prepared for meetings and how meetings can be made to be more effective. Lencioni goes a step further and frames meetings as the medium through which leaders perform:

“A leader seeing his or her meetings as drudgery would be like a doctor viewing surgery that way. Or a teacher thinking about class lectures that way. Or a quarterback seeing games that way. As I said earlier, meetings are the setting, the arena, the moment when the most important discussions and decisions take place. What could be more important?”

I admit that I still sometimes wing it with certain meetings, and what I’m realizing is that the sum of these half-assed efforts have a deleterious effect on my influence and impact as a leader. I liken it to a basketball game where I might still contribute offensively with shooting and passing but I’ve decided to take it easy on defense and let people blow by me. Rather than making my team better overall, I’m just doing what’s fun for me.

Even the simple act of pausing to ask myself: “What is the goal of this meeting and what am I hoping to get out of it?” can do wonders for providing structure and guardrails to keep discussions from going off-track. Having observed and also been a part of some really excellent meetings, and I know how energizing they can be for the team and the momentum they can drive for the rest of the day if not longer. Knowing these are the stakes, it’s imperative that I come to all meetings prepared and make sure I’m fully engaged for the entire period.

5. Communicating Constantly and Repetitively to Employees

Reward-centered leaders who prioritize their own engagement and sense of fun are most likely to be bored by repeating the same messages over and over again to employees. Leaders may also assume that because they’ve said something once, everyone is going to have received it and remember it exactly as intended. This, of course, is often far from reality.

“Unfortunately, many CEOs refuse to repeat themselves again and again and again and again. There are a few reasons for this. Many of them worry that they’re going to insult their audience by repeating a message. They forget that employees hate not knowing what’s going on in their organization and that no reasonable human being has ever left a company because management communicated too much. ‘That’s it. I’m going somewhere where leaders tell me something once and never repeat it again!’ Though it is always much better to err on the side of excessive communication, most leaders are far more comfortable on the other end of the risk profile.”

I’ve been guilty of holding back on repeating myself to our team. My hesitation was from being self-conscious that I was annoying people by flooding inboxes and also repeating the same thing in team meetings. “Oh, I already shared that, so they should know it,” was, ironically, an oft-repeated saying of mine.

In more recent times, I’ve tried to create situations where I can communicate more frequently with the team through email memos, team-wide meetings, and onboarding 1-on-1s with new employees. These are opportunities to reiterate our mission, vision, core values, and maxims along with the company’s top priorities. I’m happy to report that rather than feeling more self-conscious, embracing the opportunity to be repetitive has been energizing–the clarity and focus of the repeated content gives me confidence that we’re on the right track and taking action with purpose.

The Joys of Leadership

Lencioni, throughout the book, mentions how challenging, difficult, and often lonely being a responsibility-centered leader can be. While he does briefly mention that there are “elements of personal gratification” in being a leader, I don’t think he plays it up enough.

Leadership is a great privilege in that it bestows upon the leader the ability to influence the trajectory of organizations and individual careers. The impact one can have is both exciting and daunting.

The deep joys of leadership, I believe, come from the opportunity to play a role in the success of the people we encounter, in the form of peers, employees, customers, and community members. To see that we’ve contributed to the progress in their lives, their happiness, and their wellbeing–I’d argue there are very few joys in life greater than this.

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