Understanding the Leadership Tightrope: Leaders Who Ask vs. Leaders Who Tell

Pushing the rope

“Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.”    Dwight Eisenhower.

So, a good friend of mine has a 2-year old son. I was at his house last week and his wife Susie said to the child, “Ben, please put that back”. I know her well and was comfortable asking, so I posed this question, “Were you asking or telling Ben what to do?” “Telling”, was her response. I asked her why she said please, “Well, to be polite. I want Ben to be polite when he grows up.”

I understand her premise, but was giving an option to a 2-year old child what she really wanted? She wasn’t asking him if he wanted to do what she said, she was telling him to do something. To me adding please made it sound like an option. (If Ben could speak, “Please? Well no mommy, I am really busy.”)

I am exaggerating a bit to make a point, but I want you to see the difference between asking and telling. In business, when I need something done by an employee I tell them what to do. I am polite in my tone and may even occasionally say please (always thank you), but they understand the employee/employer relationship means please is a polite formality, not an option-giving word.

Employees who create vs. employees who follow

In searching for more information on this topic I came across the following mindset expressed in various ways – “Don’t tell the employee what to do, instead ask powerful questions. This allows the employee to create their own solutions.” But, is this what I really want or need? Do I want employees who create their own solutions or do I want employees who follow the path I’ve created? Depending on your business model, you may need one or the other…or somewhere in between.

The job of a great leader is to know which model is needed and then to employ in their business. If you own a nuclear power plant and have employees who operate and control the reactor, you have strict guidelines on how employees operate with little or no allowance for anything outside of established SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). If you own a tech company and create solutions for your client’s marketing or websites, you rely heavily on creative employees in whom you give, and expect, a great amount of creativity in the job they do. The balance of “do it our way” and “get creative” varies from company to company and role to role.

Leadership is not synonymous with order-giving.

The example cited above shows employees in very differently structured roles, and yet either can have a boss/owner who is a good or a bad leader. Just because one boss tells an employee what to do exactly with no allowance for variation doesn’t mean they are a bad leader. Matter of fact in certain situations it would make them an exceptional leader. Conversely, when employees are allowed to have great freedom and creativity in their job, that doesn’t mean their boss is a great leader.

So how do we define a great leader? Asking or telling? Pushing or pulling? Please or “just do it”? A great leader will prove themselves by understanding which is needed to accomplish the overall goal or mission. My friend Susie would not say to her 2-year old, “Ben, please don’t step out in the busy road.” Great leadership would find her saying so very sternly. But, it may also find her saying, “Ben, would you please help mommy and pick up the spoon I dropped?” And if Ben did not help, it would be a good learning moment for him. “Hey Ben, when mommy asks for your help, it is polite to help.” That is good leadership. It is then the individual’s responsibility to learn and do “the right thing” even when not asked, which will lead them on the path of becoming a great leader.

So when should you ask and when should you tell?

I know you’d love have a rule that says if “A” happens do this and if “B” happens do that. There is no such guide. That is your job, the job of a great leader. To understand your business and your people and figure out when to ask and when to tell. To know what jobs require more asking and which more telling. To understand personalities and know which employee would respond best to the “please and thank you” way of communication and which simply need a “just get it done”.

When I  first opened JP’s, my first manager and I ended up working the bar together a lot – one of us on the cash register, the other on the espresso machine. On a busy night we spoke a lot and never said please or thank you. I respected Skip for his hard work, his good management skills and his ability to run the store. He respected me for being a “good owner”, paying him well and on-time, giving him time off when needed and treating him (and others) with kindness and respect. He never said please or thank you when he told me what he needed to keep the bar running. “I need a sleeve of 12 ounce cups” didn’t need a “please” with it. We understood each other, had mutual respect and got the job done. But, in wanting to lead well after a long and busy night I would say, “Thanks Skip, you run a great store.” He would say “You are welcome” and appreciated the fact I knew he could probably get a job pretty easily elsewhere, but chose to work for me.

I would also tell Skip I needed certain reports. I did not ask him, “Hey, would you please get me a P&L this week?” I told him what reports I needed and how often. But, then as a good leader I would thank him for providing me with accurate and consistent reports. Again, I appreciated the fact he did his job well. That, to me, was of great value and I know finding an employee as good as Skip was was not easy and I did  not take it for granted.

What do “please” and “thank you” really mean and when do I use them?

When used as a verb, please is really saying, “if you wouldn’t mind.” Am I really asking this employee to please “drain the grease out of the fryer” (for those of you who have never done so, it is not something you would ever be pleased to do). Would he or she please mind doing the job I am paying them to do in the way I want them to do it? No. As a good leader, I expect them to drain the grease when it needs to be done in the way it needs to be done. That would show me as a good leader to the customers who expect fresh, golden-brown french fries.

But, I might ask a stranger to “please hold the door open” as I approach with arms loaded. This is optional: something they have a choice whether to do or not. Interestingly, if the person had good leaders as parents, they would open the door before being asked and say “You’re welcome” as I passed through. Their parents didn’t say, “Junior, please be helpful if you get the chance” they told them to help others in need, to assist when possible and go the extra mile to serve others. Please is a pleasantry to be used appropriately when following a suggestion is optional.

Thank you, on the other hand, is something to be employed often and with liberality. When a customer paid for a coffee and thanked me when I handed it to them, I responded with “thank you!” back rather than “you’re welcome.” Why? Because I recognized that without their patronage I was out of business. I was thanking them for choosing to spend their money with me, rather than the competition. And I received a lot of surprised smiles from that. Something they did not expect…especially when delivered with smiling eyes.

I also thanked my employees for their work. They too, could choose to work elsewhere…and probably make more money. They chose to work at my business and I was thankful for it. I relied on great employees to make my business great and always knew without them I was soon-to-fail. They responded with excellence and as our reputation grew as a great place to work, they appreciated the leadership exhibited at our place of business. It was a win/win with more and more great people looking to work for us because we had built a reputation as a great place to work with great people working there.

Bringing it home

So, while I cannot tell you exactly how to be a great leader I can share with you a few things I/we did regularly that made great leadership a part of our business:

  1. Paid our employees on time every week.
  2. Gave them the time off they wanted whenever they wanted with rare exception.
  3. Went the extra mile for employees, such as:
    1. Did a undesirable task for them.
    2. Filled in to allow them to meet a personal need.
    3. Followed the spirit of the law whenever it meant a plus for them, even when it meant a minus for me.
    4. Was polite and even keeled (not emotionally unstable) every day.
  4. Did not allow my personal life to effect them negatively.
  5. Never spoke bad of, or corrected them in front of others.
  6. Always protected them first, even when it meant losing a customer.
  7. Had a comprehensive training program.
  8. Always listened to their ideas and encouraged feedback.
  9. Operated with a high degree of integrity.
  10. Thanked them regularly for their work.

There are many more, but I’ll sum it up with this story. I had an employee, Trish, let’s call her (not real name) and she had been given a bonus certificate one Christmas along with the rest of the staff. It was good for 10 hours of regular pay and could be used at any time to bolster a short week. She had worked for us for a couple years and then left the state. A few years later she returned to the area and worked for us again. After unpacking her stuff she found this 7-year old certificate unused. She came to me with a bit of a chagrin and a giggle and asked could she turn it in (she fully expected a laugh and a, “No, that was years ago”). What she got was an, “Absolutely, we owe you that. Glad you found it and can use it.”

Let’s just say that response showed Trish who we were more than anything she had experienced in the years working for us. And the coolest thing is that she not only benefitted from that, so did we. I am sure it was an example she learned from and employed in her own career and told to her friends…who probably later worked for us because of it.

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