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Want to Get Ahead? ‘Do Nothing’ Says Author

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: by J. Keith Murnighan author of "Do Nothing! How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader."

Do Nothing by J. Keith Murnighan

Leadership doesn't have to be so hard.

It’s great to be the leader of a team, particularly because it gives you the authority to do things your own way. When you are in charge, you’re in a position where you don’t have to listen to anyone if you don’t want to.

But this is also the basis for a huge problem.

Like most people, when you have been the member of a team rather than its leader, it’s not particularly motivating when your team’s leader acts like a dictator.

Now that you are the leader of a team, however, it becomes remarkably tempting to act like one yourself, even if you can convince yourself that you are not really acting that way.

(This is a huge problem in national politics, too, when one regime overthrows another and then acts just as unilaterally as the people they replaced.)

To be successful as a leader, you must resist the seductive pull – and it really is tempting – that comes with having so much authority. It may be fun to be a dictator, but we all know that leader-dictators are wildly ineffective – for the same reason that you didn’t like them in the first place.

One solution to this age-old problem is to recognize a simple, obvious fact: you can’t do everything yourself. As a result, you must rely on other people and, to do that effectively, you need two skills. Number One: you must hire good people, i.e., people who are both talented and trustworthy. Leaders who hire well succeed because their teams perform. Number Two: you must think first about the reactions you want from your team members and then mold your actions to achieve them. This is what I call The Leadership Law. It moves you away from being a dictatorial leader and helps you be infinitely more effective.

"You can muddle and stumble your way into wonderful outcomes if you have great team members and they somehow react well to what you do. This is because leadership is, in its essence, a social activity: it’s not all about you, even though we have a natural tendency to focus on ourselves and our own actions." -Author, "Do Nothing!", J. Keith Murnighan

Will you always be able to get your team members to react as you want them to? Even the worlds’ most perceptive psychologists can’t do that, as people are inherently unpredictable. But The Leadership Law can focus your thinking on other people’s reactions first, before you determine what you will say or do to try to achieve those reactions. In other words, it puts you second in your work team’s action-equation, which is exactly where you should be.

The Leadership Law works because your actions don’t really matter at all – as long as your team members’ reactions are brilliant. You can muddle and stumble your way into wonderful outcomes if you have great team members and they somehow react well to what you do. This is because leadership is, in its essence, a social activity: it’s not all about you, even though we have a natural tendency to focus on ourselves and our own actions. Instead, leadership is all about how well you can facilitate and orchestrate the kinds of action that you can’t do on your own.

This is why my leadership mantra is “Do Nothing!” Like all mantras, it is really useful even if we don’t totally achieve it. In fact, in a literal sense, we can’t do completely nothing. But a “Do Nothing!” mantra helps us do less – which is exactly what we want to do. Why? When we do less as leaders, our team members get to do more. They get to show off their skills. They get to feel like they are in charge. They get to feel like leaders, too. Most importantly, they see that they have a big part in the team’s successes. This is tremendously motivating – and it reduces a leader’s need to act even more.

The ultimate moral of the story? If you hire well and don’t act as the focal point of your team, your team members will do better, you will do less, and you will actually have time to plan, to strategize, and to start thinking about the next set of reactions that you’d like to stimulate. It’s really not that hard.

J. Keith Murnighan is the author of "Do Nothing! How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader" and is an award-winning professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and an active consultant and trainer for a host of companies around the world. His research has been cited in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Economist, and Forbes. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks