When I was a kid, I loved to watch reruns of The Little Rascals. In my favorite episode, “Two Too Young,” Alfalfa must recite the famous poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade. In this poem, Lord Tennyson memorializes the disastrous and suicidal charge of a British light cavalry brigade during the Crimean War.
In the second stanza, he writes:
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’ Was there man dismay’d ? Not tho’ the soldier knew Some one had blunder’d: Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do & die, Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
In The Little Rascals episode, while Alfalfa is reciting the poem in front of the class, his pals set off firecrackers in Alfalfa’s back pocket at the poem’s climactic moment of cannon fire. This causes an uproariously chaotic scene in the classroom as Alfalfa tries to douse his flaming trousers.
I learned this poem as a kid, but now I find its lessons for leadership to be profound, especially in today’s knowledge-based economy.
The modern-day equivalent of “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do & die” is the expression “Trust me.”
Have you ever found yourself in an all-hands company meeting where the leader is up in front of the room taking questions about the company strategy or latest initiative? At some point, the leader gets frustrated with the quantity and nature of the questions. In that moment of frustration, he or she finally says “Look, I need you to have confidence in us.” Or, perhaps, “Trust me.”
When you heard “Trust me,” how did you react internally? What kind of reaction did you observe among your colleagues?
Let me guess. People immediately started jumping up and down, screaming “Hooray! Hooray! All of my doubts have melted away!” Then they bowed down and apologized profusely, saying “We are so sorry, great manager, that we ever doubted you – please forgive us. We will immediately redouble our efforts.”
That didn’t happen?
I’m guessing the response you most likely observed was silence. At that point, I bet the manager interpreted this silence as agreement and then moved on to the next item on your agenda. I say this because I’ve seen it happen several times.
After the ”Trust me” moment, what happened next in the company? Did execution improve? Did people implement the changes required to execute the strategy? Did people re-double their efforts? Or did people continue to spin their wheels or just continue doing what they had been doing before?
Certainly these times are challenging with tremendous uncertainty. As the leader, you have anxiety on your own shoulders as you must make critical decisions about the future of your business. It can be so tempting to resort to “Trust me” in a moment of frustration, but If you want your organization to execute and innovate, it will not work.
Why? We live in a knowledge-based economy. So why do we go to all of the trouble to hire very smart people who are experts in their fields, and then the best we can come up with as leaders is “I need you to have confidence in me” or “Trust me”?
This approach is like saying – don’t think, just do. Yours is not to reason why. Except that knowledge workers expect “to reason why”. That’s what they do! (The “Trust me” approach also nicely avoids admitting the possibility that “some one had blunder’d” – when that someone is the leader!)
The better approach is “Trust them”.
Trust is generated from what you do, not from asking for or demanding it. In my experience, gaining the trust of experts within your company comes from having a good process for creating strategy, making decisions, laying out a specific plan that addresses how implementation will work, and aligning commitments around this plan. When this works well, trust is developed and feeds on itself as the plan gets executed. Getting to this level of alignment involves addressing a lot of questions.
When you take the conversation beyond “Trust me” to a deeper level of engagement, you open up all of the creative resources of your people to innovate and execute. Getting to this level of engagement requires that you trust your people first and that you trust yourself to engage in a different type of conversation – one in which you give up the presumption of control.
Are you prepared for this type of conversation? Are you prepared to let go of controlling the conversation and to start facilitating it? The skill set is pretty straightforward – the real shift is mindset.