Leading by Choice

“We are superior planners and inferior doers,” says Marshall Goldsmith in his new book Triggers. In other words, there is a gap between how we think about ourselves, what we think we will do, and what we actually end up doing. This is preventing us from becoming the person we want to be, and affecting our ability to do better.

In the spring I was working on developing a one-day in person experience — an interactive form of conversation among peers as a way to think together, learn, elaborate, and instigate better work — for a group of technology executives who were interested in exploring the topic of leadership.

The three pillars I used to inform Leading by Choice involve aspects of identity:

  1. how we think others see us,
  2. how we think we see ourselves as organizations, and
  3. how we think we see ourselves as individuals.

They are best summarized by three quotes.


The great majority of people tend to focus downward. They are occupied with efforts rather than results.

They worry over what the organization and their superiors 'owe' them and should do for them. And they are conscious above all of the authority they 'should have.'

As a result they render themselves ineffectual.”

[Peter Drucker]

Preoccupied with what people with influence (in our view) think about us, we tend to focus on looking busy, divide our attention, and miss opportunities to make an impact.

Leading up is not something that comes natural to us. Aligning ourselves to how we can shape our activities on the critical parts, is a challenge once we get pulled into the day-to-day proverbial weeds of the job. This is also because we worry.

We forget, for example to scan externally for fresh ideas we can test and present at opportune moments. Or we neglect formulating a strategic business plan that aligns to the business and financial goals of the organization when we're going for a promotion, for example.


“These days, a different ideal for organizations is surfacing. We want organizations to be adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning, intelligent-attributes found only in living systems.

The tension of our times is that we want our organizations to behave as living systems, but we only know how to treat them as machines.”

[Margaret Wheatley, 1996]

Yet, the policies, daily actions, and organizational structures remain attached to what used to work.

The second quote has been a long time favorite. It's from 1996, so that in itself is remarkable. When we think about how fast the market is shifting, we like to say we are adopting a more agile stance.

We've been talking about open collaboration, modeled after the open source community, co-creation (do customers really want to co-create your product?), and lately about holocracy, a system of organizational governance in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout self-organizing teams.

Wheatley was writing about self-organizing organizations in the '90s and the respective roles of identity, information, and relationships in shaping culture. More than a rules problem, this is mindset issue.


“Your Self-Image “makes you act like you.” It keeps you within your comfort zone. If you are below your zone, Self-Image makes you uncomfortable and turns up your power until you are within the zone. Likewise, if you are above your zone, the Self-Image will cut your power, dropping you back within your zone. As long as you “act like you,” the Self-Image is content and does not interfere. To change your performance, you must change your Self-Image and elevate your comfort zone.

Controlling that change in your Self-Image may be the most important skill you will ever learn. You can change any attitude you do not like. When the Self-Image changes, performance changes."

[Lanny Bassham]

We see the world as we are, including ourselves. This is where the idea that we are superior planners and inferior doers comes in.

The premise for Triggers is that our environment influences our choices and shapes our behavior — and we are mostly unaware it happens and how it affects us. Control the environment, and you are golden. Which is why we have control issues as organizations and as individuals.

Our environment is not static, however. Goldsmith zeroes in the situational aspect of it. Changing circumstances trigger a change in us. Early in his career, Goldsmith worked with Paul Hershey and Ken Blanchard who believed that leaders should:

  • keep track of the shifting levels of readiness among their followers
  • stay highly attuned to each situation
  • acknowledge that situations change constantly, and
  • fine-tune their leadership style to fit the followers' readiness

They further dissected “situational leadership,” as they called it, into four styles:

  1. directing — lots of specific guidance
  2. coaching — more than average guidance, plus more dialogue
  3. supporting — those who have skills, lack confidence
  4. delegating — high on motivation, ability, and confidence

So now you know what your boss thinks of you. The point of the idea of leading by choice is that you can use this framework on yourself and use the leader/follower construct for planner/doer.

As we go through our day, different situations call for different approaches for managing ourselves. Goldsmith says we can use “a simple two-step: measure the need, choose the style.”

For things that matter more to us, we need less guidance — we don't write our goal down, because it's something near and dear we would not miss like going to a family appointment, attending an event we've been looking forward to — so “the planner is us delegates the job to the doer in us.” We get it done.

For other things, for example how we want to behave at such event once we get there so we can maximize the benefit and value of attending, well that may require more guidance and self-management. Doing things like setting goals, writing them down to remember them, like doing connective things at the event, or preparing to maximize the experience.

The three pillars of identity can and often do hinder us in taking the steps necessary to self-manage through closing the gap between the plan and the action — as individuals and as organizations.


[image via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain]


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