Leadership Articles: TALKING LEADERSHIP


A Feature Article from Gaynor Consulting Inc.
May 2014   |   By Dan Gaynor

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Soft hands

Regular readers will know that horseback riding is among my favourite pastimes and that it has provided me with a few good leadership illustrations. This month, I tap this inspiration once again to illustrate the reality that all the most effective leaders use positional power with a light touch. By contrast many poor leaders use power clumsily at best. The worst leaders use it to bully, intimidate or micro-manage.

The best riders learn to ride with what is described as soft hands. A good rider maintains just enough contact (pressure) with the horses' mouth to transmit instructions, but never any more. I am reminded of a riding lesson I took many years ago now when I was just beginning. The horse I was riding was cantering around the ring faster that I wanted and in my inexperienced attempt to slow him down, I was pulling on the reins. It seemed the harder I pulled, the faster the horse ran. I heard my instructor tell me to ease off - to pull in short bursts with a release of pressure in between. It seemed counter intuitive but I gave it a try. Within two or three short pulls the horse slowed down in response to my now somewhat more skillful approach. I now know that when a rider pulls constantly the horse will pull right back resisting the pressure. Leaders who use too much power get much the same response. No one likes heavy handed leadership.

It seems to me that leaders who "pull constantly," who use their power excessively, get much the same response. Beyond slowing horses down the best riders learn to ride with soft hands, in all circumstances, never using more pressure than is necessary. This is what horses respond best to. With a light touch the horse relaxes and becomes far more attentive and responsive. Horses can be similar to people insofar as most people respond best to leaders who use authority with a light touch.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against leaders using formal positional power when it's called for. Every good organization has a sense of order about it and a set of rules that must be enforced to ensure people enjoy their time at work and are able to do their best work. When someone steps offside, like treating a colleague badly, a good leader will do something to correct the behaviour. It takes authority to penalize people for doing the wrong things and reward them for doing the right things. Leaders must also use authority to ensure there is accountability and to make sure the workplace is fair for everyone. Good leaders use power to shape values, promoting the right ones and correcting the wrong ones. If the leader doesn't step into these situations who will? These are examples of power used responsibly in support of the team and its mission. Power is an essential leadership tool, but like any other tool, it must be used skillfully.

So how does one use power with soft hands? When you must correct a problem act immediately and use only as much power as you need to achieve the correction that's necessary. As soon as you get the correction, ease off.

As you progress up the leadership ranks it becomes even more important to use power well. With each move up the chain of command you acquire more power and the consequences of using it well and poorly is amplified. Learn to use power well, with soft hands, and you create a high performing and satisfying workplace for everyone.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you believe to be among the most harmful uses of power?
  2. When a leader fails to correct values problems when they become apparent what are the consequences?

To go deeper on leadership call or write about a half day workshop or a keynote address.

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A Feature Article from Gaynor Consulting Inc.
May 2014   |   By Dan Gaynor


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Fearless Humility, August 2015

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