There was a great discussion on Twitter today regarding influence, mandates, and leadership. My interest started with a tweet from Chris Venable, directed at Burton Group/Gartner EA analyst, Mike Rollings:
If EA is so important, why must it do everything through influence? No one ever says that to the CIO…
I thought this was a great question, and after retweeting it, a debate ensued around influence, mandates, and leadership among myself, Mike, Philip Allega of Gartner, Chris Lockhart, and others. In a nutshell, the question is this: Is it possible to be an effective leader without mandates?
My gut answer to this is yes, and I even feel that issuing mandates puts you at risk of being ineffective. As I dug into this, however, I realized that it’s not about the term mandate, it’s about the approach you take to providing leadership. Why is that the case? Look at the definitions for mandate, direction, and guidance, courtesy of thefreedictionary.com.
Mandate: An authoritative command or instruction
Direction: An authoritative indication; an order or command
Guidance: Leadership, instruction, or direction
I don’t see a big difference, do you? Yet, I’m sure we’d all agree that those terms are perceived very differently. Would you rather work for a manager that gave you direction or issued you a mandate? According to the dictionary, it’s really one and the same. Now look at influence:
Influence: A power affecting a person, thing, or course of events, especially one that operates without any direct or apparent effort.
The definition for influence actually mentions the word “power” which could be perceived as a negative, but more importantly, it goes on to state that we use the term more frequently when the power is imperceptible. This is where the difference lies. If mandate and direction mean the same thing, the real difference is when the leader can give that direction and influence the outcomes of the company without pushing so hard that it is perceived as something out of the ordinary at the time it happens.
An arbitrary mandate is like a shove in the back. It will be noticed, and it will be perceived in a negative manner. A justified mandate can be equally jarring, but can be acceptable in the short term. “I shoved you to the side so you wouldn’t walk into the huge pit of snakes that was in front of you because you were looking elsewhere.” The problem with both of these is that they’re “in the nick of time” decisions, and have to be jarring because there’s no other choice. The natural question then, is how did we get here in the first place?
This is where true leadership comes into play. Leadership is about setting people up to be successful from the beginning. That doesn’t mean that course corrections might be needed, but you set expectations early. How many of you have had an architecture review, or even worse, a performance review, where you were criticized for something you didn’t even know was expected? That’s bad leadership. Set the expectations and give people a chance to be successful. In setting the expectations, it must first be about the desired effect (note that nearly all the definitions for influence include either the word affect or effect) and not about the means. If it’s solely about the means, it becomes an arbitrary mandate. For example, “The desired effect is that our IT operational costs go down by 10%. We’re going to do that by consolidating redundant systems for X, Y, and Z.” rather than simply saying, “Everyone’s going to have to use system X from now on.” By not disclosing the desired effect, people will resist the change. By leading with the desired effect, you can also create an opportunity for people to come forward with alternatives. Where the effect is hidden, decisions become arbitrary or personality-driven, rather than outcome driven (see this post).
In a nutshell, set the desired outcome, establish a direction to achieve it, make course corrections as needed with an imperceptible gentle nudge so that it won’t be perceived as a mandate. That’s an example of influence, and that’s an example of leadership.