A Question of Leadership:
What Does the Organization Need Me to Do?
➤ John Baldoni
One of the questions that all of us engaged in leadership
development have been asked at one time or another is
basic: What does it mean to be a leader? For years my
standard answer has been that being a leader means that
you do what is right for the organization and put people
into positions where they can succeed and benefit them-
selves and the team. This explanation still works, but I
have come up with a much shorter statement—actually it
is a question—that may be more precise and actionable.
As a leader, what does the organization need me to do?
Leadership by nature is straightforward; putting it into
practice is much tougher, especially when you are con-
fronted with two equally attractive propositions, or
“rights.” Harvard professor and business ethicist Joseph
Badaracco has written and taught about this duality for
His insights are relevant to leaders at every level.
The example that comes to mind is choosing whom to
promote, especially when the field of candidates is well
qualified. The easy answer is to put the best person for the
team in charge—but what if you have two “best” people?
What do you do if one is male and the other female? Or
one is a minority and the other is not? Many organiza-
tions opt for diversity, and an organization that puts its
qualified minority candidates into positions to influence
and lead demonstrates meritocracy. On the other hand, is
that fair or just to those candidates who are not chosen?
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These are tough questions that will require tough answers. The application
of our question (What does the organization need me to do?) may help shape
the ultimate and workable answer. The person who answers the call and
takes action is the person we call a leader.
Our question can be applied to a host of issues. For example, how do you
manage? If you are someone who likes to exert a high degree of control, then
you may be getting things done, but at what price? You may be logging
ungodly hours and wasting energy that you need for new projects, not to men-
tion unexpected crises. Worse, you may be stifling your team members and
preventing them from doing for themselves. By asking “What does the orga-
nization need me to do?” it becomes clear. Ease up and hand over the reins!
By contrast, our same question may prompt a different response in another
situation. Let’s say your company just bought a new manufacturing plant in
another country. If you are the operations guru, you will have to get on a
plane and ensure that the transition is smooth and that the new plant manage-
ment understands from the outset your company’s standards for operations,
quality, and employee behavior. These tasks cannot be delegated; the opera-
tions chief must be present.
The beauty of this question is its simplicity: it assumes ownership of an issue
by a leader and in turn what the leader will do to effect change or maintain
course. It squares the leadership proposition with the action steps and in the
process serves to create alignment around vision, mission, and values.
In determining what the organization needs you to do, it may be useful to
take a step back and ask a few more questions. Answering a question with a
question is something that was bred into me by eight years of Jesuit educa-
tion, a tradition that extends back to the ancient Greeks.
ANCIENT WISDOM, CURRENT TRUTHS
One notable seeker of truth was Socrates; he made liberal use of questions.
By raising questions, Socrates was able to gain information, provide alter-
nate points of view, and even poke fun. Managers can employ questions in
the same way. Asking employees what they are doing and why, and then
engaging them in conversation, demonstrates interest. Like Socrates, make
certain the questions are not used to bludgeon but, rather, to illuminate,
thereby bringing new understanding to the issues at hand.
204 Part Four Facilitating Change
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