How long can you hold your breath? Better yet, unless it’s dangerous to your health, try it right now: hold your breath as long as you can.

I’ll wait…

How long did you make it? 30 seconds, one minute, maybe two? Before long, you couldn’t help yourself – you just had to breathe.

In fact, I could offer a huge incentive for you to hold your breath, but no matter how much money I offer, at some point you have no choice. Your body will force the issue.

The fundamental leadership truth you cannot ignore

There are only two things in the world that you have to do: breathe and eliminate waste. Every other behavior is a choice.

You choose how you show up to work each day: Will you give it your best or just occupy space and slide by? It’s a choice you make.

The fundamental leadership truth you cannot ignore is that if it’s a choice for you, it’s also a choice for your team. Everyone is a volunteer.

Show me the money?

You cannot force anyone to do anything.

“Wait a minute, David,” you might say, “if they don’t do their job they can be fired.”

You’re right of course, but that doesn’t change anything. They still have a choice about what they do and whether or not to remain on the team. Think about your own situation: to keep your job, there is a minimum effort you have to put in.

Oddly enough, I’ve never coached or worked with a single leader who wanted a team’s minimum effort. Of course not! As a leader you want motivated, committed, engaged teams. In short: teams that choose to give their best.

The path to engaged teams begins when you realize that everyone chooses:

  • If they will be a part of your team
  • How they will show up.
  • How much effort they will give.
  • How well they will perform their role.

How to lead when they don’t have to follow

This fundamental truth — that everyone is a volunteer — will change your leadership forever. Every person on your team becomes a gift. Every action they take is a freely given gift. Every ounce of energy they expend on a project is a gift.

Your work as a leader shifts from force to invitation, from control to influence, from fear to gratitude. You won’t lead to wring out the worst, but to bring out the best.

Here are a few specific tools you can use to begin:

  • Connect the “what” to the “why.” Work without meaning is a form of punishment suitable to prison camps. Make sure your team knows the purpose behind their tasks, the value in the organization’s work, and how their work makes a difference. If the work has no meaning — eliminate it!
  • Ask “How can I help?” Your team needs support and training that only you can provide. Make sure they have the training, equipment, and political support they need to succeed. Don’t do their work for them, but help them grow and expand their ability to problem solve by asking critical thinking questions.
  • Apologize when you screw up. Apologizing doesn’t make you weak. It demonstrates courage, builds your credibility, and models taking responsibility when you drop the ball. That’s what you want from your staff, right?
  • Maintain standards and expectations. Volunteers, more than anyone, need to know that their time is valued. When you permit people to underperform without consequence, then you effectively tell everyone who chooses to do their best that they are wasting their time.
  • Say “thank you.” Do you like what your team did? Do they know it? Do you want more of it? Don’t wait to say “thank you.”

Your turn

If you think about your own performance, I’ll bet your best efforts were not the result of money or a fear of being fired.

Leave us a comment and let us know:

  • How have your leaders brought out the best in you?
  • How can you do the same for your team?

Everyone is a volunteer. Lead with gratitude!

david m dyeDavid M. Dye works with leaders, managers, and supervisors who want to get more done, build teams that care and meet their goals. He is the president of Trailblaze Inc, tweets from @davidmdye, and welcomes your LinkedIn invitation.

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7 Responses to “How to lead when your employees don’t have to follow”

  1. David Dye says:

    Thanks, Chery – I can personally attest to the truth of it :)

  2. David Dye says:

    Thank you – I like your addition that leaders can remind everyone of their own power…and then tap into it.

  3. David Dye says:

    Thanks, Rick – and congrats!

  4. David Dye says:

    Thank you for the kind words, Aiden.

  5. Ahmet says:

    Inspiring, motivating and thought-provoking. Thanks

  6. Ankit says:

    Hi David!

    I have to admit, Ahmet says it all in a single line. Really helpful. Thank you.

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