I grew up growing gardens.  On one end of the garden or another, we always planted a row of sunflowers.  We usually planted them to protect the rest of the garden:  maybe to attract birds away from food crops; maybe to provide shade to some of the more sun-sensitive plants.

If you’ve never seen a sunflower, you should know that from above, they are beautiful, happy-looking, bright and cheery yellow or gold flowers.  From below, not so much.  The underside is rough and dark.  The stalk is thick and somewhat prickly.

Sunflowers look great from above. From below…not so much!

If I can use this as a metaphor for leader behaviors, I’m certain you’ve encountered leaders who look great from above (from the senior leaders view), but maybe not from below (the view from their teams.)  The result is usually fear.  The leader is afraid that their team will do something that will tarnish the view the senior leader has and might threaten his or her upward mobility.  As a result, they will tend to tighten their perceived control over the team.  This might take the shape of a directive that prevents the team from communicating with anyone outside the team, unless previously cleared by this “leader.”

These types of leaders are often very difficult to spot and coach from the senior leader view.  Every one-on-one interaction you might have with him/her typically results in the sunflower bending over backwards to make sure you’re happy.  And that feels pretty good from where you’re sitting so the camouflage works.  If you then go out into their work area (on a gemba walk for example) the team is so afraid of retribution from the sunflower that they will say very little, often as the sunflower jumps in to answer questions or ask what he/she thinks you want to hear.  So the defensive mechanism works and again camouflages the truth.

In compliant cultures, this leadership style is often prevalent, sustaining the culture through fear.  How can we see the truth?  Here are a few things to think about:

  1. Notice when your subordinate leaders work hard to be agreeable. Do they ask questions of you to clarify what you really need, or do they rush to say they can make it happen?
  2. On gemba walks, do they intervene when you ask questions of team members? Notice the body language of the team members.  Do they avoid eye contact?  Do they defer to the leader?  Do they subtly roll their eyes or otherwise disengage when their leader is talking?
  3. Do they go out of their way to emphasize the green on the boards instead of the red? It is human nature to want to focus on things that are going well, but in AMS we have to be able to see the problems with no camouflage.
  4. Do they blame their team or others for less than perfect results?

What then can you do to begin the process of changing this type of behavior?

  1. First and always, continue to show respect. Acknowledge the value they bring to the organization.  Acknowledge their skill level.  Acknowledge their contributions to date.
  2. Directly address what you see with the team. Ask them if they have restricted their team’s ability to communicate, coordinate, or collaborate.  Explain how this creates the fear and animosity that we are trying hard to dispel (Explain how this behavior is a problem that we need to solve.)
  3. Ask them what you have done to cause them to feel they have to constantly “look good” and if you can change anything about your leadership style that might help them come along.
  4. Ask them to specifically recognize the contributions of the team for anything that comes to you for review, approval, or recognition.
  5. Continue to work the connections with the team members during gemba walks. Hold open dialogs with the leader and the team then afterwards, ask the leader to model your behavior in dealing with their people.

Now for the hard part.  If you see yourself in the description above, don’t deny it and run from it.  Own it.  Then do these 5 things:

  1. Recognize this as a problem (not that YOU are the problem, but the behavior).
  2. Think through all the things that might be causing you to behave this way.
  3. Talk to your people and to your leader and ask for their help in defining one thing you can change that might make you more effective as a leader.
  4. Put that one thing on your Personal Development Plan and complete the rest of the process to make that transformation plan something you can follow.
  5. Let go of the need to control everything. Trust your team to do their best work, and continue to support them with your attention and respect.

We want our organization to improve and flourish.  Leaders who direct their attention toward their leaders instead of toward their people and their customers prevent that.  It locks us into the culture of compliance we’re trying to break out of.  To get the best work out of our people, they have to love being there.  Leaders can grow this or kill this with relative ease.


If you have any questions or comments about this topic, send an email to us.