Is the Sword of Damocles Hanging Over Your Head!?

by Dan Heffernan

July 15th, 2013

You can’t become a great leader by avoiding risk.  Damocles would agree.

Damocles was a “flatterer of Dionysius,” the ruler of ancient Syracuse. He admired the tyrant’s wealth and told him he must be the happiest of men.  One day King Dionysius suggested to Damocles, “If you think so, why don’t you try out my life?” and watched as the sycophant ascended and happily assumed the royal seat of the ruler. Damocles was enthralled with his view of the luxurious trappings and riches until he noticed a very sharp sword suspended above his head by a single horse hair. The flatterer blanched and hastily vacated the throne, which King Dionysius once more assumed.

To be a leader is to act, and to act is to take risks. Think about it. Is it possible to separate leading from risk-taking? A leader puts it on the line repeatedly, continually making the decisions that determine how the organization will succeed by addressing issues, solving problems, adapting and innovating.  They explain, teach, persuade, and get it done.  All of those involve action and action involves risks.

Some who aspire to lead have a tough time making a decision under pressure.  They tend to respond to risks by inaction, avoidance, or even reckless reaction, any one of which is likely to increase the consequences of the risk.   We have all seen a person in a leadership position who retreats into the most familiar tasks rather than the most challenging. The engineer prefers to check the accuracy of the fifth digit to the right of the decimal rather than getting colleagues together to collaborate on problem identification.  The former programmer delves into the sequence of a program’s routines rather than work with stakeholders to challenge project assumptions. Those familiar tasks offer the security of the person’s comfort zone. The retreat is evidence of a lack of confidence in taking risk to detect, identify, assess, confront, and responding to newer, less familiar challenges.

What is it these aspirants lack? Is it simply experience? Is it a lack of training, a lack of awareness?   And what makes an effective leader?  I’d argue that most effective business leaders have been inspired to lead based on convictions built through relevant experience and a mentor, manager or series of nurturing relationships.   And those who want to lead but instead retreat either naturally avoid interaction with colleagues or lack the confidence built through strong relationships at work.  Or both. 

I’d also argue that today’s dispersed workforce compounds this problem.  It’s easier to retreat when colleagues all work virtually; it takes even more initiative to build and sustain relationships.  As an HR, Leadership Development or Training Manager, you can foster relationships, build morale and common experience.  You are uniquely positioned to create a motivating, engaged workforce.  We’ve seen it repeatedly with our clients who simply deploy regular, cost effective virtual training sessions linked with project based action learning.  Time-spaced learning that pulls people together to learn and collaborate in the context of every day work.

The word responsibility is said to derive from Latin respondere – to respond.  I prefer an alternative etymology from res pondus – a weighty thing or a hanging thing.  Don’t let lack of action hang over your head any more, and don’t retreat from the challenges of a virtual team.  Get  your dispersed workforce engaged and learning from one another.  Damocles would agree.

Overall, virtual teams are very similar to traditional teams. However, communication and team building occur more naturally in face-to-face teams. Because of this, leaders of virtual teams should take deliberate actions to build in activities and practices that are vital to team success. This two-part, six-hour program will help equip leaders with the knowledge and skills necessary to lead virtual teams to new levels of effectiveness.

Leading Virtual Teams ($499 Live Online Workshop).  Register for an upcoming session.

Dan Heffernan is General Manager of Dale Carnegie Digital.

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