As a leader, do you want to motivate people to work for and with you rather than against you? Rather than appealing to their materialistic motivations to motivate them, how would you like to help them develop a better core motivation, where they work with you out of respect and unselfishness? If you want to do this, I have 5 words for you:

The Buck Stops with You.

What does this really mean for a leader?

Think of a time when things went right according to plan. There are accolades and credits. If you are the leader and you are representing your team in public as leader, the best thing that you can say is that it was never you. It was your team. Do not take the praise for yourself. Succeed at pushing that praise down to the lowest levels of your team. If this is hard for you, you need to check your ego and realize that your desire for praise is holding back your ability to reach your potential.

Now, think of the exact opposite situation.

Let’s imagine that your project suffers some kind of preventable negative incident, and you are the leader of the 40-person team. This time there is shame. Criticism to be faced. Tongue-lashings to take. You take them. All of them. And you never blame your people for the things that went wrong. Because you are the leader. It is your responsibility.

The most common mistake that people make in this situation is to shift the blame to something else. They say, “well it wasn’t my fault you know”, it was somebody else”, “they didn’t do x y or z”, “I can’t control them”, “It wasn’t my responsibility.”

To that I say, you are being a weak leader. That is a mindset that comes from a place of being insecure about your job. Where you are motivated by how other people view you. It’s a selfish motivation that will rarely get the best out of others.

There is a reason why you are being paid more than others and are being put in a position of leadership. You are in a position to take on responsibility. Responsibility for everything that your organization does or fails to do. Notice I said you were put in a position, because real leadership has almost nothing to do with positional authority.

Why would a leader want to do this?

People frequently misconstrue this concept. They see this as a form of short-term loss. However, when the people that you lead start to understand that you will accept this level of responsibility their view of you will change significantly. Why?

Let’s say that your team has experienced some type of negative event. They know that they are the ones that screwed it up. Let’s not get it twisted. They know that they made you look bad, and they know you had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Protect the people you lead and put their needs above your own, and they will follow you anywhere.

Hunter Locke

Once they know that you will not throw them under the bus, that you will consciously avoid making them the focus of blame. They will work their asses off to keep you from having to take that tongue-lashing a second time. It’s embarrassing for them, its motivating for them and it draws them closer to you as their leader.

Pro-active, not Re-active

Now, this doesn’t mean that you don’t correct the actions internally. Of course, you internally investigate. You talk to the people that screwed up, and you do everything in your power to fix it. You help them to understand what went wrong and you make your expectations and standards clear.

But when you do this in a manner that retains their dignity and protects them. When they come to know that you are on their side. They feel safe and empowered to operate within whatever decisional framework you have set for them, without the fear of repercussions for honest mistakes.

There’s a great quote by Colin Powell that goes like this:

“When people stop bringing you their problems, you’ve got problems”

People need to know that it is ok for them to make mistakes. Sure, it doesn’t mean that there will be no repercussions, but they need to know that they are not going to be made a scapegoat for the organization.

Freedom to breathe and work.

While I was in the military, one of the most successful methods I could employ was to give people freedom. Provide a space for them to work. Do your best to give them guidance so that they can operate using a concept central to the idea of decentralized command – disciplined initiative. Require them to operate within these boundaries. Give them a left and right limit and ask them to exercise discipline and achieve the end state from within those limits. I alwats knew that even if they went outside these limits, it was still my responsibility. Trust is crucial.

Sometimes, it even comes down to this, “is what they were doing legal, moral and ethical?”

And that’s really the bottom line. If you are trying to do the right thing, but you made an honest mistake. If you weren’t doing anything illegal, immoral or unethical, then what you did was learn. When you run your organization that way, things tend to run a  lot more smoothly. People will tend to work much harder for your rather than against you.

Are you a strong enough leader to be able to do this? This means not accepting praise as a leader. Pushing praise down to the lowest level and never accepting it yourself. Always accepting responsibility for your failures and reaping all the benefits. The buck stops with you.

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