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Opinion: How to be more like Zeus at work

The Art of Covert Leadership

Posted online

Maybe the ancient Greeks had it right. Sometimes, the best powers are the ones used sparingly, and covertly, but effectively, and when necessary, boldly. Perhaps the 2020 New Year will give you the reason you need to start acting more like Zeus and less like Bruce (Willis, to be exact).

During “Die Hard” or any action movie starring Bruce Willis, he is never asked to simply watch the activities around him. Instead, he is always compelled to initiate some type of megachange. His characters take charge, and people know it from the first frame.

But in the real world, business leaders can take charge from the edges of the issue, not the center of it. Zeus, known to the ancient Greeks as the king of the gods, is usually depicted either tossing down lighting bolts from the skies or sitting on his throne, observing events on Earth below. One portrayal suggests action; the other reflection.

Being a boss means that you hold several types of power over your people. Actual power means that you control the activities of your employees. Economic power means you have control over their pay, hours and benefits. Symbolic power means they should look to you for leadership, based on your experience, education, job knowledge, and ability to think creatively and into the future. Having power but not respect from your employees rarely leads to positive outcomes, especially over the long term (unless you count low morale, retention issues and behind-your-back gossip as positive outcomes).

Some business leaders attempt to demonstrate their leadership by being too involved with the daily operations of their departments. They work in the business instead of on the business, in their team instead of on behalf of their team.

There is no need to get involved in every issue your team faces. Take a simple staff meeting and ask yourself, WWZD? What would Zeus do? In most cases, he would sit back in his chair and just watch the process.

When the group gets stuck on some issue, as they invariably do, he would wait to see if they can solve it themselves. If not, then it’s time to suggest a workable alternative, perhaps an illustrating story or an idea that offers an unusual solution.

When this unsticks the group, Zeus can lean back again and repeat the process: listening, watching and waiting for the opportunity (only if necessary) to provide another useful solution that supports the team by building upon what they already have discussed or attempted.

After the third or fourth evolution of this approach, where Zeus has said nothing other than the occasional comment that unclogs the creative or operational pipeline, the group members will turn, almost intuitively, to their male or female Zeuses, to look forward to his or her next idea. This is known as covert leadership, where the leaders know they are respected for the value and power of their ideas, as opposed to imposing their will or micromanaging the team.

Covert leaders don’t assume their people will follow them; they demonstrate why their people can follow them by being present at the meeting but not ruling it via the lightning bolt. Your people already know you’re in charge. No need to remind them by turning every meeting into an exercise in reverse delegation chaos.

The best leaders are the ones who operate covertly, by letting their people function, solve problems collectively and by observing the natural back-and-forth team processes where good solutions get discovered, debated and implemented. You can lead from a distance and all while being in the same room.

Steve Albrecht is a Springfield-based trainer, human resources consultant and employee coach. He can be reached at drsteve@drstevealbrecht.com.

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