What is the Leader's Secret Weapon?

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Last week, I had the great fortune of speaking to a select group of anesthesiologists and Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) at the North American Partners in Anesthesia (NAPA). These physicians and CRNAs are service excellence champions that had stepped up and volunteered to help their organizations improve service and satisfaction for its surgical patients. They did not have any formal titles or authority, but they had to convince their colleagues to change the way they treated patients and to focus more on the service that they are providing, not just the technical quality of care. They also had to convince other clinicians to periodically log-in to an online tracking system that showed their patient satisfaction scores compared to their colleagues. In management theory, the formal leader has the responsibility to carry out tasks, the authority to delegate those tasks to others, and the accountability to make sure that the tasks were done effectively and efficiently. The service excellence champions at NAPA were informal leaders that had responsibility and accountability, but no authority over others.

In my talk, I emphasized to the physician and nurse champions that their secret weapon was influence. When you have influence over others, they want to do what you are asking them to do, whereas when you have authority, they do it because they have to do it. Leading with authority is like holding a gun to someone’s head: if you ask them to do something, they will do it. But as soon as you turn around, they will stop doing it. Leading with influence is making sure that people are convinced that what they are doing is the right thing to do, and therefore they will continue doing it whether you are monitoring them or not.

In the recent excellent book “How to lead when you are not in charge,” Senior Pastor Clay Scroggins argues that the most significant change in the world has been done through informal leaders, not formal leaders. For example, leaders such as Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela did not have formal authority over others. They led through influence and made others want to follow them. For organizational leaders that do not have formal authority, Scroggins advice is clear: “Practice leading through influence when you’re not in charge. It’s the key to leading well when you are in charge.”

In the talk, I argued that one of the best approaches of leading with influence is to combine kindness and compassion with accountability, so that others feel compelled to follow you. For example, I shared with the group the results of a study conducted a few years ago by Professor Mark Muraven from the University of Albany. In the study, Muraven and his team brought a group of undergraduate students and told them they were doing a taste test. They put the participants in a room where a tray of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies was placed on the table. The first group of the participants were kindly asked not to eat the cookies. “We really appreciate if you don’t eat the cookies. This is a very important study and we are counting on you. If you want to eat the cookies, that is fine, but please try your best not to,” the researcher told them. Repeatedly they emphasized that they valued their time and asked them for feedback on the experiment. The second group was brought to a similar room with fresh cookies on the table, but were treated very differently. The researchers were cold and detached with them, and they told them in a rude way: “You are absolutely forbidden from eating the cookies.” When the researchers left the room and came back 15 minutes later, they found that no participants from any group had eaten any cookies. In the second part of the experiment, the same participants were asked take to part in a self-control test in which they had to stare at a computer screen flashing random numbers and to press the space bar every time they saw some specific numbers. The first group, which was treated kindly and given self-control, dramatically and consistently outperformed the other group. The second group participants felt depleted, and many of them quit shortly after the beginning of the exercise. The main conclusion from the experiment is whether you treat people kindly or with authority, they will generally follow the rules. However, they will likely have much more self-control and will perform better in the long-run if you try to influence them with kindness and compassion.

Putting it All Together

Leaders who don’t have formal authority should lead through influence by combining kindness and accountability. This way, their team members will follow them not because they have to, but because they want to.

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This blog is based in part on my new book “Intangibles: The Unexpected Traits of High-Performing Healthcare Leaders,” recently published by Health Administration Press.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. If you are interested in my speaking services, please contact me at amer.kaissi@trinity.edu

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Amer Kaissi is a Speaker, Executive Coach, Author, and Professor at the Department of Healthcare Administration at Trinity University. For more information, please visit www.amerkaissi.com.