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Lighting the way - Are you a lamplighter?

In 1820 Paris became the first European city to introduce street lighting. Powered by coal gas flowing over a mantle, the lights were tended by lamplighters who kept the mantle in good condition and ensured the flow of gas was sufficient to create a strong, bright light.

Some leaders we work with are like lamplighters, others see their role as being the brightest light in the company. So, which are you?

The Myth of the Hero Leader

Many businesses admire people who step up in a crisis. Heroic individual action is celebrated and rewarded in the organisational culture. The “brightest light” leaders get promoted by being the smartest and working the hardest. They step in if they see a particular task is not being done by anyone else.

“Toll Ein Andere Macht’s” which translates as “Great, someone else does it!”

In our experience, there are three challenges associated with this behaviour.

The more senior you become the less likely you are to be able to cope. There are simply not enough hours in the day to do it all yourself. This often creates huge stress and at the extreme, workaholism leading to family breakdown and ill health etc. Situations like the Covid pandemic exacerbate the problem for hero leaders as they become attached to their screens all day every day and fatigue becomes unavoidable.

By doing it yourself you discourage your people from giving their all. This can create a vicious downward spiral where the more you do, the less they do, so the more you feel you have to do …

In a world where we are beset by both complexity and uncertainty, leveraging the different talents and energies of a team of people is the only way to overcome the obstacles we face. Heroic behaviour undermines team enterprise. Independence is the death of interdependence.

Collaborative leadership behaviour is nicely captured in the time-honoured acronym: T.E.A.M. that is, Together Everyone Achieves More. (Unlike the German version which speaks to the hero view: “Toll Ein Andere Macht’s” which translates as “Great, someone else does it!”)

What Lamplighters “Get”

The lamplighter realises that a 10% increase in the performance of everyone will far outshine a single light, however brightly it burns.

So, what does it take to be a lamplighter? Leaders who lead in this way make it their business to:

  • Understand each individual: what makes them tick, what excites and motivates them

  • Create a context in which they can thrive (the mantle)

  • Ensure there are sufficient resources (the gas)

  • “Light the fire” in each person.

Know Your People

To truly understand their people, the best leaders have a structured and conscious process to surface the reasons why they come to work and what their natural talents are.

Our natural talents, when deployed in service of what we are trying to achieve, give us energy. When we are energised, we do more and the more we do, the better we get. Leaders who know this make it their business to understand their own talent set and that of their people so they can deliver on T.E.A.M.

Create the Context

The more we understand about our people the better we can place them in a context in which they will thrive. When we understand their preferences, we can design assignments that fit them, and maximise their individual contribution. By seeing how individual preferences fit together, we can build effective teams and be confident that we have all bases covered.

Preferences include whether you are more of a people or a task person; whether you thrive in a flexible environment or prefer structure; you want to lead or manage; you like to focus on the future or deliver and execute now.

Knowing the preferences that are predictive of success in role allows us place people in their leadership sweet spot, whether that is coming up with new ideas and directions or focusing on operations and trouble-shooting.

Light the Fire

When people also have sufficient resources (staff, time, equipment, cash etc.) all the leader needs to do is “light the fire” in each person.

Having taken the time to really understand them, the leader can frame the assignment in a way that releases the other’s energy. If they are an achiever with a restless drive, for example, then present the task as a big, exciting goal that only they can attain. But if they seek recognition, the same task can be presented as a huge opportunity to become visible to a wider audience.

Long-Lasting Impact

We admire and are often inspired by heroic leaders, but the energy they bring into the room rapidly dissipates when they leave. Too often charismatic leaders look like they are making a big difference, but little evidence of impact remains after they move on.

Lamplighters, on the other hand, know that connecting others with their own internal energy creates sustainable and long-term motivation. They are the people that leave our organisations in better shape than when they arrived. They leave a legacy that continues to grow over time.

As one highly successful lamplighter CEO said to me: “I shall judge myself by the state of the company five years after I have left”.


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