TWH#31: Commitment vs. Compliance
“When people are engaged, managing them is not necessary; when they are not, it is not sufficient.” — Fred Kofman
In his book The Meaning Revolution Fred Kofman defines leadership as “getting what can’t be taken, and deserving what is freely given”.
To illustrate this, he makes a distinction between a ‘father-manager’ and a ‘father-leader’. The father-manager wants his children to do their homework. He uses the well-known ‘carrots & sticks’ approach: take away the kids’ iPhones if they use them before doing their homework, and promise ice cream for dessert once they get it done. The father-leader doesn’t just want their children to do the homework—he wants them to want to do the homework.
The father-manager gets compliance. The father-leader elicits commitment.
Now you’re thinking: “Hold on a second. You gave an example of what the father-manager does, but none for the father-leader.”
That’s because being the leader that elicits commitment has no roadmap, recipe or algorithm to follow, no metric to optimize for. It requires you to wade into the murky waters of human nature. It forces you to accept that every problem is in fact a people problem—and that often you are the problem. It’s a lot of work. And it’s hard.
But is it worth it? Nothing gave me more professional satisfaction than feeling the energy and engagement of a truly committed individual or team. Seeing that spark in people’s eyes, the conviction that the sky is the limit, the selfless giving to others and to a higher purpose. Looking back, I wonder what made it possible, and why it’s ultimately so rare in today’s organizations.
The Myth of Efficiency
Two decades ago, Peter Drucker highlighted the fact that in knowledge work we don’t really know what the work is—it is continuously discovered. You talk to customers and learn about their problems and wishes. You test things out and learn from what you build. Unlike in a factory, there’s no blueprint. This remains true today. The nature of knowledge work did not change, the world just got way more complex.
If the work itself is uncertain, why do we keep striving for efficiency above all else? Why are we not tapping into the collective wisdom of our people to figure out the road ahead? As Drucker also pointed out, “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” If you’re a leader who tries to squeeze the last drop, that statement should at least give you pause.
Which brings us back to compliance and commitment. If efficiency is all we want, then compliance might just do the trick (and if you don’t comply, we’ll get someone who will). But creativity, flexibility and an entrepreneurial ‘can-do’ attitude? Can a person be prodded to think better? Can anyone be sustainably at their best without fully buying into what’s being asked of them?
There’s a trade-off between efficiency and creativity. To be efficient, you follow a strict, pre-ordained plan without deviation. To be creative, you can’t help but deviate as you try things out, and see what works and what doesn’t. Some of it will be crap you learn from. It requires being OK with running up a hill only to discover it’s the wrong one—and having the grit to run back down and up the next one. Inefficient, yes, but necessary to not die on the wrong hill.
The Inspirational Leader
Which leaves us with the question of how you can be the leader that elicits commitment and creativity from those in your charge. What follows are three ‘musts’ for “getting what can’t be taken, and deserving what is freely given”.
People must feel seen. We all care a lot about ourselves and our lot in life. We want to feel safe, and cared for. It’s human nature. Sadly, leaders often become self-centered, especially when the stakes are high and the pressure is up. That’s when you need other people the most, but it can’t be tapped on command—it must be nurtured, every day. Work backwards from making others feel like a million bucks. Not by giving them a pass, not by lowering standards, and not by accommodating their every wish. But by investing in them, challenging them, while showing how deeply you care. As Maya Angelou put it, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The mission must be worthy. We are programmed to give our whole selves to that (and those) we believe in. Many companies have an incredibly meaningful mission, but they end up burying it under the mechanistic language of OKRs, KPIs, net revenue, conversion rates and what not. Those play an important role but are no more than a means to an end. Keeping the end in mind, and why it matters, is the job of every leader in the organization. It’s like the old JFK story about when he visited NASA and saw a janitor mopping up the floor. JFK asked him what his job was at NASA and the gentleman said, “I'm helping send a man to the moon.”
The concerns must be aligned. Executive coach Khalid Halim talks about what he calls ‘nested concerns’: an individual, who cares about a bunch of things, who has a role in a team that has a goal within a company that has a mission. If you can’t line all those up, you have a person who is at odds with themselves, rendering commitment impossible. If you’re leading people, your must strive to maintain those things lined up at all times. And for that, you need to know what people really care about—not just assume you do. It is in that very process of discovery that trusting, powerful relationships are forged.
In future posts, I intend to dive deeper into each of these ‘musts’ and explore how you can put them in practice. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. How do you foster real commitment beyond compliance?