Leaders Can’t Simply Demand a Culture of Employee Engagement

Posted by Rick DeMarco on 19 March 2015

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There are more books written about leadership and culture than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime.  Hollywood often depicts leadership in a manner that evokes images of a strong, powerful figure issuing orders and directives that lead the team to victory.  But the reality is that as we think about the most powerful leaders in our history, we’ll note that they all had one thing in common; they were able to inspire others to share in their vision and purpose and influence them to join the movement.  Leaders like Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, William Wallace (depicted in the movie Braveheart), Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi had no direct control over those who joined in their movement, but they had tremendous influence over them by enrolling them in their vision and delivering compelling and persuasive communications.

You can order someone to perform a task or complete a project if you have the title and/or power, but you cannot order employees to be passionate and engaged.  That’s not leadership; that’s simply compliance out of necessity!  A culture of employee engagement only happens when employees share and believe in the same vision, values, and objectives as the leader and behave in a manner consistent with those beliefs.  A leader cannot order someone to be engaged or tell them how to feel; he/she can only order them to do a task.  Think about those whom you have “chosen” to follow in your life.  Did you do so because you were forced into it or because they inspired you?  Now notice that I asked about those you have “chosen” to follow, not those you follow out of necessity, like an overbearing boss or controlling parent or spouse.  And as you think about those leaders, think about whether they were actually in a position of power or just someone who influenced others by leading by example. 

The same applies in the workplace. In order to successfully lead a cultural transformation and drive team alignment, a leader has to influence those they lead to change behavior and align that behavior with the stated cultural goal to achieve the desired outcomes.  He/she can certainly create the appearance of a culture of employee engagement by getting people to comply out of fear of the consequences for non-compliance, like losing their job. But employee engagement requires a passion and desire to go above and beyond the call of duty because of belief in the vision and mission.  And you cannot mandate that!  You can only influence others to join the cause.    

I have met leaders in my life, some in a position of authority and some not, who inspired me to take the hill!  And it was always because I shared their vision, values, and objectives, not because I felt forced.  Leaders lead with influence, not with control.  And that is a sustainable leadership model!

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