When “Kathy,” a former client of Luis’s, got hired as a VP at a fintech company, she wanted to have an impact. She saw things that could be better, had ideas about how to change them, and was hungry to get down to the business of making those changes. She approached change-making like a crusader, driven by her passion for what she believed in. She expressed her ideas fervently, making impassioned speeches during team meetings. She fearlessly pointed out what was going wrong and what could be better. And as someone who was seen as not being afraid to “speak truth to power,” she adopted the role of advocate for less-vocal or more junior team members. While on occasion these pitches landed and led to short-term change, she was much more frequently frustrated at the lack of action that resulted. Worse, this approach made her increasingly isolated in the organization, feeding a vicious cycle that made it increasingly difficult for her to affect change.
In today’s fast-paced corporate landscape, most highly experienced leaders entering an organization are driven by a desire to make a significant impact and drive meaningful change. However, the approach they adopt in championing new ideas becomes the differentiating factor between success and failure. Unfortunately, when faced with resistance, some leaders become frustrated and disengaged or even choose to leave the organization. Research shows that this is particularly true for leaders who are hired specifically to be “change agents.” Moreover, the leadership training and research firm Leadership IQ found that 46% of newly hired executives fail within the first 18 months.
Recognizing the need for a transformative approach that would allow her to advocate for her ideas without alienating others, Kathy needed to shift her mental model from that of a crusader to that of a collaborative leader.
The crusader approach: Passionate but isolating
A crusader is a leadership style described in the book Built for Growth. The crusader embodies a passionate advocacy for their vision, values, and goals. Their decisions are guided by a set of core beliefs and values. They tackle change directly and forcefully, driven by a profound sense of purpose that fuels their willingness to voice their opinions, even in the face of opposition.
While this approach can initially instill confidence and self-efficacy as leaders witness the short-term positive impact of their ideas, it often proves counterproductive in the long run. The crusader leader is often perceived as closed minded, inflexible, and overly passionate. While passion can be a positive trait, it becomes detrimental when accompanied by predictable negative behaviors. Crusader leaders tend to:
- Speak up frequently and vehemently, sometimes to the point of dominating conversations.
- Interrupt others or answer questions with their viewpoint. In other words, they don’t always listen to understand.
- Be outspoken about their opinions, often pushing their own agenda without considering other perspectives.
- Exhibit visible and frequent frustration when faced with resistance, doubling down on justifying or defending their approach, often assuming that pushback stems from ignorance rather than a genuine divergence of viewpoints.
Are you a crusader leader?
As you reflect on your leadership style, you might recognize some traits of a crusader. Even though there’s no single reason why someone might adopt this approach, it can be driven by various factors, each with its own set of consequences. It’s important to be introspective and understand the root cause and impact of your leadership style so you can adopt a more balanced one. Here are some key indicators of crusader approach:
Leaders who are passionate about an issue may display behavior that can be misinterpreted as inflexible and defensive. They often have considerable expertise in an area. They believe passionately that their way is the best way forward, which makes them less likely to accept or consider alternative perspectives. This leads to exhaustion, as research has shown that prioritizing passion above all else can be ineffective and harmful.
You get frustrated by the slow pace of a particular change.
Crusader leaders see themselves as needing to single-handedly push hard to make progress, adopting a tightly focused approach and losing the opportunity to recruit supporters and collaborators to help make lasting change. Their sense of urgency is not shared by the group they’re trying to influence.
You’ve seen the crusader approach work in the past.
Some leaders default to the crusader style because they’ve seen its immediate results in past situations. They’ve witnessed how this approach can achieve impressive results, overwhelming dissent and driving to decisions — in the short term. But in the longer term, these tactics can backfire and undermine the crusader’s ability to achieve lasting change.
How to make the shift from a crusader to collaborative leader
A more effective approach to driving change in the workplace involves adopting the mindset of a collaborator. Instead of doggedly pursuing a myopic perspective, collaborators focus on building relationships, understanding organizational dynamics and reasons for resistance, and using this knowledge to advocate for change in a shared, strategic manner. Here are six ways to become a more collaborative leader:
Understand the organizational culture.
Whether we like it or not, how influential we are is ultimately in the hands of those we want to influence. And influence is highly context dependent. Instead of sticking to your guns and putting yourself out there without understanding the context you’re operating in, a better approach is to identify how things work in your organization. Look for clues about what works and what doesn’t. In meetings, pay attention to which behaviors are rewarded and which aren’t as effective. Watch the most effective leaders in the organization and consider asking them how they might approach a particular situation. Is their approach different from yours? When you understand the “rules” of the game, you’ll be in a much better position to play it.
Choose your battles.
Crusaders tend to advocate for changing big things — things that, to their frustration, are complex and require a winning coalition. And in some instances, the crusader isn’t the right person to make those changes. For instance, suppose you’re a manager at a software company and notice inefficiencies in both the software development process and the company’s recruitment strategy. While your passion and drive may urge you to tackle both issues, overhauling the recruitment strategy might be more complex, requiring collaborative efforts and a broad coalition to address effectively. Fighting the recruitment battle can lead to frustration, burnout, and an erosion of credibility if changes don’t materialize quickly. And most likely, the recruitment team will respond defensively to your initiative. Instead, focus your energy and resources on streamlining the software development process, an area where you can make a significant and meaningful impact given your expertise.
Others often see us more objectively than we see ourselves. Research has shown that people don’t realize how they behave in certain situations, or they misremember their actions, leading to an inaccurate perception of themselves. Crusaders, often consumed by their vision, may overlook crucial details or perspectives, leading to an incomplete view of the situation.
Be relentless about asking for feedback and suggestions to better understand how your approach is being perceived and what you can do next time to become more effective. This is a transformative (and often sobering) step for a crusader transitioning to a collaborative leadership style. It not only cultivates self-awareness, but also gives you a comprehensive understanding of your actions’ consequences, including potential negative effects on team dynamics, morale, and productivity.
Develop and leverage relationships.
It’s crucial to build and foster a winning coalition of individuals who can support your ideas. Imagine the organization as a heavy wagon that’s difficult to stop or steer in a different direction from the outside. Instead of trying to push or pull the wagon alone, leaders should get on the wagon and work with the drivers to steer it from the inside. This approach requires building relationships and coalitions within the organization to gain support for ideas and create a sense of shared ownership.
An easy way to “get on the wagon” is to align your ideas with other people’s as a way to gain supporters and allies. For example, let’s say you’re a scientist who is concerned about high staff turnover rates. During a meeting, a colleague from HR discusses their goal of increasing employee engagement. Instead of pushing your staff retention concern independently, you could propose a joint project that addresses both concerns — for example, a pilot program in your department that integrates strategies to enhance employee engagement that might reduce turnover rates. By doing so, you’re integrating your initiatives with the needs and concerns of your HR colleague, making it easier for others to support yours and their proposal.
Be open to other perspectives.
To gain influence, you must also be open to being influenced. Nobody wants to “negotiate” with someone who isn’t open to other perspectives and can only see the world through their own limited view. Instead, try to cultivate genuine curiosity about other ways of seeing challenges and solutions. Instead of digging in or restating your preferred approach, ask open questions of colleagues who don’t share your view and try to identify shared perspectives. While you might see a straight line between the problem and solution based on your perspective and expertise, others may not see the trajectory as clearly and will struggle to enact the desired strategy as a result. Even the right decision can lead to the wrong outcome if you’re unsuccessful in creating a shared understanding of how to successfully implement the change.
Focus on long-term goals.
Building lasting change requires maintaining focus on the long-term objective. Sometimes, being a crusader is warranted and appropriate, particularly when urgent action is needed and you have the authority to make a change. However, these situations tend to be few and far between. If you want to achieve ambitious lasting change, it’s unlikely to happen all at once, and you most likely can’t do it by yourself.
Confront your crusader self with these three questions: Is this problem mine to solve? Do I need to solve it alone? Do I need to solve it now? With this focus, you can apply the right level of long-term vision to the things that really matter, including letting go of fighting every battle along the way.
. . .
The need for change is inevitable in any organization, but the approach to driving change is a determinant of its success or failure, as Kathy, our passionate crusader, realized. Affecting lasting change is not a solitary quest, but an inherently shared effort. It requires embracing a collaborative mindset that respects and includes diverse perspectives, maintains a strategic focus, and patiently navigates the complexities of organizational dynamics. It’s not about surrendering your passion or advocacy but leveraging them in a more inclusive, strategic, and ultimately effective way.