My Thoughts on Potluck Leadership

Sirpa PietikäinenThere are no bad employees. There are only bad leaders and, as a consequence, employees, who are not in the right job. It’s the leader’s responsibility to see, if someone is in the wrong place, and draw the necessary conclusions.

Most of all good leadership is about the ability and will to recognize the different skills and potential of people.

In the early days, leadership – as well as sports coaching – focused on just the opposite: recognizing the mistakes people made. Plenty of time was used to find out, which areas should be developed further. The intent was good but results were usually devastating.

You still can’t use the long division, Cooper test didn’t go that well and you yet again forgot your biology text book home – that’s why you’ll get extra homework, you’ll run the test again and get grounded for forgetting the text book. If a teacher always reminds a person of her weaknesses, in the worst case scenario the person will eventually lose her courage to try.

Good leader, teacher or coach recognizes person’s strengths and gives her opportunities to develop fast in the areas she’s good at. Of course you will have to develop also the skills you’re not naturally talented in, but the level of ambition can be lower.

Allowing mistakes is essential for good leadership. It takes a lot of courage to train also your weaker sides and step away from the famous comfort zone. It takes also courage from the leader to accept the fact that mistakes will be made during the journey. Work culture allowing mistakes also encourages people to be open about failures. If people at your workplace start to cover up their mistakes, the destructive side effects easily recur. Besides, you learn by making mistakes. You will never learn a new skill if you don’t first try it.

I dare to make a rough generalization: women are usually more capable of building these kinds of organizations. It’s not innate, yet it’s the consequence of how women in our society are brought up to fit a certain role, and an essential part of that role is listening to people. As our society tends to raise women as good listeners, they are often apt to apply a leadership tactic I like to call Potluck Leadership.

Potluck Leadership is about building self-guided units. When one of these units decides to, for instance, throw a party, there is no need for one tough manager, who’s in charge of organizing the event with checklists and strict instructions; the party gets done without the manager. Instead, people talk to and listen to each other.

Someone says she’ll bring the cake, other one will take care of the salad and the third one informs everyone about her excellent skills in making fruit punch. People organize themselves, which means that everyone’s strengths are honored. Even though the leader would think that instead of a shrimp salad, we’d definitely have to make a chicken salad, she has to be patient and accept that her own opinion is not the holy truth. The leader takes care of the big picture: the main thing is that the party will be organized and there will be something to eat and drink. When it comes to the details, those should be left for the employees to take care of and the leader should trust that there will be a party – maybe it’s not exactly the same as it would’ve been if you had organized everything yourself, but it will still be as good as ever.

It’s not easy. Leadership, at best, is organizing success; you provide people with opportunities to do things their own way and help them to find and develop their own strengths.

This will result in more agile organizations – and better parties.

The writer is a Member of the European Parliament.