7 Ways to Lead People Who Don’t Want to Be Led

UPDATED: May 19, 2016
PUBLISHED: May 19, 2016

Leadership used to be a top-down, pyramid-style structure. The journey to the top was clearly marked. A student graduates college, finds an entry-level job sorting mail or going on coffee runs. They pay their dues, work their way up and in 15 or so years, they’re the ones ordering the coffee.

Today the leadership model resembles something like herding cats. People are no longer OK with the status quo and with paying dues. They want their opinions valued and their contributions celebrated. They want to change the company with their ideas—not 15 years in the future but now.

Related: Gen Ys and Millennials: ‘They Might Be Right’

So what do we, as leaders, do? How do we lead people who do not want to be led?

It starts with clarity, respect and these seven tips for leading the unleadable:

1. Stand for something.

If you stand for nothing, no one will stand with you. Many organizations have long-winded mission statements that, while eloquently written and momentarily inspiring, are ultimately forgettable.

Standing for something means every person in every corner of the office knows the company’s mission and values. They know it in a few words. They know it intuitively. It is a yardstick to measure their behavior by. It is something to head for and hold onto on tough days.

2. Create cultures of the willing.

If a leader can make members of an organization or business feel like it mattered that you showed up every day (or at least most days), then anything is possible. More than 70 percent of people leaving a position say one of the reasons was not feeling appreciated and valued.

If we as leaders can create a place where everyone feels their role matters, that what they spent their time away from their loved ones mattered, then we can generate incredible loyalty. Then their willingness to do more, give more and push harder is extraordinary. On the flip side, if all they bought into is a paycheck, they might as well be walking around thinking, How little can I do before I am in danger of getting fired?

3. Stand against something.

If we want people to stand up, we often need to stand against something. We call this having a noble fight. When leaders are rallying against something, people will rally behind them. The cause becomes bigger than the day-to-day fires. It always will.

4. Keep it fun.

No one wants to be led down into the mines. No one says, “Oh, I want to spend my life in a place where fun is banned and costs the company money.” If we want people to commit and follow us happily, then we need to value the things that help make people happy. Stop being a fun-sucking black hole under the guise of “serious business.” Google has made itself famous by building a workplace people find fun. You should, too.

Related: John C. Maxwell: 5 Employee Perks That Should Be Standard in Every Company 

5. Ask yourself would someone volunteer for this?

Take some inspiration from a business model that largely relies on volunteers. Notice how they create cultures where people willingly donate their time and energy. They are proud to help.

Your people should be proud in and out of work. A good test: Would they happily wear a T-shirt with a company logo on it for the weekend? If the answer is no, you need to dig a little deeper and look for something people want to help creating. Now unless you’re in the business of saving endangered whales, the voluntary desire might not be as strong. But it’s a good starting point.

6. Obsess about what, not how.

No one wants to work in a regime, so stop obsessing over how things get done. Worry more about what gets done. By trying to control everything, ironically, you end up losing control. People will disengage and begrudge you behind your back. Lead by giving them the discipline of a clear outcome, but the freedom to decide the road they take. Stop counting the seconds they spend at their desks, and start counting the difference they make while they are there.

7. Say good job and mean it.

It’s amazing what a little “good job” will do for your leadership. Say “thank you.” They will know if it’s disingenuous. Thank them specifically. Let them know you see what they do and that it’s appreciated.

Related: 10 Quick Tips to Be a Better Boss

A behavioral researcher and strategist, author, educator and corporate coach, Kieran Flanagan is one of the only female creative directors in the world of “Mad Men” and has won awards around the world for creativity and effectiveness. Kieran is a TEDx Sydney partner and speaks to audiences including the UN in Singapore and Coca-Cola. She is a passionate advocate for the commercial power of creativity and a return to more human engagement, cultures and leadership.