Tom, vice president of engineering for a mid-size software startup, was talking with Tony, his chief technology officer.
“I really liked that seminar you recommended,” Tom told Tony.
“I’m glad you found it useful. It’s massively shifted the way I approach my life.”
“I’m on board with just about everything the presenters taught. One thing, though, keeps sticking in my craw: several times, they mentioned leveraging other people to achieve our goals. That’s the opposite of what I try to do.”
Tony raised his eyebrow questioningly. “Really? I’d’ve thought it’s most of how you get things done.”
If we work with other people, we leverage them
“What do you have against using others to accomplish what you want?”
“You said it: ‘using.’ I don’t want to use people. I want to partner with them.”
“What’s the difference, to you?”
“It’s…uhh…hmm….” Tom considered Tony’s question for a bit. “My intent, I guess?”
“Sounds like you’re not exactly certain.”
“Well, I was ‘til you asked me,” Tom smiled ruefully.
“So, if the presenters at the seminar had talked about partnering with other people, rather than leveraging them, to achieve your goals, you would have been on board?”
“You’re not the first person I’ve had this conversation with. Use is often confused with abuse. When you look use up in the dictionary, however, it’s defined as ‘take, hold, or deploy (something) as a means of accomplishing a purpose or achieving a result; employ.’”
Tom used his phone to check Tony’s assertion. “Huh, you’re right.” Then, a moment later, “And, that’s not the word the presenters used, anyway. They always said ‘leverage.’ I wonder why I made that transposition in my mind?”
“An excellent question.”
We have teams specifically to leverage their work
“Why did you say you’d’ve thought leveraging other people is most of how I get things done?” Tom asked.
“Well, isn’t it?”
“I certainly don’t feel like I spend my day delegating.”
Tony quirked his eyebrow again, but didn’t say anything.
“Well, okay. I spend a lot of my day handing work off to other people. And, I’ve permanently delegated a whole lot of work to others. That’s why I have a team, after all: to do all the work I don’t have time to do.”
“If you did have time to do all that work, would you want to?”
“Some of it. I do miss getting my hands dirty coding. But then, every time I do take a stab at coding again, I remember all the reasons I stopped. So, no, not really. I’ve kept the work I want to do and divested everything else.”
“So, you do, in fact, spend your day leveraging other people to achieve your goals?”
“I guess I do. Except when they ask me to make decisions they’re perfectly capable of making themselves.”
“That is maybe a separate conversation. Also, that’s an example of them leveraging you to achieve their goals.”
Tom started to ask Tony what he meant, then stopped. “Huh. I never thought about it that way. But, you’re right. Those conversations are always about wanting someone else to take responsibility for a decision they don’t feel comfortable taking responsibility for themselves.”
Every business leverages other people
“Funny to see that turned back on me,” Tom continued. “Them using me to accomplish their goals.”
“That’s what business—and life—is all about,” Tony said. “None of us are hermits, as much as we might sometimes wish we were. Even the most self-sufficient of us depends on others in some fashion. Especially in business. Unless we’re going to sell only to ourselves. Which doesn’t tend to bring in much income.”
“I’m starting to understand what they were saying at the seminar,” Tom said thoughtfully. “If I want to focus on the work I love, I must ask other people to do everything else.”
“And, as it happens, everything you don’t love doing, is something somebody else does love doing.”
“So, if I don’t let them do it for me, I’m preventing them from doing the work they want to do.”
Tony nodded his head in agreement.
Uncommon leaders leverage everyone’s happy
“I guess I had such a violent reaction to ‘leveraging other people’ because I perceived that as a one-way power dynamic. I get all the happy, and they get all the sad. But, that’s not true at all. We each get all the happy,” Tom realized.
“In a healthy team, that’s correct. Which, unfortunately, doesn’t mean that some leaders don’t turn their leveraging of their people into abuse. Those kinds of leaders, however, don’t tend to ask the questions you’re asking.”
“Still, I think I’ll ask my team where I might be abusing them rather than using them. If there are any, I want to know.”
“And that’s why your people are so loyal. They know your goal is to optimize their happy along with yours.”