The Hammer

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to work with many leaders as they transition into new assignments either by promotion or by being hired from the outside.  In the not so distant past, I worked with a leader who was brought on board with a company to “fix” a department that was broken.  Do you know the old saying, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail”?  Well in this case, the department deemed broken was destined to become a nail.  The people and the work done in the department did not do well with the continuous pounding.  In truth, I do not blame the new leader.  He had advanced and been rewarded his whole career for being a hammer.  He pounded out decisions that knocked down great and in-progress work along with the mediocre.  The culture became toxic.

Let me be clear, a hammer can be a good tool.  It is just that there are so many other good tools.  And most people in the workplace, do not feel like a nail.

So what are the alternatives? 

  • Great leaders bring the complete tool box to the worksite. 

  • Great leaders choose a pencil (with an eraser) for one of their first tools.

  • Great leaders take time to lay out the plan.

A great way to develop leadership tools is to use the power of questions to gain information for understanding, clarification, and opportunities.  I believe a person finds what they look for.  An affirmative leader finds things to affirm.  Affirmative leadership is the most effective leadership I have seen.

What is affirmative leadership?  It is leaders who look for the strengths in the people, processes, and infrastructure.  They find those things; they build upon those things.  They ask, “What can I do that will make it easier for you to do great work?”  “What barriers do we need to remove to make this possible?” “Where can we strengthen our infrastructure so that we can succeed most efficiently?”  They ask and ask and ask and then…

they very quietly listen.

Next, after reflection, that new leader is ready to put the vision together for the team so if the hammer must come out and even if it is coupled with an anvil and forge, the team can move forward with their best work and brightest ideas.  They have been heard and they know they have a resource in the leader. They have a leader who will support them as they build upon what they do best.

At the end of the day, if a leader builds a solid structure that is “his or her body of work” and is proud, that is good.  If you are that leader, stay calm and carry on.  However, if you are a leader who is troubled by discarded, bent and broken nails surrounding a solid little structure that you are building and if you are not completely content with the idea that a solid structure is your end vision; stop, stop now.  Stop with the hammer and start with the questions.  Question everything.  Question with your heart.  Question with your mind.  Question what you see, feel, smell, taste and hear.  Did I say, question everything?

Through questions come choice.  Through choice comes creativity.  Through choice and creativity come compassionate humanity.  Because after all, you are not a hammer and your team are not nails.  It is not just business, after all.