High-impact contributors are willing to take charge without waiting to be directed, but don’t hold on to power longer than is needed to solve a problem, says Liz Wiseman, leadership research and development expert and the author of Impact Players
Managers love a good handoff – that feeling of passing a piece of work to someone who will move it forward and get the job done. Ammar Maraqa, Chief Strategy Officer at Splunk, described an ‘Impact Player’ [the subject of the author of this article’s book, described as ‘standout contributors who create extraordinary value everywhere they work’] this way: ‘He’s a no-look pass kind of person. I can always throw the ball to him and know he’ll not only catch it, but also run with it and score for the team.’
Players who are trusted with the ball are those who are not only in position but also know what to do next – how to move forward and make a play. They are professionals who step up and do things without being asked. Ammar then described another staff member, operationally strong, but who waited to be asked before taking action: ‘He couldn’t work independently, so I couldn’t count on him to catch a ball and drive it.’
When a manager sees one person in need of handholding and another ready to take the handoff, whom do they choose? Who gets passed the high-profile assignment? Managers generally don’t choose the one waiting to be told what to do. In many ways, managers dole out the most important work not simply to the most capable but rather to the most willing. Much like a classroom, the person that gets called on is usually the one raising their hand.
Joya Lewis grew up in Muncie, Indiana, in a tough neighbourhood in this struggling city, in a poor family, and without a lot of support. As a young girl she made her own breakfast, got herself ready for school, and did her homework by herself. At 15 she had her first job, washing dishes in a sandwich shop. It was hard work and she had to move fast. But there were times when she wasn’t busy and would notice co-workers doing other jobs who were struggling to keep up. So, she started clearing tables and sweeping floors until the dishes piled up again. The manager noticed her initiative and gave her a raise. She was delighted but shocked, saying: ‘Oh, I’m just doing what is right and helping out.’ At 15, the first of several important connections was made: ‘When you took on more responsibility, you made more money.’
Joya wanted a better life, so she kept volunteering for the hard jobs and taking care of the responsibilities she was entrusted with. In college, she worked multiple jobs simultaneously but still offered to take the extra shifts no one wanted. While working at Target in overnight stocking, her colleagues would show relief when the night’s shipment was small saying, ‘it’s a small truck. It can be an easy night.’ Joya would unload the truck and then offer to do more. Her initiative led to promotions and quickly became a mindset of, ‘if I raise my hand, I will be rewarded.’
Joya still works for Target, currently as a Store Director of a high-revenue store in St. Louis, Missouri. She’s now financially secure but still taking responsibility for the hard jobs and using her influence to give back to her community.
Impact Players have a stewardship orientation in their work. They have a heartfelt desire to make things better – both for themselves and for others – and a willingness to take responsibility for making things happen. Many people want change; what distinguishes these people is that they believe they have the personal power to initiate change. Their fundamental guiding belief is ‘I can improve this situation’. This inclination to fix what is perceived as wrong, change the status quo and use initiative to solve problems rather than passively accepting one’s environment is what psychologists refer to as a ‘proactive personality’. They are, as Stephen Covey [author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People] put it, products of their decisions not products of their circumstances.
They don’t just believe things could or should be better; they take action to make something better. They take charge of teams, lead others, and instigate collective action. As Tony Robbins [a US author, coach and motivational speaker] bluntly said: ‘Any idiot can point out a problem. A leader is willing to do something about it.’ From our interviews with managers, it was clear the Impact Players see themselves as capable of leading, making an impact, and contributing to larger goals. Our survey confirmed these findings. Specifically, 96% of high-impact contributors always or often take charge without waiting to be directed, compared to 20% of typical contributors. 91% of the Impact Players were always or often seen as good leaders. By comparison, 14% of typical contributors were seen the same way.
Fluid leadership and stepping back
This brings us to another core assumption in the ‘Impact Player Mindset’ – ‘I don’t need formal authority to take charge’. While others are stuck in hierarchical, by-command forms of leadership, the Impact Players are practicing on-demand leadership. By-command leaders wait to be appointed from above and typically find it difficult to relinquish control when the job is done. On-demand leaders rise up when the situation summons them. They take ownership but they think and act more like temporary caretakers than permanent owners. They are willing to take the lead, but they don’t hold on to power longer than is needed to solve a problem.
The best leaders are willing to lead, but they are fluid leaders, rising up and falling back as the situation commands. It’s a radically different mindset than that of the perpetual leader – the career-minded manager acts like once they are cast into a leadership role and become a boss, it’s their role for life. It’s no surprise that people resist working with these managers and that organisations replete with this mindset become sluggish, ineffectual hierarchies. However, beware the other extreme; getting stuck as a perpetual follower leads down the same path.
The Impact Players we studied were able to step away with the same grace as they had stepped in and taken charge. They are versatile players who can both lead and follow, who pass the ball and share the glory. This willingness to share and rotate the lead role creates a fluid, on-demand leadership model that enables organisations to respond quickly, adapt, and sustain commitment for the long haul.
Consider two vastly different leadership models from the animal world: a flock of geese and a pride of lions. A flock of migrating geese flies in a distinctive V formation, which scientists estimate enables a flock to travel 71% farther in a given period than solo flight. In this formation, the bird in the front of the flock breaks the air, reducing drag for the birds flying behind. Eventually the lead bird tires, falls back into the formation, and another bird rotates to take its turn in the lead. But the benefit of the V formation works in both directions: the birds in the rear fly behind and to the side, creating a force from the upward pull of the follower birds’ wings that helps propel the lead bird. Contrast this energy-efficient approach with the leadership model in a pride of lions: the king of the pride reigns for life; however, the alpha leader’s life is typically cut short by the hostile takeover of a contending leader. It’s a model of leadership that may be fit for the savanna but is a dying breed in a work environment where agility and endurance rule.
In order to understand the role and effect that Impact Players have on their teammates, we can look to playmakers in association football (soccer in the US). A playmaker makes important passes and puts themselves and others in position to score and win. They control the flow of the team’s offensive play and use their vision, creativity and ball handling to orchestrate critical passing moves. These instrumental athletes can operate from a variety of positions on the field. Marta Vieira da Silva, the prolific Brazilian scorer known for her quick feet and ability to play off of her teammates, plays in a forward attacking position. Midfield winger, David Beckham, would find teammates making runs and deliver the ball in his signature long, curved, killer passes. Like da Silva and Beckham, playmakers often serve as team captain. But from any position, they make plays happen and are a thrill to watch and a joy to play with.
Playmakers, on the field and in the workplace, lead in bursts. Sparked by an opportunity for improvement and fuelled by a belief that they can make a difference, they take charge of the field and make critical plays.
It’s a belief system that propels them to take responsibility. The Impact Player Mindset is the pathway to leadership because, after all, isn’t the very essence of leadership the desire to make something better and a willingness to do something about it?
This is a modified excerpt from Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact by Liz Wiseman. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of Harper Business.
Liz Wiseman is the CEO of the Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm headquartered in Silicon Valley, California. She teaches leadership to executives around the world and is a frequent guest lecturer at Brigham Young University (BYU) and Stanford University. Liz holds a bachelor’s degree in business Management and a master’s in organisational behaviour from BYU.