The power of network leadership can reveal itself in surprising ways.
As work becomes more interconnected globally and across functions, managers will only be as effective as the teams they build around them. Increasingly, this means being able to see new possibilities in your team members that even they may not have been aware of. Identifying these hidden skills of a team member may create a powerful outcome in a vital moment.
To illustrate this idea, I thought back to what felt at the time like a pivotal moment in my young childhood. For context, I grew up in a great neighborhood for kids. Stuff was always happening and there were lots of other kids around, the overwhelming majority of whom were inexplicably kind to me despite the fact I was the youngest of the group. During summers, my mom could really just open the door and let me run out and play.
While the other kids were great considering the age difference, they did hang on to certain older kid prerogatives, such as choosing personae first during a game of “superheroes”. The littlest kid (me) picked last, so I always ended up with worse superpowers.
This was material. Think about the “Superfriends” as one example of how uneven superpowers can be:
Superman can fly, move at the speed of sound, and has superhuman strength;
Wonder Woman has an invisible plane, a lasso of truth, and amazing strength;
Batman had cool gadgets, a rocking car, and a brooding sensibility that women clearly dig;
and Aquaman, well, he swims and talks to fish…
In this context, it’s pretty clear that Aquaman could be replaced in the Superfriends by Sebastian, the crab from the Little Mermaid, without any net loss of capability to fight evildoers. Although the author of this piece seems to disagree.
Then One Day, I Snapped…
For a long time, I did my share of Aquaman duty. Then one day, I snapped. We were fighting bad guys in space, far from not only the earth but any of the oceans where my powers were relevant.
Batman was flying the plane. Superman was flying outside to fix a laser. Wonder Woman had captured one of the villains with her lasso of truth and was interrogating him. Aquaman was, well, obeying the seatbelt sign. I’d had it. I burst from my “seat,” shouted at the older kids and raced back to my house.
I ran into the kitchen, sputtering and crying. It took my mom a few minutes to figure out exactly what my issue was. (As a parent, I now have the same mental checklist: “Limbs intact? Yes. Blood? No.”) Pretty quickly, she realized, “friend issue.”
She let me blubber for a moment then said, “just use your superpowers.”
I didn’t quite understand so I kept blubbering, albeit with the short sharp inhales that suggested I was normalizing (“Uuuhh, Uuuhnh, Sniff”).
She said again “use your superpowers,” and this time I got it. It’s advice that served me well that day, and more or less every day since. I took advantage of the cookie opportunity my misfortune had created, and raced back to my seat on the spaceship. I sat quietly for a few minutes then screamed, “oh my goodness, we are crashing into the ocean!”
Suddenly my powers were really relevant. I got three solid minutes of land-swimming and fish-marshaling to keep the bad guy in our custody and get the spaceship back to land.
Use Your Superpowers
Now, I’m not suggesting that aspiring leaders should crash their spaceships, but I did take away four lessons from this advice and subsequent episode.
Know what your superpowers are: Not just what you are good at, but what your really distinct capabilities are. These change over time, and the bar goes up, so it is important to relentlessly measure, seek feedback and evaluate.
I’ve seen too many careers stumble because people didn’t possess the humility to learn, assess and grow.
Know the superpowers of your colleagues: What are your teammates uniquely good at? How can you use their gifts to complement yours?
Spot your team’s missing superpowers: What makes a great team? What specific capabilities and gifts do they need? Too often leaders have an insular view of their team.
Given porous boundaries between industries and business models, leaders shouldn’t look at past performance, or even competitors, but instead ask, “who is best in the world at what we are trying to do?”
Find ways to make your powers relevant: This was perhaps the most important piece of my mom’s advice. When a problem hits my desk, I spend a fair bit of time understanding whether my gifts can help advance a solution.
For example, I’m a “re-framer” – my gift is not solving problems, but, for example, in structuring questions that help others create breakthroughs. If my powers aren’t relevant, I ask myself whether I should be spending time on the issue at all.
Take a moment now to look around you and ask a colleague, friend, or family member about what they see as your superpower. And don’t be discouraged if they highlight your ability to swim. You never know when your spaceship will crash into an ocean.
Lately, I’ve been sharing my thoughts on subjects like talent and leadership on LinkedIn.