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Leaders – Always “Put On The Button”


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TAG Senior Partner Jim Osterhaus has been a psychologist for decades and has coached hundreds of leaders and executives through his work at TAG. In today’s guest blog he tells the story of one of his most memorable encounters with a leader at a personal crossroads.

One of the most compelling interviews I ever had was with a man from Central Africa named Raphael. He was a tall, distinguished looking man in his mid-thirties who sought me out at an international conference in Amsterdam (I was part of a counseling/consulting group assembled for the conference).

I had an hour with each person to find out who they were, why they had come to see me, and offer some suggestions as to a way forward – a rather daunting task.

After exchanging pleasantries, I found out that Raphael had just become the “head man” of his region, an hereditary post that had been passed to him with the death of his father. His grandfather and great grandfather had also been head men.

I asked what a head man’s responsibilities were, and found out that he was basically the chief – the head magistrate and county executive all rolled into one. When I asked what the problem was, Raphael stated “I just can’t do the job.”

Further probing revealed that Raphael had been told by the region’s elders that he was too young and inexperienced for the job. This had led to a tentativeness on Raphael’s part which only confirmed to the elders that he couldn’t do the job. We call this a recursive pattern –  elders’ concerns leading to Raphael’s tentativeness, which confirmed the elders’ beliefs.

The community now was stuck, with a head man in a hereditary position he simply had to accept, but who was tentative and ineffective. Stuck leader; stuck followers!

I asked Raphael what was the symbol of his authority. He told me it was a button he was supposed to wear. I asked where the button was. He said, “It’s home in a drawer. I’ve never worn it.”

My intervention was to focus Raphael’s attention, remind him of his father, grandfather, and great grandfather. Then I told him to look at me.

“Raphael”, I told him. “You must go home and put on the button, and never take it off. You are the head man.”  He nodded his agreement, knowing exactly what I meant.

Often leaders come into new positions and because of a variety of reasons refuse to put on the ‘button’ of authority. Instead, they act tentatively.

This often happens when a person is elevated above his peers to be their supervisor. That new supervisor wants to still be ‘one of the group,’ and thus is unable to fully embrace the new authority. This leads to ambivalence on the part of those s/he leads, which causes those led to doubt the competence of the manager.

This creates a repeating pattern similar to the one that Raphael faced – tentative manager creates doubting followers, leading to more manager tentativeness. In these situations, I usually relate my story of Raphael, and tell the tentative manager that they must “put on the button,” and embrace their authority.

This does not mean that they have a demeanor of “I’m always right.” It does mean they begin to develop a settled confidence that they have the necessary internal tools and external resources (beginning with personnel) to tackle the issues resident in their jobs.

Jim’s counsel to Raphael is a great example of the difference a leadership or executive coach can make in the life of a leader. At just the right moment, the right question, the right piece of counsel can be the difference between a stalled career and one which goes on to new heights of service and success.

TAG has a deep bench of experienced, passionate, and skilled executive and leadership coaches. Click here to find out more and see if you are ready to take the next step in your own development as a leader!