If the key to joy at work is the freedom to make decisions that matter to the organization, then the key to good organizational leadership is restraint in making decisions of importance. This is easier in theory than in practice. From my early childhood I was encouraged to be decisive. My mother helped me start little businesses that honed my decision-making ability. When I was a quarterback in high school, my coach allowed me to call all my own plays. I held numerous leadership roles during my school years. Then I attended Harvard Business School, where the case method teaches students about decision making. I was good at making decisions, and this ability was affirmed many times at school and at work. I enjoyed taking responsibility and living with the consequences.
Then came AES, an energy company with 40,000 employees in 31 countries and revenues of $8.6 billion, and the realization that this enjoyment should be spread around. I came to understand that as co-founder and later as CEO, I had to adopt a leadership style that left most of the important decisions to others. I tried to make my attitude reflect Max De Pree’s admonition that leaders should introduce employees as the “people I serve.” I had to find a way to remind myself daily that giving up many of my executive powers was essential to the goal of creating a fun workplace.
My objective is not to explain what it takes to lead people in a positive direction. Scores of books explain it better than I can. My focus is to show how a leader can make principles and values, especially fun or joy, a significant part of an organization’s definition of success. My views may not get high marks from many top executives. Few embrace the central organizational principles I advocate, especially giving up power.
One of the most difficult lessons I have had to learn is that leadership is not about managing people. People are not resources or assets to be managed. Nor is leadership about analyzing issues and making big decisions. Leadership is about the leader’s character, not his or her skills. Jerry Leachman, a former linebacker for Bear Bryant at Alabama and leader of my men’s Bible study group, says, “Good leadership starts with a person’s character.” The most important character traits of a leader who embraces the principles and values championed in this book are humility; the willingness to give up power; courage; integrity; and love and passion for the people, values, and mission of the organization. Leaders must realize that character is transparent to those around us. People “catch” character, virtue, and values by observing and practicing “right” behaviors and actions, and making them habits. The people who work for us absorb our character in both positive and negative ways. They are not fooled even if we try to cover up our flaws. We are an open book.
Humility and courage in a leader allows for the most important aspect of the leadership style introduced in Joy at Work, letting subordinates make important decisions. The exercise of power validates big titles and high salaries. When executives give power away, they often feel insecure, as if they are not doing their jobs. In fact, they are meeting the highest requirements of their jobs when they delegate decisions to subordinates. Not only are decisions being made by the people who are most familiar with the facts, but the act of making them gives more people a real stake in the organization’s performance. People then feel needed and valued because they are needed and valued. When a leader acts in a manner that assumes he is the best decision maker—in other words, the most knowledgeable and responsible member of a group—everyone else feels extraneous.
It takes courage for a leader to delegate and free his or her people to act, exercising their natural gifts and fulfilling their potential. These Leaders show passion for their subordinates creating dynamic, rewarding, enjoyable workplaces, by loving people, love spending time with them, and love affirming that they are worthy and important.
Integrity is another important characteristic in building joy at work. Integrity implies a reasonable consistency between beliefs and actions. I once worked with a board member who was very bright, experienced, and dedicated. But he was often dismissed by colleagues because he continually changed his position on important issues for no logically articulated reason. For example, he would make a statement to one person and say something totally different to someone else. Leaders who act in this manner are not trusted. They might be tolerated because of their position, but subordinates will most likely follow out of necessity, not out of respect. It is not a fun way to work.
At AES, we chose “integrity” as one of the company’s shared values, but not because it would get us ahead of the competition or improve our image. We chose it simply because it has a moral consistency that carries over to the way we treat our people and operate our businesses. The traits of good leaders—humility, courage, love, passion, and integrity—are essential to the roles they play in the workplace.
I believe that leaders have three main roles. They are responsible for interpreting the organization’s shared values and principles. They are senior advisers to everyone in the organization. And they are the collective conscience, pushing the organization to reach its goals and live up to its ideals.
The idea that top executives or financial experts should make key decisions is so ingrained in our corporate cultures that it is nearly impossible for leaders to delegate important roles and decisions. Leaders who want to increase joy and success in the workplace must learn to take most of their personal satisfaction from the achievements of the people they lead, not from the power they exercise.