The Most Important Leadership Lesson of My Life: What you CAN’T do!

Like many professionals, especially those in the Agile, Project Management, and Career Coaching worlds, I am utterly fascinated by reading about leadership of all kinds and applying sound principles to my life. I’ve led people both formally as a direct manager (aka person who writes those gawdawful performance reviews) and by influence in roles like business analyst, product manager, and Scrum Master. I’ve learned a ton from books, conferences, and the school of hard knocks about how I want to lead and be led. And if you ask me “what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about leadership?” the answer is EASY.

You can NEVER, NEVER, EVER make ANYONE do something they don’t want to do. EVER.

People challenge me on this all the time…..they say “of course you can make people do things! You can demote them, or fire them, charge them fines, put them in jail, or (in the case of kids) ground them!”

But I still stand behind my statement, 100%.

See, when people challenge this, they don’t explain how you can make someone do what you want. Instead, they share the many ways you can make someone’s life miserable if they don’t comply with your wishes – which is not the same thing at all.

Even if you take it to the most extreme conclusion – killing someone who won’t do what you want, as has been done throughout history to people who refused to renounce their religion, you *still* haven’t forced anyone to do anything – you’ve either broken them, in which case they decide it is preferable to live than to be killed for standing up for their beliefs, or they become martyrs.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider breaking people or creating martyrs to be hallmarks of great leadership.

When I first heard this lesson, it actually scared the crap out of me. If I couldn’t make people do things, how could anything possibly get done? What is a person to do if they can’t just force the issue? The answer lies in learning how to influence. A few of my favorite ways are….

  • LISTEN to people. Listen for understanding, not to reply.
  • EXERCISE YOUR EMPATHY MUSCLES and meet people where they are at, or perhaps a half step ahead of where they are at.
  • SHOW YOUR HUMANITY to the people you lead, and acknowledge theirs. It’s always easier to lead teammates who believe you value them as people first.
  • LEARN THE CURRENCY of the people you lead. For some people, it’s public praise and recognition. For others, it’s the knowledge that the work they do now will make someone’s life better. Use the information to help figure out how to motivate your team and engage them.
  • EXPLAIN THE WHY of your project or your request. If you have learned the person’s currency, you can factor this into your explanations and influence teammates that much more effectively.

In my case, I pondered this lesson for a while, and originally rejected it. It took me a few years and some leaps of faith and experimentation before things clicked. To this day, years later, I get feedback from the people who worked with and for me that I am one of the best leaders they’ve encountered. I won’t necessarily take credit for being *that* great a leader, but grokking the truth of this lesson has made a big difference in my world.


What do you think? Is Diana right about this, or is she bonkers? Share your thoughts in the comments!


Diana AltĀ is a connector and problem solver who loves to use her skills in sorting out confusion and chaos both in her day job as a Technical Project Manager at Ascend Learning and as a career and networking coach. Some of her favorite words are “grok”, “why”, and “kaizen” and she thinks that the notion of having a “work persona” and a “personal life persona” is, for the most part, nonsense.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn

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