Find your Leadership Umbrella


This week I was having a discussion with an old friend who was celebrating his 20th anniversary at work. Although the call started out congratulatory it quickly turned into a discussion about being stuck in a routine and not being able to change the “system” or the policy and culture of my friend’s workplace. All of this is resulting in my friend having a bit of an existential crisis!

Do you ever feel like my friend? If so, you are not alone. Many of us go through periods of dispassion in the work we do. This is sometimes due to our own intrinsic motivation, but more often than not, I believe this is a result of a bureaucracy and a culture that prevents us from expressing ourselves.


We leaders hold an immense power to unlock the potential of our colleagues! To do this, we do not need to buck the system, but rather create open space for those around us to be creative.

My business partner, Will Jacobs, describes this as providing a “Leadership Umbrella” in his most recent lecture at the Gartner CSCO Executive Forum in Hamburg. In his presentation, Will describes how he brought together a team of under-motivated but highly talented colleagues to launch a highly successful new product line.


You might say, “OK this sounds great, but how do find my leadership umbrella?”


To get you started finding your umbrella, I would recommend reading Dan Cable’s book Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do. If a book is too much to start, then Cable has written a succinct Harvard Business Review article entitled Why People Lose Motivation — and What Managers Can Do to Help.

In Cable’s HBR article he states that in order to understand why colleagues are under-motivated we need to appreciate the underlying biology.


“In order to get at the crux of the [lost motivation] problem, it’s crucial to understand that as humans we want to feel motivated and to find meaning in the things that we do. It’s part of our biology. In fact, there’s a part of our brains called the seeking system that creates the natural impulses to learn new skills and take on challenging but meaningful tasks.”

Cable goes on to say that we all are curious learners and this curiosity, or in Cable’s words “exploring, experimenting, learning” is hard wired in the biology of how we are intended to live and work. The problem then is too many workplaces are built on hierarchy and policy designed to control workers. These management systems constrain us from our natural curiosity and result in us shutting down.

How to address this, should we leaders “buck the system”? I think the answer is no. Hierarchy and policies sometime are necessary for industries that are highly regulated or systematic. Rather, this is where your leadership umbrella can come in handy.


The concept of the leadership umbrella is to provide a safe space for your colleagues to be curious and ignite their passion for work.

Going back to Cable’s article. He recommends focusing on three areas protected from the broader hierarchy and policies in your company: Self-Expression, Experimentation and Purpose. Let’s take these in turn and reference them back to Will’s example.



Cable describes employees need for self-expression as follows: “Employees want to be valued for the unique skills and perspectives they bring to the table, and the more you can re-enforce this, and remind them of their role in the company at large, the better.”

In Will’s new business line example, he actually assembled the team not based on title or tenure, but rather on skills. He asked all of the team members to describe the biggest risks to success of the launch then asked them to be accountable solve these problems, thereby bypassing the hierarchy.



Cable suggests that firms that make “safe zones” for experimentation produce positive results. He goes on to say: “Firms are more agile when they encourage employees to think up new approaches and try them out, and then get feedback about how the environment responded to their ideas.”

For Will, the whole project was one large “safe zone”. As a hard requirement, all team members needed to be reassigned under Will’s leadership and he built the team around experimentation. The team introduced the Lean Startup concept of Minimum Viable Product, or MVP for short, that allowed them to collect the most information from customers and co-workers with the least amount of effort.



We all want to believe in our work and be proud of what we do. How can we achieve this sense of purpose in the workplace? Cable suggests that we find that our “sense of purpose soars when we can offer insights to our team about the environment and what might work better. Likewise, we feel a sense of purpose when we can experience firsthand how our unique contributions help other people and allow the team to progress.”

Will, by empowering team members of all levels to be responsible for solving problems, actually is reinforcing his colleagues’ sense of purpose.


In the end, Will’s leadership umbrella unlocked untapped potential of his team members by providing a safe zone encouraging creativity. Then he provided a positive feedback loop encouraging self-expression, experimentation and purpose for everyone. This all was done inside an existing bureaucracy.


How do you provide safe zones for your teams to unlock their potential?


If you are interested in joining the conversation please follow us on our LinkedIn Business Page or at RPS.Academy.

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