Cut The Strings On Puppeteer Leadership

by placers on March 31, 2023 in Outside Insights


Cut The Strings on Puppeteer Leadership

Good leadership makes a world of difference. We want to align with good leaders or be one. This is especially important to job seekers who care about leadership in their next role with a new organization.

Leadership is one of my favorite topics to expound on and this week, I’m going to focus on some of my favorite leadership concepts:

  • What does it take to lead effectively?
  • What does ineffective leadership look like?

I would be remiss if I didn’t reference some of my favorite excerpts from Chapter 7 of “Opposite The Crowd,” the book I co-authored with my dad.

Leadership is teaching, coaching, and developing others. That’s how my father and I define it and have done so for the past 50+ years. Teaching, coaching, and developing are the core of our definition. 

Globally, company leaders thirst for the magic of employee retention. The magic is simple: Teach those who you lead. Give teams reasons and reminders about how and why they’re dedicating time the organization or cause. Be the leader who offers continuing education so individuals and teams can learn and grow. In workspaces, people have to show up for something more than the paycheck. (Placers, the staffing company I own, has an average employee retention rate of 9.9 years, according to Linkedin.)

What is the measure of a good leader in the workplace? If you ask my dad, he’ll say: “The only thing that determines if we’re good leaders is if our employees say we are. It’s their perception of us that counts, nothing else.”

Many leaders take on the role of a master puppeteer in an effort to control. This isn’t a good idea. Let me explain: When leaders are the puppeteers, they unilaterally rule – they pull the strings and that’s just how it is.

Puppeteer leaders make a “promise” when they pull the strings. As a result, employees are lifted. Pulling the strings, for example, may mean championing an idea or creating a vision that people support. If leaders fail to live up to a promised idea or vision, team members are let down.

Typical puppeteer leaders generally keep strings taut. This potentially creates challenges because the strings continue to be held clinched even when individuals and teams are at the other end – far away from leaders. Incentives, time off, bonuses, big projects, etc., are all strings these leaders use to yank everyone along. This situation isn’t really uplifting for anoyone in any construct.

In in this scenario, how do you think a puppeteer leader would be critiqued – anonymously, of course? It might sound something like this:

“Mr. Leader, I’m scared to write an authentic letter about your skills. I think I represent the majority when I say we love you, but you make empty promises. You get everyone excited about goals, then nothing happens – ever.”

A different response may read:

“You have private meetings and you act big. You don’t tell us what you did in the meeting or  share outcomes. That’s not OK. We aren’t learning. We want to do better. We want to do our jobs really well. There isn’t much training going on around here . . .”

Either version clearly reveals puppeteer leadership doesn’t work. The sad part is, it’s super prevalent – it’s commonplace.  How can effective leader wannabes turn it around?

It’s time to think “Opposite The Crowd!” My dad, Alan Burkhard, in our book stated:

“The leadership approach I want to discuss is really the opposite [of what is typically seen] – it’s Opposite The Crowd. In my preferred method, the puppeteer gets out from the top, cuts the strings, and all of them, gets down to the bottom and underneath their staff. Their core responsibility here is lifting them up — teaching them, empowering them. A true analysis of how they can grow is by cutting the strings.”

He goes on to say: “If someone asked me today what’s the number-one role when it comes to developing people, I’d answer with one word: TEACHING!”

In our book, he extols the need for leaders to be teachers, mentors, coaches, sages, and advisors. Alan uses the example of coaches who don’t play, yet teach teams and empower players to carry out strategies at gametime. Leaders need to be coaches who observe, follow up, teach life skills, encourage risk-taking, and ask what it looks like to be a change-maker. “They need to teach the value of information. Teach less limitations. Help develop interpersonal traits,” he said, adding that it’s impertive to “invest time in yourself and build your own system of beliefs” to become a respected leader.

Another of my favorite excerpts, delivered by my dad and included in “Opposite The Crowd,” further explains leadership:

“If you don’t know yourself, or have confidence in who you are, you’re not going to be able to lead people. Take the exercise of getting to know who you are, because who you are also becomes your leadership technique. Leadership is all about you, how you interact, how you understand human nature, and what your belief system is all about. So I would have them work on investing time in themselves and understanding their leadership thinking first.”

True to form, Outside Insights offers these recomendations for leadership development that enrich eixisting workplace culture and improve the quality of job candidates you attract:

    • Contact three to five recognized leaders and ask each of them for an hour of their time. When speaking with them, ask about their leadership philosophies. Most will freely share their stories.
    • Take notes. Try their different ideas. Find a mix that best  fits your needs.
  • Use their stories to expand your knowledge. Learn something worth teaching. You have to have to be equally dedicated to learning.
  • Teach teams something they don’t know.
  • Treat all team members equally, everyone is equally important. There are just different roles.
  • Empower teams. Learn to let go, delegate, and watch individuals and teams them thrive.
  • Be accessible, challenging, innovative, creative, confusing.
  • Push hard some days and ease up others.
  • Lead with grace.

As  a job seeker, what would you add to this list? What were stand-out moments from leaders in your life? Did you learn lessons from ineffective leaders? Write back and let me know.

Until next time,


If you enjoyed this article, I recommend reading these past Outside Insights posts:

Inspiration, Space, Discipline

The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (For Me)

The Importance of Knowing Yourself

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