Helping leaders see supporting lines, not reporting lines

TreeHandOne of the most disturbing moments in my career came after an executive bid review meeting. In the review we discussed different options for bidding the work relative to how competitors would bid. There was open disagreement and debate about the best strategy. A junior member of the team held strong opinions as to how we should proceed. Despite ‘disagreeing’ with me, my junior colleague was respectful throughout the debate and comfortable sharing a different opinion in a room of senior leaders.

While I welcomed this kind of debate as an executive, the old guard of the ‘command & control’ model did not. After the meeting one of the leaders came into my office. He shut the door, looked at me sternly and said “don’t you ever let that happen again”. I was shocked as he continued to say it was completely unacceptable to let a junior member of my team openly disagree with his VP in front of leadership.

Unfortunately this experience is not unique. People all over the world are subjected to this antiquated leadership approach every day. There is a different way and it starts with leaders seeing SupportingLines, not reporting lines.

There are two types of SupportingLines:

  1. Leaders see direct supports, not direct reports.
  2. Support requirements between teams are visible, understood and agreed.

The focus this week is helping leaders see direct supports, not direct reports. Next week we will delve into cross-functional collaboration.

Leaders see direct supports, not direct reports.

When I first read “The Servant as Leader” by Robert Greenleaf I couldn’t get my head around it. It was so different than what I was used to. After I gained experience as a leader, grew as a parent and deepened my yoga and meditation practice the concepts started to make sense. I read it again. This time the penny dropped and there has been no looking back.

The supporting is more important than the reporting.

My breakthrough was profound. It was clear that I had grown as a person and as a leader between the first and second readings of the essay.

But I was still stuck. While Greenleaf’s essay is incredibly powerful, it is also challenging to read, comprehend and implement. It’s depth and brilliance becomes apparent over time. And then, just when you grasp the concepts another challenge emerges: “how do I put this model into practice?”

The true test of leadership: did people grow?

Greenleaf’s true test of leadership is “did people grow?”. He asks whether those being served are “healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous or more likely themselves to become servant leaders. People are inspired when leaders who focus on growth and development. They feel encouraged. Teams feel empowered. Helping people grow is a foundational element of employee engagement. This is a great place to start your SupportingLines leadership journey.

Command & control is a losing strategy.

In the example above, I was trying to empower a junior member of our team. I wanted him to see that his judgement was sound and opinions mattered. We won the bid. While we didn’t use all of the elements of his approach, his opinion highlighted a key strategic element that led to victory. The ‘command & control’ leader had it dead wrong … and he would have lost the bid.

In the next post I cover the second type of SupportingLine: ensuring that support requirements between teams are visible, understood and agreed.


The SupportingLines Institute can help you put theory into practice

The SupportingLines model offers your organization a complete, modern operating system. We inspire leaders and empower teams so that millions of people become engaged in their work. There are three core elements to our leadership model:

  • Help people grow
  • Help leaders coach
  • Help teams collaborate

If this resonates with you Join the Movement at to learn more.

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