Dean Croshere
Dean Croshere
July 2023

Lead from Desire for a More Confident Company

If you are a manager, leader, or anyone who asks other people to do things, think back. Think back to last time you asked someone else to do something.

What did you say? Did it start with something like:

  • I need you to…
  • I think we should…
  • I’d like it if…
  • I’d love it if…
  • Can you…
  • Will you…
  • I think the right move here is to…
  • What do you think about…
  • <Nothing, just a directive>…

Now imagine asking that person to do the same thing, but starting with the phrase “I want” instead. Is it hard? Can you remember the last time you said the phrase “I want?”

Fear isn’t desire

I gave Midjourney the prompt /imagine: What do you want. This was a result:

Midjourney result of the prompt What Do You Want? A woman with an apprehensive look at a desk covered in papers surrounded by clocks and distorted shapes

For some reason, Midjourney rendered fear. It’s apt. When asked what they want, people usually respond with the things they are afraid of.

The Five Whys is a root cause analysis technique for getting below a surface level understanding of any given problem. The technique is useful for understanding why problems are occurring in development, but it turns out to be pretty effective for desire too.

Often, when asking someone why they are asking for a task to be performed, they’ll respond with what they don’t want. Even when the first couple of reasons given are in the form of what someone does want, a couple of whys will get to what they don’t want.

  • I want you to stay late reworking these charts. Why?
  • I want to impress this client. Why?
  • I don’t want to lose them. Why?
  • I don’t want to lose revenue. Why?
  • I don’t want to lose my bonus, or worse, my job.

What a person doesn’t want is what they fear. It’s good to know and plainly state the things we are afraid of (out loud, if you can), but it isn’t the best basis for leadership. It is typically much stronger and more coherent to manage from a core desire than from an array of fears. After all, there are many things to fear, but a core desire tends to be stable.

Core desires tend to be something like

  • I want to launch the next version of my product before the next growing season. Why?
  • I want farmers to have a chance to install it before planting. Why?
  • I want to get data on performance. Why?
  • I want to improve farming behaviors to reduce CO2 output. Why?
  • I want to feel like I have made a positive impact on climate change.

A core desire like that often shows up in a mission statement, but then managers forget all about it and lead from fear or shorter term priorities. Own your desire and keep it in mind when making decisions. If you find yourself with simple desires, perhaps something like “I want to get a promotion,” then great. Own it! Maybe also ask yourself “why” a few more times though. Why do you want a promotion?

Hear “no”

Midjourney image showing a person at the end of a straight path before a gate. Beyond the gate is a glowing light.

It is scary to lead from desire, largely because when we vulnerably state the thing we actually want, a “no” can feel like a rejection of us personally. That sort of rejection feels like something to avoid on an instinctive level.

As with many of the things people instinctively avoid, it’s not as scary to hear no in practice as it is when we imagine it. There are psychological reasons for this, but the basic point is that “no” is good. We should hear “no” more often (I’m saying that and I have a 2-year-old child at home!). Not only should we hear “no” more often, but we should say “no” more often.

In fact, the best case scenario is to work with a team of people that are confident in sharing their desires and also confident in saying, “no.” A confident colleague is less afraid of saying, “I’m afraid” than they are of disappointing their teammate. If a colleague says something like, “No, I’m afraid that won’t help us reach our goals,” they have given you a gift. If you are in charge, you can still override them, but it is worth taking the time to validate and acknowledge their fears.

People that are willing to show up and participate when they can and plainly state when they can’t are the best people to have around you. The worst case scenario is for people to say, “yes” and then fail to fully engage in completing the thing they said “yes” to.

Only when everyone is showing up in their fullest and best selves and confidently participating in the future of the company can it really succeed. When employees and teammates feel they must censor themselves for fear of conflict the company will end up floating directionless. People will accept everything they are told to do, even the things they can’t and people will learn they cannot rely on one another. No one will be confident that anything will happen. Control of the tiller will have effectively been yielded to the loudest or the most afraid at any given moment.

In Practice

Avoidance of “I want” shows up everywhere. Readers of our newsletter will note that every issue before July 2023 said, “I’d love to hear your thoughts!” We just changed that to “Please hit respond and type what is on your mind. I want to hear your thoughts!”

I’ve been writing this project in between managing other work projects. Just today, while I’m writing this article, I used the phrases “I’d like it if” and “I think we should.” It’s hard!

The ask here is simple. I want you to try using the phrase “I want.” See how it feels. Notice how it feels to read my desire. If it is difficult or scary, then lean into that. Explore the challenge in yourself and use it as an opportunity to grow.