The Joy of Flying to Heights and Distances Previously Unimaginable

By Richard Sheridan

After centuries of trying and failing, we finally discovered the relevant principles of powered flight and, in just a few short years, we were able to fly to heights and distances that were previously unimaginable, even for those who invented the airplane.

Companies and teams want to fly

My managerial and leadership career that began in my 20’s and 30’s felt like the equivalent of strapping feathered wings to my arms every day while trying to get the teams I was leading off the ground. I would come home tired from the effort and mentally exhausted from the lack of results. By my mid-30’s I was burning out. I was convinced there had to be a better way. My optimism was fueled by authors like Tom Peters and Peter Drucker. Their books convinced me that the pursuit of joy in business was a worthy and practical pursuit.

A company that discovers the relevant principles of organizational flight can also fly to heights and distances that were previously unimaginable and, in doing so, can experience the business value of joy. By simple analogy, an airplane whose weight exceeds its lift capacity will never get off the ground. The weight of a human organization can be measured in disengagement statistics. If 80 per cent of a company’s workforce is disengaged, the remaining 20 per cent cannot lift the organizational aircraft off the ground. 

If we could swap those numbers, imagine the possibilities. 

Your Why is essential, but the How is a close second

Simon Sinek famously exhorted Start with Why, but after you understand your Why, you must consider your How. This is why organizational design is so important.

The Principles

Let’s take a look at a plane and compare the forces and principles of flight to those of a human organization.

A plane has four basic forces at work: lift, weight, thrust, and drag.

The positive forces of lift and thrust are what get the airplane off the ground and flying towards the destination. The counter forces of weight and drag are unavoidable. Yet, we can, through proper design, minimize them. If we think of our human organizations in this same way, we can understand what lifts our team, what weighs them down, what propels us to a worthy destination, and what produces drag.

Let’s look at each of these individually.

The Thrust of Purpose

People are naturally inclined to work together in teams, particularly when that work is focused on a worthy external goal. When we speak of joy at my company, we believe that joy comes to teams by having great and authentic answers to these questions:

• Who do we serve?

• What would delight look like for them?

By focusing on the delight of others, we derive a deep sense of satisfaction and thus feel a meaningful sense of worth about our hard work. Our job as leaders is to fully communicate the shared sense of worthy purpose of our organization. 

Our Thrust of Purpose is defined by our Why. 

Lift of Human Energy

We must consider as leaders that the human energy of our teams is something that should be guarded, protected and nurtured. At our company, we do many things to lift the energy of our team. Our work processes do not expect multi-tasking, then program it out of the equation. You and a pair partner (yes, we work in pairs) are allowed to focus on a single task until you get it done. If you get stuck, you can suspend that work and move on to another task already outlined. In this way, two elements of our culture feed the energy of our team:

• Sufficient time is provided to get meaningful things DONE

• An elimination of the waste of waiting.

All teams can get work done, whether energized or not. Most would agree that high-energy teams get more and better work done. 

The Weight of Bureaucracy

If every decision requires a meeting, a committee, an approval or a policy check, your organizational plane will never get off the ground. The weight of this approach will counter any other human energy you have mustered. Eventually this weight will destroy any motivation to fly because it will be clear to everyone that flight isn’t possible because no one has ever seen it occur.

Meeting overload, email boxes impossibly filled with URGENT messages, multi-step approval systems for even trivial purchases will add weight to a team that cannot be overcome. The lack of trust these systems portray is evident to everyone.

As leaders we must consider the standard processes and procedures we use to “manage” our teams and ask the questions:

• Is it necessary, really necessary?

• Does is slow things down?

• Does it communicate that we don’t trust our people?

The Drag of Fear

I was taught to lead in my earliest days by trying to motivate others with fear. It didn’t work for me when I was being led in this way, and it never worked when I was elevated into leadership. It was, however, the only example I knew, so I mimicked it in my early leadership days. 

Fear is present in so many management systems it is likely hard to imagine its absence:

• The dreaded annual performance review

• Cutting the lowest 10 per cent of the ranked workforce

• Most in the company only “Meeting Expectations” when given a review

• A zero-sum game economic reward system where the more I give to one person, the less I give to another

• The public elevation of individual heroes over team achievement

• Courtyards, palaces, and high-floors in office towers for top leaders

• Gatekeepers for bosses who have declared they have an open-door policy

Fear steals away the most human part of us because when we are afraid, we scale back our humanity to our primitive reptile brain, and then we lose the most important element of our teams, the part where we can express the most human qualities: creativity, innovation, invention and imagination. 

The Payoff

If our organizational aircraft is properly balanced and designed, we can fly to heights and distances that were previously unimaginable. In doing so, the amazing benefit is that the work of leadership is lessened dramatically. 

With joy as your fuel, I wish you a safe and happy flight to wherever you are going. 

Richard Sheridan is CEO of Menlo Innovations, author of Joy, Inc. and Chief Joy Officer.