An executive I work with was telling me recently how his boss, the CEO, made a significant announcement to the whole executive team. The announcement came as a surprise to him and others on the team. He told me how he wished the CEO had consulted with him in the process of putting together his plan that he had announced. He saw a couple significant holes in the CEO’s plan that he probably would have been able to help his boss avoid.
But, as far as he could tell, the CEO had not asked for input prior to announcing his plan. And even after the announcement, the CEO did not express interest in input from his team.
This executive was now faced with the question of whether to point out the holes in his boss’s plan or just ignore them and hope for the best. Was the CEO going to be receptive to constructive critique of his plan now that he had announced it to everyone? The right thing for this executive to do was let his boss know his concerns. But the CEO had created an awkward situation that was unnecessary.
Maybe the CEO was thinking, “This is not a democracy. I make the calls here.” Maybe it was just an oversight this one time. Maybe he was under some other pressure. There are a lot of possible reasons that would seem valid.
But there are at least three good reasons for a leader to slow down and seek input from her team. First, no leader has the full picture. They might like to think they do, but they just don’t.
While it’s right and commendable for a leader to take responsibility for the organization’s direction, how many missteps could be avoided by taking time to ask for the input of a leader’s trusted team members?
Secondly, getting input from team members is a great, simple and FREE way to build the morale of a leader’s team. One of the greatest rewards of high-level work is the self-esteem boost that comes from being consulted on important issues, especially in our areas of expertise.
Thirdly, great leaders do more than just get things done right. They intentionally develop more leaders around them. Including junior leaders in our decision-making process is a great way to help them grow with us as leaders. It’s also a great way to assess their current leadership capacity, helping you know how best to coach them in the future.
So, take the time to slow down and seek input from those around you. It’s good for you as the leader, and it’s good for those you lead.
My all-time favorite leadership quality has got to be teach-ability. If someone has a teachable attitude, there’s no limit to what they can accomplish.
On several occasions throughout my career, I have been asked to lead people in an organization that I had no experience in. When I was asked to serve as Lead Pastor of ChangePoint, a very large church in Alaska, I had never worked on a church staff before. Even though I had twenty years of leadership experience in other kinds of organizations, I knew I had a lot to learn about how to lead a church. I was selected for this role over people who had several years of experience in church leadership. So I knew there would be some natural skepticism about whether I was right for the job.
So, before I even started the new job, I met with the whole staff. After introducing myself and my background, I told them frankly that I was under no illusion that I had all of the knowledge and experience necessary to be great in this role right away. I was going to need their help and guidance as much as they were going to need mine. For the first few weeks, I spent lots of time with staff members, learning about their departments, responsibilities and routines. As a result, I earned their trust and collaboration relatively quickly.
When I look for people to work with or for me, the first thing I look for is whether they are willing to learn new things. Are they open to new ideas? Are they willing to try things in new ways? Or do they insist on doing things the way they already know? Do they already think they have all the answers? It’s really true that no one likes a know-it-all.
Teach-ability says a lot about the character of a leader. It tells me they are humble, as well as loyal to the organization. It tells me they value others more than their own agenda.
If a leader is willing to let go of the nagging need to impress those they lead, they can demonstrate a willingness to learn from them, and they can build trust and respect much faster than they would by trying to demonstrate how capable they are.
So consider how you can learn from others around you. Ask great questions and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’ll gain respect and model great teamwork for those you lead.
Have you ever been told by a leader that you were expected to take some new initiative or idea seriously, only to find out that the leader didn’t take it seriously himself? They emphasized how important everyone’s participation was, and then they didn’t participate themselves. After all, they’re much too busy.
How did it make you feel about that leader? How did it make you feel about the initiative that they said was so important? Did you still take it as seriously?
“Do as I say, not as I do,” can be pretty de-moralizing to an organization, and undermining to a leader’s credibility. Great organizations are never led from the middle. They must be led from the top.
That doesn’t mean that a leader is expected to do everything that she expects her people to do. That would be totally impractical. And delegating meaningful work to others is one great way to develop them as leaders.
While delegation is an important skill for preventing burnout and for developing more leaders, it’s important to remember that some things cannot be delegated. Leading significant, organization-wide change cannot be delegated. Passion for a cause cannot be delegated. If there’s an attitude or a paradigm that you want to see become contagious in your organization, you must first spread the germs yourself. Too many great initiatives and changes have fizzled, because people perceived that the senior leader didn’t take it seriously.
If you’re asking others to change, you must demonstrate that you are changing (not that you have arrived, because no one believes that). They need to know that they’re invited to come where you’re going, not that you’re sending them somewhere you’re unwilling to go yourself.
Let’s use a practical example. You believe that ethics training is important for your staff. In your role, you deal with tough ethics issues regularly, most of your staff do not, and you want them to be ready to handle tough ethical dilemmas. It feels like a waste of your time to personally attend the training, because you don’t really need it.
Consider attending the training anyway, in order to model what you’re expecting of your staff- that you want them to take the training seriously. And if you can take time to participate, they certainly can. That’s the strong message you’ll send.
The alternative is to try and hang on to your credibility by explaining that you’re already good at dealing with ethical questions, and that’s why you don’t need the training. Which of these two approaches do you think will get you the result you’re looking for from your staff?
Recently, a leader who I was leading and coaching said that the most inspiring thing about my leadership was getting a front row seat to watch how much I was personally growing as a leader. I couldn’t ask for a higher complement. She saw that, if I could learn and improve as a leader, then she could too.
Remember the rule of thumb for leading people, “They can’t be what they can’t see.” You must show people what you expect, not just tell them.
During my family’s first winter in Alaska, we went to the town of Willow to watch the official start of the Iditarod, the world famous sled dog race, which lasts nine to fifteen days, covering over a thousand miles from Willow to Nome. Teams consisting of one man and up to 16 dogs endure whiteout conditions, sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds. Wind chill temperatures can get as low as -100 degrees F.
The marshaling area where mushers get their teams prepared before their turn to start the race is one of the most noisy, chaotic places I’ve ever seen. As the dogs are getting clipped in to their lines, waiting for their turn to start the race, they are fussing, howling, jumping, and nipping at each other constantly. It’s as if they can’t stand holding still.
We walked a little down the trail to see the dog teams pass by as they were on their way. The contrast was striking. The dogs were silent, focused on the mission they had trained for, tongues flailing, pulling with all their might.
I couldn’t help but notice the difference between the teams standing around before the race and the teams on the trail focused on their mission. The only sound from the teams on the trail was the occasional command of their musher.
We’ve been addressing in previous blogs what it takes for great leaders to earn the right to lead. They must commit to investing in more leaders, not to just having more followers. They must be accessible role models, inviting others to get close to them. And they must simplify what they do so that others can imitate them.
But all of these strategies for being highly follow-able are not ends in themselves. They are a means to an important end. That is to accomplish the mission that the team was built for.
It’s been proven over and over that teams are most engaged in and fulfilled by their work when they are led by a trusted leader on a mission that challenges them to be and do more than they thought they could.
People often criticize the Iditarod for being cruel to the dogs. But it’s been proven repeatedly that the dogs absolutely love to run this race despite the harsh conditions. We sometimes mistakenly think that we must make people’s work as easy as possible for them if we are to expect good results. Nothing could be further from the truth. Great leaders challenge their followers to become more than they thought they could be. That’s key to a leader’s role of making more leaders. That’s why great leaders spend so much energy earning their teams trust.
One thing that’s true of every champion dog musher is they LOVE their dogs, and their dogs know it! If our followers know how much we care about them and trust our leadership, then they are ready to go with us on the toughest missions.
So set challenging goals for your team. If you’ve given them a lot of yourself, then ask for a lot in return. Make increasing their skills, responsibilities and authorities part of your business growth strategy. Most of your team will rise to the challenge, and your whole team will be stronger.
Jay Pullins is the founder and owner of Anchorage-based Catapult Leadership Solutions, providing expertise in developing the character and competency of leaders in all sectors. He is also a leadership course facilitator for Academy Leadership, LLC.