Here’s an important paradigm to start the new year: Great leaders are intentionally unimpressive.
In much of my military officer experience, leadership was a competitive sport. Officers had to compete against each other for promotion, assignments and other opportunities. As a result, officers spent considerable amount of effort trying to be more impressive than their peers. The temptation was to over-inflate our competencies while hiding our weaknesses.
But here’s the irony. No one respected their bosses for being good at that game. In fact, we often resented them for their inauthenticity. That was the way the game was played. That was how one climbed the ladder of SUCCESS.
This is an important area where the path to SUCCESS and the path to GREATNESS part ways dramatically. Striving for success means demonstrating that we’re “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” The organization would most certainly fail without us.
But great leaders are coaches, seizing opportunities to multiply their character and competencies in others. They seek to make others better, not to be seen as better than others. Consequently, they make every organization, every family and every community they touch better.
When giving a presentation, for example, a SUCCESSFUL leader leaves the audience saying, “Wow! He’s so good at that. I could never be that good. What would we do without him?”
But a GREAT leader leaves the audience saying, “Oh, that looks easy. I think I could do that.” Then the great leader says, “Yes, you can. Let me show you.”
Now let me ask you: Which of those two leaders do you think really has more value?
Here’s the hard truth: If your people are so impressed by you and your talents that they think they can’t make it without you, you might be exactly what your company says they need, and you might be considered a huge success. But as a leader of your people, you have failed.
And here’s an even harder truth: If you’re known for your supposedly indispensable talent, you’re actually on your way to being forgotten. Because in today’s economy, extremely talented people are a dime a dozen. And you can always be replaced with someone a little more talented than you. And if talent is your organization’s currency, that’s probably what will eventually happen.
This is one area where it’s hard for success and greatness to co-exist, because being impressive and being imitate-able are so diametrically opposed. So we’re faced with a choice. Do we continue to strive to be the most impressive person in the room, playing the role of talent rather than leadership? Or do we lead in such a way that our people can learn from us and grow alongside us, becoming greater leaders themselves?
Why do you suppose, with the thousands of leadership books available, that there is such a deficit of great leaders today? It’s not that people don’t read leadership books. Many of those books are best sellers.
Leadership books are great, and leaders should read them. I’ve read lots of them. They can be very helpful. But they alone are entirely insufficient to see people grow into great leaders.
It would be nice if we could just buy someone the right book, tell them to read it, and just sit back and watch them do all the things they read about. But important skills aren’t developed that way.
Think about it. Would you trust a doctor who earned his credentials only from reading books or blogs, going to conferences or watching videos? How about a pilot? How about an electrician? All of those learning tools are good. But they are all insufficient.
Relationship is indispensable to great leadership development. Entering critical roles requires apprenticing from someone who is what the follower wants to become. We must be shown, not just taught. This is why pilots, doctors and most tradesmen go through extensive, personal apprenticeship before they are given the responsibility that goes with the job title. People are trusting them to get it right.
Effective leadership development is apprenticeship. If a leader is going to make more leaders, they must be willing to play the role of coach.
And effective coaching relationships require proximity. Future leaders must be invited into a close enough relationship with their leader that they can see their leader in action and imitate his actions. As my friend, Jo Saxton, often says, “They can’t BE what they can’t SEE.” If you’re not willing to let people close enough to see you wrestle with conflict and hard decisions, don’t expect them to see you as their coach. They will find someone else. Believe me. And if you give people leadership responsibilities in your organization without coaching them to succeed, then don’t expect great results.
Making more leaders also requires transparency and vulnerability. It does not require you to model perfect execution of every leadership task. In fact, your people learn a TON from watching how you handle making mistakes.
My friend, Mike Breen, taught me that people don’t need me to be a perfect example, just a living one. That means a leader who is authentic, not pretending to have it all together (because everyone already knows you don’t). That’s what it means to be worth imitating. If you’re living transparently and working hard at becoming a great leader, admitting that you have not yet arrived, you will find lots of people wanting to follow you on that journey and learn from you. But if you feel you must impress them in order to lead them, you will most certainly lose them.
I’m not condoning managers and supervisors being incompetent. I’m assuming you’re already a good manager. Remember, here we’re talking about what’s below the surface in the lives of great leaders.
In coming weeks, we’ll discuss HOW to have coaching relationships with employees that are productive, transparent, authentic, appropriate, professional, and not exhausting.
1. Are you trying to impress those you lead or coach them? Are you willing to let them learn from your mistakes?
2. Are you a leader who has kept your employees at arm’s length? If so, can you explain why?
3. Are you willing to make time for your people and give them access to your real life as a leader?
The first priority of great leaders is making more leaders. But it doesn't just happen. Making leaders requires selflessness, confidence and intentionality (see last week’s blog).
And making more leaders doesn't happen without a plan. That’s why many organizations fail to grow their leaders. They don’t have a viable plan to do so.
As they say in the financial planning world, no one plans to fail. They just fail to plan. So leadership development never makes it beyond the bucket list of things we’d like to do.
Raising up more leaders is like growing a garden. A gardener knows that not every seed he puts in the ground will grow into a producing plant. She knows that she actually has very little control over which plants will grow and which ones won't.
So gardeners put their effort into creating the environment that is most likely to cause seeds to produce good plants, and plants to produce good fruits and vegetables. They maintain good soil for the plants to grow in. They provide the right amounts of water and nutrients. In a green house, gardeners can provide the right kind of lighting. And a gardener uses lattices, rows and stakes to provide the right amount of structure and direction for growth.
Said another way, the gardener creates a culture for plants to thrive in. In the same way, great leaders don't manipulate people into becoming leaders.
The best way for leaders to make more leaders is to create a culture where potential leaders can thrive! But the leader must be central to that culture, not stand outside of it as if it’s for someone else but not for them.
So what are the characteristics of a leader-multiplying culture? As I’ve learned over the years from my leadership coaches at 3dMovements, here are two key characteristics of the leader-multiplying culture that great leaders intentionally create around themselves.
First, and most importantly, a leader of leaders must cultivate an inviting culture around himself. People must perceive that they are welcome to follow the leader, and that the leader is worth following. The leader doesn’t need to chase followers, but simply gives them access to his life. She doesn’t try to control who receives the welcome or who perceives the value of following her. But great leaders keep the invitation open.
Initially, an inviting culture may sound exhausting. And being a leader worth following can sound intimidating. In coming weeks, we’ll address these issues in detail.
Second, a leader who makes more leaders must cultivate a challenging culture. When a follower feels welcomed to follow a leader they perceive is worth following, they are ready to receive challenge to grow as a leader. Future great leaders want to improve, and they want to receive performance coaching from a leader who cares for them.
Most supervisors have never been coached by their leader, so they have no clue how to coach others. But leaders who learn how to coach their employees to improve their performance can build truly great organizations made of high performance teams!
If this sounds overwhelming, hang in there. In the coming weeks, we’ll cover how to appropriately create a welcoming leadership environment and how to challenge our followers to higher levels of performance.
If you want to learn how to be great at performance coaching for your employees, I’d highly recommend taking my Leadership Excellence Course. Check here for courses coming to Seattle and Anchorage, or here to bring one to your organization.
The number one job of great leaders is to make more leaders. This is how great leaders leave a legacy for every organization, every family, and every community they touch.
This may be different than how many leaders would define success. But remember, we’re not talking about success. We’re talking about greatness. If a leader has a well-written job description, it defines what the leader needs to do for the organization to be SUCCESSFUL. And that’s important! I don’t mean to marginalize this.
But I do want to call leaders to something higher than just running a successful organization. Let’s talk about making your organization great!
A great organization is one where leaders coach their followers to become great leaders themselves. This doesn’t happen automatically. It begins with great leaders who have certain character and skills. Let’s talk about character first.
Leaders who make more leaders are selfless. They put the needs of their followers, and of their organizations, ahead of their own. They make time (the most precious commodity they have) for others. They help others grow as they are pursuing their own growth. So they are inviting others into their worlds when it would likely be easier not to.
Leaders who make more leaders must be intentional. A leader who prioritizes time for investing in junior leaders is sacrificing something else less important intentionally. Investing in people requires a much bigger investment of time and emotional energy than is required to just perform normal work tasks. But great leaders understand that investing in more leaders is one of an organizations highest payoff activities over the long run.
Organizations that make more leaders are led by confident leaders. Insecure leaders will never make more leaders. The best they will do is make more followers. Insecure leaders are afraid to give away leadership to others. What if they actually make leaders who are better than they are? What if junior leaders stop depending on them and start thinking for themselves? What if junior leaders get promoted ahead of them? Insecure leaders hold junior leaders back because of their own fear.
But let’s think about this logically for a minute. Do you think that a leader who excels at bringing the best out of his team and makes more leaders is more valuable to her organization, or less valuable? Great leaders know that making more leaders creates value for their organization, and makes them more valuable in their boss’s eyes, not less valuable.
More importantly, great leaders see the leadership vacuum in our world, our communities, and our families, and they will step up and do their best to do something about it. And great leaders don’t compromise their values to get ahead of others.
Next time, we’ll talk about specific leadership skills necessary for making more leaders.
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.