It was the oddest phone call I think I’ve ever received, one of those moments that you remember exactly where you were sitting. It was my friend, Sean. He had recently been elected Lieutenant Governor of Alaska, running mate with Sarah Palin.
“I’d like you to pray about something for me,” he said. “I’d like you to pray about joining me as my Deputy Chief of Staff.” I thought he must have me confused with someone else. I couldn’t think of a more unlikely person to consider for such a role. “Sean, I don’t know much about Alaska state government. Are you sure I’d be a good choice for that role?”
“All of that can be learned,” he said, “and that’s not why I’m asking you. I need a partner of your character in my office. You’ll travel with me and join me in all of my meetings. You’ll hold me accountable and be my advisor. I’ll teach you everything else you need to know.”
That was the first of a few conversations that compelled me to make a major career change for the opportunity to go on a learning adventure with a great leader. And it turned out to be the most educational job opportunity I’ve ever had.
This was my most vivid experience of a critical paradigm for great leaders: Character trumps competency, not just sometimes, every time. I’m not saying that being good at our jobs isn’t important. But taking short cuts on character can be disastrous. Here’s why.
When it comes to character and competency there are only four kinds of people, which are combinations of good or bad character and high or low competency. What we discover through this lens is very interesting.
First are people with good character and high competency. This is the obvious choice of who to choose for your team. A combination of high character and high competency promises unlimited potential for good.
Second are people of good character but low competency. This combination promises limited potential for good. Not as good as option one, but better than the next two options.
Third are people of bad character and low competency. These are not desirable folks to have on your team. This combination promises limited potential for harm.
The fourth kind of person is the worst to have in your organization, the person with high competency and bad character. They can be disastrous to have on your team, because this combination promises unlimited potential for harm.
Shortage of competency can often be overcome in people of strong character, because people of strong character are humble and teachable. And if you, the leader, have developed your own capacity to train people, you can recruit people of great character and grow their competency. It’s almost impossible to reverse bad character in highly competent people.
So surround yourself with humble, teachable people with great character, and grow your own capacity to coach them in their competencies. And before you know it you will have built an amazing team.
On our honeymoon in Hawaii in 1989, I did something pretty foolish. I thought I would take a sailing lesson in a laser from the recreation staff at the Air Force resort where we were staying. A laser is the smallest sailboat you could imagine, barely big enough for two people to sit on. The lesson actually went well. The foolish part was thinking it was a good idea for me to take my new bride for a ride the next day out in the open ocean, on a windy day, after having only one lesson. My impending disaster was compounded by the fact that the teenagers I rented the laser from didn’t attach the mast to the boat correctly. To make a long, embarrassing story short, we found ourselves stranded too far out to sea, sitting on the bottom-side of our overturned laser with a broken mast, waving our arms and yelling for help, hoping someone on shore would notice. You can just imagine how impressed my new bride must have been with my newfound sailing skills.
After frighteningly too long, as our little boat crested the big waves, we saw a figure of a person splashing toward us from the shore. As he got closer, we could see he was paddling on a surfboard. Soon we could see that he was a young lifeguard. When he reached us, I could see he was the same teenager who had put together our laser incorrectly.
But the most perplexing thing was that, while I appreciated his effort to paddle all the way out to us and make sure we were safe, he had no idea how he was going to rescue us with only a surfboard. We were safer staying on our capsized boat than going with him on his surfboard. He meant well, but he just didn’t have the capacity to help us get our broken boat back to shore. So he joined us and our capsized laser with his little surfboard, bobbing in the ocean, hoping for rescue.
After some more time passed, a small motorboat approached. It was driven by the young lifeguard’s boss, who promptly gave the despondent young man an impressive butt chewing. “How the *^”:+@ do you think you’re going to rescue two people and a laser with a surf board?”
While he was still scolding his young employee, some Marines came by on a large catamaran and offered to take Sonia and me back to shore while the manager and his young apprentice towed our crippled boat back to the dock.
Here’s the point for us as leaders: If we want to be effective leaders for others, we need to invest in continually growing our own leadership capacity. If our leadership capital is the equivalent of that surfboard, we’re ill equipped to lead or grow the leadership capacity of our people. Investing in the leadership skills of our people is very important for us as leaders, but we can’t neglect continuing to grow our own leadership capital as well. A great mentor many years ago used to remind me, “You can’t give away what you don’t have.” And a friend of mine reminded me just this week that the greatest gift we can give to those we lead is our own personal development, so that we are leaders worth imitating. So let’s build leadership catamarans for ourselves, not just surf boards.
1. In what ways are you investing in your own health and development so that you can give your best to your people?
2. In what ways are you neglecting your own health and development? What do you think will be the long-term impact on your capacity to lead and develop others?
A desire for personal growth and improvement is important for all leaders. Not just desire, but a plan to grow our leadership capital and capacity. When we improve, our organizations improve, and that’s important.
But for great leaders personal improvement is not enough. Great leaders see their job as helping everyone in the organization get better at what they do, especially leaders. Great leaders see themselves as not just leaders of people, but also leaders of leaders. They invest in more than their own capacity to lead. They invest in the leadership capital of those they lead, and train those they lead to invest in the leadership capital of those THEY lead.
Let me give an example of what it looks like to think exponentially and have exponential leadership impact. Let’s say Sue recognizes that improving her communication skills will help her to be a better leader. So Sue invests in the training to make her a better communicator. As a result, her team experiences more clarity and less confusion, they begin to perform together at a higher level, and her department’s productivity increases significantly. That’s good! If every leader just made that much investment, we’d all experience the benefits.
But Sue thinks exponentially. She thinks to herself, “If I can learn to be a better leader by improving my communication skills, so can others. Why not help others learn to do what I learned to do.” Sue decides she would like to train Brian, Gwen and Adam, three of her direct reports, to do the things that now make her a better communicator.
Sue also recognizes that doing something well and training others to do it well are different things and require different sets of skills. So Sue invests in the training she needs to become good at training others. Now she has not only grown her own leadership capacity and the productivity of her department, she now has the skills to grow the leadership capacity of more people. This is where Sue’s leadership capital begins to grow exponentially.
Now Sue trains Brian, Gwen and Adam to be better communicators, exponentially improving clarity and productivity and decreasing confusion in her department. And that’s just the beginning. Sue now has the skills to continue training others to improve various leadership skills for the rest of her career.
Here’s where Sue’s leadership capital goes parabolic, creating the opportunity to leave a lasting leadership legacy: Sue thinks to herself, “If I can learn the skills to train others to improve their leadership skills, then other leaders can learn those skills too. What if I learned to train people to train people?” So again Sue invests her own leadership capacity with the intention of using her new skills to train leaders who will train more leaders to grow the leadership capital of others. Now she can not only train people to improve their leadership skills, she can also train people to train more people to grow THEIR leadership skills, and so on. Eventually Sue creates a culture in her organization that holds leadership development as one of its key values, and her organization earns a reputation as the place to be if you want to be developed as a leader.
This is the essence of “Catapult Leadership.” It’s a selfless commitment to seeing our organizations and ourselves as multipliers of great leaders, for the sake of our departments, our whole organizations, our families, our communities and our world. Because better leadership really is key to better, more effective organizations and communities.
If you share my vision of not only being a better leader, but also being a better leader of better leaders, then consider joining my Catapult Community. Read here for more info.
A few years ago, I stepped into a leadership position where I was to lead a group of people who had lost trust. They had lost trust in their previous leader (who was no longer there), their board who governed their organization, and even had lost trust in each other. Leadership in the past had been abusive, dismissive and at times manipulative.
This was going to be a tough assignment! It reminded me a bit of working with animals that had been abused, who would either cower or snarl when they were approached. Right from day one, people I was to lead responded to me with disrespect, fear and manipulation. How was I going to turn around a team that was so dysfunctional?
About that time, I picked up a book by Patrick Lencioni, called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. (I figured a book with a title like that might be applicable.) To this day, what I learned about building trust is unforgettable. I’ll try to paraphrase in my own words.
Imagine that a person you work with has a “trust jar” sitting on their desk with a certain number of “trust marbles” in it. When you, their leader, do something that they perceive to be trustworthy, it’s like putting a marble in their jar. The more of your marbles they have in their jar, the more secure they feel concerning your leadership, and the more they trust you. When you do something that causes them to feel insecure, it’s like removing a marble from their jar. When you are withdrawing more marbles than you are depositing, their anxiety increases. When you’ve removed all of the marbles from their jar, you’ve depleted their trust, and irrational behavior is likely to be the result.
If you’ve been a leader for more than a week, you’ve discovered that your actions, at least at times, are going to cause someone distress. You can’t always make decisions that everyone is going to be comfortable with. Getting things done sometimes necessitates withdrawing a trust marble from someone’s jar.
And that’s before we factor in honest leadership mistakes, which we all make.
The key to building trust with your people is to maintain a positive balance of marbles in their trust jars. Since you know you’re going to be making withdrawals from time to time, then you must be proactive about making intentional trust deposits frequently. (By the way, this is true of the people you WORK FOR as well as the people who work for you.)
What kinds of behaviors make deposits into peoples’ trust jars? It’s pretty likely that your people would answer that question the same way you would. So begin by asking yourself that question. Write down the list of behaviors that add marbles to your personal trust jar.
The Golden Rule that we all grew up with says we should treat others the way we want to be treated. But the Platinum Rule says that great leaders know their people well enough to know how THEY need to be treated. So take the next step and ask each of your people individually what kinds of behaviors they find to be trustworthy. Most likely, just asking them that question will be a significant trust deposit of its own.
My story ended well. Even though I have moved on from that organization, I’m happy to say many of those former-employees are still my dear, trusted friends today.
Think with me for a minute about your favorite coach. Maybe they were your athletic coach. Maybe they were another kind of teacher or mentor.
What made them your favorite? If you’re like most of us, they were your favorite because they stretched you to become more than you were before. Their influence in your life caused you to grow in character or skill. They inspired you to work harder, learn more, or become your very best.
What were your feelings toward that coach? Did you trust them? Were you loyal to them? Why? Was it because you knew they were on your side? Because you knew they had your best in mind, even when they challenged you? Would you say that person left a legacy, making the world better by making you and others better? Would you say that person sacrificed his or her own capital (time, energy, maybe even money or financial opportunities) to make you better?
That kind of leader is what I call a “Catapult Leader.” They’re someone who finds joy in seeing others grow as leaders. They’re not satisfied with just being personally successful. They’re going for greatness by investing their leadership capital to make more leaders. And as a result they continue to grow themselves.
Successful leaders concern themselves with gaining more followers, but Catapult Leaders concern themselves with launching more leaders. Their leadership capital strategy is one of multiplication, not just addition. They want to see those they lead begin to lead others. They’re excited, not intimidated, when those they lead become even more skilled than they are. They give more responsibility and authority to those they lead as a means of helping them grow their combined leadership capital.
Being a Catapult Leader requires sacrifice. But they make launching more great leaders part of their personal mission and business strategy. They see their responsibility to multiply their leadership capital through others as a gift to families, communities, their city and beyond. And, because of their reputation, they don’t have trouble recruiting motivated future leaders. Catapult Leaders understand this fascinating principle:
If we focus only on a successful career and growing our own leadership capital, we may or may not ever launch more great leaders. But if we make launching great leaders an important part of our job description, we’re very likely to find ourselves in high demand and see great success in our own professional careers.
If “Catapult Leader” describes your leadership style, contact me and I’ll network you with others in the Catapult Community, because we’re even better together. We can learn from each other, and encourage other leaders to join us on our mission to launch more great leaders. Let’s begin to change the culture in our spheres of influence.
If you’re not a Catapult Leader, but you aspire to be, let me help you. I can give you the skills to multiply more leaders for the rest of your career. If you’re interested in getting started, contact me and we’ll begin the journey with others who want to leave a lasting leadership legacy.
Get the leadership training you need with a Leadership Excellence Course coming this spring to Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., and Alaska.
Launching great leaders doesn’t just happen automatically. If it did, there would be a lot more great leaders running around everywhere. And if you’ve watched or read the news lately, you know that’s not the case. Launching great leaders requires investment of all of your capitals- spiritual, relational, intellectual, physical and, yes, financial. And it’s also messy work because, as we all know, people are messy. We wish they weren’t, but they are. A colleague of mine used to rant, “Why can’t these people all just do their jobs?” Oh, if leading people was only that simple.
So why invest in leaders?
Governments, non-profits and philanthropists spend TONS of money every year to help the disadvantaged and downtrodden. And that’s necessary, noble and important. (We only argue about whose responsibility it is.) But the biggest bang for the buck comes when we invest in making the leaders in our organizations and communities better. Because when a leader leads better, the benefit to that leader is multiplied exponentially in benefit to everyone they influence.
There are two categories of reasons why investing in leaders is not only smart, but also necessary.
First, return on leadership investment is high. The science is confirmed and the verdict is in. Investing in your leaders increases the value of your organization, not just a little, a lot! Investment in leadership development leads to greater levels of business success.
Great leaders know that their own commitment and capacity to coach new leaders increases their own personal value to their organization and gives them a competitive career advantage. When you spend the resources to grow leaders, you gain the trust and loyalty of your employees, resulting in increases in team productivity. And when those who work for you have great leadership skills, you have less workplace drama and distractions, reducing your own stress and level of conflict.
Here’s an important paradigm that leaders should wrestle with: If we set our focus on being successful and having a successful business, we may or may not ever get around to producing great leaders. But if we set our focus on becoming and producing great leaders, making that part of our business strategy, we’re likely to find ourselves more successful at our highest priorities than we ever dreamed.
The second reason for investing our capital in developing leaders is it’s what great leaders do. In fact, the number one job of great leaders is to make more leaders. Successful leaders count followers, but great leaders count leaders.
Our world is desperate for great leaders of character. So is your community, and probably your company. When we make better leaders, we make marriages, families, neighborhoods, and ultimately our country better. So, yes, by all means, lead your organization to success. But the most likely route to get you there is by leading your leaders to greatness. And in the process, you’ll leave a lasting legacy extending far beyond your office walls.
The U.S.S. John C. Stennis is the flagship of the U.S. Navy’s John C. Stennis Strike Group. The aircraft carrier is over 1,000 feet long, has a footprint of 4.5 acres, and weights 97 thousand tons. At sea it carries 6,200 Sailors and Marines, usually for six months at a time. Its kitchens serve 18,600 meals every day. The ship is propelled by two nuclear reactors. It can carry over 70 aircraft and three million gallons of jet fuel. Believe it or not, the average age of her crew is only 20 years old!
In 2008, I had the honor of spending two days onboard this engineering marvel while the Captain was exercising his crew in the Bering Sea. Watching the crews, both above deck and below, was truly inspiring. Every person knew how his or her personal role was allowing the ship’s crew to accomplish its mission. There were very few employee engagement problems here. Those issues were worked out long before the ship left port. To spend six months at a time in close quarters at sea with 5,000 others requires a level of commitment that few experience. There were no tourists, passengers or spectators (except me for those two days).
I had the pleasure of dining with the ship’s Captain. He had invested decades of his life in the Navy’s mission. And clearly he remembered where he came from. He had been trained from the time he was in his twenties to one day Captain one of the mightiest machines and one of the most dedicated crews in the world. At the pinnacle of his career, his focus was on two things: having the most capable aircraft carrier crew in the world, and raising up the next generation of world-class ship Captains, just as his Captains before him invested in him for decades.
The most amazing experience of my two days aboard the Stennis was standing on the deck as crews launched F-14 Tomcats, F-18 Super Hornets and other planes and helicopters from the carrier’s deck into the air and safely recovered them at the end of their missions. The four devices that launch these remarkable jets into the sky are steam-powered systems of 325-foot steel cables called catapults.
It was impressive to see how many planes and helicopters could be parked above and below deck by folding up wings and propellers and moving aircraft with four huge elevators. But it was eye opening to hear the Captain explain that the measure of success for an aircraft carrier was not how many aircraft could be parked on the ship, but how many could be launched OFF of the ship. A Captain is happiest when the deck is empty, because the crew has successfully launched their warriors into the air and out of sight to fly their various missions. You see, his mission was not to keep pilots and aircraft on his ship. His mission, and the mission of his senior officers and enlisted crew, was to train and launch leaders to accomplish their own missions. In that moment, I was reminded that the mark of a truly great leader is not how many followers they have, but how many more leaders they’ve launched.
In the years since that extraordinary visit, I’ve reflected many times on my own mission in light of the Stennis’ system of catapults, designed to launch leaders to do their mission and bring them safely back to train for their next mission. I have tried to create that kind of training and launching culture, whether as a military officer, a public official, or a pastor. It’s not enough to just be peoples’ leader. A legacy leader must be passionate about investing in the next generation of leaders. I’ve come to call leaders with that kind of commitment “Catapult Leaders.”
I’ve dedicated this chapter of my leadership journey to training and launching more Catapult Leaders, because this is my definition of great leadership. I’ve made my business success secondary to my primary role of giving my sphere of influence the gift of more great leaders. If you’re a Catapult Leader, or aspire to be, I want to connect with you, and connect you with other Catapult Leaders who join us on our mission of Launching Great Leaders.
Tell me about your passion for Launching Great Leaders by clicking here. I’d love to connect with you and dream about creating a Catapult culture in our organizations.
In Alaska, rarely do we enjoy our outdoor activities alone. With harsh weather and remote areas where we like to play, getting hurt when you’re alone can be disastrous. Similarly, I’ve found that the best way to learn a new outdoor activity is by doing it for the first time with someone who is good at it, asking them to teach me and show me the ropes.
Most of my mountaineering skills I’ve learned from my friend, Doug. He’s taught me how to detect areas of avalanche danger. He’s shown me how to test the mountain snow. He’s shown me how to use probes and avalanche beacons. He’s taught me techniques for climbing steep inclines in deep snow. I now do things and go places that I would not go if Doug had not taught me and showed me how to go there safely.
The same is true for people who follow our leadership. Are you trying to create a certain culture where you lead? Most of us are. We want a culture where a certain pattern of behavior is the norm. To lead people into that pattern of behavior, we need to do two things for them. These apply whether we’re re-orienting a whole corporation or raising a family.
First we must tell those we’re leading where we’re going. This seems obvious, but leaders typically aren’t heard as much, or as clearly, as we think we are. We assume that if we’ve told someone something once, that’s enough. The truth is it’s not nearly enough. Particularly when it comes to casting vision for change, our people need to hear our message multiple times. When you start to get sick of repeating yourself, that’s when you can start to feel confident that you might be communicating the vision or direction enough. Sorry, but that’s how it works.
Second, we must show our people what we want the culture to look like. We must demonstrate the behaviors and practices that we expect to see from them. Remember, they can’t be what they can’t see.
Two Danger Zones
There are two danger zones that we need to avoid if we want to create a culture we dream of.
Tell, Don’t Show
The first danger zone is the Tell, Don’t Show Zone. We all know our actions speak louder than our words. So does our inaction. If the change doesn’t visibly begin with us, the value of the vision becomes suspect. People aren’t likely to follow you somewhere they can’t see you going. If we’re leading by example out of sight of our people, it’s like the tree falling in the woods when there’s no one around to hear it. To them, it’s like it didn’t happen. So think of ways to make your behavior changes viewable.
Show, Don’t Tell
The second danger zone is the Show, Don’t Tell Zone. We often make assumptions about how much people are noticing. So we wonder why our leading by example doesn’t seem to be working. Shouldn’t people be picking up on this? Most of the time, we need to be more explicit in talking about our expectations than we think we have been. Would you try to raise your kids without explaining your expectations to them, just expecting them to pick up on them from watching you? No way! Teaching someone how you want them to do something makes your expectations more clear and builds confidence that what you’re asking for is doable.
Show and Tell
The Show and Tell Zone is the sweet spot. This is where we repeat the cycle of explaining our exceptions, demonstrating what those expectations look like in view of our people, helping them act accordingly, observing, and giving clear feedback.
If we’re more intentional about both explaining what we want and what we’re doing, and more intentional about demonstrating what we expect in view of the people we’re expecting it from, we can be more satisfied with the effectiveness of the culture we’re trying to create.
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.
Jay Pullins has been leading and developing leaders in a variety of settings for over 30 years. He has a diverse background as a leadership coach, military officer, an appointed state official, and executive leader of Alaska's largest church. Jay has trained over 1,400 leaders in the last five years, from Alaska to Southern California, in various fields from universities to military, construction, product distribution, manufacturing, telecommunications, churches, banks, casinos, and a railroad.