Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Leaders Lead

As an 11-month old Christian, sitting in my first class at North Central Bible College, I heard Dr. Don Meyer say, “The cream always rises to the top.” I understood it then as a way to help us understand an important theme in the Pentateuch. After hearing him say it from time to time in the years that would follow, I understood that he was meaning to teach an important lesson for life and leadership.

The cream always rises to the top.

Others have said, perhaps more simply, “leaders lead.”

I don’t mind admitting now that I misunderstood these axioms. Earlier in my career I didn’t get it, thinking that what was meant was more along the lines of “organizations will recognize leadership potential and then promote people into positions of authority so that they can then lead.” I thought that leadership had mostly to do with position, authority, responsibility and resources. Leadership can have a great deal to do with those sorts of things, but I know now that leadership has even more to do with influence, inspiration, perspective, opportunity, and followership.

Many of our core ideas about leadership come from outmoded models such as the military, athletics, and old style command-and-control industry. Such leadership ideas may work in controlled situations where information is limited, or at least containable, and objectives are clear and static. But these days information is generally available to all and usually enters our systems from every portal; rather than information flowing in and down from the top, the best information usually flows in at the point of service and flows up in an organization. And while a good organization has a mission and vision that flies above the fray, tactical goals are often a moving target; rather than making every tactical call, today’s most effective leaders in upper management often find out about tactical gains after the fact.

Simply stated, leadership systems need to be more distributed (shared leadership throughout the system) and more nimble (leadership needs to be able to happen quickly and with flexibility so as to capture opportunity).

In the institutions that I serve today, a mere organization chart is an insufficient instrument for identifying leadership. We simply can’t only rely on those with titles to lead; deans, directors, pastors, managers, vice presidents and presidents are great, but leadership needs to come from more than just the title holders. It may already seem like a trite and tired saying, but it is true… everyone is a leader.

That may seem easy to say, but it is not always easy to do. How does one lead without authority? How do we lead colleagues, or those who may outrank us? How do we lead in areas that are outside of our departments or areas of responsibility? How do we lead our boss, or our boss’s boss?

I’ve noticed that, in the same organization, some employees seem to be able to get all sorts of things done while others seem stymied by the system. Some are able to make a way for themselves and their programs and others are entangled by bureaucracies (both real and perceived).

It seems that one of the big differences between the can-do and the can’t-do people is leadership. More specifically, the can-do people realize that leadership has little to do with position, and far more to do with influence. Can’t-do people long for the imaginary future when they will be in charge and call the shots. Can-do people apply their influence creatively, leading people to solutions whenever and however they can.

When an organization needs to fill a leadership post, they typically go to the can-do people. Nobody is impressed by those who stand on the sidelines pointing out what is wrong, waiting for their opportunity to be the boss so that things can finally be done right. Strong organizations recognize the leadership being provided by the can-do people, enabling the leadership that is already being demonstrated by providing positions of greater authority and responsibility.

It turns out that good leaders know that titles and positions are a handy tool, but it takes a leader to lead and it is influence that transforms people and organizations, not titles.

Here are some tips on how to be a leader, regardless of title or position.

  • Recognize that each of us have unique perspective, gifts, and opportunity. I’ve noticed that can’t-do people often complain that their leaders don’t see or do what is obvious. Can-do people realize that what is obvious to them may not be obvious to anyone else. It may be that the reason you notice something that ought to be done is that you are supposed to get it done… or at least see to it that it gets done. I’ve often told people that work with me, “The only thing that will get you in huge trouble with me is if you come to me too late saying I could have told you so.” Leaders trust their instincts. They are at peace with the notion that they see things that others don’t see and can do things that others might not be able to do.
  • Sometimes it is our job to make ourselves hearable. When we know that we need to lead, but people are not following, we need another approach. I’ve watched can’t-do people say the same thing the same way and get more frustrated the more they keep saying the same thing the same way while nobody seems to hear. We need to be creative in finding the best approaches so that people can, and will want to, follow. If nobody is following you, you are not leading.
  • There are no excuses for abdicating responsibility. First off, when we do have specific authority in an organization, that simply must be our primary focus; we can’t let our responsibility suffer by putting our work down to pick-up someone else’s work. But we can’t simply say, “That isn’t my job” either. We aren’t being leaders when we allow any important work to go undone; we aren’t being leaders when we knowingly allow others to suffer, especially if we allow failure just so we can make our point.
  • We have to be tough and teachable. Leadership is risky business, especially when we dare to lead without titles and authority. How does the old saying go? “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Leading from the inside, alongside, and even underside is an art form that sometimes needs to be learned by trial and error. Sometimes the errors leave bumps and bruises, but with the right attitude they will heal… and it is worth it.

Institutions need to change, too, in order to allow leaders to lead, regardless of title or position. I’m finding that in the organizations I lead, I need to continually allow for, and encourage, flexibility, forgiveness, and teaching. Rather than being threatened or bothered by leaders trying to lead, we need to help leaders lead. Sometimes that means we’ll have to overlook minor offenses; other times we’ll need to provide correction and training. And sometimes we’ll have to step in and clean up a minor mess. But it is worth it. When an organization allows leaders to lead we find out that there is no such thing as too much leadership. When leaders lead we find that there are more opportunities and we all benefit from bigger and better successes.


Johnny B said...

Great thoughts, Dan. I recognize this as a theme of your leadership over the years. And I largely agree. Two thoughts occur.

Is there a style of leadership, characterized also by perspective, influence, and foresight, that serves primarily to enhance the leadership of others? Certainly there are many "leaderships" and I do hear your call for leadership action, rather than abdication.

You stimulated my curiosity with the claim that "there is no such thing as too much leadership." Again, I agree in principle. Surely, widely dispersed empowerment borne of hospitality (created by senior leaders) that makes a safe environment for experiment and encourages making "quick and early mistakes," as Paul Senge has said, is a good and worthy organizational design. Progressive, and messy, but just the kind of organization I'd prefer to work in.

Rosemarie said...

Two additional features of leadership:
1) Access to and transfer of a leader's wisdom and knowledge: not just leaders being teachable and teaching. Intentional mentoring gives the employees access to the leader's knowledge and skills.

2) Promoting those a leader mentors without feeling threatened or shutting them down when they grow to strength equal to or above the leader's.

Anonymous said...

Leadership is a wonderfully complex and dynamic idea. The popular business press would like to package it into a neat little pill that would meet the needs of all. Even though this approach sells a lot of books, it doesn’t do much for those who are genuinely engaged in leadership.

I have a growing desire to use the term leader/follower rather than leader. It is awkward but I feel it better expresses what I understand as leadership. Successful leaders have the ability to extend leadership to others as the situation demands thus alternatively assuming the roles of leader and follower.

You are right to distinguish power and authority from leadership. It wouldn’t take us any time at all to identify many people in our world today who occupy positions of power and authority yet fail to lead. Unfortunately many assume that because one holds such a position one is a leader.

Personally, I like the notion of a leader as one who makes meaning of a situation in a way that allows others to make progress and accomplish shared goals. With this in mind I have watched leadership change hands many times while sitting around a table engaged in a productive discussion of an issue. Power and authority remain vested in the people occupying those positions, but all benefit from a leadership dynamic that is robust and productive.

I always enjoy dialoguing about leadership.


Neary said...

I heard from Don Meyer who provided the following additional wrinkle (I love this!):

I was reminded of the comment of an Iowa farm girl when I said that in a Pentateuch class. She came up to me and in response to ‘cream always rises to the top’ she added ‘unless it sours first.’ I often think of the place attitude has in our ongoing progress. And, I guess her comment is both literally and figuratively accurate.

Anonymous said...

A very wise young woman, as farm life so often makes them. Young leaders who do not get in places to which they can contribute leadership often do sour.

George said...

Dan, One of my favorite subjects and one that I am personally working on in my leadership roles. I dont believe there are born leaders or that you can cause someone to become a leader. At least in the sense of one leading or managing others.

A leader is one who is always challenged to think bigger, outside the box; is not insecure in his or her position in a leadership role; never believes he or she has reached the top of their game; is a visionary; and has an internal desire to duplicate him or herself.

The true test of a leader is one who recognizes that he or she, although they lead, is themselves under authority.

And by the way Dan, I do admire your leadership qualities.

Anonymous said...

I think you are wanting to emphasize the importance of leadership throughout the organization rather than by title and position. To make that point you criticize top down forms of leadership calling them "outmoded." I think a better way to think of it is that different situations require different forms of leadership. The effective leader can use any form of leadership depending on the situation. I particularly would not want a democratic military. Similarly, the coach calls the shots. It is not up to each player to determine priorities, etc for themselves. When you label such forms as "outmoded" I think you make the mistake of universalizing ideas that work well in one setting but not in another. You are making the same mistake that you criticize. While some may universalize top down, you don't want the opposite problem of universalizing against that form of leadership.