Fluent Leadership

Leadership is a language. It is entirely about communication. To be fluent in a language is to be able to communicate effectively as a natural process, convey to others the intent of your words, and enabling the hearer to create action. The bad news is that many who are leaders have not yet acquired the fluency required to precisely convey their desires. This frustrates the direct report and hinders forward progression in the organization. The good news is that fluency can be obtained through practice and saturation.

Think about how a child learns. She surrounds herself with those who know more than she does and mimics their actions. When she sees how one does a specific task, she tries to mimic the action that accomplished it. Though her arms may not have the dexterity or agility of the one she watches, she tries none-the-less. When the parent speaks, though she does not completely understand what is being said, she tries to make the same noises as the parent. Eventually, she will acquire both the physical dexterity and the verbal articulation that she needs to become an articulate woman of action. This takes both time and countless hours of practice.

It is the same with the leader.

If you are new to leadership, you would do well to surround yourself with those who have been in leadership for some time. The more effective the “parent” the better. Begin to mimic the actions that you see in them and apply those actions to your life and organization. Begin to listen to their speech, their vocabulary, and mimic it. It may seem unusual at first, but that is how we learn. Before you know it, you will begin to see that you have become fluent in the language and proactivity of leadership. You will realize that over time you have become a bit of what you have mimicked. Isn’t that how it is with the Christian life? We mimic Christ as we become Christlike. Should it not be the same with leadership?

Perhaps you have been a leader for some time. If so, I have a question for you. Who is mimicking you? Are you mentoring another? Are you equipping the next generation of leader? Regardless of where you are at in your personal leadership journey, remember to surround yourself with godly examples of what you would like to become. Before you know it, what you saw in another someone else will see in you.

Dumbest Guy in the Room

As an organizational leader, it is really easy to create an environment in which you are always the smartest person in the room. The person “in the know.” Your direct reports look to you for vision and direction and they faithfully carry out the plan. In moments of uncertainty, they look to you and you render your decision. If not kept in check, this environment can unknowingly poison both your perspective of self and your future growth as a leader.

The strategic leader intentionally, and frequently surrounds self with people who are smarter than they are. They relish being “The Dumbest Person in the Room.” They understand that this is where growth happens, where new ideas are generated, and tolerances are stretched into new avenues of creative expression. These new insights tend to be elusive without this intentional process.

Don’t wait until the next time you need insight to find a mentor or coach. Furthermore, don’t find a mentor or coach that is specific to your field. They think like you do. Find someone different, an artist, a theologian, a thespian, an architect or doctor and meet with them regularly. The more unrelated to your life experience the further they will draw you from your box. Besides, it is a pleasant respite to not have all the answers.

And most importantly, remember, ignorance in this case truly can be bliss!

Here is a short video to make the point.

Being Great

There are those times in life when you encounter greatness. It takes your breath away. It’s one of those things when everything comes together in perfect harmony and you find yourself in the midst of something that just feels right… and you are inspired.

I had such an experience when I was called to do a business seminar for the leaders in an organization that hires me from time to time. I had worked as a freelance marketing adviser for this company in the late ’80’s but it had been years since I had been there to consult. I remember telling the then-owner (after our first meeting) that I would not advise on their ad campaign. He was shocked, and then I clarified.

It was early in my career and I had left an art director position for a company in Los Angeles to strike out on my own. I knew what it meant to represent the company which I had worked for and was greatly successful in driving campaigns to increase market share and product awareness, however, I knew little of this new company.

Back to the story. He was shocked. This “Ad Guy” whom he had paid travel expenses to come and advise him said that he would not. I could see his discomfort. Then I clarified. I would not advise because I knew little about their product. So he suggested that I spend the afternoon in the conference room with his in-house marketing staff and they could show me their product, advise me on how it worked, and show me the previous ad campaigns they had run.

I shocked them again. During that meeting, I refused to see any earlier campaigns (standard practice for me) because I did not want to be influenced by their previous attempts. Nor did I want to see the trade magazines they placed before me because the reason they were hiring me is that they wanted an outside evaluation of their product. Frustrated, the marketing team asked me; “So, what do you want?” My reply was simple.

I want to build it!
I scheduled an appointment (the next Monday morning) to work on the factory floor and actually build the product on the assembly line. I needed to know the nuts and bolts. Shock again!

Hear me on this. While I worked on that line, I understood the product deeper than most of the executives in that conference room. In fact, when it came time to advise on the ad campaign, I also advised on several product enhancements and a very small but beneficial change to the assembly line workflow that would save a small, but not insignificant amount of money every year. But I had to get under the hood to see those potential improvements. Their shock gave way to excitement.

Now I started this piece talking about greatness. I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about that company.

Returning years later to hold a seminar for their leaders, I walked into a completely different environment. The greasy carpet in the lobby, the smell of a factory, the noise and the unprofessional receptionist had all been replaced. Instead, I encountered what amounted to a professionally decorated sanctuary of a waiting room and an attentive and extremely professional host. Furthermore, the noise and smell of the factory had given way to a gentle classical masterpiece playing during my very short wait. In fact, as I walked in I was surprised to see an LCD screen that welcomed me (and a short list of other scheduled appointments) by name. Something had changed. Someone had gone under the hood. Someone had entered the business with the eyes of a first-timer, and it was the new owner.

Before any employee knew who he was, he scheduled an appointment to meet with the staff, posing as a prospective new client. What he saw and experienced shook the company to its foundation, but also to greatness. He trained, fired and hired employees to mold the organization to his vision of excellence. He modeled it from the top and it showed. From the office of the CEO to the receptionist who offered me a bottle of water during my short wait, everything was harmonious. Their corporate culture had changed. It had been defined. Now, they had asked me to come back to train his lead staff. He had heard of my day “on the line” and years later told his key people to get me back.

Today, he leads a company of excellence… And yes, he still calls me to advise from time to time. He did for the company what I had done for the product so many years before.

Lessons from Hawaii

I was once again asked to write a short piece for Star News, a publication for law enforcement. This article will be published August 2011.

Life has a funny way of touching you at the strangest moments. If you miss those moments they will be lost forever, but if you find a moment of clarity within them they may just provide you with a moment of growth. I am writing this about three hours after one of those moments. You see, I have an absolute passion for Scuba Diving. There are very few things I have a passion for: Family, Faith, my Career, and Scuba Diving… That about sums it up!

Today’s experience brought several of my passions together in a single moment of clarity. I was diving with my son off the shore of Kona Hawaii and we were about to enter an underwater lava tube. Overhead diving is the most dangerous type of diving and it was quite a thrill as father and son entered into the unknown together. Apprehension, sure. Concern, you bet. Excitement, more than you know. Here is what I learned.

Whether it is Diving, Career, or Family, each of these can be improved by the lessons of this day.

First lesson, never enter times of apprehension or danger alone, you need the covering of those who care for you and your safety. The first rule of diving is always have a buddy. My son had my back and I had his. We watched each other and it put us at ease in an otherwise hostile and dangerous environment.

Second lesson, trust your training and the training of those you surround yourself with. Training is paramount. My son is well trained and should something have gone bad deep under the waves he would have shifted in a heartbeat from enjoying time with dad to getting dad safely to the surface. I trust him for that and he trusts me.

Third lesson, use your equipment. You see, in diving, maintaining and training with equipment is first priority. Quality equipment can make the difference between life and death and redundancy is part of the program. Two divers, two regulators each, two lights apiece, etc. You don’t want to be fifty feet into a pitch black lava tube, sixty feet beneath the waves, and have your light fail!

Forth lesson, it’s all equally important and it is the combination of all of it that brings you home. Companionship, trust of others, trust of training and trust of equipment. Whether life or career, each item means security for life. Could I have dove the lava tubes of Kona alone, sure. Perhaps for a lifetime without incident. But what if… Breaking the rules will eventually destroy you and those who love you.

Final lesson, for me, my final passion brings it all together. Faith makes it all worthwhile. Faith brings me the trust of others and the companionship that the human spirit longs for. It gives me the ability to trust and be trusted. It is my equipment for life, helping me with the times of apprehension, fear, and doubt. I approach those difficult moments in life, career and family in the same way I faced the entrance of that lava tube today, with a prayer!

Lead the System

If you were driving on a dark country road, and you saw the sign, Bridge Out, What would you do? Would you continue on to your own peril, or would you change your direction? Many leaders are continuing in the same direction… to their peril. They continue to work in the system, managing everything and everyone, and all the while the road is falling out beneath them. The signs (unlike the one above) were in place a long time prior to the road’s collapse, yet through seasons of delay and a general lack of ideas on how to change their reality, the leader–and the organization–fall.

So, How do you stop managing and start leading? If we could answer this question in one simple paragraph, the sky would open, the songs of a thousand birds would fill the sky and rose petals would fall upon our path. The reality is that the answer to that question is as unique as your specific gifts and talents, and your ability to leverage them to act and think differently. In other words, you need to begin the downplay of using your gifts and talents and start leading others in their gifts and talents. I may not have all the answers, but I do have some starting points.

Provide Context

The first step is to be completely clear about what you or the organization requires. Framing the work within the broader context gives clarity to the recipient. They must be clear how the work contributes to the overall success of the organization.

Delegate Authority and Responsibility

Delegating responsibility to complete a task it relatively easy; “Get it done!” Delegating the authority to accomplish it can be another story. It requires confidence and trust in the individual. It also requires you to let go! Without the ability to make a decision that you will support, people will never be (or feel) empowered to complete the tasks that they are given. They will move forward in fear.

Support don’t Abdicate

Leading the system is just that, leading. It does not mean that you delegate and forget. Especially in the early stages of a project. People need your support and encouragement. They may need your skills. They may need you to push them when they feel they cannot and you know they can. If you abdicate your authority you will leave your people feeling alone and discouraged.

Only Delegate When Appropriate

Make sure that those to whom you delegate have the necessary skill to carry out the task. If not, they will be frustrated, you will be frustrated, and the work will not be completed.

Look at Team and Sub-team Structure.

Map it out. Keep all parts of the team communicating with each other. Check for consistency, effectiveness, and overlap. Make sure that all areas of overlap have clear owners in terms of responsibility. The ultimate goal is a streamlined team, not a one-on-one manager-to-direct report relationship.

Learn Up. Train Down.

There is a great scene in “We Were Soldiers” where Mel Gibson says; “Learn the job of the man above you and teach your job to the man below. We will be landing under fire gentlemen… Men will die.”

It has been said that the measure of a great leader is this, that in his or her absence, the organization will continue to function in precisely the same manner. For the leader, this is both honoring and terrifying.

I remember telling my leaders that if we get to the point where someone else can run this organization better than me, I will happily step aside. I said that because I believed (rightly so) that the organization was the most important thing. But, did I actually believe that I would step aside? Of that, I am not so convinced… It sounded like a dignified statement from me as their leader, but each time I said it I trembled inside.

It’s kind of the same as confidently saying that we could die for our faith or for our country. It is easy to say when the chances are slight that we will ever be tested in that manner. Each of us hopes that it is the truth, but we will never know unless put to the test.

Learning Up

Learning up is easy for many of us. In fact, we see it as preparation for promotion. Thinking back on a previous employment, I remember the moment I knew I would be moving into my next position, I made every effort to learn the job of my superior. I went with him to meetings, learned from him, asked him questions, and prepared to take his place. His allowing me to learn from him said more about his character than it did mine. I wonder if he ever hesitated to teach me when he knew I desired to replace him? I doubt it. He understood the second principle, Train Down.

Train Down

The transformational leader trains his direct reports to fill his shoes. A nominal leader avoids training others in intricacies of their position. The reason is most often a fear of being replaced or deemed unnecessary. However, when the transformational leader understands that the organization is the priority, he will allow others to learn what they need to learn to advance the missional causes of the whole. If this means that he becomes unnecessary, then so be it.

HOWEVER…

Most of the time, the resulting team-building and empowerment solidifies the leader in his position and further empowers him to lead the group or team. In other words, great value is found in that leader. When he actively trains to become replaceable, he becomes indispensable.