Leadership: Solving the Puzzle of How to do it Gracefully
I’m a long way from figuring out the best (and worst) ways of leaders. But I’m seen a lot of good, and bad.
I keep studying it. My best thinking about it was expressed in a keynote address I made to a group of executives from the REIT meeting in Palm Springs.
The subject today is leadership. I’m going to try to present some ideas that might cause you to think about an old topic in a new way; more than that I’m going to offer you a challenge to engage your own leadership in executing this plan.
Before I speak directly to the plan I want to tell a strategic planning story with a local twist. I attended college near here, at the University of Redlands. Redlands is a beautiful community... if you flew into Ontario or Los Angeles it’s worth a stop to sightsee, especially if you are attracted to turn of the century Queen Anne architecture.
Redlands was an important place 100 years ago. Southern California had two competitive advantages: 25 years earlier the Valencia Orange had been introduced causing the significant growth of the citrus agriculture and the weather attracted affluent Midwesterners to spend their winters here. Redlands was a destination for many of these wealthy wintering residents, who traveled across country in the lavish private railroad cars and eventually parked them in a special yard built by the Southern Pacific Railway. The turn of the century mansions in Redlands were, in fact, vacation cottages.
Some of you may recall the brisk competition for the tourist trade between Florida and southern California at the beginning of this century. The planners of Redlands banked on being able to use its sublime climate to attract the winter trade. Everything was fine until the great freeze of 1906. Record cold hit the area. In those days, frost was countered in the orange groves through the use of smudge pots: small smoky burners distributed throughout the orchards to warm the air and protect the crops. That winter, each morning Redlands’ winter residents would arrive, step off the train, feel the freezing chill, see the gray sky, whiff the smoke in the air and climb back on their private railroad cars. They traveled 50 miles east, over the San Gorgonio Pass, to where we are now: that’s how Palm Springs got its start.
You know the moral of the story: the best laid plans go awry. Good planning comes not from creating a document, pieces of paper called a plan. That’s just the first step: good planning comes through action, through the use of the plan to make better decisions.
I have helped create, implement or evaluate dozens of plans. I’ve seen lots of others. Sad to say most fall short of their mark and far too many are never implemented at all. Those plans no matter how well written or glossy end up unopened on somebody’s shelf...the proverbial 5 pound doorstop.
I hate that. That’s why I speak out to the need to act as leaders in the execution, in the use, in the living of the plan. Ultimately it’s what you do that counts, not the plan.
Let me give a couple of examples. Right now, somewhere, in one of your offices a receptionist is looking at two telephone messages to return. I’m arguing that one of those messages is more important, however marginally, to return before the other in terms of achieving your plan. Making a choice that gets closer to achieving your mission, thinking, strategically is what planning is all about.
Here’s another example. A few years ago I was in the executive suite of a large bank. I’m chatting with the receptionist and she opens a drawer and pulls out a rubber-banded six inch stack of airline tickets... these were tickets for reserved flights that had never been taken. Conservatively there had to be $20,000 of unused tickets there. And, you and I know, that the chances were these tickets would never be used. What I found interesting about this is, at the same time, I knew a branch manager of the same corporation who couldn’t get a budget exception of $500 to repair a broken vacuum tube for the drive-through deposit.
You want the plan to be a guide to thinking strategically. You don’t want the plan to fail.
Why do plans fail?
Here’s a list of things I’ve seen happen. The last two are the critical ones.
* too forecast specific
* not visionary enough
* unclear goals and objectives
* unclear strategies or non-existent action plans
* insufficient resource commitments
* no buy-in from those who have to carry out the plan, especially at the front-line
* NO LEADERSHIP.
Leadership is critical to the success of a plan. That’s why I want you to think about your role as leaders in making this plan come to life.
To do that, let’s think about what leadership truly is. The first thing is to recognize that leadership takes many forms and styles... it is like a chemical element that changes radically in form depending upon the circumstances where you find it. It is a given that many styles of leadership are effective and no one style works in every type of organizational setting. Later in my comments I’ll speak directly to the specific kinds of leadership your company needs, but for now I want us to gain a high level understanding of what leadership is and how we can increase it in quantity and quality.
What I plan to do is reveal a few of the mysteries and secrets of leadership and make available more of that valuable resource to you and, ultimately, the focus of this meeting, Plan 2000. To expose the secrets of leadership I have to remove first a veil held in place by three very wrong conceptions, myths if you will, about leadership.
Leadership Myth #1: leadership is a rare and uncommon human trait , in short supply because it occurs so infrequently (indeed there are only a few in every generation).
Wrong, leadership is a basic human trait evident in every social activity we undertake, rooted in our capacity to interact and probably necessary for our species’ survival.
Leadership Myth #2: leaders are born not made.
Wrong. True, some of us may have greater aptitude for the skills leadership demands, but the basic attribute of leadership is responsiveness to the needs of a group; anyone of us is capable of answering the call.
Leadership Myth #3: the best models for leadership are to be found in war, sports or politics.
Wrong, again. Athletics, the military and politics offer examples of leadership, but only of a very special kind and conducted under the most narrow, almost “hothouse,” circumstances that bear little relationship to what we try to do every day in leading our businesses and organizations. In fact, leadership on the battle or playing fields is actually easier because, unlike any of the organizations where we work, command and control models prevail: orders are given and they are expected to be carried out by loyal and obedient subordinates.
The path to effective leadership is to discard these three myths and to recognize that the potential supply of leadership is great, anyone can improve their leadership skills and that the profoundest lessons about leadership come from everyday events.
With these sounder ideas about leadership in mind we can consider what leadership really is. I haven’t defined leadership yet for a good reason; if we don’t first abandon our misconceptions about leadership we will surely repeat the error of assuming that leadership is a rare trait that performs great and heroic feats.
That’s Hollywood leadership; everyday leadership, the kind we’re most concerned with, is really best defined as two simple, but linked things:
* the ability to recognize and respond to a group’s need for direction,
* the ability to inspire confidence in others to embrace the risks of the future.
Let’s examine the meaning of this definition more closely and pay attention to what skills it suggests should be developed in our leaders.
The ability to recognize and respond to a group’s need for direction is what was referred to in earlier times as “the call.” Real leaders don’t declare their leadership to groups; good leaders recognize the group’s call for leadership when it comes and are prepared to respond.
Too often I run into would-be leaders who believe that leadership is doing something, anything, resulting in a kind of leadership by frenzy. There is a fear among them that if they don’t act or speak up they will have lost their ability to lead. In my experience successful leaders pay attention to what the group is saying they need and take steps to see those needs are met. Being quiet and listening may, at the right moment, be the significant act of leadership most needed.
Probably the clearest lesson about leadership comes from some advice we were given as youngsters: stop, look and listen.
I recently came across a poem of David Whyte’s that speaks to this issue of leadership and listening quite profoundly. The poem is written in the style of a Northwest Native American elder giving instruction to a child. The child asks, “what do I do if I’m lost in the forest?” The elder responds:
What do I do if I’m lost in the forest? Stop. The tree ahead and the bush beside know where they are. It is a place called here.
Leaders listen. They hear what the group has to say; determine what its needs are. They are able to take the babble of many voices and create a harmony and a consistency in theme. Leaders look, they have superb analytic skills and they discover where the group is, where the group needs to go and ways to get there. If leadership demands any one particular academic skill it is the ability to put things into context; to determine where is here and where is there.
The ability to inspire confidence in others to embrace the risks of the future requires both a technique and an attitude if one is to lead successfully. Confidence is inspired in others through communication and, most of us would agree, that the best leaders I’ve ever know were exceptionally skilled communicators. Such leaders have mastered the skills of sending messages through a variety of media that are understood and acted upon by the group.
More is involved here than effective communication, the message of the leader must be inspiring. Leadership is about helping a group deal with the uncertainties of the future. To inspire that kind of confidence the leader must send consistent messages about where the group is going, what it faces, what it can expect and the progress it is making in getting there.
To be effective the leader needs to encourage and support forward progress, recognize and reward achievement, helping folks work through setbacks and failures. Coaching and mentoring are all parts of successful, inspiring leadership. “You can do it,” is the leader’s mantra and, particularly at moments of adversity, leadership means motivating the group to keep trying when quitting would be an easy thing to do.
It is one thing to tell a group, “take the risk, you can do it.” The leader must believe that their efforts can succeed and believe so passionately. This fundamental confidence in the group is the attitudinal support of leadership. In this manner confidence breeds confidence. At the very heart of it, leaders trust and are trusted. Confidence is borne of the mutual regard leaders and followers have of each other.
Inspiring action in the face of risk underscores the oft-repeated calls for leaders to be visionaries, although I believe the need and use of vision makes more sense used in this context. The power of vision is that it presents a counter to the real fears that emerge when any group confronts an unknown future. We are told that people resist change, what we’re not told is that they resist change for good reasons. The leader’s greatest task is to overcome the group’s founded fears about the costs of change, the possibility and consequences of failure and the potential that what they achieve in the future may not live up to what was envisioned.
Effective leaders are honest about the future, all the time keeping a motivating vision in front of the group while addressing the realities of what it will take to achieve that vision. A colleague of mine once suggested that the only way to get to a vision is through “bite-sized pieces,” an astute observation as to how leaders make parts of the vision real as progress is made towards its ultimate condition.
Note that I am not suggesting that the leader is responsible for the vision, indeed I believe that great leaders often discover the vision when they are listening to the needs and wishes of the group. I do believe, however, that the leader is the paramount steward of the vision and much of the leader’s communication skills go to enunciating, translating and explaining the vision so that everyone knows where they are going and why.
These are the things that represent leadership by my estimation:
* excellent analytic skills to understand the group’s present needs and future possibilities...a true sense of the strategic. * excellent communication skills to present a vision and inspire, encourage and motivate action even at times off adversity and sacrifice. * confidence and trust in the members of the group who have called you to leadership. * the passion, commitment, persistence and courage to pursue the vision.
Earlier I suggested that real examples of leadership can be drawn from everyday life and may, ultimately be more powerful than the feats presented by Hollywood. Given a full exposition of my understanding of leadership, true examples can best be seen, perhaps, in a mother encouraging her child to go to school, a father helping his child jump in the water to learn how to swim, a kindergarten teacher patiently teaching a child to read, a coach showing a player how to reach a new level of performance. The true leaders of our society are managers and teachers and, above all, parents. Anytime someone helps another take those first risky steps towards emotional or intellectual growth true leadership is evident.