A few years ago, I was given the task of writing a leadership development curriculum for our organization. We were coming to grips with the fact that the numerous staff and volunteers who made our company work could use some better training for what we needed them to do as leaders. As the senior leader of the organization, somebody felt I was the best one to come up with the plan.
I was very excited about the opportunity. I believe great leadership is a must for any organization that wants to be successful. I’ve always wanted to be an effective leader so I had been applying myself to learn all I could about being a leader for years.
In my particular environment, I need to know how to lead a professional staff team in order to effectively mobilize a volunteer driven, non-profit organization. Consequently, I had shelves full of books on topic of leadership and files stuffed with articles and notes that I had collected through the years in my quest to become a better leader.
In anticipation of my project, I arranged to hide out at a friend’s lake house for an undisturbed day reserved for crafting our new leadership development curriculum. I gathered some of my favorite books and magazine articles, a pile of notes and handouts I had collected from various conferences and workshops along with a wealth of materials I had plucked from numerous internet searches on the topic of leadership development.
Along with a bag lunch, my laptop and a fresh legal pad, I set off for my grand foray into writing a leadership curriculum that would train leaders in our organization for years to come. I was just sure that I would leave the lake house at the end of the day with the next New York Time’s bestseller on professional development; the work that would plant me securely in the pantheon of leadership gurus.
Visions of millions danced in my head. By the time I set out to write my next book, it would be at my own lake house.
I was really was excited about this project. I had wanted to do something like this for a long, long time. Unfortunately, time for work like this is often lost in the daily chaos of the urgent.
But here I was with a mandate to write a leadership curriculum. I had an entire day all to myself to establish the guts of what would become my great contribution on leadership.
I arrived at the lake house early. I opened all the windows to let in the gentle breeze and to flood the room with sunlight. I settled in at the dining room table overlooking the blue water below my mountain perch. I pulled out all my materials, neatly arranged them in the order I would need them, turned on my computer, created my file and placed my fingers on the keyboard.
Let the genius begin!
Ten hours later…I had nothing!
When I say nothing, I mean, notta’, zilch, zippo, one large goose egg of writer’s block. I didn’t even have an outline.
The minute I started to think of what to include in the curriculum, I became completely overwhelmed with the scope of all that should be included in a discussion on leadership. How in the world do you take nearly twenty years of leadership learning and distill it into an outline of materials that you could use to train budding leaders in a workshop?
I was completely paralyzed by the project once I started on it. On my drive home from the lake that night, I was incredibly discouraged. I had absolutely nothing to show for the day’s effort.
The next few days were a blur as I found myself nearly obsessed with how to begin, let alone finish, the project. The more I thought about it the more obscure it all became.
I carved out another opportunity in my schedule to work on the project. I sat in my office with my feet propped up on my desk just staring at a blank legal pad trying to come up with an outline. I just needed a place to start. When nothing ended up on the paper after nearly an hour, I simply scribbled one question across the open page in frustration.
“What do I want our leaders to do?”
If I could recruit some great people and then train them to do what we really needed them to do as leaders in our company, what would I want them to do? What would be the essential practices of a leader of teams in our organization?
Sitting there trying to answer that simple question finally dislodged the ideas I had been searching for over a week. Before too long, I had a long list of answers to my critical question. Once the dam broke, I was on a roll. Fortunately, I ended that work session with a good start of what would become our company’s leadership development strategy.
Initially, there was a long list of things I felt a leader needed to do. After some careful consideration, I recognized that most everything on the page fell into one of four categories. In my mind, those categories became the four essential practices of an effective leader. Ironically, the first letter of each of those four practices formed a perfect acronym: L.E.A.D.
I need leaders who…
…the people they lead.
In the end, I felt I needed our leaders – both professional and volunteer – to love, empower, align and develop the people they led. I am convinced that if our leaders honed these four practices, our organization will thrive.
To really understand their importance, I think it’s extremely important to place them in context. Let me explain how I see the role of leadership in the life of organization.
In very simple terms, a team exists to come up with a solution to a challenge facing their organization. Together, that team identifies a plan they believe will solve the problem facing them. It doesn’t matter what kind of team or organization we are talking about. Whether it’s a product development challenge, a customer service problem or coming up with a way to deliver your widget faster. Whatever the case, there is a team of people working on a plan to solve a problem.
Every organization has teams working on the challenges facing their company. Depending on the size of your company, it might be one team working on all the challenges you face or it’s hundreds of teams across the nation. Finding solutions to problems is what you pay people to do for you.
I am convinced that the success of those teams is determined by the effectiveness of the person leading them. “Speed of the leader, speed of the team.” Great teams are led by great leaders.
Now listen closely. This is the most critical principle of leadership in my opinion. The work of the leader of the team is fundamentally different from the work of the team. Let me say that again. The work of the leader of the team is fundamentally different from the work of the team.
Sure, a leader earns a lot of points with his team when he rolls up his sleeves and gets down into the trenches with them from time to time. However, if that is all he does, his team will ultimately fail to be as effective as it could be.
A leader must attend to the work nobody else on the team is going to do while they are busy working the plan for solving the problem they face.
As a highly relational leader, I am a player-coach by nature. I like to be in the trenches with my teammates. I really don’t like the lines of distinction between the leader and the led. I never have. In high school, I didn’t relish being selected a team captain. I just wanted to be one of the guys.
However, I have learned the hard way that I can’t just be one of the guys and lead a successful team. If I neglect the vital work the leader does on behalf of his team, the team fails.
This is why a leader and leadership are so vital to the success of any organization. Leaders do a work nobody else is doing.
To help my leaders understand this important concept, I draw a diagram where an arrow represents the work that needs to be done by the team. On the blunt end (left) of the arrow is the problem facing the team for which they need to come up with a solution. On the pointy end (right) of the arrow is the solution to the problem they are tackling. The middle of the arrow is “working the plan.” It is executing the strategy they have created as the means to the solution. In the middle is where the day-to-day blocking and tackling goes on toward overcoming a team’s particular challenge.
Below the arrow I draw an image for the team. They exist to execute the work that needs to be done in order accomplish the plan. Above the arrow I draw an image for the leader. He exists to do the work that needs to be done in order for the team to be successful.
What I finally identified that day in my office was the four essential practices that I believe a leader must do in order to effectively mentor his team toward success. If you drop the ball on any of these four practices, don’t be surprised that your team fails to be successful at solving the problems facing your company.
The work of an effective leader is to love the members of his team, to empower them to act wisely on behalf of the organization, to align each team member around the organization’s mission, and to develop them into one the best teams in the entire organization.
This is the essential work of an effective leader.