June 2010


I’m a problem solver. I love to fix people’s problems, and over the last decade, I’ve honed a reputation for creative problem solving. But I discovered that when I’m the only one to solve problems and put out fires, I become a firefighter. It’s all I have time to do. Every problem routes through me… and usually adds another dozen emails to my inbox. The sad part about firefighting is that it’s not leadership. It consumes all your time so you can’t focus on the things that only you can do. As Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller say in The Secret, leaders can’t work on “Heads Up” activities like vision and strategy if they’re spending all their time on “Heads Down” activities like putting out fires.

So I’ve learned to turn it around. If my staff present a problem to me, the best way to respond is with a question: “what do you think we should do?” Put the onus on them, and draw them into the solution process. There’s a good chance they have some ideas. If they don’t, they will next time they bring a problem to me. I now keep a sign on my desk that says, “Equip problem solvers.” I’d rather do that than be the Chief Problem Solver.

Don’t ask a question unless you already know the answer.

Have you heard that before? The paternalism in that quote makes my blood boil. I remember my wife and I were once part of a Bible study led by one of our pastors. When he’d ask a question, he’d dutifully faciltiate discussion, adeptly drawing in every participant… but then he always concluded with his own authoritative comment. As we began to realize that he was the only one with the right answer, our discussions became forced and clipped. Becky and I soon found a reason to stop participating in that group.

I’ve blogged before about the power of a question, quoting Ron Heifetz’s great line, “One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.” In The Leadership Jump, Jimmy Long pointed out that a “well-structured question” can draw emerging leaders into the creative and leadership process. It goes back to control. If you want the outcome to be exactly as you expect, then do all the work yourself. If you want a better result, with a strong developmental bent, then you have to work more as an art director.

When I worked with graphic designers, I would present the question or challenge but withhold my own possible answers until I saw what others came up with. I didn’t want my “authoritative” answer to steer or limit the creative potential of my staff. Offering creative freedom often resulted in an unpredictable but even more creative end product than I could have imagined. More often than not I ended up tucking away my own feeble attempt to answer the question!

Of course, there’s also the risk that your team’s creative ideas just won’t work. There’s a tension that you learn to manage between involving others and drawing out their best versus the fact that you have ultimate responsibility for the end product. I’ve had to make some tough calls as an art director and as a manager to take control back and change the direction. I’ve done it poorly, and I’ve done it well. On a few occasions, I’ve been able to do it in such a way that the team can still share ownership, by steering the project and keeping my staff engaged in the new direction. Usually it involved vulnerability and accepting blame.

So what are some great questions to ask? I’ll suggest a few this week, but I’d love to hear your questions as well.

The big music labels and filmmaking companies have really struggled with this one. It doesn’t seem to make business sense to let people listen to music free on Pandora or watch movies and shows free on Hulu. Yet it builds the brand and creates more buyers. Social media has inverted many traditional models, and it’s the indie market that’s proving that the economics work… for the most part.

Let me take this one step further. In Getting Naked, Patrick Lencioni tells the tale of a consulting company that never sells. Rather than tell a client what they’ll do if they are hired, they start serving as if they are already hired. Sure, they’re opening themselves to being taken advantage of as they give away the goods, but Lencioni says 9 times out of 10, the client appreciates the generosity. They get a good feel for whether the product is what they really want, and they get a feel for whether your people are the ones they really want to work with. Lencioni didn’t just make this up; it’s his own company’s secrets he’s sharing.

As I learned early on from one of Atlanta’s public relations gurus, always add value. Everything you do or everything you send out should bring value to the person receiving it. We demonstrated it by offering free tips in all of our mailers. Yet every direct mail piece we sent out brought in a client.

My left brain can’t figure it out, but any time we’re open-handed, we end up with more than if we’re close-fisted. My pastor likes to say you can never outgive God. As you give away the things he gives you, he keeps giving you more. It’s not just a spiritual principle. I learned early on that generosity can be good business.

Without wading into the politics of it, I want to ask a simple question: does anyone else think Elena Kagan would make a better executive than a judiciary? Everything I’m hearing about her qualifications is focused on her leadership abilities rather than her ability to be fair and unprejudiced.

I found this recent Harvard Business Review blog that uses Kagan’s nomination as a springboard to make some excellent points about the challenges and obstacles to women taking leadership roles. Emily Harburg reinforces my suggestion about Kagan’s abilities, along the way making some very important and nuanced observations about the leadership strengths women bring to executive positions. She does a good job of articulating some of the issues friends of mine have struggled with. These are issues that organizations like Wycliffe need to pay attention to.

Harburg also points out the unique characteristics women bring to leadership. Women are ideally suited for leadership in today’s collaborative environment. Many are good at “transformational leadership,” a style that empowers, mentors and inspires their followers. I’m grateful for some of the amazing women God has placed on the Wycliffe USA board, and it’s been my privilege to work with two of them closely over the last year and see the way they lead. I read somewhere recently that some studies in Europe show that companies are more successful with women in key positions of leadership, including the board. I agree: we need women in leadership!

I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially those from my female readers.

This is the way to create movements. Purpose and cause are far more important than organization and ownership. It’s about walking away from the need to “box out” or defend our territory. If you want to accomplish something more quickly and broadly than you could imagine doing on your own, open source and viral are the methods to pursue.

But release comes at a cost. In someone else’s voice, your message might not be precise. In a chaotic movement, there might be confusion about what organization to come to with questions or for support. Most efforts at branding are limiting rather than empowering. Yet marketers are increasingly willing to do what it takes to make their story “go viral.” For instance: at the end of 2009, when hundreds of filmmakers vied to make their own Doritos commercial for the 2010 Superbowl, then engaged in private marketing campaigns to find voters so that their ad had a chance to air and then a church entered the competition and the national media picked up on “the controversy,” Doritos was the big winner. You can’t buy publicity like that, and it wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t found ways to give their message away. They figured out what was sacred and what could be turned loose. The biggest result was an unleashing of creativity.

My suggestion? Build your brand around your ability to build movements. I think Wycliffe is on the verge of being able to do that with Vision 2025, our BHAG that the Word of God is accessible for every language in this generation. Counterintuitively, the likelihood that it will happen increases as the process gets messier, the definitions murkier and the measurements more difficult.

Control has a lot of appeal. It’s probably the reason most people get into leadership roles. But it’s overrated. The more complex the leadership settings I get into, the more I realize that there are so many factors that are utterly impossible to control. In Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender points out the illusions and pitfalls of trying to maintain control of complex situations, crises and chaos. Control is an illusion, he says. A controlling leader tries to limit chaos and uncertainty. Instead, they should be embraced as part of the creative process.

The only solution I’ve found to the pitfalls of control is to give it away. Not to have it taken by prying apart my dead fingers, but to consciously choose to give it away. Give what away? Over the next few posts, I’ll unpack a couple of ideas.

Give power away

Autocratic leadership is a trap. It is self-limiting. The only way to accomplish all that we’re asked to do as leaders is to empower those around us to make decisions.  In The Leadership Jump, Jimmy Long says:

Existing leaders have to realize that we are not the only ones who can drive; there are younger leaders who know how to drive better in this new and increasingly technological culture.

Long calls these emerging leaders “indigenous people.” To one who appreciates technology but is never completely comfortable with it, that phrase says it all. Call me “crosscultural.”The fact is that those from younger generations can do things in their sleep that require a lot of effort from those of us from earlier generations.

Long goes on to draw from a Harvard Business Review article by Deborah Ancona called “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader.”

As existing leaders are willing to admit that they are incomplete and need others, and are willing to share the leadership with others on the team, then together they can get extraordinary things done.

Team leadership breaks past any one leader’s limitations. But let’s get practical. How do you get started? Long suggests offering well-structured questions to draw emerging leaders into the process of discovering the answers together. Dr. Steven Sample offers another simple but radical suggestion in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership: never make a decision that could be made by someone else. In other words, continually push decisions down. You’ll accomplish a lot more while you’re in your position, and you’ll leave your mark on the next few generations of leaders.

Long again:

We actually gain power by giving it away. It is a different kind of power. Instead of it being the power of control, it is the power of relationship, the power of shared decision making, the power of blessing.

What happens when the right person is unwilling to lead? I know an organization that recently came up short looking for a new president. The board made the decision to start their search over again. Is there simply a shortage of good leaders in that organization? No. There are a number of extremely-qualified candidates who turned them down.

Not long ago, The Reluctant Leader had an interesting post that drew my attention to an Old Testament parable. While Steve Murrell applies Judges 9 to government — which I think is a very good application — I think you’ll see how it applies more broadly. In the non-profit world we live in at Wycliffe, with no financial incentives to offer someone to step up in leadership, we often face situations where the right leader is unwilling to take on greater responsibility.

When the right people don’t step up, the void is filled by others.