Getting the best from your team

Have you noticed that there’s a shortage of good stories about CEOs that don’t fall into the stereotype of wealthy-fat-cat-who-dodges-taxes-and-treads-on-the-poor? Where are the stories about a corporate or organizational president who wants to do what’s right but runs into constant ethical grey areas, and faces struggles with public perception, morasses with no good outcome and dark nights of the soul—not to mention overcoming his or her own personal weaknesses? The current TV series most benevolent to CEOs is Undercover Boss, in which the big boss risks embarrassment and ridicule as he or she attempts to step into the shoes of an average employee within their own company.

I think my hunger for good president stories led me to dust off The West Wing, the long-running TV series from the 2000s that focused on the staff serving with the president of the United States. The episode I watched last night depicted a White House mired in a controversy that was in large part caused by a president who was less than forthcoming with his own staff, let alone the public. It causes the president’s staff an enormous amount of extra work and personal expense, as they each have to hire their own lawyers. They begin to crack under the stress, and it becomes clear that the core problem is not overwork or personal cost: as loyal as the staff are to their president, they haven’t forgiven the president for not bringing them into the loop earlier. By the end of the episode, the staff entertain a number of possible steps their leader could take to repair the damage.

  • Does he need to commend their hard work and give them some time off?
  • Does he need to apologize and spend some time getting them on the same page again?
  • Does he need to lay out a bold vision for the future that stirs their hearts to get over their personal pain?

President Bartlet does apologize to them as a group, but it feels cursory. Then he moves to inspiration and paints a vision for what they’re going to accomplish in the years ahead – something new and noble and big. Then he says, “Break’s over.” In other words, rather than lighten their load, he increases their capacity to give even more.

Vision does that. It makes a load feel a little bit lighter and in fact reveals that the load-bearer has unknown additional capacity. In her book, Multipliers, Liz Wiseman offers research that says a manager who diminishes staff will only draw out about 45% of their staff’s capacity, while a multiplier will get closer to 90%. But a significant sample in her research suggested the staff actually gave more than 100%. In other words, the leader drew out of them capacity they didn’t even know they had.

I recently read a chapter of Mistakes Leaders Make, in which Dave Kraft says leaders sometimes sacrifice vision for busyness. After all, many who find themselves in leadership positions were promoted because of competence. They love to do the work themselves while their teams struggle because they don’t have the one thing the leader alone can provide: vision. He arrives at one of the best differentiating statements about leadership and management I’ve ever heard:

Biblical leadership is concerned with the future, while management is concerned with the present.

To back up his point, Kraft cites Marcus Buckingham: “What defines a leader is his preoccupation with the future. He is a leader if, and only if, he is able to rally others to the better future he sees.” Kraft concludes, “True leadership is always forward thinking and forward moving.”

So how does an average, life-size leader practice “visioning,” without the benefit of Hollywood script writers and triumphant background music?

Take time to dream. Kraft says visioning is not just one thing a leader does; rather, “a leader’s primary responsibility is to hear from God.” And for most of us, it won’t happen without hard work. A leader has to “set aside time for retreating to dream, think, plan, and pray.” Kraft’s point:

Biblical leadership requires taking time to be in God’s presence often enough to hear from him what he wants to do in the future in your church, ministry or group.

Unlock ability in people. Wiseman says multipliers identify talent, know what they’re capable of, invest in them and create space for them to thrive. In short, they inspire people to offer their best. But they don’t stop there.

Demand their best work. Multipliers follow inspiration with high expectations. They delegate ownership and then hold their staff accountable to the high standard they know they’re capable of. Wiseman says that while the best leader’s desks appear level, in reality they have a distinct slant, where accountability slides back to the person sitting on the other side of the desk. Responsibility is never delegated upward.

It’s the beginning of a new year. I always rebel against the idea of resolutions, but I realize that my practice of reflection at the new year more often than not leads me to set areas of improvement. Let’s just call a resolution a resolution. Here are three areas I want to improve in 2014:

1. Visioning. I think my team needs to hear more vision, and they need to be equipped to share vision and plan for the future with their own teams.

2. Accountability for high expectations. I need to throw greater challenges to my team and hold them accountable. I need to constantly move things off my plate so that I have space for visioning and follow-up.

3. Storytelling. Since storytelling is such an essential tool for conveying vision, I want to invest in my abilities to tell effective stories that inspire, challenge and emote rather than simply conveying information.

How about you? What steps do you need to take to improve your ability to share vision and draw the best out of your team?

By the way, I think President Bartlet went a bit light on his apology. There’s incredible power in apology, and I think he missed an opportunity.

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Just a graphic designer

I remember a young lady in my graphic design classes at Georgia State University who had a take-it-or-leave-it approach to conflict. She would offer her opinion and, if someone challenged it, would respond, “What do I know? I’m just a graphic designer.” Her delivery of this line contained overtones of pluralistic acceptance and a passive-aggressive conflict style, but I’ve heard similar words expressed with different undertones.

That phrase – taken at face value – could be read a different way. It could reflect a deep-seated lack of confidence. Think of Gideon, who protested God’s call by claiming his clan as the weakest in his tribe, and he the least in his family. I can hear him now, saying “I’m just a grain farmer.” But God didn’t see him that way; the angel greeted him, “Mighty hero, the Lord is with you!” Wow.

Many of us think too little of our abilities or hide behind a simple skill-set when God has called us to much more than that. As a friend reminded me the other day, I could have skated by on my artistic talents instead of getting into leadership roles. Now, I’m not badmouthing graphic design; I’m badmouthing skating. Each person should pursue with enthusiasm and courage the role God has called him to and gifted him for.

If you’ve been reading my blog for long, you’ll know that I’m not suggesting that leadership is a greater gift, skill-set or body part than any other. Instead, I’m about matching giftings with needs. I’m about taking advantage of opportunity and moving forward courageously. And I’m completely against settling or skating by.

But let me turn the issue around. I think we are in danger of typecasting and overlooking people. Let me give you a couple of examples. I recently picked up my wife’s copy of the historical fiction book Lineage of Grace, by Francine Rivers. Rivers provides insights into the lives of five important women in Christ’s lineage:

  • Tamar was “just” a Canaanite wife, one of the foreign women God warned his people about intermarrying with. When she was mistreated by her father-in-law, she masqueraded as a prostitute to expose his hypocrisy.
  • Rahab was “just” a Canaanite prostitute who nevertheless believed in the Hebrew God and became the sole survivor when Jericho fell.
  • Ruth was “just” a Moabite widow who gave up her family and culture, risking everything to take on a Jewish identity and care for her mother-in-law.
  • Bathsheba was “just” a rape victim, stolen from her husband and forced to marry King David after he got her pregnant and killed her husband.
  • Mary was “just” a poverty-level teenager who consented to fulfill prophecies of a virgin birth at the risk of  having her reputation trashed by false charges of cheating on her fiance.

These five were the only women worthy enough to be mentioned in Jesus’ family tree in Matthew 1. Where man might overlook them, God honoured them and angels greeted them as “highly favoured.”

Wycliffe taught me early to be nice to everyone; you never know which staff member who reports to you today will end up being your boss. There is no natural ladder to the top in this organization, so never underestimate what people might have given up to take a current assignment.

I learned this life lesson the hard way when my wife and I were going through Wycliffe’s four-week orientation course in 1997. We were studying basic linguistics through the form of exercises and word puzzles that gave us a false sense of being gifted as translators. Each week, the exercises got a little harder until we reached a language with clear rules that were undecipherable by our group of aspiring linguists. It turns out the language was from North America, home of some of the most linguistically-complex languages in the world. In fact, one of them was used as a basis for the only code the Japanese never broke in World War II. Once we were sufficiently impressed with this language’s complexity, our instructor sprang the trap. He pointed out that the translator of the New Testament in this language was on the orientation program staff. After we exhausted our guesses of all obvious candidates, he pointed to the little, hunched-over lady who had been in and out of the room the entire month, running errands and making copies. I don’t think I had ever even noticed her. She was just an administrative assistant, right?

Who are you overlooking? Is it someone else, or yourself? I firmly believe a leader’s job is to make heroes of the “just” castes. We need to notice them, and we need to tell their stories. So here’s to all the administrative assistants, maintenance staff, receipting clerks and graphic designers who fly under the radar.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-28)

Incidentally, I still look at the world as a designer — a unique viewpoint that sometimes allows me to see opportunity in challenging contexts. I’ve used that line before in leadership. At the end of the day, I’m “just” a graphic designer.

Reluctance is not the same as unwillingness

Part 2 in defining a reluctant leader is to describe what it is not. Another great quote from the blogosphere, this one from Jeffrey Dean:

In Forrest Gump, Forrest had hundreds of people following him as he ran across the country, but he had no idea why he was running, much less what to say to those who joined him. When the moment came for him to speak, he simply said he was tired, and thought he would go home. There is a simple wisdom in this, but it was not delivered in a way anyone was ready to accept.

Again, a person with the ability to lead has no duty to do so. While some may argue that choosing not to lead is a waste of ability, I would counter that a person who does not want to lead does not make a good leader. Here, then, is the most important distinction to make: a reluctant leader is not an unwilling leader. It is simply someone who does not actively seek to lead before attracting others who want to follow. At some point, such a person must decide whether to lead or not, and the choice itself defines whether the person is actually a leader or not.

I am one who would argue that stewardship of our gifts is critical, and anything less is waste. However, I’m with him on his last point. Leadership abilities are not enough. A leader is one who chooses to lead.

So reluctant leaders have huge potential, but they’re not leaders until they emerge. I firmly believe that in every reluctant leader, there is a suppressed desire to lead.