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.

Steve Moore’s list included a good indicator of early leadership that’s worth commenting on: individuals who are willing to take on a challenge others won’t. The ones who show initiative to take advantage of opportunity. The ones whose resistance to risk is overtaken by a compulsion that someone has to do something.

Leaders sometimes appear to come out of nowhere with a sudden success. I suspect I know what Malcomb Gladwell would say: that there are no overnight successes, and the individual has put in a lot of hours beforehand that led to such “instance success.” I agree. I think it’s easier to spot failure than to spot competence, and individuals like these have likely shown signs of potential along the way. What gets them noticed is the turnaround situation where they made something out of nothing.

There’s a well-worn piece of advice that seems relevant: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Remember that line from Amazing Grace, where a 24-year-old William Pitt first proposes to William Wilberforce that he thinks he can make a run at prime minister?

Wilberforce: No one of our age has ever taken power.
Pitt: Which is why we’re too young to realize certain things are impossible. Which is why we will do them anyway.

Some watch that movie and get inspired by Wilberforce; I get inspired by Pitt. Wilberforce succeeded through persistence and endurance; Pitt succeeded by sheer audacity. Perhaps he was a fool, but maybe that’s the point. In Moore’s recent book, While You Were Micro-Sleeping, he makes the point that experts and elitists “can’t ask the dumb questions that often trigger new ideas.” Most innovations come from fools.

Certainly, the pessimism born from experience becomes a block to innovation, but I think there’s another factor at work than just being too young to show caution. I think it’s a matter of conviction and motivation — that sometimes a situation is so dire, with no one willing to take it on, that a young person decides the worst they can do is fail. They have less to lose. Or that a frustrated young leader who never gets opportunity sees in a challenge a chance to go all in. With great risk comes great reward. We can probably all think of young leaders who took on big challenges and came out of nowhere to lead a new era. These are the kinds of stories we love.

But what about the other side? The stories of those who try and fail — or who never try — don’t get told. The younger generations have been long characterized as having an unhealthy fear of failure. Pessimism and skepticism is just as rampant among the young as it is among the old. I’ve had conversations with three young leaders in the past month who have recently faced choices: one relatively safe and one with greater risk. In all three cases, the young leader has opted for safety. There are good reasons for their decisions. No one would question their logic. But I’m disappointed.

Here’s the thing. Organizations need young leaders to step up. Hierarchical organizations need young leaders who master relational influence over positional authority. High-process organizations need young leaders who push back on bureaucracy and ask uncomfortable questions. Monocultural organizations need trailblazers who easily bridge cultures. And older, established organizations need age diversity.

What it comes down to is that the world doesn’t need an older you. The world needs young leaders who are willing to step up and take on the unique challenges we’re facing… today.

In our Threshing Floor lunchtime discussion a year or so ago, one of our senior vice presidents mentioned that there is no ladder for general administration. The fact is that the skills required for administration are not the same skills required for lower-level leadership or line management. Therefore what would make a person successful as an administrator wouldn’t necessarily make her successful at any point in earlier life. In fact, it might hinder her success. And someone who is very successful at a lower level might be extremely unqualified for executive leadership. It’s simply a different skillset.

We’re talking about the opposite of the Peter principle here. It’s not about promoting someone to their highest level of incompetence. It’s not about turning a talented practicioner into a manager. In fact, talented practicioners might best be used where they are. Imagine that!

So, when Michelle Braden asks if a young person demonstrates early-stage strategic thinking, I want to ask what that looks like.

  • I think in some ways, it might come across as boredom. Or daydreaming.
  • It might be the annoying propensity to not stick to a task.
  • Or a tendency to scope creep — to do things outside their jurisdiction.
  • It might be a hunger to know the background or the bigger context for a task they’re asked to do.

All of those indicate early-stage strategic thinking… and might make one very unsuccessful in a job that doesn’t require that skillset.

Because the only ladders are within departments, great generalists and executives can be typecast, stuck within a particular role and unable to break free. If they only have one variety of experience, they could very well be limited. Jeff Shaara’s Civil War novels talk about an extremely talented quartermaster in the Mexican American War who was adept at getting supplies where they needed to be. Wikipedia says that his desire to lead troops was so strong that he continually found ways to get to the front lines. After the war, he was an abysmal failure at a number of ventures. It wasn’t until the Civil War, when he finally got an opportunity to command troops, that he showed extraordinary brilliance, earning the nickname “Unconditional Surrender.” To his final battle, he included in his military strategy a strong recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of supply chains. He soon caught the eye of his commander-in-chief. U.S. Grant’s promotion to lieutenant genaral was likely the greatest leadership decision Lincoln ever made. My question is this: what if Grant had been left in charge of supplies? Or what if his civilian failures had ended his career?

We’ll save a future blog post for the fact that Grant was a fantastic general who made a terrible president.

To get back to my point, how do we find these diamonds in the rough? How do we spot strategic thinking in a position that doesn’t necessarily require it?

  • How do we test emerging leaders to see if that little glimmer is really full-blown, high-carat strategic thinking?
  • And are we willing to take the risks when we see it to move someone into a position that plays to that strength, even if their resume might not include all the rungs to the top?
  • Are we willing to recommend cross-departmental transfers to broaden a rising star’s experience outside their one area of expertise?
  • Are there spaces in general administration to bring in raw talents in intern, interim or assistant roles to develop them at the 50,000 foot level?

I think Wycliffe USA has some pretty good first steps in place, but there’s plenty of room to improve.

When I was learning to ski back when I was in high school, I was taught that the most important thing to learn is how to fall well. Now, there’s two ways to judge quality. When you’re on the ski lift, and you see someone wipe out spectacularly below you, you judge a good fall by factors like whether both skis and poles separate from the individual, what body parts hit snow at high speeds, number of twists, etc. When you’re the one falling, you use different parameters. You want to fall in such a way that your skis don’t twist and cause knee damage, that you don’t hit stationary objects, and that you are able to get up again. During the recent Olympics, we saw some people who knew how to fall. Do you remember Anja Paerson, the female downhill skiier who crossed the finish line on her face? She ended up getting bronze two days later. That was someone who knew how to fall.

I think what Michelle Braden would tell you is that leaders need to know how to fall. They need to be able to get back up, stiff and bruised as they are, and try again. When gauging leadership potential we need to consider, What is a young person’s ability to fail and then recover again? Do they understand how to do that? As I think about her question, “Do they understand the process to recover from failure?” I suspect most organizations don’t have any kind of articulated process for that. What they have instead is a track record. I heard recently about an executive in Orlando who very publicly blew it in managing a division of the company. The CEO took him under his wing and gently restored him and built up his confidence again. He is now CEO of a division of that company. How many people in the company watched that happen? I guarantee you there are leaders in that company who have followed that same model to restore others. And I guarantee you the young leaders and aspiring leaders in that company noticed.

So, I think there are three points that are worth discussing. First, stop and ask yourself: What is your organization’s track record for recovery from failure? What can you as a leader do to change or build on that track record?

Second, as established leaders, keep your eye open for failure. Look for young people who show fortitude and resilience in failure. We can look for those who can take the heat and handle pushback. We can look for those who can stand by a decision that blew up on them and not make excuses. We need to be quick to come alongside them and not let them stay down too long.

Third, take a moment to think: What was your first big failure? What lessons did you learn from it that you still apply today?

I like to warn graphic designers that a day will come when they would cost their company money because of a bad decision. If they are lucky, it will only cost the company hundreds. My first big mistake cost my company a couple of thousand. I remember getting the bank stationery back from the printer and picking up the first sheet of letterhead. It felt like it was printed on copy paper. I got a big knot in my throat. I had to go to the namesakes of our public relations firm and own my mistake — that I had trusted the recommendation of our print broker without verifying the paper myself. We of course reprinted the job. That situation ended up breaking my relationship with the printer that we had used for years, and I probably could have handled that situation differently. My boss never complained about the cost. But I’ll tell you this: I worked harder at my job after that point. I swore I would never disappoint my boss again. And to this day, I trust my vendors but verify everything.

Failure is great leadership development… if you know how to fall well.

Steve Moore talked about the “reactive hypothetic” — a young leader with enough self awareness and contextual consciousness that he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, but isn’t willing/ready/courageous enough to be the one taking initiative. The problem is that this kind of person can end up in the peanut gallery, taking potshots at leadership.

Coming from a generation that prefers the role of critic, I see this one all the time. I’m reminded of a great moment in The Princess Bride when Andre the Giant is told he can take care of someone “his way.” “Oh, good… which way’s my way?” We know that something’s wrong with a situation, but we don’t know how we’d do it any differently. I’ve always got my eyes open for those exceptional young people who follow through with ideas to fill the void. It’s easy to point out mistakes, but are they willing to offer alternatives to replace what’s broken?

That takes courage and determination. Courage to decide you’re going to succeed with a new model. And perseverance similar to a 1-year-old learning to walk — determination that you’re going to try something, and if it fails, you’ll get up and try again.

Don’t get the wrong impression. I don’t think leaders have to have all the answers before they get started. The close of Deborah Reidy’s Reluctant Leaders paper makes a great point:

Finally, remember that leadership often begins with an uneasiness, a vague, unarticulated sense that things are not quite right but no idea what would be right or how to bring it about. As Ron Heifetz writes, ‘One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.’

It’s a myth that you have to have all the answers, that you have to have it all together, that you have to have the complete package before you lead. Frankly, it’s an outright lie. The best thing for a young leader is to get in the game. You won’t develop leadership abilities in a vacuum, and you probably won’t come up with the answers until you start trying.

Anyone who is willing to combine a good question with a determination to try until they succeed is going to change the world. Ask any of the Gen-X CEOs of Google, YouTube, eBay or Amazon. Did any of them hit gold on their first attempt? Malcolm Gladwell broke down that misperception in Outliers. Kings don’t simply happen; it takes hard work to be king.

I think servants and visionaries both have good eyes. It takes someone special to see an opportunity that everyone else has missed… and get there first.

The key to a great visionary is that everyone else asks themselves why they didn’t think of that. Somehow, in the context everyone was looking at, no one else saw the opportunity or was positioned to take advantage. I was reminded recently that a number of the companies that took our economy down last year were founded during the Great Depression. They were founded by visionaries who found a way to do things differently when everyone else was stuck in the decline. Unfortunately, the companies they started weren’t able to sustain that heritage… or held onto their heritage. A topic for another day, I suppose.

Likewise, servants have good eyes. Think about every period movie about British high society you’ve ever seen. Someone pointed out to me that the key to being a good servant was to watch their master’s hands. A good servant could anticipate the need of their master by watching body language and meet the need before it was expressed. I see the same quality in people who serve in my church today. There’s an ability to notice something that’s not being done and jump in before the need is even expressed. When you run an event, you want to stock your team with that type of person.

Leaders today need good eyes. They need to be visionary, and they need to be servants — people with the agility and flexibility to see a need and respond. So, where do we find those qualities in the next generation? As Steve Moore and Tim Elmore remind us, we can look for people who are already serving somewhere. We can look for people who look at challenges and see opportunity. We can look for initiative.

As I mentioned before, we can also look for people who are others-focused, who “watch the hands” of both their managers and their direct reports. They look for opportunities to empower and develop others. They give assignments and then invert the hierarchical pyramid to support their staff in the job they’ve been asked to do. They are quick to give credit to their staff or team for the success they might enjoy.

If you’re looking for servant leaders, start with character. Promote from among your servants.

Michelle Braden, president of MSBCoach, did a webinar in January where she listed another list of qualities to identify and develop in future leaders. I just rediscovered my notes from that presentation, and I think her submissions are good additions to our list of seeds:

  • Interpersonal skills – Do they show self-awareness, show good emotional intelligence and use their strengths?
  • Ability to deal with complex problems – and do they show flexibility in how they deal with them?
  • Ability to develop and inspire others – Are they others-focused? Do they value collaboration?
  • Hunger to learn – Are they curious, questioning and aspiring for more? Are they open to people speaking into their life?
  • Visionary – Do they show an interest in the big picture, demonstrate early-stage strategic thinking?
  • Introspective – Do they think before they act? Do they talk about the importance of an integrated life? Are they results-oriented… for the right reasons? What are their motivations?
  • Courage – Do they have the bility to take a stand? Are they willing to take a risk and stand by it?
  • Ability to recover – Can they take the heat and handle pushback? Do they understand the process to recover from failure?
  • Influence – Do they lead out of relationship, without needing a title?

Mmmm. Good stuff here. Again, I’ll save my comments for later posts, but let me add one more from personal observation:

  • A new interest in taking themselves seriously

How about you? What early seeds of leadership have you observed? We’re getting a pretty comprehensive list here.