Sharing Your Vision

All leaders have a vision of the future: the leader “sees” what the future will look like if the organization achieves its goals. For example, if the goal is to be the most profitable company in the industry – what would that look like? What will be the product or services that are most worthwhile? Who are your vendors? What would a day at the office be like? What would interactions with customers be like? How will employees treat each other? The list of questions is limited only by the imagination.

Now, if the goal is to be the highest quality provider, the questions are the same. If the goal is to “play it safe” and be a market follower, or to be the low cost provider, the questions are still the same although the visions may be very different. One’s vision of the future describes every important aspect of how things will be if the strategy is fulfilled.

It is not as simple as one might think, since there are usually multiple goals and strategies, and the vision comes from a combination of many things – some of which might even be conflicting. However, the vision needs to be exciting, interesting and motivating. If it is not, then the leader needs to question himself or herself as to what needs to be done about it. Maybe there are minor adjustments needed in the strategy or maybe the leader needs a better understanding of the goals. Is the organization possibly headed in the wrong direction, and if so, what is to be done?

The reason it is so important to have a vision that is attractive, is because this vision must be shared with the rest of the organization. It is what will drive everyone towards the future so it has to be something that people want to be a part of. If they don’t subscribe to the vision as set out by the leader, there is a very real possibility that they will hold a different vision – one that they have formulated for themselves.

Here’s why a vision is critical: people work towards what they see as the future. If they don’t like what they see, they will drag their feet and even work against the goals. They may even believe they are working towards a goal while subconsciously subverting it. Unless the leader has made it clear what the future will look like and is able to get their team to hold the same vision, the environment becomes inefficient, stressful, and raises the odds that the target will be missed

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Observations on Coaching

With the Super Bowl, all eyes are on the players, in particular the quarterbacks and the opposing defenses. At least, that is where the TV cameras spend the majority of their time. But there are frequent flashes to the coaches on the sidelines, especially to catch their reaction to a particular play on the field.

The two coaches (Tomlin & McCarthy) of Super Bowl XLV are very different in styles and personalities. The two teams (Steelers and Packers) are different in their manner of play and the character of their players.

In striving to be the best one can be as a leader, it is worthwhile to reflect about what makes a great coach. Coaches don’t become great because of their personalities, nor because of the way they design plays. Every coach is unique and their set of skills is different than every other coach. To be regarded as a good coach, the coach’s skills must mesh with the assistant coaches and the players. A team that doesn’t accept the way the coach does his job becomes dysfunctional and won’t be successful. To reach the Super Bowl, it takes the right coach and the right team. Together they can achieve great things and separate, neither would be as good.

Great coaches know how to mesh with the people around them. They know when to change themselves for the betterment of the team and when players should be changed to improve the entire structure. Great coaches know the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So do great leaders.

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Choosing the Front or the Back

Nelson Mandela

In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, he writes:

” I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing all along they are being directed from behind.”

This metaphor of the shepherd illustrates the meaning of Leading From Behind. The true leader has placed “the most nimble” in front. Knowing that the rest of the flock will follow these chosen leaders, the shepherd can pay attention to the big picture and move the herd towards its ultimate destination. The selection of the exact path the ones in front decide to take is immaterial to the attainment of the goal.

Within an organization, a leader needs to establish a vision, and then delegate responsibilities for its realization. These activities require the leader to be in front. But during the vast majority of the time that the organization spends working towards its success, others are in charge of selecting paths to get there. That is when the leader is “behind”.

From behind, the leader must encourage, cajole, and persuade.

The good leader knows when it is time to take a forward position and when to move back. Spending an inappropriate amount of time in either position is not acceptable.

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Change

All organizations change over time. This is a good thing, since the world is in a constant state of flux and healthy businesses respond to the influences around them. Organizational change may be a long, slow process, but I would like to focus on the more frequent type of changes brought about by implementation of new ideas or decisions.

People have a natural resistance to change. Maybe this is an evolutionary thing built into our DNA. Any time someone steps out of their comfort zone, there is an unease rooted in fear of the unfamiliar.

So with the inevitable changes in organizations, and the natural resistance by the people within, what is a leader’s role in a changing environment? There is a lot of information that can be learned about the subject of change management, but I would like to focus on one: getting buy-in.

Buy-in goes beyond acceptance.  It means embracing the change.  To get people to do this:

  1. Select a core set of individuals whose involvement is crucial to the successful implementation of whatever is changing. 
  2. Involve them in how the change is to be implemented. 
  3. Establish a vision for what it will be like when the benefits of the change are achieved. 
  4. Allow the group to influence the solution. 

By doing so, these individuals will adopt the solution as their own and defend it to others in the organization.

Change is never easy, and it can involve a lot of hard work. But the outcome, as well as the process, can be very satisfying if a leader can establish buy-in.

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A Leader’s Role in Innovation

I recently attended a SIM dinner meeting that included a panel discussion by four winners of the 2010 Chicago Innovation Awards. I always find it interesting to listen to entrepreneurs talk about what they are doing and how they got to where they are. Entrepreneurs are eternal optimists and I find their positive attitude to be infectious.

I got to thinking about what it means to be a leader of innovators. Since the whole idea is to go where no one has gone before, traditional “follow me” leadership doesn’t apply. The leader doesn’t show the way, but instead allows the innovators to seek their own ways. When something doesn’t work out, the leader doesn’t consider it a failure. Lessons can be learned that may make the next foray more likely to reach the prize.

When it comes to fostering innovation, leaders need to step out of the way of their people and become a cheerleader, with eternal optimism and an infectious positive attitude.

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New Idea?

Check out this Harvard Business Review interview with Professor Linda Hill. She very eloquently talks about the concept of Leading From Behind as a style for tomorrow’s leaders.

While tomorrow’s challenges may present opportunities for using this approach, consider a quote, attributed to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves”.

So a technique known over 2400 years ago is relevant today.

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Is there a “best way” to solve a problem?

Well, with games and puzzles, the best way may actually be the only way.  However, in life, there is seldom only one way to solve a problem.  Most of the time, there is more than one way to achieve anything.  

…so how does one know what the best way is? 

That question assumes there is some measurement that can be applied to use when selecting between alternative approaches.  However, problem resolution is multi-dimensional and a “best” result in one dimension may not result in the “best” result in another.  For example, the cheapest solution may not be the quickest.  The fastest solution may not be the most accurate.   Etc.

…ok, all things considered, what is the best way?

Deciding how good a solution is, ends up being very subjective and not at all the result of simple measurements.  Individuals may view the same solution very differently as to how good it is.  Even if there is consensus on a solution being very good, the law of unintended consequences may change everyone’s opinion later.  Assuming it is even possible to consider all things, it is unlikely there would be complete agreement on what answer is the “best”.

…so what should a leader do?

Give up the quest for best, and recognize that there are many good solutions to any problem.  If there are parameters that you want your team to operate within, make those boundaries clear.  Ultimately, you are responsible for what your team produces, so you have to be able to explain the course of action that was taken and what the benefits are.  Recognize the implications of the word “best” when you hear it from others, and address it appropriately.

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Rethinking where leaders come from

Ever hear the expression “climbing the corporate ladder”? A metaphor for receiving promotions and taking on new responsibilities, this hierarchical image of job advancement is firmly entrenched in our culture. At the bottom rungs are the entry-level staff and at the top is the CEO.

I once had a supervisor that said people either move up or they move out. At prestigious consulting firms, an employee does what it takes to receive regular promotions or that employee gets “counseled” to leave. In the military, officers advance in rank according to a certain time schedule, or the officer’s career is over. So not only does it matter where one is on the rungs of a ladder, it seems that continual upward movement is necessary to remain a member of the ladder community.

I’ve always disliked this career model because I feel that it places limits on what people imagine they can achieve, as they select a rung as their eventual stopping point on the ladder.  However I have encountered it continually throughout my business life. Assuming that the model is here to stay, where on the ladder are the leaders? It is consistent with the model that leaders are found at every rung. Leadership is a necessary competency for someone to advance upward. The quality of leadership should grow based on experience and training, similar to other attributes that contribute to each advance in position.

I believe most people near the top of an organization would think of themselves as leaders, but is there a level where someone’s self concept switches to being a leader? Each individual may find a different level at which they realize that they are a leader, although some will never have this epiphany. I doubt if most near the bottom rungs think of themselves as leaders. But they should. Everyone is a leader in some respect, even if they do not realize it – regardless of one’s rank.

I have a friend that very early in his career decided that he would never become a manager. He did not want to supervise anyone and did not want any personnel responsibilities. He was quite content to only advance his technical knowledge and skills. One day his supervisor called him a “leader without title” and this surprised him. He never thought that there were others who looked to him as an example of what they aspired to be.

If you subscribe to the ladder-model of career advancement, consider the areas that within your scope of control you can be a leader and how you can hone this skill over time. You will need to continually improve if you want to move up. And if you do not believe in the ladder-model, consider that everyone is a leader in some way. Discover what others may see in you, that you yourself do not, and be the best you can be. And in any case, understand that becoming a leader does not come from a promotion, it comes from within.

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“Leading from behind” sounds wrong

When I decided on the title for this blog, I wanted one that would catch someone’s attention.  I admit the term “leading from behind” seems counter intuitive, but it is a legitimate leadership style, and one that needs to be talked about more.  

Consider this quote from Nelson Mandela: “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” 

The romantic concept of someone leading their troops into battle is all fine and good, but should not become the dominate image of how all leaders go about their business.  Through this blog, I propose a different way of thinking about leadership, and maybe someday the expression “leading from behind” will be a well-understood principle.

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