On Leadership: Some advice from my bottom rung

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Not having spent any time in a core leadership role might open me up to criticism for this post. Some of you will say, “Well, it’s easy to criticize if you’re not the one leading. Easy post for you to write.”


I don’t rake in the big bucks from the C-suite or even middle management … but I have led teenagers across America and Italy without misplacing or killing any of them, coerced an entire class of middle schoolers to do Latin conjugations willingly, and directed several plays – a project management quest like few other experiences.  I’m not a stranger to making crisis decisions, organizing a complex system, or juggling conflicting personalities.

You might think that I’m just sounding off about pet peeves, but I genuinely believe that some of us sitting at the bottom of the organizational chart can spot leadership failures much faster than the executives. We’re the ones who have to make those crazy plans work, after all.

Here’s my advice for CEOs and organizational leaders, from my vantage on the bottom rung:

1.  You have two jobs as a leader.   The first is to figure out what your company or organization is doing (your mission) and make it clear and inviting so everyone gets on board.  Second you need to hire the best people that you could afford and then get out of their way.

Everything else follows from these two tasks, and if you screw them up, you’re probably making your underlings miserable.

2. Sometimes leadership means making the decision, often quickly without enough information as you’d like.  Sometimes leadership means stepping back so your managers and planners can step in and make the call about a problem, issue, or policy they’re better informed to decide.  Knowing the difference is why you get paid three (or more) times as the rest of us.

3. The people who do the core work of the organization know more than anyone else about the problems that need to be fixed, the solutions that could be implemented, and the long, painful history of failed attempts at change. Perhaps that information isn’t equal to an outsider’s assessment when it comes to solving problems or implementing needed changes, but any leader who tries to implement change without actually taking time to listen to the people in his/her organization is a fool.

4. You know that old saying about how leaders need to spend the first month or year just getting to know the organization before they change anything significant? Yeah. That one. It’s absolutely 100% true. And unless the building where your office resides is actually on fire, you ignore that wisdom at your peril.  If you start changing parts of a system before you really understand the system as a whole, you run the risk of doing a lot more damage than the problem you were trying to fix.

5. You need multiple viewpoints among your organizational advisors. You need dissension — not discord, not disrespect, not gossip or backstabbing or other expressions of human nastiness. But you desperately need people who will tell you “No” or “That’s a bad idea” or “Wait, have you considered this angle?” You can’t get that when everyone around you thinks alike. Or when you don’t bother asking.  You have a blind spot… and you need spotters for that.<

6. Employee morale is an expensive currency. Like most human capital, employee goodwill is very expensive to acquire and too easy to spend. Don’t blow it all in one place.

Your human capital – the people who work for you – are your most expensive investment. It makes no sense to forego giving your employees the best salary and benefits you can afford along with real authority in their job positions, meaningful professional development opportunities, plus as many non-monetary perks as you can squeeze in and a couple kick-ass holiday parties. Hell, it’s amazing what a piece of chocolate and a sincere thank-you means to the people in the trenches. Forget this, and see how bad it feels when your organization starts hemorrhaging employees to the competitors.

Find ways to make the most of those doing the work – for their benefit and for yours.

7. If you aren’t spending time with the people in your organization, how do you expect to be leading them?  If you don’t  know the people in the departments, if you don’t walk around visiting all the offices, how can you make decisions that directly affect what they do in good conscience?

Get out there. Be seen. Take 10 minutes every day to walk into a different office and say hi. Ask what people need to do their jobs better. Listen to their suggestions.  Be approachable and friendly.

I don’t care if you “aren’t a people person” or “don’t have time” … you aren’t going to cut me any slack if I fail to do my job with thorough knowledge and skill, so why should I cut you slack at yours? Put in the time.

8. You will always piss off at least some people with your course of action. Your goal is not to keep everyone happy. Your goal must be to do the best thing for furthering your organization’s work, and that means pissing off the correct people in that situation — the people who are holding you back.

Have the balls to do hard things well and make decisive choices without trying to be everyone’s friend. But don’t be a dick either. It’s a tough balance.

9. For leaders of religious organizations:  Believing in Providence is not an excuse or a substitute for planning well, knowing your market, counting the cost before you make big changes, and choosing to take measured risks.

It’s quite possible that God doesn’t give a damn about your organization, no matter how awesome your mission statement. “Kingdom work” may be your goal, but God might have other plans on His table.  Pray and trust, yes, but work twice as hard as everyone else.

10. The best leaders are servants. Jesus said so. Management theory has finally caught up with the “servant leadership” theme in the Gospels – complexity leadership theory, for example, sees the role of the leader to be removing the obstacles that prevent the team from rising to their fullest potential. The leader carries the burdens of leadership, like responsibility for key decisions and oversight of complex systems, so her people can achieve more than they thought possible.

Does this sound like a demanding list? You bet it is.

We cannot escape the reality that those among us who step into the roles of leadership, guidance, training, and mentoring are held to a much tougher standard.  The rewards are greater, of course.  But sometimes a view from the bottom of the org chart can do a lot to realign leaders to their core purpose.

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