Leaping for Leadership: Why Improving Your Leadership Once Every Four Years Won’t Cut it

Leaping Woman

Hey there. Remember me? I’mmmmm baaaaack.

Leap year is interesting. I see it like a metaphor of “catching up” or “completing” something that I should have completed already. Leadership can be like that. It can be like an “oh yeah”. At least to the recipients of leadership, it can feel that way sometimes.

Every four years leap day comes around and “BAM” imposes itself on our lives. Happy March 1st .. errr … I mean February 29th. It feels rather silly. It’s our way as humans of controlling and organizing time, adding in an extra day to the calendar every four years so that the math works out. For today’s tech-driven world, that works. But in the ancient world no one cared. The seasons were just the seasons. They lived in the moment. They’d say, “Let’s go hunt some buffalo now because we need more nourishment and clothing.” Those people got the sense of community and living in the moment. What else was there but the moment? No need for a leap year or day.

Can you imagine simply living in the present? This moment. Being present to you, others and your team. What would that mean for you and more importantly, what would that mean for people in your life? When you choose — and it is a choice — to take the leap to leadership, your life shifts. You shift. You start to see and act differently.

The problem is you can’t be lazy with your leadership. You can’t take a good hard look at yourself, your effectiveness, your leadership — especially from the perspective of the individuals you lead — once in a while. You can’t assume that your leadership is good enough and, maybe, reassess once every four years or more. But it’s apparent from my interactions with self-described leaders that leadership is all about title, and not at all about competence.

Systems Thinking or Egocentric?

I’m reminded of a one-minute scene in the movie “We were Soldiers Once” that perfectly portrays and contrasts different leadership styles. In this scene you see a young 2nd Lieutenant, played by Chris Klein, being present to the mission, to a team mate and to the platoon (system). This leader sees a soldier falling behind and, seeing his troop hot and tired, engages his men in improving their system by, of all things, taking off their shoes and inspecting each other’s feet. The lieutenant does not blame the soldier who was falling behind nor does he attempt to solve the “problems” in the individual or system. In fact the leader does not see people as a problem that needs fixing. Instead what the young lieutenant does is help the entire team take a more system-wide perspective of their collective performance. The root cause of one soldier having a hard time keeping up with the rest of the team was rather simple and potentially resolvable: the soldier had a huge blister on his foot. Well, no wonder he was lagging behind, I know I would. And what was behind the blisters? Wool socks. And what did that cause? Sweaty feet. And what caused the sweaty feet? The exertion from the training. The training requirements were not going to go away; they were necessary for the survival of the soldier in combat. What then? The leader identifies a remedy (fresh socks and powder) and instructs the team to implement the remedy. But does each person inspect his own foot, thereby holding himself accountable for only himself? No: Klein’s character instructs the troops to inspect each other’s feet. This simple approach invites the individual soldiers to take a more global perspective of their troop as interconnected individuals whose collective success is more likely if everyone works together.

The lieutenant elevates his team’s potential for leadership and creates an environment where they identify and solve their own problems. He creates a culture of accountability by having them watch out for each other. Did he go get the socks and powder? No, but he did make them available to the team. This way the team is not dependent on the leader and instead creates their own accountability. The leader created an environment for their own leadership to occur. He created independent and interdependent thinking where individuals hold themselves and each other accountable and where each individual is himself a leader.

A key point in this scenario is that Klein’s character created a caring environment. He examined the scenario and showed compassion and resolve. He did not find fault with any one individual. He did not shout at the laggard and attempt to “push” (kicking and screaming) to excel beyond his own limitations. This is completely different from the other “leader” in the same scene, the one that “wants to win medals”. That leader was not interested in solving systemic problems he was only interested in making himself look good. He was only interested in making himself right and others wrong. In that leader’s world, people are problems needing to be solved. That leader is NOT creating other leaders or an environment for leadership to occur. He is creating an environment where the leader (and there can only be one) is recognizable as the guy yelling at people to get stuff done yesterday at all costs.

That, my friends, is not the kind of leadership we need in today’s complex business environments. I see too many leaders like this, people who assume that the volume of their commands directly correlates to the necessity that the work get done. But these leaders have no clue about their actual impact. And people do NOT like hanging out with that type of leadership. More and more, people are simply not putting up with it. Nowadays people who quit don’t leave companies as much as they fire their leadership. In the military those leaders might find themselves the victims of “friendly” fire… Oops!

Leaping for Leadership

Taking a leap for leadership means embarking on a journey to create an environment for leadership to occur. It means creating an environment so that control and decisions are pushed down and creating responsibility and accountability step up. This environment doesn’t manifest the second you decide to be a leader or when someone gives you a title of leadership. The first chapter of his book on leadership, “Land on Your Feet, Not on Your Face”, Jim Hessler invites leaders to make the choice — to take the leap — to become a leader and to continue making that choice over and over again:

The choice to lead must be made repeatedly — daily — in big ways and small. Once you develop a sense of yourself as leader, it becomes habit to continually ask yourself these kinds of questions: Is the circumstance I’m in calling out for my leadership? Am I willing and able to offer the kind of leadership that’s needed?

I was struck by this simple concept because, like adulthood, leadership seems to be a club where, once you’re in, you’re in. The thought that you had to continually choose to maintain your good standing as a leader was foreign to me at first and, in my experience, it’s still foreign to many leaders out there who rarely choose, today, to be the leader that the people entrusted to their vision are needing.

A leader doesn’t blithely march off toward a goal and expect others to follow. A leader, instead, engages with what drives individuals and demonstrates the lucidity of his or her vision and guidance by creating trust. I enjoyed reading “The Power of Losing Control” by Joe Caruso. In it, he says:

It’s not important that people like you… People like you because when they’re with you they like themselves better. They like you because being with you elevates their own meaning.

People pay attention to how you leave them feeling. Maya Angelou once said:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people never forget how you make them feel.

 How do you make people feel about themselves and about you, as a person and a leader? Think about your owned failed relationships or friendships: might they have failed because of the impact you had on those people? What kind of leader do you want to be and how do you want to leave people feeling from having been led by you?

Turn Your (Leader)Ship Around

In his book on leadership “Turn The Ship Around”, David Marquet talks about three areas for leaders to focus on:

  1. Control
  2. Competence
  3. Clarity

I’ll leave you with questions for you to focus on within these three areas:

Control

  • When thinking about delegating control, what worries you and what stops you from delegating?
  • What decisions should you be making that you are afraid to make or not allowed to make? Who said you were not allowed to make them?
  • What is it costing you and those around you for holding on so tightly to controlling things?

Competence

  • How well do you feel your team learns from mistakes? And How effectively do you feel you learn from mistakes?
  • In what ways have your processes become the master rather than the servant? How would you remedy this?
  • Are your people eager to learn and grow and go to training? How could you make them more eager?

Clarity

  • What do you see in terms of behaviors that erode trust? Might you inadvertently be doing some of these?
  • How are you unintentionally protecting people from the consequences of their own behavior? How might you change this?
  • Do you want obedience or effectiveness? In what ways is your organization currently structured to encourage one more than the other?

Take time to review and answer these questions. Take time to leap at the opportunity to embrace a leadership style that catalyzes you, others and your team.

Oh, and Happy Leap Year.

Photo by Lauren Manning