There are some moments in your career that leave an indelible imprint – moments that end up defining WHO you are.
They are moments where you literally plant a flag and say “This is it! This is where I’m going!!”
And sometimes, you get to ask a brave follow up question, to those who have witnessed the moment.
“Will you follow me??”
That happened to me 10 years ago, in a conference room in Billings, Montana.
There, at an annual budget meeting with the entire operations management group in attendance, an important decision was made.
I decided to NOT make my keynote talk a discussion of the numbers. I wanted to talk about leadership. It would be the first time I’d ever try to articulate what “leading” meant to me.
I framed it that day as group of 10 leadership battles that leaders will constantly face, in any quest to be great.
And I chose my side of the battle, and asked the team to follow my lead.
These were the 10 critical leadership battles we faced, and the way to “win” them:
- People vs. Process – It’s as simple as this: a process is only as good as the people executing it. Focus on the people first, and while you’re at it, make sure your charges truly understand the context and purpose behind the processes.
- Filtering vs. Push Down – Good leaders know that they need to function as a contextual “filter” for their team when directives and messages come from above. In trying times or in stressful situations, these messages can be harsh and while that’s something leaders should handle, oftentimes if it is just “pushed down” to the rank and file in the same manner, or worse yet, with a compounded harshness, the messages will be met with anxiety and fear – not exactly the emotions needed to execute well.
- Trust vs. Fear – Leading by instilling fear, while it can get things done in the short term, simply doesn’t work over the long haul. Building trust is the much better approach, although it takes a heck of a lot more effort. That’s why the “fear card” tends to stay in the deck even though we know it shouldn’t. Keep it at the bottom by always thinking of the Golden Rule as you go about your day – it will never lead you astray.
- Humility vs. Ego – It has to be about THEM, not YOU. It’s the knack of giving the credit to everybody else and blaming yourself. Channel all of that ambition towards your team, and watch it blossom.
- Will To Succeed vs. Hope to Survive – It’s all about tone and the words you use when it comes to inspiring your team to get results – one of the biggest distinctions you can make is how you speak and act about the challenges in front of you. Do you simply “hope” to succeed? Or do you project a quiet determination that clearly shows you will do whatever it takes to get the job done? As Sun Tzu said long ago in the Art of War, “An army destined for defeat fights in the hope of winning“.
- Empathy vs. Detachment – The “old school” of leadership used to warn us that it was a bad thing to get emotionally attached to our teammates and their welfare. That school is now closed. We have to understand what’s going on in their hearts and minds – the better to pinpoint and address performance issues, as well as properly match skills AND personalities to key responsibilities.
- Big Picture vs. Lost in the Details – A leader needs to frequently step back from the day-to-day details and paint the “big picture”-putting each teammate’s job in the context of the business, and its contribution to overall success. Teammates need to understand that what they do matters – once they see how they “fit”, they will more easily take ownership of what they do and how they do it. This makes a huge difference in the overall attitude and energy of the entire group.
- We vs. They – This may sound overly simplistic, but pronouns matter. If you use “I” or “they” (meaning your bosses) too much, your team will use “they” or “you” in return. This sets up a wall between management and the rank-and-file that is very, very hard to knock down. If you ever want everyone marching to the same drum, put “we” consistently in your vocabulary.
- Engagement vs. The Ivory Tower – It’s all too easy to stay behind a desk all day dealing with all the paper, phone calls, and e-mails. DON’T be held hostage in the Ivory Tower! Get out in the field – engage with your teammates, roll up your sleeves, talk to customers – especially if there’s distance between you and your actual operations. If you lose that vital contact with what’s “really going on out there“, your ability to make good decisions will be severely compromised.
- Leading vs. Managing – This is the big one- the ultimate battle. The easiest way to make the distinction is just open a dictionary and read the definitions of “manage” and “lead”. Which person do you want to be? Do you want to “direct and control“, or “show the way“? Once we realize that it’s much more effective to guide than to control, it really becomes no contest. We’ve won. Game over.
Once those battles were defined, and asked them to follow me, I posed one more question:
“It boils down to this – do you want to manage, or do you want to LEAD”?
I have to admit, at that point I couldn’t help thinking about that scene in the classic comedy Animal House, where the character played by John Belushi makes this long (and factually inaccurate) speech to fire up his fraternity brothers, and asks the question, “Who’s with me?”.
I wish I could tell you that the whole team stood up and yelled, at the top of their lungs, “we want to lead!”, and then charged out the door with me, like the fraternity charged behind Belushi. Only in Hollywood, I’m afraid.
It turned out to be just a seed I planted – one that wouldn’t bear fruit until a few years later. But it was an important start.
The stakes had to be defined.
Which side are you on?
Let’s be leaders.
Will you follow me?
(Note: To my long-time readers, you’ve seen the core of this post before – the 10 battles originally appeared here in 2009, without context. Now you know the the rest of the story…)