Monday, September 27, 2010

The Best School of Leadership

Periodically, I get asked where I think the best place is for someone to learn leadership.  Is it Harvard?  Stanford?  The U.S. Army?

Without hesitation, I tell them "spend a year running a volunteer organization, any volunteer organization with more than ten people."

People management has two sets of incentives, the proverbial carrot and stick.  On the carrot side we have pay, rewards, etc.  On the stick side we have things like authority, the ability to fire, etc. 

As I've mentioned before, my son, Alex, is in the Boy Scouts.  In my experience, the Scouts are one of the best groups around for teaching 11-18 year old boys how to lead.  In working with the Scouts, it's always interesting to watch boys who have just been elected to their first patrol leader position.  Almost always, when he wants his patrol mates to do something, the new patrol leader starts by issuing orders.  This rarely never results in compliance at which point  the Scout shifts to the "do it or else" approach.  The Scout is then often shocked and frustrated when this doesn't work either at which point he experiences a sinking feeling as it dawns on him that he has absolutely no way of forcing the other Scouts to obey him and they know it!

This pattern is not just confined to the boys.  I've seen the same pattern in companies, but with a little different outcome.  In this case a new supervisor issues orders and gets partial compliance.  Any resistance or lagging is quickly overcome by a "do it or else" conversation.  The result:  it works!  And that's too bad because that person never gets to experience the sinking feeling that the Scouts do that ultimately sets them on the path to good leadership.

Consciously or not, the advantage the new supervisor has over that Scout is the authority of the company to back up his orders.  In spite of the move towards more egalitarian organizations, at the end of the day, the supervisor is evaluating the employees and through this process, controls raises and assignments, his means of ultimately forcing his employees to obey him and they know it.  Unfortunately, because it works, many new supervisors become overly reliant on wielding the stick and little practiced at dangling the carrot except in the crudest, clumsiest way.

My first chance to experience that sinking feeling was leading a volunteer organization in college, as president of our student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).  We had a real budget, some real goals that the university wanted to have us accomplish, and a bunch of very busy student volunteers.  There was no stick to be applied and precious little carrot (i.e. no pay or benefits).  Our volunteers were a mix of the highly motivated and barely present, exceedingly competent and the struggling to make it.  We didn't have the luxury of a rigorous selection process that would only admit the world-class, self-motivated, best and the brightest.

Honestly, I can't even remember what we ended up accomplishing that year, but what I do remember is how much I struggled, sweated, and really learned the art of motivating people without having the crutches of authority, pay, and promotions to lean on.  They are the same lessons the smart Scouts learn bit by bit once the shock and despair have left them.  And they are, unfortunately, lessons that some working managers never learn because wielding authority, pay, and promotions work well enough for them to get their job done (although how well they work for their employees is another matter).

So what are some of these secrets?
  • Remember that your job is not to control, it is to motivate and enable your team to win - In a volunteer organization, you need them at least as much if not more than they need you.
  • Assume the best in people until proven otherwise - We all like to be thought of in the best light, even if our efforts don't quite live up to our ideals.  Or in the words of motivational speaker Ian Percy, "We judge everyone by their behavior.  We judge ourselves by our intentions."  Part of being a leader is helping others live up to their ideals, not rub their noses in their faults.  But if and when the flaws appear, depending on what these are, these become the basis for a either a personal development plan...or termination (see below).
  • Show appreciation for efforts, not just results - Do you believe that the only thing that matters is the result? Well call me soft, but I don't buy it. End results depend on a variety of factors, not all of which are within your team's control.  What your people do control is their efforts.
  • Keep everyone in touch with the common mission and values of the organization - When your people are head down, disagreements are brewing, and tempers running hot, you need to pull everyone back to the organizations goals and the values.  Which means you have to have some.
  • Maintain your sense of humor - No one wants to work in a cheerless, grim environment day after day under a prickly boss.  And volunteers won't; they'll vote with their feet.
  • Be clear about the desired results; be flexible about means & methods - I.e. don't micromanage.  The onus is on the leader, to offer a clear vision of what needs to be done; those that do a poor job of this, end up having to micromanage. People need to be able to interject a bit of themselves into their work or they don't own it.
  • Let people make mistakes if it helps them learn - Improvements come when people are not afraid to reach out.  Give them room to try.
  • If when the mistakes happen, don't punish - Instead, get on the same side of the table and problem solve.
But lest you think this is all sweetness and light, my last lesson:
  • If at the end of the day, if someone is not working out, remove them with as much dignity as possible, but do it ASAP - Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, even in a volunteer organization, some people don't work out.  It could be a lack of skills, a conflicting vision, a poor fit, or even worse (e.g. theft, lack of integrity).  If it gets to the point where they are doing more harm then good, you need to remove them.  At the end of the day, as a leader, your duty is to the team as a whole.
I close this post with a quote I heard over the weekend at a Scoutmaster leadership training session:
A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him....But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, "We did it ourselves." - Lao Tzu

1 comment:

  1. Nice blog and really nice post. I'm learning more about leadership starting a Toastmasters chapter ( than I have doing anything else!