I tell people that I am not all that smart. I tell them that mostly I am not much more than a collection of experiences and epiphanies. I see profound wisdom in the simplest of things. These epiphanies often have a profound effect on me and galvanize my thinking about leadership in ways that help me inspire others. I tell a lot of stories and use self deprecating humor to make points. At times, my antics will shock people which is the effect I am looking for. In order to teach, you must have attention and recall. If there is no recall, teaching has not occurred. If my reaction to something, one of my stories or one liners burns an image into someone’s mind that they never forget, I have been successful in teaching them an important point about leadership or in my case finance. The affirmation of this is when I hear myself quoted or see someone retelling one of my stories. If my experience helps them to improve what they are responsible for or to avoid a similar calamity in the future, it has been worth while.
While I am on this point, I will digress briefly. Much is made of titles. Some people obsess over whether their office meets the standards of their peers. They engage in petty antics to cause others to have to succumb to their mind games. Part of this is to make sure that everyone recognizes how important they (think they) are. In some cases, this is a cover for insecurity. Things like having to make an appointment to see your leader or being put off for no good reason. How about the office where the level of the guest’s chair is lower than the host’s? Or the executive that has their assistant make all of their calls. When this happens to me, I hang up. If someone wants to talk to me, they can dial the phone just like I do. I am convinced that most people, even uneducated people can discern quickly whether a leader is genuine and whether or not they know what they are doing. No title or number of degrees hanging on a wall or other trappings will convince them otherwise. This is the reason I do not hang degrees on my wall. If someone wants to know if I have a degree, they usually know where to find the answer. People indulging themselves in the trappings of their role are frequently not respected. They will be followed because of pecking order diktats but respect has to be earned. It is not bestowed. You will be respected if you respect others and they believe you are honorable, genuine and that you know what you are doing. I poke fun at myself or at a situation to diffuse tension and put people at ease. I will never poke fun at another person. When I am poking fun, the people involved in the situation get the point. Some people earn the title of Executive Vice President, Senior Vice President, CFO, CEO or who knows what. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I head up the bookkeeping department. They might not know what a CFO or an EVP is or what they do but they understand what bookkeeping is. I do not feel a need to lay a title on someone to impress them. People that do this often get a result that is the exact opposite of what they intended.
I had an experience recently that is haunting me as I write this. I was on my way to a dinner to interview a Job candidate. I was driving out of town on a four lane road. Ahead of me, I saw what I initially believed to be a black plastic shopping bag drifting lazily across the road from right to left. It looked strange and out of place. As I drew closer, I realized that what I was actually seeing was a mother mallard duck with a gaggle of ducklings crossing the road. They were about half way across the first lane of the four lane street, the lane my car was in bearing down on them at forty plus miles per hour. The ducklings were so small they could not have been more than a few days old. There must have been eight or ten of them. Seeing my car approaching, the mother sensed danger and reversed course. As I got to where they were, the mother had jumped up on the curb and was moving away from the street. All of her brood were in a bunch bouncing off of the concrete as they attempted jump up on the curb to catch up with their mother. They were jumping into the curb and falling back time after time. Not one of them was big enough to get over the curb. They had to be horrified. It was a heart rending sight. This scene has affected me deeply. I pray that this family found a way to safety. As I was watching this drama unfold over just a few seconds, it struck me that this is a perfect analogy to one of the biggest challenges we face as leaders.
How often have you seen this scenario? The brood follows their leader from safety into uncharted deep water or a new situation. Something occurs in the environment that introduces a problem they have not experienced before or unexpected danger. The leader changes or reverses course. The brood gets to a curb and runs into the wall. The leader knows or has a sense of what they need to do. Unfortunately, the brood cannot muster what it takes to follow and they are trapped. The brood cannot keep up with the leader. The leader and the brood ultimately fail together because the brood does not get the support they need or they are incapable of performing at the level the new situation demands.
Sound familiar? Remember the old adage that the time to drain the swamp is before you are up to your ass in alligators? As leaders, we have to appreciate that we are supposed to have insight, experience and expertise that our brood does not have. They are willing to follow us due to faith they have that we will keep them safe and help them grow. Sometimes, we inadvertently lead them into a situation where everyone’s ability to survive becomes an issue.
This is one of the reasons why leadership is hard. We are called to be leaders because someone thinks we have what it takes to make a part of the organization successful however that is measured. We cannot succeed without the full support and cooperation of our brood. We manage the risk that our brood is up to the task by investing in them every day.
What are you doing to develop your brood?
Are you demonstrating the proper example of leadership to them? Do they have faith in you or they just tolerating you?
Are you leading from the front? Are you leading by example?
Are you encouraging and supporting training and continuing education?
Do you see to it that your brood has the resources they need to accomplish their objectives?
Do you take time for mentorship? Would you advise one of your best to move on if you saw how they could better develop their skills and talents in different situation? I recently counseled one of the sharpest young people in my charge to quit and go back to graduate school. He has so much potential, it is a shame to see it not developed. This person could easily grow themselves to take my job. He was incredulous when I made this suggestion. He did not believe that he had ‘what it takes’ to become a senior executive in a healthcare organization. He does and he will if he will make the investment in himself.
Do you give people in your charge assignments that challenge their capacity and stretch their analytical capabilities as a means of helping them see their own potential? Do you create an environment where it is safe for young people to make mistakes so that they can learn? I would rather have someone more afraid that they would fail to meet my expectations for them than to have them paralyzed by fear of what might happen if they make a mistake.
Are you approachable? Do you take time for mentorship? This is why I engage in self deprecating humor. I do not want anyone to fear dealing with me because they think I am too important to spend time on them or that there is nothing they can offer that will be of much interest to me. I do not want anyone uncomfortable about approaching me about anything. I want them to feel empowered to act within their authority and to know when to come to me for affirmation or assistance.
These are but a few of many examples of what we should be doing every day but all too often forget in the midst of the dung storm dejour.
Do not be afraid to lead your brood off the curb into danger. Just make sure before you do that if you have to reverse course or the going gets tough you have prepared them to keep up with you because it is at this time that you will need them more than ever. Like the mother duck, you may not be able to help them as much as is necessary at the most critical time.
My hope is that is as a result of reading this, you never forget the galvanizing image of a mother separated from her young brood and the collective fear they all experienced. I hope that you will view your staff and your responsibilities as a leader differently as a result of my epiphany. If you resolve to never allow yourself to get into a situation like this because of this simple story, you will become a better leader, teaching and retention have occurred and my objective in this commentary is accomplished.
If you would like to discuss any of this content or ask questions, I may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to engaging in productive discussion with anyone that is a practicing interim executive or a decision maker with experience engaging interim executives in healthcare.