Many people get put in a leadership position and just lead by accident. They do whatever seems good at the time without viewing each action as part of an overall plan. Sometimes they do great things and sometimes they do things that really hurt them from a leadership standpoint. Leading on purpose means making decisions as part of an overall strategy to make it easier for people to follow you.
Examine Each Action From a Leadership Perspective
Whenever you get ready to do something, ask yourself if it will help or hurt your leadership influence. For example, the evening you are asking everyone else to stay and work late, probably isn’t a good time to announce that you are head off to see a movie.
As a leader people are going to watch you very closely. If you have a good relationship with the people you lead, they will bend over backwards to come through for you, but only if they don’t think you are being hypocritical.
I have seen leaders announce they were laying off workers for budgetary reasons and then spend $50,000 on remodeling their corporate apartment. Other leaders asked people to try to conserve and save money and then spent $15,000 on a custom book shelf for their office.
Both of these expenses weren’t necessarily unreasonable, but it was clear that they hadn’t thought through the consequences of their actions from a leadership perspective. It didn’t ruin their ability to lead, but it set them back. Too many mistakes like this can erode your leadership capability and move you to a place where you are leading only by authority not by earned respect.
Leaders Shouldn’t Make Promises they Can’t Keep
This is a frequent problem for leaders. They are optimistic about the future and start making promises to people based on what they want to see happen. People will understand that plans change, but if you promise you are going to do something for someone, they will expect you to follow through. When you promise something to someone, they may make very important decisions based on your promise. If you don’t come through, it can have a much bigger impact than what you see.
Here is an example that I’ve seen happen in various shapes and forms. Your organization is going through a tough year, so you can’t give out raises as promised. You talk to a few of your direct reports and apologize and promise that next year you plan to give out bigger raises than normal to make up for this year. Some people will take you at your word and buy a new house, car, or boat based on your promise of a bigger raise. This is not prudent financial management on their part, but if you are unable to keep your word you will lose some of your ability to be an effective leader with that person.
Even when they don’t go out and make financial decisions based on your promise, they will tend to mistrust you in the future. For example, I was at one organization that promised to tie year end raises to each manager’s continued education. When the new year came around, everyone was given a standard raise and the educational goals were never mentioned. The people who had been at the organization for a long period of time had just ignored the continuing education goal because they new nothing would come of it. The individuals who were new and worked to achieve the goal lost some faith in the leadership. By itself it wasn’t a that big of deal, but the leadership consistently made similar mistakes and over time, people trusted the leadership less and less.
Long Term Leadership
Leading on purpose means taking the long term approach to leadership. It means thinking about how current actions will impact your leadership ability 4 or 5 years down the road. In many situations leaders don’t think like this. They expect to move on in 2 or 3 years, so they only think about short term impact.
The problem with this approach is that the leadership legacy that you have built will follow you beyond your current job. The world is getting smaller and it is very likely that you will be working with someone in the future that you’ve worked with before, or who is best friends with someone you’ve worked with before. If you haven’t done a good job of making long term decisions, it will come back to haunt you.
Leaders Should Know What to Do
Leaders need to be prepared. Often times this is just a simple matter of thinking ahead. There are certain circumstances that you can see coming. For example, if you take a new position and soon realize that you will probably need to let a particular person go, you should be prepared for that possibility. You should have thought through the best way to handle it and most importantly you should have thought through the ways you are not going to handle it–ways that could create an even bigger problem.
Making decisions is a big part of leadership and the more intelligent your decisions, the better of a leader you can become. A decision made on whim is much less likely to be the best choice as compared with a carefully planned out decision made in advance.
Leading in a Specific Direction
Leaders have to know where they are going and constantly communicate this direction. This is usually referred to as vision casting. Some leaders run into problems because they aren’t very good at articulating their vision. Most leaders have problems because they haven’t really figured out what their vision is. They may have a few ideas of where they want to go, but they haven’t really sat down and worked out exactly where they want to end up and their rules for getting there.
It is much easier to follow someone who is unambiguous about where they are going. When someone hasn’t really put in the effort of developing a plan for where they want to go, they are difficult to follow. A lot of inexperienced followers will think there is a problem with themselves and they will try to compensate. To do this they will create their own version of the vision. Usually that version will be very biased toward their own goals and aspirations. This isn’t their fault–they are doing the best with the information they have been given. In the end, the highly motivated people all create their own vision each heading in a slightly different direction.
Imagine 25 people all holding the edges of a large parachute. The parachute is held tight so it doesn’t touch the ground. Each one has a general idea of where they are heading, but no real plan for getting there. One person is going to head straight toward the goal. Another is going to try to head toward the goal, but stay on the sidewalk, another wants to head to a couple secondary goals before reaching the final destination, etc. When these people try to walk they will have a very difficult time working together. Since everyone is headed in a slightly different direction, they will probably end up tripping over each other, letting the parachute drag on the ground and get dirty, and in the end everyone will be frustrated with each other. There will be a lot of time spent trying to figure out whose vision is the right one.
The problem is, this really isn’t their job. It is the leaders job to set the goal and the rules for achieving that goal. This doesn’t mean the leader doesn’t take input from others and it doesn’t mean that you can’t correct your course midway as new information becomes available, but you can’t leave leadership to chance. Individuals will create their own vision when one doesn’t exist. It is unlikely that your team will all create the exact same vision.
In most organizations there is always some degree of push and pull as people head in slightly different directions. The better you define and communicate your vision the more you can minimize the unnecessary friction and keep people focused on the goal.
Leaders Create Leaders
A good leader leaves a legacy of leadership skills in others. Well led organizations become even more well led because of this. It all starts at the top with the organizational leader. If you invest in the people under you, they will learn how to invest in the people under them. If you avoid making promises you can’t keep to people under you, they will be less likely to break promises to people under them.
Many times you will find an organization that is extremely dysfunctional in a particular area. When you trace the problem, it becomes evident that the problem started with leadership at the very top. Everyone else followed the example that they were shown and turned a small flaw in one or two people into an organization wide dysfunctional problem.
Leading on Purpose Summary
Leading on purpose is not easy. It takes effort and focus. You have to be willing to practice what you preach–and that does not come naturally to many people. However, by being aware of how you lead and the impact that your decisions have on others, you can increase your leadership skill and earn respect and leadership influence with others. The more you do this, the easier it is to function as a true leader and not just someone with a title.
Tegan Kern says
I thought this was a great article, and I agree with just about all of it. I felt that the article could really have been summed up with the example of the 25 people holding the edges of a large parachute. I remember we used to do that in phys. ed class when I was younger, we would all pull in different directions, or lift when we weren’t supposed to. All this did was make our P.E. teachers very upset, when we were finally able to work together as a team, the parachute was a beautiful thing. Just like a business or in my case a school district. If we are all able to work together and go after one goal, our lives would be a lot easier.
I happen to work for a wonderful principal/leader, who has a goal set in her mind, and she preaches to the staff about reaching it. Unfortunately there is only so much that she can do, it is now up to the staff members to help carry it through, and many of them do not want to do this. This is where we as a district start to fall apart.
Dr David L Peavy says
After 33 yrs of leadership and success, the article reflects exactly what I have discovered. The parachute analogy is spot on in true team building. Moreover, leading on purpose & constantly sharing the laser focused vision we create as leaders, is paramount to creating long term followers that also learn to lead themselves first and others as well. What I did not see is this: How could any pro football team ever win a single game without consistent practice/huddle/training/ feedback & team score keeping? Leading “positive” inspirational purpose driven team meetings consistently (once per week for us) without fail has been the only path I have discovered. These are NOT bitching, negative, personal attack events, but so positive that the team looks forward to them & we “hold the parachute” on an agenda of topics ranging from personal growth & development, to conflict resolution, to purpose & vision focus. This has lead to keeping long term (5 to 17 yrs) veteran team players in the health care field where the average tenure for staff support is < 1.2 yrs! I also differ with leading on purpose 'not being easy'. In fact, those who lead with very little or no sense of purpose are doomed as people never become emotionally invested in a purpose, vision, & the rare joy that comes with accomplishing these as a team. There are few things as beautiful as a team with almost zero conflict walking that parachute, then fast walking, & ultimately running with it knowing that together we accomplish such a rare event every day!
Felix Conrad Jones says
Leading by example and training others to be leaders is half the battle in reaching your goals and vision for your organization