Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Best Leaders Don't Exist

"The best leaders of all, the people know not they exist. They turn to each other and say, we did it ourselves."
-- Zen Proverb

Invisible leadership is perhaps the most powerful form. It is difficult to practice, however, because we all have an innate desire for personal recognition. It is a well-known management axiom that people support what they help to create. Thus, if leadership is the art of enlisting the aid and support of others to achieve a common goal, then helping others get credit is a critical leadership skill.

I've never been good at tooting my own horn. As a consequence, at various times in life I've fumed when someone else stole the credit for my idea. I think that's a reasonable reaction at the beginning of your career when you need your good work to be noticed by those in a position to promote you. But when you're the one leading, instead of fuming when this happens, you should be celebrating. Job well done. That's invisible leadership.

Effective delegation is another means to invisible leadership. When others take the ball and run with it, the credit for the score is all theirs. Few take note of the coach that called the play or the quarterback that handed off the ball; they just notice the running back that made it to the end zone. If we always gave credit to the play callers, the other members of the team wouldn't be as motivated to score.

Creating an open-minded environment conducive to creativity and innovation from all levels of the organization is another great way to enable people to say "we did it ourselves." Quality management principles posit that the best ideas for continuous improvement come from the line-level worker, not management.

Finally, don't toot your own horn unless there is a specific benefit to the team, not you. Celebrate everyone's contributions except yours. Few people respect leaders that are constantly calling attention to themselves and their accomplishments; in fact, they have the most respect for those that are highly accomplished and yet humble about it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Leaders Keep Good Company

Zhantang Said: "When you seek an associate, it should be one who is worthy of being your teacher, one whom you will always honor and respect, and one you can take for an example in doing things, so there will be some benefit in your association."
-- Zen Lessons, translated by Thomas Cleary

One mark of effective leaders is the ability to choose associates who they believe to be smarter, wiser, or more competent in some way than themselves. It takes courage and confidence to surround yourself with others who may outshine you, but it is also the quickest path to success.

When I'm setting the course for an organization, I don't want to be the smartest guy in the room. It's okay for me to be the one with the vision, who is painting the big picture, but it is my team that should lead the "how" of it. Ultimately, if I'm the one with the vision and also the only one with the tactical knowledge of how to get there, I'll have to serve as both the horse and the charioteer. Clearly not the fastest way forward.

I have something I'm reluctant to post, a dirty little secret of mine. I have a business partner I brought on shortly after I started my business (that's not the secret). The secret is, in many ways I believe he is more effective, more insightful and more competent at doing what we do than I am. There, I've said it.

But I think he would agree that we also both have another dirty little secret. At one point, we hired an individual who was probably better at our jobs than either of us. She helped us through a challenging transition, but she was quickly hired away by a much larger organization with greater opportunities than we had at the time. We still use management tools she developed in her relatively short time with us, so we benefited even though the relationship wasn't long-term.

Effective strategy starts with effective people. As Jim Collins says in Good To Great: "First, if you begin with "who," rather than "what," you can more easily adapt to a changing world. . . Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. . ."

In my mind, the only way to grow is to "hire up." Continually seek more intelligent, more competent and more effective associates.