I recall my first big leadership role and, like many, I had very little understanding of the organization I was asked to lead. I was only aware of how I wanted to live my leadership life – my credos. I assumed these would be important to share because the organization knew less about me than I did of them. I thought these could set the content for our work together. My five credos:
- Define your responsibility, Exceed your authority
- I am learning
- Cooperate with other, compete with yourself
- Be not afraid
- End the perfection conversation
I was well aware of the corporate systems the staff was apart from, basically because we all know what it feel like to be part of a formal bureaucratic structure.
I was tasked with a major transformation project created to change the way the organization operated. My indoctrination from above was quite clear, but my new team would likely see this change as a threat. Fortunately, I had a few insights related to innovation and change strategies. The two simplest of these strategies were:
- Rather than deploy typical “talent management” processes that tend to view people like Swiss Cheese – full of holes – I would concentrate on 1) the positive contributes individuals were making and 2) how they saw their personal develop to make future contributions.
- Understand that there was a difference between my standard of what we needed to be as an organization and the expectation of each individual based on his or her skills, competencies and motivation to make positive contributions.
Not surprisingly, staff members were afraid of being “wrong.” In my mind, I wondered what was wrong with wrong. After all being wrong is how you learn. Failure is the cheapest form of learning. This is where my credos helped me reinforce the acceptable behaviors – try something, do something, let’s learn together.
“End the perfection conversation” became quite valuable. After all, we are all leaders in some way. And leaders make judgments, not conclusions. We never really have all the information to make a 100% perfect decision. But at any place in time, our life experience makes us ready enough. By design, our roles our about imperfection – imperfection is embedded in in all of our actions.
Robert Greenleaf makes this point:
- “On an important decision one rarely has 100% of the information needed for a good decision no matter how much one spends or how long one waits.”
- “Acceptance of the person … requires a tolerance of imperfection. Anybody can lead perfect people – id there were any. But there aren’t any perfect people … It is part of the enigma of human nature that the “typical” person – immature, stumbling, inept, lazy – is capable of great dedication and heroism if … wisely led.”
One last point. While I understand my team would struggle with the concepts in a strategy causing a sea change, I knew they would related to common stories, which I used often to make strategies more accessible. For example, the story of Lewis and Clark who, in the early 1800s, ventured into unchartered territory. They knew there was a Pacific Ocean but little about what to expect between St. Louis and Oregon. President Jefferson assumed there was a direct path. There wasn’t. They didn’t realize the difficulties they would encounter crossing the Rocky Mountains, or interacting with native populations who did not simply fall in line with plans of the U.S. If fact, their numerous tactical errors are well documented. And yet, the expedition is considered one of the greatest in history. Sometimes you need to create your map while following it!
The team understood that story more than any of the strategic documents. They understood we were creating our map together.
I captured the stories I used along my journey in Corporate Storyteller: The Art of Noticing Things.
Seton Hall University