Friday, July 6, 2012

Leadership Effectiveness: One Secret and Three Must-Haves

I've been in positions of leadership in the healthcare industry for twenty-one years in two exceptional health care systems.  While with those organizations I've managed workplace communities that have been noted for their outstanding employee engagement, cohesiveness, and effectiveness.

Now, as expansive and extraverted as I am, I spend  little time talking about my personal successes.  I am regularly chided by my colleagues for deflecting compliments.  Some of that is surely a little neurotic, but I have come to believe that a significant factor is simply that it is true.


And if there is any "secret" to my success in leading a very large community of highly effective, diverse and professionally credentialed ministers then it is just this.  I know that no one gets anything done by themselves.  No one.

Seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it?  Chalk it up as one of those realities that are so obvious people tend to overlook them.  Like the crowd watching a marching band, people may think the drum major is leading the parade.  That can be true, but it would be a mistake to overlook the band director, or even to discount the roles of section leaders within the band.  Effective leadership isn't about who is out front as much as it is about who galvanizes coordinated action to achieve something.

Now for the three must-haves.

Must-Have # 1: Experience

The first of these is experience.  In order to become an effective leader you must have experience.  You can't become a great leader by reading about it- as a matter of fact, while the world is full of books and articles, blogs, videos and audio resources about leadership, effective leaders continue to be in relatively short supply.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that great leaders must have gray hairs.  I am saying that nothing substitutes for experience.  Volunteer, intern, take on extra opportunities at work that give you a chance to coordinate projects and collaborate with colleagues. Find ways to put yourself into the position to lead and to interact with leaders, even if it is leading a pee wee league baseball team.

I take that back.  You may want to start with a less difficult challenge.

I am a big fan of established leaders getting experience in situations that are outside their comfort zone.  I once volunteered to serve as an assistant coach for a girl's fast pitch softball team.  I also volunteered as  worship leader in a women's prison.  Those are just a couple of uncomfortable but invaluable experiences that stretched me beyond my comfort zone.  Both experiences added to my understanding of leadership.

In those settings I did not just learn about leading from the front. I also learned lessons about what it means to be a team member.  I got a much more specific experience about what it is to have responsibility without authority.  In the prison I learned about the nerve-wracking price one can pay for not providing clear structure and expectations.

Must-Have #2: Failure

One of the most important lessons I ever learned was when I resigned my second job as a pastor.  I fired myself because I thought I was not measuring up. The trouble was that no one came along to do it any better and the church start I fired myself from dissolved after I left it. If anyone had told me that I was destined to fail many times after that first time, I probably would have given up work and tried to make a go of it living in a cave. Thank God for my experience in a year-long program of Clinical Pastoral Education, where wise mentors helped me to understand that there can be no improvement in skills and performance without a realistic understanding that failure is invariable in the bargain for learning anything of value.

This past year I received one of the most meaningful compliments of my professional life, from a long time colleague and friend . . . someone I look up to.

"Mark," he told me, "you have laid some pretty big eggs but what has always amazed me is your ability to clean up the mess and to learn something from it.  I think that is why people have forgiven you so much."

I know exactly what my friend was talking about.  And I am incredibly grateful that I've had the chance to fail so many times.  In my view, anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

Give yourself a chance to fail today. Tomorrow you will have become a little better at it and you can dive in, ready to fail again until you succeed.

That is really the heart of the gospel.  There is Grace in this world- no pun intended- but that divine appointment can only come to us if we are willing to risk failure.  We will never enjoy the freedom to succeed until we take seriously God's explicit permission to fail.

Must-Have #3: Ability to Learn From Experience

My friend was right about my having been forgiven many times.  The individuals who have taken a chance on me by hiring me to work with them and those who have taken a chance on me by hiring on to work with me have forgiven me far more than they should have.
I consider it a sacred obligation to attempt to learn as much as I can from each and every failure as well as every success that comes my way.  When I study the life of King David I see in him a profound sense of trust in others and awareness of the trust they placed in him.  That capacity is what made it possible for him to learn from his mistakes.

No one can trust people who are always right.  No leader deserves loyalty who is more interested in looking good than in learning something and helping others to learn something crucial from their experience.

A couple of months ago I listened to Jim Collins, author of GOOD TO GREAT and a half-dozen other books, talk about this last quality.  He stated that what makes great leaders is not charisma or public speaking ability or awe-inspiring personal competence.  Great leaders have come in every personality type imaginable from shy and reclusive to bombastic and everything in between.

What makes leaders great is their focused, some might even say obsessive, desire to learn from everything that happens in their spheres of interest.

I said there were three must-haves but I surely don't believe they are all-inclusive.  I'd love it if you commented with one or two competencies that you think effective leaders ought to possess.

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