Like most people, I am indebted to the mentors that have taken the time and made the effort to teach me. I have been thinking about one in particular and the lessons that he taught me about leadership. It was because of his example that I learned that the true definition of a leader does not involve always being out front – at the head of the pack – all the time. One evening after a good dinner, we settled down over drinks and a couple of good cigars. He said to me ‘you have a vision of leadership that you should think about – it is not serving you as well as you think it is.’ I asked him what he meant. His reply has stayed with me all these years.
“Leaders need to learn when to follow. Following is one of the most important skills of a great one. There are two situations when following is better than pushing your way out front. The first is when you see a pattern in the evolution of a situation and follow it. The second is when you sense that one of your team has a clearer and more productive vision – and you follow them.”
We spent the rest of the evening talking about those two situations. It took me a while to get a solid grasp of each but he helped me along.
There have been many times since that evening that I found myself putting those lessons into practice. I learned to read situations and the patterns that were driving them. In my younger days I would have envisioned the pattern and attempted to impress my vision on what was happening – I thought that that was what it meant to be a leader. However, I sometimes found myself frustrated by a perceived stubborn insistence that opposed my progress. One thing that he said during that evening stayed with me – “you have to discover a non-instrumental reason why other people are on the planet.” The combined interests of all parties drive patterns. To insist on my vision was to denigrate their importance – and that is inherently insulting to others involved.
Another thing he said reinforced his second lesson. “If you insist on being seen as the tallest player on the basketball court, two things will happen. First, many people will see that as presumptuous as then become aware that you are not. Second, you team will lose a lot more frequently than it should”. Over the years, I have come to realize how valuable that lesson was. A good leader knows when to hang back and give others a chance to take the lead. That action, by itself, is an expression of trust and confidence in the other person. It is also evidence of wisdom that subordinates ego. Other people are far better than I am in certain areas and, if I let them take the lead, results are always better when those skills are critical to success are in the lead.
I use both of these lessons repeatedly in my leadership coaching engagements. The impact on clients has been significant. One particular client came to me after we had worked on her leadership skills and said, “I never realized how valuable some of my team members were until I began letting them take the lead. Before I had been thinking about how they were valuable to me, but now I understand that the team is the most important part of the process – and see how valuable they are to the team and its chances of winning”.
Leadership coaching is one of the most enjoyable things that I do. It brings some of the most significant changes to my clients. It also brings me great satisfaction as I see them dealing more effectively with challenges that their teams face. When a client realizes that there is a better way and begins to master it, a completely new world opens up as they discover a non-instrumental reason why other people are on the planet.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II