Progress Is Not Leadership

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There’s this house up in Northern California called the Winchester House. It was built by the Winchester Rifle family and continually worked on by the widow until her death. The house is open to tours now. The interest in the home has nothing to do with the famous Winchester Rifle. What makes this house famous is the home has stairs that lead to nowhere, windows with no view and doors that open to walls. Mrs. Winchester believed that as long as she kept building, she would keep the spirits happy. I see a lot of businesses and people operate the same way. They continue to build without a plan, thinking they are getting stuff done, only to discover later they ventured down the wrong path wasting countless hours and money, sometimes to the downfall of the business or their job.

How it begins

It typically starts with the wrong metric or goal. Businesses will compare themselves to other companies or perceived competitors that are not remotely in their sphere. They want to be like them and get there fast. Instead of expanding naturally they create haphazard projects that copy or mimic other business’s perceived success. It’s like being on a bad diet, snacking all day long on random food and not eating a proper meal. You think, “well I’m eating, so what’s the problem?” But you’re eating the wrong food and extending credit to your body saying, “I’ll fix that later.” But later never comes. You put it off and put it off and then one day something happens. It may be a realization that no matter what you are doing, you just aren’t getting ahead. Possibly a more severe incident occurs and you are short cash to pay your bills. You start playing the credit card game and that runs out too. Next thing you know, you are paralyzed with indecision. What do you do now?

Where’s the leadership?

When any business gets into trouble, questions arise like, “Who was manning the ship?” “How could they let that happen?” “Where’s the accountability?” “Where was the leadership?”

There seems to be a lot of talk these days about leadership. I think the word leadership has a different definition, depending on the context in which it is used and how the individual is using it. For example, giving people orders or assigning them tasks to do, then they complete them, is not necessarily an example of leadership. Now, the act of giving someone a task and them completing that task will lead to progress, but at that point, people are simply crossing stuff off their list. There’s not much leadership is going on there.

A ship without a rudder, has no direction and so does an organization without leadership. You need to understand, not only what you are doing, but why you are doing it. Leadership is not trying to look important while doing something. Every example of leadership that I’ve seen and experienced varies. It’s not just one style or one method. It’s not a list you follow, but more of a way of acting and decision making that is appropriate for that moment. A leader may provide additional insight into a situation, ask specific questions to guide people down a path or break things down into a series of actions in the hope of discovering a solution along the way. And sometimes leadership is saying nothing at all. 

Leadership gets an organization or team to their goal faster. It’s taking in the whole picture. It’s focusing on the broader goal. Many leaders are misunderstood, because the chess game that you’re playing, is not the one they’re playing. The moves they make are setting the stage for next week, next month or even next year. It can get frustrating trying to interpret a leader’s directions, because they aren’t seeing what you are seeing and the reason is they are looking through a completely different lens.

So, how do you create leadership when you thought you were leading, but really you were just reacting? It starts at the top.

Getting back on track

When you are barreling down the road full speed and you know you are going the wrong direction, turning that train around can sometimes be difficult, if not impossible. But you do have to try. Now comes the hard part. Making tough decisions. Here are the steps to start leading.

  1. Commit to being the leader. To be a leader, you have to have the maturity to lead. You have to create the vision and then embody that vision. You have to sell it and inspire others. You are the motivator and cheerleader. You have to do your job.
  2. Empower your team. You hired your team for a reason. You thought they would be perfect for the job. Let them do it. Support them and hold them accountable. Tell them what you want and what your expectations are. Creating a culture where your team feels empowered to act and speak out when needed is essential.
  3. Create a plan. It can’t just be day by day. You have to come up with a plan and get feedback from your team. After all, they will need to put that plan into action. Besides, they may have a different opinion of how to implement that plan and if it’s a good plan at all. Come up with what you are going to do, how you are going to do it and when it’s going to be done. Then do check-ins often. 
  4. Be decisive and consistent. Putting off decisions is just not making a decision at all and that disables your team. It’s okay to change your mind and it’s okay to undo what you did. Consistently making decisions and in addition empowering your team to make decisions without you, is a great example of leadership. Don’t be the bottleneck in your organization. This is about giving power away, not holding onto it.
  5. Audit yourself. Everything has to make sense. Sometimes decisions are made and in the process of putting that decision into action, several other micro-decisions are also made and occasionally the original decision gets altered. Things happen. Stuff gets messed up and so going back and looking at how things are going comparing it to the original plan is essential for the health of your business.

Preventing a relapse

I had a professor in college that used to say this all the time, “If you always do, what you’ve always done, you will always get, what you’ve always gotten.” Bad decision making is a disease and you have to take extraordinary measures to stay healthy. I’ve seen companies go through years of change to only make those same decisions again once they righted the ship or fixed the problem. Be honest with yourself and your company that things have to change. Whether it’s a new process, a new person, a new department or removal of any one of those. You can’t keep making poor decisions again and again. There are only so many times a company can come back from making wrong decisions. If you’re not willing to look at yourself and your team and ask the hard questions, maybe you need to look inward and ask for help. And if you aren’t willing to do that, well, that’s just bad leadership too.

Creating, running and growing a business is hard work. You need good honest advice from a person who's been there before and can help you organize your ideas into action.
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