Conceptually, leadership is really quite simple isn’t it?  Merriam-Webster defines a leader as “a person who has commanding authority or influence.”  We see some form of commanding authority or influence in virtually every job, position, or role: coach, head of household, executive, physician, nurse, partner, manager, team member, shop foreman, etc.  However, our society isn’t happy to allow a leader to simply exist with that title.  We are more concerned with leadership: one’s “capacity to lead.”

More specifically, we want effective leadership.  The capacity must be there but far more important is the result.   Effective leadership is described in terms of strong, compassionate, great, innovative, motivating, and a host of other adjectives.   We look for it in positions of authority and we look for it where there is no direct authority.  We seek to develop it, attract it, harness it, and deploy it.  We know it when we see it.

“Surround yourself with great people; delegate authority; get out of the way” Ronald Reagan

Ultimately, leadership is about people.  With no people, there is no leader.  Great leaders take people somewhere.  Strong leaders motivate others.  Effective leaders get things done – with people.  It is the blessing and the curse of being a leader: moving people, inspiring people, developing people…dealing with people.  And now we reach the point: the ultimate leadership fail is squandering the talents of your people. Put another way, it is failing to recognize, develop, harness, and deploy those talents to their best effect.

How does a leader squander the talents of his/her team?  Let me count the ways:

  1. Not recognizing a person’s talents and capabilities.
  2. Not developing a person’s talents and capabilities.
  3. Not putting that person in a position to use those talents and capabilities.
  4. Not aligning that person’s talents and capabilities with the organization’s objectives.
  5. Not pushing that person to recognize, develop, and use his/her talents and capabilities.

As leaders, we are called to be good stewards of our team’s talents.  It is the most important thing we can do.  The best strategy, tactics, processes, and tools will not help us if we are not effectively developing and deploying the capabilities of those on our team.

“A leader isn’t someone who forces others to make him stronger; a leader is someone willing to give his strength to others so that they may have the strength to stand on their own.” Beth Revis

To avoid the “ultimate leadership fail,” we have to be intentional with our leadership.  We have to jump-in to the trenches and get close to our people.  This is why command-and-control leadership is problematic.  When we lead by fiat, we take the industrialized*, mass production view of leadership.  We see our team as a collection of interchangeable pieces and fail to leverage the best strengths of those pieces.  We do this because, in our efforts to scale, we had to adopt a lowest-common-denominator approach to getting things done.  We worked really hard to break things down to tasks and take the human element out of them.

In a world where there exist millions of people willing to do work for less and a virtually infinite array of cheaper options, this mass production approach to leadership no longer works.  Leaders have to understand and harness the capabilities of the individuals on their teams.  No one is irreplaceable nor are they easily interchangeable.  Different people, different talents, different results.

So, how do you avoid the ultimate leadership fail and take your leadership to the next level?  Consider these points:

  • Be a talent scout.  The mass production world of hiring would have us believe that using systems to collect massive numbers of resumes and screen huge numbers of applicants for key words will produce our ideal candidate.  Though this is very efficient, it removes the vast majority of potential hires, eliminates the human element of talent identification, and puts the leader at the last stop along the way  As leaders, we need to find our team members in the field, on the court, and in the classroom.  We need to find them the old fashioned way: by seeing them in action and actively recruiting those who we see as a fit for our team.
  • Invest in Recruiting.  I’m not talking about building a new resume collection system.  I’m talking about time and focus.  As a leader, people are your job.  Let me rephrase: your job is to get the right people on your team at the right time and help them be successful.  This means that finding and attracting people is one of the most important functions you play.  Why are we leaving this up to a separate organization whose job is to cast the widest net possible, ask people to raise their hand, and then eliminate 99% of those applying?  Unless you are trying to hire 200 people with identical skills to fill a repetitive production-line function, the mass production recruiting and hiring model makes no sense – for you or the candidate.
  • Know your people deeply.  Did I just type that?  Are we really hiring people we don’t know?  Yes.  The same mass production hiring process that casts the wide net also creates a keyword-focused, soundbite-oriented, summarized, packaged, and sanitized view of our candidates.  If you don’t know someone deeply, how can you possibly guess of what they are capable?  Yes, their past success provides indications but everything changes when the job and/or company change.  You are missing tremendous possibilities when you let the narrow lens of a mass production hiring process define your view of someone you hire.  Limiting yourself to preconceived notions of a person’s capabilities may be worse than hiring the lesser candidate because you are more likely to become guilty of squandering their talents.
  • Understand your team member’s motivations.  This is split from the bullet above because it is important in its own way.  Just because someone is capable of something doesn’t mean they want to do it.  One of the great challenges of a long career is staying fresh, changing it up, and remaining effective.  If you want to get the best out of someone, you must understand what is motivating them.  This is particularly important for the seasoned pro; just because he/she has a long career doing exactly what you want in your organization doesn’t mean they want to do it or that they’ll bring a high enough level of motivation to your team.  Timing is critical for both you and your team member.  Money, position, title, function, or perks will do you no good if you don’t understand what is driving your team members.
  • Position them to succeed.  I’m reading all of these bullets and thinking: does this really need to be said?  YES IT DOES!  Leadership is failing in these regards every day and most of us are guilty in some way, shape, or form. It is curious that this bullet does not show up until the fifth position on my list.  The reason?  As a leader, some of the most important work comes before we deploy someone to do a job for us.  Positioning to succeed means we’ve identified the right person for the right role and are now staging her/his start effectively.  An effective start happens when we’ve given our team member the knowledge, tools, and empowerment necessary to be effective in her/his role.  Positioning to succeed happens when we put them in the place that best leverages their talents and give them clear expectations of their role on the team.
  • Enable success by allowing failure. This is very, very important.  If you want to leverage all of a person’s talents, you must give her enough latitude to fail.   This isn’t a statement condoning the taking of wild risks or setting someone up to fail.  Allowing a person to fail means you show trust in her capabilities, trust in how you’ve positioned her, and trust that she has the judgment to use both wisely.  You must accept that she will make mistakes and you must allow them to be made if you want her to bring all she can to your organization.  A great leader has to find a way to let go and enable success by allowing failure.
  • Stay close.  Once we’ve done all of the above, it often becomes easy to shift our attention to other matters.  We’ve checked the box on our list and we have a productive, thriving team member; our job is done, right?  Wrong.  The elements on the list above are organic, constantly changing, and require perpetual maintenance.  After all, this is a relationship.  Maintaining trust, understanding motivations,  identifying personal disruptions, and adapting to shifting strategies, roles, and projects require constant effort.  This is not managing someone.  This is continuing to invest in a relationship.  It is personal, it is critical to everyone’s success, and it is the most important thing you will do as a leader.  Stay close.

Obviously, this post is not comprehensive.  My goal is to challenge your thinking and we could add many more items to our list.  However, the point remains.  The ultimate fail for a leader is squandering his/her team’s talents.  Notice I did not say “losing a game” or “not hitting your numbers” or even “going out of business.”  As leaders, we don’t want any of that to happen.  We want winning teams, successful businesses, and thriving careers.

“I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”  Ralph Nader

The bottom line is that winning, however you define it, begins with your team.   To avoid the ultimate fail, you must focus on building and developing your team, giving them the tools they need to succeed, and then staying in the fight with them.  From there, the leader’s job becomes much easier because you are in it together, trust and motivation are high, and you’ve got everyone working at their capacity.  No you won’t win all of your battles, but you will help your people reach their potential, you will find joy in the journey, and you will make a difference to your team and the world they touch.  That sure sounds like success.

* Note: my thoughts on “industrialized, mass production leadership” are inspired by Seth Godin.  Read The Icarus Deception for Seth’s enlightening and entertaining perspective on the end of the industrial economy.