Clear and Present Leadership
Years ago this country ran on words. When the president or the Supreme Court said something, they chose their words very carefully. There is a wonderful chapter in Do I Make Myself Clear? which describes the multiple drafts that FDR went through before picking the word infamy. Legal arguments still chose their words carefully, even if the rest of government and society does not, and the courts have a track record of using multiple terms to surround and define another term or concept. Separate but equal. Search and seizure. Speedy and public. Cruel and Unusual. Keep and Bear. Clear and Present
It is useful to adopt this practice when trying to model something very complex, such as love or leadership. For example: Love is active and forgiving.
I think that good leadership is clear and present.
- Vision, goals, key results, what we are allowed to do and not do, are clear. Likely written down, understood, repeated frequently, taught to new members of a team.
- If changes to these happen, they are communicated well. Reasons are passed along, problems and obstacles are also communicated. Plans, strategies, and opportunities are documented and well understood by all - no matter how much work it takes.
- Performance feedback is given immediately and appropriately (in private for criticism, public for praise).
- The leadership is viewed as in the fight with the other members of the team, even if they don’t do the same work. Let me know how I can help isn’t just a phrase, but means what it says. Good leaders float around, helping and encouraging.
- The leadership is available and accessible. This can mean physically present in an office setting, or around in the sense of providing clear and consistent communication during rather than after. Being distant leads to confusion, gossip, and negative thinking.
- The leader is aware of her staff as complete human beings and has empathy towards them. They win when she does. Present is the opposite of out-of-touch or out-of-the-loop or not aware of the realities on-the-ground. They encourage real news (i.e. bad news) and respond to it constructively.
When I’ve screwed up as a leader it has been a lack of clarity or presence. Why have I done this? Another truth related to leadership is that all leadership flows from character. Every time I’ve done wrong or less than I could have as a leader it has been a character weakness, either temporary or an ongoing struggle.
Here are some examples of how weak character lead to a lack of clarity:
- Avoid having a hard conversation because of how uncomfortable it is, or fear for how poorly it can go.
- Lack of conviction in deciding a way forward due to fear, or how things will be perceived. Lack of confidence in a plan, or not bringing in others to help.
- Not wanting to share struggles or changes in strategy for fear of looking weak or incompetent.
- Not writing down a plan because you are afraid it won’t be respected or won’t be valid over time.
Character can make you not present as well:
- Some disconnection flows from ego: thinking you are above those that work for you. Not wanting to roll-your-sleeves-up or get dirty does not flow from humility.
- Some disconnection just flows from the busy trap: not delegating enough, not being able to have enough time due to other churn work.
- Not wanting to see your people as people but as resources flows from fear of running towards the mess that is people and their squishy emotions and thoughts.
As leaders, we all are learning and trying to get better. Being clear and present are simple ways I can remember to improve the way I lead.