Former President Harry Truman once said that, “Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”
I believe this sentiment to be true. Whether it’s business, community, family, faith, or government, we need men and women of courage to lead us from where we are to where we need to be. We also need them to share their wisdom with us along the way. As a new leader emerging during a time of tremendous regional uncertainty and organizational change, I learned many new lessons and had many enduring principles reinforced over the last year. Here are the top eight lessons that have guided my leadership:
- Secure and maintain wise counsel. I have the good fortune of being surrounded by wise counselors both inside and outside of United Way. Not everyone can be in your inner court – you must choose thoughtfully. It is a mistake to believe that everyone can provide constructive feedback that is mission critical. You need wise people who can look you in the eye and tell you the “emperor is naked.” And you as a leader have to discern when feedback is a distraction. Wise counselors help you focus on the things that matter.
- Tune into your environment. Not only is reading the environment around you important, but you also must be able to, as one colleague aptly put it, “ride the waves of old thinking and new realities.” Culture, communication and community perceptions are all key things that should be understood and considered when leading in and responding to an ever-changing environment.
- Embrace opportunities and challenges directly and courageously. My former boss reiterated through the years: “The problem that we have with our work is that we know there are things that we need to change, but people’s lives are at stake. So organizations like ours are unwilling to risk the familiar for the unknown. Sticking our head in the sand will not make the challenges go away, so take action, be courageous! We don’t just want to win, we need to win – lives are at stake.” Enough said.
- Be responsibly transparent. Not everyone needs to know every single thing that you are thinking or considering at every moment. Know when to share so that when you do, people listen.
- When communicating a new vision, be clear about what is not changing. Our United Way is most successful when we are working strategically with partner agencies, corporations, individuals, labor and government. Nothing about this has or will change. Understand and communicate your vision again and again to your audience. A mentor told me that just when I am getting tired of hearing myself say something, I’ve only just begun to get the message out.
- Be okay with adjusting new plans. Sometimes naysayers will see any slight pivot from a plan as a sign of its defeat. When something is new, at times you need to shift course slightly to succeed. Don’t jeopardize the whole plan just to prove a point that you were right from the start. Inflexible dogmatism rarely leads to success. Adjust and move forward.
- Accept that no matter what you do or don’t do, someone will disapprove. Move too fast, move too slow, move just right – no matter what you’ve got a fight. So get moving.
- Be clear on what you want. I want to mobilize an army of people throughout our region to approach with compassion and conviction our responsibility and privilege to help others live their best possible lives. I want small, seemingly insignificant actions to roll up into big impact. I want us to harness the technology, compassion and competitive drive of our region to change the trajectory of a generation that is currently undervalued. I once too was lost, but now I am found. What’s your vision? What do you want?
What are your leadership lessons? Leave them in the comment section below.