June 11, 2014

Going First: The first step to transformational leadership starts with taking it

I’d like to urge technologists to think not only about their technology leadership but their role as overall organizational leaders.

A few months ago, my preschooler Danny came home very excited to tell me about his day. “Daddy!” he exclaimed as he bounded into my office. “Awesome day today! Ser-i-ous-ly. Best. Day. Ever!”

Danny has no fear of hyperbole, but even for him this seemed like something special. “Wow,” I said. “Now this I’ve got to hear. What happened?”

“Well, Daddy” —and at this point he leaned in as if he had something both powerful and sacred to share— “today I was the line leader. Yep. Me. The line leader.”

Ah, that’s nice, I thought. The line leader. A cute way to recognize each child. I tried to sound excited. “Oh, wow, that’s great. So as line leader, you get to be the first one to do everything?” I started to turn back to my work.

“No Daddy,” he said solemnly. “As line leader I need to be the first one to do everything. Because if I don’t go first, how will anyone know what to do?”

Man, do I love that kid.

My Son, the Leadership Guru

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Danny touched on one of the simplest and most important responsibilities of leadership. In their seminal work, The Leadership Challenge, authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner summarize this idea concisely: leaders go first.

For most of us, our earliest introduction to the word “leader” was similar to Danny’s. Maybe it was the chance to be at the front of the lunch line. Maybe it was a game in which we followed someone else around a park. When we were kids, our idea of leadership was directly associated with being in front. The leader was the one that showed everyone else the way to go.

However, during my career managing my own teams and partnering with nonprofit executives around the continent, I have found that for most professionals this simple definition has become watered-down or lost altogether. In our attempts to practice empowerment and inclusivity— both noble pursuits, of course— we often forget that one of the most important things a leader can do is take the lead.

If we aren’t in front, how will everyone else know where to go?

Hitting Close to Home

I’ve been reminded of this quite a bit through my first six months as founder and CEO of Plenty. Our team is small, experienced, and very familiar with one another. We all worked together at a previous firm and are well-acquainted with each other’s needs and aspirations.

And at the same time, I noticed a month or so ago that I was relying too much on past experience to help the team along. I took for granted that the right decisions would emerge by consensus; I assumed that people would feel free to reach out when they needed help.

After a couple of weeks of hearing each of the team members express similar frustrations about the way we had been sharing information, I realized that I had forgotten Danny’s rule. The problem wasn’t that the team wasn’t qualified or aligned on values or driven to succeed. The problem was that I was waiting for someone else to step to the front of the line— and they were waiting for me.

We’ve since set up a more regular process for one-on-one conversations, group information sharing, and project milestones. Now that the processes are in place, I’ve found that the right decisions usually do emerge from consensus, after all. We just needed me to point us in a direction and say, “Let’s head that way.”

More Than Initiative

When we hear that “leaders go first,” we can trick ourselves into thinking that initiative is all that is needed. And certainly, initiative is part of the puzzle. A leader has to say, “No one is doing this, so I will.”

But initiative without vision isn’t leadership – it is just activity. Kouzes and Posner talk not only of taking initiative, but of wrapping initiative in a vision for change that is shared with other people on the team and then constantly reinforced. In this way, “going first” becomes a lot less about initiative and a lot more about modeling the way.

Ultimately, leadership involves articulating where the team should go and why, and then showing the team how we’ll get where we want to go, together.

For Reflection

I am always struck by how many people I meet who tell me that their organization is starved for leadership— and then simultaneously lament that there is nothing they themselves can do about it. If we think about the idea of leadership as being at the front of the line, we find both opportunity and obligation. The fact is, there is always something we can do to lead those around us, whether it means articulating values, clarifying vision, reinforcing behavior, confronting problems, or simply encouraging people around us. And if there’s always something we can do, there’s always something we should do.

What areas in your organization are standing still because no one is at the front of the line? How could you raise your hand and say, “Over here, everyone! Follow me!”?

Jeff Shuck
I'm the founder and CEO of Plenty, a consultancy that connects idealists to create massive positive change. I passionately believe that hope needs help -- and each of us can and should be one of the helpers. More information here: http://www.plentyconsulting.com/jeff.
Interest Categories: Leadership
Tags: technology leadership