Do you need to be less of a leader?

Do you need to be less of a leader?

For several years as a school principal I had the crazy idea that I was supposed to be the smartest guy in the school and be able to tell everyone what to do.  I was supposed to have a solution for all problems, never make a mistake, and all the while maintain a culture of perfect harmony!

It didn't take long to realize that there was no way I could ever be or do any of those things.  Even if I could, at best it might bring some artificial compliance and temporary success.  Some might even applaud and offer credit to “leadership;” however, a robotic dependence from followers, lack of creativity, loss of passion, and leader burnout would eventually take root and spread like kudzu.  John Maxwell’s concept that leadership is influence would realistically be non-existent.  Control maybe, but not influence.

I finally learned that less leadership could actually be better.  Maybe the cliché, less is more, applies to leadership too.  Here’s what I learned about becoming less of a leader:

1. Do less talking.

Talk less.  The best leaders listen.  Truly listen.  This is not just being respectfully quiet as your mother taught you years ago.  This is literally talking less and listening more.  Replace your talk time with genuine, committed listening.  Really “seek to understand” as Steven Covey advised millions of book copies ago. Forget the idea that leaders must “tell” or “boss” in order to be effective.  Sure, there will be rare circumstances where you must use direct communication, but these will be few and far between (if not, there are issues way beyond the scope of this blog!).  When you practice committed listening, notice how much you learn from others. Notice how others place you in a “leadership” position regardless of your assigned role.  Notice how people respect you and open themselves to be “influenced” by you.  Tell them and it will be short-lived.  Listen and you will influence forever.

2. Give less of your opinion.

What is your question to comment ratio?  Literally, think about your question to comment ratio in your next meeting.  Are you asking more questions or are you stating more comments?  Regardless if you are the CEO or the director of trash take-out, think about how often you ask a question versus how often you offer an opinion.  Great leaders ask many more questions than they offer opinions or make statements.  Asking questions will require your team to do the thinking and the learning.  Doesn’t this follow perfectly with #1?  If “seeking to understand” starts with listening, it deepens through questioning.  Steven Covey would be proud and so will your team.  Don’t be afraid of silence, too.  Susan Scott says to “let silence do the heavy lifting.”

3. Have less expertise and solve fewer problems.

What?  Yes, have less expertise and solve fewer problems.  Okay, maybe not literally “have” less expertise as in increase ignorance, but leaders should realize they do not need to be or pretend to be THE expert.  Leaders who attempt to be the smartest person in their organization will end up less successful.  Think about this.  If you are the smartest one on your team then why do you need your team? Andy Stanley says his desire is to be the dumbest person in the room.  How powerful is that when the leader is the dumbest person in the room?! Surround yourself with people smarter than you. Let them know it. Empower the “smart” people to do their job.  Don’t do the work for them or step in and solve their problems. Not only will your organization benefit, you will earn miles of respect and your leadership skills will soar (along with your team).

4. Worry less about being challenged.

As leaders we often feel it’s our job to maintain harmony and bliss.  Certainly a positive culture is essential and the leader is responsible; however, positive culture does not mean everyone agrees and no one questions decisions.  If everyone agrees then I can almost promise underperformance, stifled creativity, and an increase in do-overs.  High-quality leaders worry less about being challenged and more about collaboration. Avoid isolation.  Make collaboration the norm and invite challenge. One leader shared how he will not finalize a decision until at least one person on the team offers disagreement or challenges the decision.  Literally, meetings will not end until this happens.  This strategy greatly increases decision quality and widens perspective for the team and the leader.  His name was Jim Collins.

Knowing that a school principal does not have to be the all-knowing problem solver who rides in and saves the day by telling everyone exactly what to do made my life much easier and my leadership much more effective.  Doing less actually added much to my skills as a leader!  In what ways do you need to lead less in order to be more effective?

Please send comments or questions to hank.staggs@lipscomb.edu.  If you would like to hear information about an exciting new educational leadership opportunity at Lipscomb University please contact us!

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