This past week, I participated in a gathering of assorted organizations under the umbrella of a new group called Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD). It was an opportunity to sit among many of the people in my home county who embrace leadership roles: church pastors and deacons, the heads of emergency and public services, city and county elected officials, etc.
Anthony Clifton, director of the DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency, directed the meeting. He explained the purpose for VOAD is to coordinate volunteers during the response and recovery stages of disasters.
Twenty-seven months ago, an EF5 tornado (the largest category of twisters) cut a 30 mile path through the area, violently destroying hundreds of properties and claiming nearly three dozen lives. In the aftermath, the good folks of North Alabama turned out to rescue the injured and feed the needy, but the efforts were not entirely coordinated, resulting in some duplicity of efforts and squandered resources.
Clifton said VOAD would designate someone in each command center to allocate such resources where needed and grasp who was doing what in which places. The foresight to do something as fundamental as making sure the good guys, the volunteers, could be distinguished from looters via distributing armbands, emerged from the experience gained in those tough days we somehow overcame.
Clifton clearly articulated the reasons why these efforts were needed, plus he drove home the difficult assertion that volunteers would have to step up, even under the most grueling of circumstances, because the people of the area couldn’t afford to simply call in the National Guard or expect the taxpayers in some other area to pay for outside resources to restore balance following chaos. Clifton also took steps to manage expectations, preparing us for difficult scenarios ahead by pointing out that his small group could manage the allocation of resources, but it would be up to the volunteer coordinators to show leadership and manage how and where those resources are ultimately utilized.
Not everyone possesses that ability to step up and run with enough competencies to inspire confidence from others. Otherwise, we’d never see rebellions and mutiny.
I looked around that room and pondered what it takes to be a leader who not only fakes it until he makes it, but also prompts others to fall in line behind them, ready to march into literal devastation.
Much of our conceptualization of leadership revolves around business organizations. The goal posts may be corporate earnings or successful fundraising campaigns.
Leaders of commerce need to possess an awareness of product cycle and the expectation of bigger, better things down the pipeline. On the free market of ideas and products, if you aren’t better tomorrow than you were yesterday, you’re irrelevant, possibly a one-hit wonder.
Leaders have to predict what’s next by anticipating what people want and need, as well as prognosticating what will be possible tomorrow that is impractical or impossible today. That’s called “forward-looking capacity” or being “ahead of the curve.”
They accomplish this by researching trends and development initiatives, by reverse engineering in some instances when a competitor manages to bottle lightning, by understanding human psychology, and by audaciously attacking speculation while others stand on the sidelines.
Leaders awaken potential within those they lead, like a group of students who have no idea they love classical music until they hear a conductor bring out the best in his performers, causing them to experience the notes emotionally while thinking of a loved one lost.
Leaders parlay talent, gather resources and inspire a shared vision of what how to make something better or create something that’s new.
Leaders ask truly excellent questions of themselves and others. Asking questions is the way we comprehend what exists and explore the rough edges of what might be. I doubt very few innovators simply sit at a desk and get whacked up side the head with visionary thoughts out of left field.
Rather, they deeply ponder then eventually grasp the nature of a product or service so completely that they understand the problems that prevent it from becoming faster, cheaper, more efficient, or more aesthetically pleasing. Innovation begins by examining how to problem-solve.
Leaders ask whether something is urgent or essential. They focus on a “to-do” list. They assess strengths and weaknesses. And they press the rest of us to consider what we’ve probably overlooked.
Many managers are so consumed with everyday menial tasks such as meeting deadlines, dealing with personnel issues, and adhering to budgets that are trimmed to razor-thin margins that they can’t devote adequate time or resources to seeing the big picture. Yet anticipating the next product cycle and recognizing trends that are about to explode are two aspects of leadership that can mean the difference between commercial survival or extinction.
I think effective leadership involves passion. If the conductor of the symphony feels no passion, he may be able to fake it, but genuine enthusiasm and love of the process affects the performance of the players looking to him or her for direction. A leader infects others with the energy and excitement to drive the process, making them fully-invested shareholders consumed with the realization of a single goal.
Leaders marshal resources. Like generals positioning the troops, they are expected to know the battlefield, the tools needed to prevail, and the sacrifices they may have to be made to achieve the defined objectives. A leader sets expectations and chooses “battles” carefully, anticipating weakest links and compensating as needed.
They may not do all of the work by themselves, but they delegate with a willingness to do anything they ask others to do for the sake of expediency. It is pretty clear when your boss is simply dumping onto you anything he or she needs to get done but doesn’t want to fool with because it is tedious.
Leaders understand all of the moving parts in a product or service because if any part of the machine breaks down, they have to step up and pinch-hit to keep progress rolling.
A great leader shows humility and leads by taking charge because he or she feels like they can get the ball across the goal line — rather than simply barking orders because he or she has been arbitrarily put in a position of authority over others. That is key to the distinction between a true leader versus a mere manager.
Sticking with the football analogy, a team effort requires a coach and/or quarterback calling the shots based on assessing the situation, but the strategy is formed after considering what role each player will contribute to overcome obstacles and achieve goals. The leader of a football team inspires success, even when the score favors the other team in the early going, which is why so much of our prosperity coaching resorts to sports metaphors like the ones I have employed here.
We overcome adversity by finding the capacity to commit and follow through, but this flows through us because of encouragement from someone we respect and believe in. Belief in inner capacity drives us to react in ways that overcome logic and probability.
Leaders make things happen by explaining why and illustrating how. They develop the roadmap and make adjustments when encountering obstacles. Persistence is key to success in any endeavor. So is the process of reinvention.
Effective leaders put their projects ahead of their egos, seeking honest feedback from those who follow them because they may see something he or she doesn’t from their vantage point. Sometimes the cynic can ground the optimist in practical ways, not bursting balloons as much as pointing out what is causing drag.
We all want to be a part of something significant, to pursue careers instead of mere jobs, to be a part of projects that excite consumers and blaze a trail. Someone has to take charge, organize, delegate, problem-solve, and ultimately live with the successes or failures that come with seeking purpose and taking risks.
We seem to fall into our natural pecking order, either leading or following.