Great leaders are not born overnight. It takes time, effort, and humility to become a great leader. Which is why leaders of high-caliber are one of the most sought after resources in business, and seemingly, one of the most scarce.
However, I denounce the idea that the well of impactful leaders is drying up. I believe we are all leaders. And like you, and all others on this path – I'm on a leadership journey.
I'm still learning, mainly through observing my own mistakes, but one thing I am certain of is that without the right leadership in place, no amount of work on other fundamental areas of your organization matter. Without leadership, you will have efficient operations that do not achieve results.
Why? Leadership is the fuel for the engine, the encouragement that keeps us going and the critique that keeps us on track. Leadership provides perspective when we’ve lost it all and can’t remember why we’re doing it in the first place. Leadership provides congratulations when we’ve achieved something groundbreaking that sometimes we are too close to recognize. Leadership is the reality-check that helps us realize we aren’t done yet.
And from that perspective, here are the three leadership problems I see most often in organizations, as well as how to address them.1. Problem one: Lack of alignment around a common vision.
Anyone who has ever been on a team has experienced a situation in which the team fails despite having a good strategy and highly effective operations. Strategy and operations are not enough. Actions need to be coordinated and prioritized. Sometimes one goal has to take precedence over another.
Good leaders clarify the goals of an organization, repeat them endlessly, and help their teams understand how each component serves the larger goals. The solution here begins with simplification and repetition. As far as goals are concerned, I subscribe to the “one hand” rule: you shouldn’t have more goals than fingers on one hand. Otherwise it is too hard to remember them. If you are the leader and you have to look at a piece of paper to remember your goals, how can you expect your team to remember them, let alone act in accordance with them?
Leaders pick a few goals and explain how each part of the organization helps achieve them. This means being willing to sometimes say, “this is more important than that.” We can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything.
I worked on a program a number of years ago that had a few big challenges: not enough constituents; high attrition; low fundraising. Finally, the leader in charge of the project boiled it down to one phrase: “Every participant is a fundraiser.” The simplicity of it was electrifying — and effective. She used that rallying cry wherever she went, every time she talked.
Once the goals are articulated, the other mistake is thinking they can be said once. They can’t. We’re all busy; we have thousands of things on our minds and in our inboxes. Great leadership is about repeating the goals, over and over.Problem two: Lack of agreement about the current reality.
A much thornier issue, and one that is often unaddressed, is when people don’t agree about the current reality. This lack of agreement can create deep-seated, entrenched conflict and can turn problems into crisis.
Why is it hard to agree on where things stand? Shouldn’t that be easy? Think about most meetings and communications: we have been brought up to avoid conflict, to take disagreements “off-line,” to find the good in everything. These are all good habits with friends and family but can be dangerous for teams. When we work with organizations, we often sit in on internal meetings characterized by soft language, overhyped praise, and veiled criticism. It is much harder to find rigorous procedures of self-inspection.
Given that most of our environments tend to avoid honest talk, it is no wonder that oftentimes not everyone agrees on the current state of affairs. Have you ever been in a meeting where someone reports on results being down 5% and everyone else compliments the creative? Or a wrap-up where the income goal was missed and yet the conversation turns to the good things that were achieved?
Leaders are good at deliverin the kind and honest truth. This doesn’t need to be blunt or personal. However, someone needs to say, “We’re down another 5% this year. What we are doing isn’t working.”
A common vision for the future is critical. At the same time, we can’t achieve the vision if we don’t agree on where we are starting. Leaders create clarity and alignment around the current state.Problem three: Lack of understanding about roles and responsibilities.
Think about how often meetings end with vague group assignments: “Joe and Martha, take a look at that and tell us more next week.” Okay – is Joe responsible? Is Martha? Or, how many times have you heard this: “We have dotted-line reporting between marketing and fundraising. Marketing creates the messages and fundraising does the stewardship.” Okay, so when we don’t hit our constituent goals, who is responsible?
I’ll admit I’ve created this problem more than a few times as a leader. It is tempting to email everyone who is involved in an issue – instead of the one person you are expecting to take action. It is hard to single someone out during a meeting, sometimes because you don’t want to put them on the spot, and sometimes because you want to let everyone have a say in the decision.
But behind closed doors, this usually drives people crazy. People actually want responsibility. They want to know the expectations others have of them, and they truly want to achieve those expectations. Great leaders declare war on ambiguity. They are willing to assign one person as accountable for each operational area, and great leaders make sure the rest of the team understands the assignments.
So, the quick leadership guide for successful fundraising is:
- Plainly discuss the current reality, and create consensus around it;
- Align your team around a short set of goals, and regularly discuss them; and
- Relentlessly clarify who is in charge of what and openly discuss any confusion.
It’s all easier said than done, really, but the good news is that these are skills available to all of us. No special education or experience is needed to discuss reality, align around goals, and create clarity. And this is a good thing too – because regardless of title or position, to accomplish the change we want to create in the world, we all need to be leaders.