11 September 2008

Everyone is Leading Someone(s)


I've been pondering me the nature of good leadership of late. I think my interest is in part due to my recent desires to direct, to take the reins on a show of my own and lead it through the scabrous paths of the New York theatre scene. I often have a great idea, and then take a really, really long time to think about it. I'm not sure if this is just my way, or a way of sifting out ideas without staying power, or what (what = sheer laziness), but I can be very meditative about a new task. I like to do things right, and do them right the first time, which is of course an interesting strength/weakness sort of trait. For this particular meditation, I have been borrowing data from all sorts of sources in my day-to-day life, quite subconsciously. Sources like observations from my day job, observations from commercial transactions, news reports about various international governments and -- yes -- lessons from actual directors with whom I've worked. I've also been reminded of certain lessons from my Directing for the Stage class, taught by the late Dr. Kenneth Campbell. What it's all left me with so far is something like this:


  • Lead by example. This simply covers a lot of ground. It's cliche, and simple, and so often over-looked or excused in its failure. Some people even argue that you should set an example you can't fulfill, so everyone's striving for it together. I say be real, and be the best you can.

  • Leaders should infect with enthusiasm, not terrify with consequences. Maybe it is called for at some point: the terror technique. But if so, I'm not sure that I've ever seen it. Called for, that is. I've seen the terror technique. It's my noisy next door neighbor, figuratively speaking. I know way too much about him, quite accidentally, and never know how to respond when confronted by him. The terror technique, he makes no sense. You get much better results with enthusiasm. My boss switched it up to enthusiasm just this morning, and, man, have I gotten things done and cleared since then. Of course, this may also have something to do with her acknowledging a personal need to . . .

  • Be organized. It's true there have been plenty of inspired leaders who couldn't find matching socks in the morning, and plenty of perpetual followers who can pull their second-grade report card in under sixty seconds. I'm not saying this is the key to good leadership, but it helps. A LOT. People are a lot more willing to listen to someone who shows up early, doesn't allow interruptions and knows where they left their glasses. Of course, keeping oneself organized is a whole other ballgame from keeping other people so, which is why a good leader must know how to . . .

  • Delegate intelligently. Another cliche here. Although: really? I always hear, "Must be able to delegate responsibility," but rarely is it qualified with something suggestive of delegation being a skill of varying effectiveness. The trouble with delegation is that it takes a very finely honed sense of perspective, and an intimate understanding of the people around you, and very few people seem to appreciate this. You can't do it all, and even if somehow you can, it makes working for you miserable, because necessary information gets centralized so thoroughly that if you disappear, so does a great deal of effectiveness. How to delegate intelligently, exactly? It would take its own entry (or book) in all likelihood, but I suspect it has something to do with being able to perceive the big picture right alongside the details.

  • You're only as capable as you are flexible. The leader has to have the ability to stick his or her nose into every aspect of the endeavor. Also, the insight to know when to go with a specialist's opinion over his or her own. Orchestration is a good word. You may not be able to play every instrument in the band, but you damn well better know what each and every one can sound like, and be able to pick it up without knocking it out of tune.

  • Communicate. Seriously. About everything. On some rare occasions a secret or particular dissemination of information may be useful, but the rule should otherwise be to talk about everything, all of the time. And I do mean talk. Getting things done comes of talking; talking is the real-time interaction that provides the most information and the best understanding, even between people who are having trouble understanding the actual words involved. Collaboration is communication.

  • Whenever possible, begin every response with an observation and affirmation. And for that matter, start every conversation with a question. Beginning that way invites the person into communication, rather than laying something (yet ANOTHER THING) on him or her. Once you're in the exchange, you'll get much more helpful responses if the person you're dealing with hears you saying "yes" with your voice, even when you have to disagree. "Yes" maintains energy, affirms worth, and allows people to feel like you're listening. (It helps you out too with your long-term positivity.) In acting it's called "accepting and building," taking something you're given and making something more with it. This may sometimes be a matter of turning lemons into lemonade -- you're still going to get fewer squirts in the eye this way.

  • Know what you're about. I'm not saying by this that a leader has to have it all figured out. (On the contrary: How pointless.) No, I mean to say that people need something to latch on to if they're going to follow someone. Maybe it's just because they also need something to criticize or catch you failing to fulfill, but some singular quality that's demonstrable helps people focus in on you. Something personal must separate you from the crowd, and it's just helpful that you understand your own je ne sais quoi. Mystery can be your trademark. Just know it, if it is. It may become a target at some point, but so what? You aren't the important thing:

  • Make calls, and take responsibility for everything, credit for nothing. We tend to resist images and examples from kings and emperors (we're more comfortable with ship captains, for some reason), but there is something about that dynamic that everyone craves, or at times needs. We're more inclined to follow decisive people, and more inclined to work hard for them when we know they have our backs. This is difficult advice, because it can be so easy to misconstrue. A leader isn't always right, and a leader must have a chorus of input from his or her followers at all times, but he or she must also mediate, resolve, and take things forward. When things go wrong, the good leader protects his or her team. When things go right, the good leader makes sure the team members involved get the credit. It's a lot to take on, but in my opinion you're wasting your time if you do it any other way.

That's what I think so far, anyway. I must admit that it's not based on a whole lot of personal experience. Most of my leadership roles to date are the result of coincidence and/or default. Soon I hope to take that in hand. For now, I remain content to meditate a while longer.

2 comments:

Patrick said...

Yes. And what so many of your points illustrate for me is, a good leader not only admits when she is wrong, she also acknowledges when she doesn't have the answers yet. I think that's one of the hardest ones for young leaders in particular to accept, but there is something reassuring for me when I hear "I don't know the solution, let's explore."

Jeff Wills said...

It's hard to do as a leader. That, I suppose, is one of the reasons it's so important to build a team that operates with trust in one another. Even the leader has to trust in his or her followers' ability to trust in him or her.