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Hard Won Lessons on Leadership – Part Four


I’m occasionally asked if there are any fairly simple leadership principles that always work. “Work for whom?” is the question I often respond with. Here’s what I mean by that.

The common misconception of leaders is that their task is to get others to do what they, the leader, wants. The goal of the true Christian leader, if at all possible, is to inspire others to creatively work toward a solution that they, the group, believes is best.

It’s my experience that once a group truly believes in an idea; they will work in harmony to pull it off. But, if they don’t, some will give it only a half-hearted effort, and a few will actually hope it fails. This is true of a family as well as a ministry, a committee or corporation.

So, the following are a few of the best practices of good leaders I’ve observed to inspire others to think outside the box.

Only rarely present a plan you’re not open to changing. Leaders are expected to present solutions and solve problems. So, I’ll often write a rough draft of a plan to get something on the table. I let people know that my proposal is “wet clay”, which means I’m open to alternative ideas, modifying mine or throwing it out altogether for a better idea.

The reason it’s so important to let people know this isn’t the plan is that if they perceive “this is it”, very rarely will anyone risk voicing opposition. Particularly in a business, few will risk telling the emperor he or she “has no clothes”. The best leaders always encourage people to come up with a better solution than theirs. When that happens, the group begins to own the idea and will take personal responsibility for making that idea a success, or you’ll all fail together. Oddly enough, I’ve led groups who were “all in” on an idea, it failed, but because we failed together, it built camaraderie’.

Six out-of-the-box ideas to foster great, innovative thinking! 1. Distribute your proposal or outline of a proposal to everyone involved in enough time for them to study it. (However, realize only a few will think deeply about your proposal prior to a meeting, unless the proposal seriously impacts them.)

2. Rather than calling it a “plan”, consider labeling it in less dogmatic terms like; proposal, rough outline, talking points, or a framework for discussion.

3. Identify the potential problems with your own proposal as well as some solutions. This tells everyone you’re honest enough to recognize some of your ideas may not work.

4. Invite people to pick it apart. If it’s a business proposal, eventually the “market” will find the flaws anyway. It’s less embarrassing and costly to find out now, rather than later. If it’s a ministry plan, it’s only good stewardship to consider the cost of failure for a bad ministry idea.

5. Encourage people to present alternative proposals and reward them with praise publicly when they do. Nothing builds confidence in your leadership more than when you recognize a better idea than yours and say so with enthusiasm. Even if the group ultimately rejects another person’s idea, praise all creative proposals. Doing so, will encourage others to risk creative solutions of their own.

6. Don’t ever take credit for a proposal that was truly a joint effort, even if it was 75% your idea. Nothing erodes confidence more, than a leader who takes credit for something a group did. Trust me, most people in the organization will find out one way or another, if you were the real architect of the plan. By not taking credit, you’ll actually be admired more!

That’s the way we’ve always done it!

Encourage your team to always ask “why?” The value of consultants is that they bring a fresh set of eyes to an organization. They can see things that aren’t being done well because they don’t have the “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” mindset. Encourage your whole team to ask the “why?” question – why do we do it this way? and keep asking it – until you run out of good answers.

If there is someone in the room whose idea the team and you are questioning, affirm the contribution their idea has made to your organization, but ask everyone to build on it. Some ideas were very good at a certain point in the life of the organization, but may need re-engineering. If you challenge your team to re-think everything, even your own old plan as well, you’ll be communicating to everyone, “There are no sacred cow ideas here. Every good idea can be improved!”

Please share with us ideas that have worked in your organization or company, that have worked to drive innovation.

Following Jesus in Real Life

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