Early in my career, my goal has always been to achieve what Jim Collins refers to as level 5 leadership. I know it might seem a bit naïve or arrogant to attempt to put myself at a level with the Good To Great leaders. However, I think it has been a healthy goal to push me past the tendency to become complacent as a leader. Focusing on empowering others is a great habit to move towards this goal.
Six years ago I thought I was well on my way. I was leading a high-performing team building monitoring systems. We were having a significant impact on our organization. Empowering other and mentoring leaders in my and beyond my team became my passion. My next step on the promotion ladder would have been into the executive ranks. On the surface, it appeared like I was well on my way to achieving my level 5 goal.
Not sure if you caught this, we were building monitoring systems. Seems harmless enough, right? While yes, they were incredibly helpful, they come with a seductive side effect. Essentially the tools we were building pointed out the problems with every other department’s systems. They provided helpful data to help us continually improve our business, but 15 years of pointing out the flaws of others slowly pulled me away from my leadership goals.
Jim Collins defines Level 5 Leadership as the combination of an unwavering will and humility. It’s the ability to accomplish anything put in front of you without putting the focus on yourself.
We were continually pushing ourselves to accomplish the impossible and we were able to achieve many victories. However, my obsession with pointing out flaws was eroding the other half of the level 5 leadership equation. Receiving recognition for fault finding became a subtle, but dangerous driving factor in my career. Rather than channeling my unwavering will towards helping others, my motivation became more and more about me.
An Ironic Leadership Twist
Six years ago I transferred to a different department. In an ironic twist, I was now leading a team on the other side of the monitoring tools. The tools that I once played a significant role in implementing had now become my nemesis. They didn’t actually fix any problems. They just relentlessly whined every time our system had a problem.
Recently I’ve realized that my leadership can begin to resemble our monitoring systems. I can get really good at pushing myself and others through accomplishing the impossible. I can get really good at pointing out development areas. However, when I’m pushing and pointing out flaws without teaching and empowering I’m not really leading.
A Father’s Day Roast
Last father’s day my grown adult children were giving me grief about my lawn mowing leadership abilities. All three of them lamented about mowing our yard when they were growing up because they felt like they could never meet my standards.
Apparently, my standards for line straightness and speed still impact their desire to mow to this day. Actually, they said it wasn’t the standards, but my impatience with helping them reach the standards that had an impact. Rather than taking the time to show them the techniques for meeting the standards, I would become frustrated and mow it myself.
Maybe it’s just me, but this seems like a trap we can all fall into as leaders. Especially leaders that transitioned from high-performing individual contributors to a leadership role. Most leaders will often come under some sort of time crunch during any given workweek. Rather than empowering others in those moments, it’s tempting to jump in yourself and skip the training opportunity.
Mowing Dictator Redemption
Last weekend I had a chance to redeem my mowing dictator ways. The high for the day was forecast to be well into triple digits and I had 3 yards to mow before the heatwave arrived.
Our 3-year-old son ran out the back door when he heard me start the mower and he insisted he was going to help. Yes, you read that right, we have a 3-year-old and 3 adult children…maybe a story for another day.
My natural response was to redirect him back into the house, but my father’s day “roasting” caused me to pause. I shut my mower off and I helped him find his Little Tikes bubble mower. We then devised a plan where he would “mow” the areas I had already done and he would find any grass I missed.
Empowering Others by Encouraging A Helping Hand
We finished mowing and I started removing the catcher bag from the mower. Once again he insisted he help. The catcher bag full of grass clippings weighed more than he did and he could barely reach the top of the recycle bin. He quickly realized this and devised a new way to help. He reached into the bag, grabbed a handful of clippings, and on his tippy toes dropped the clippings into the bin.
Obviously, my 3-year-old is nowhere ready to mow the lawn on his own, but involving this little guy helped me reflect on my leadership. Rather than crushing his excitement to help and pushing through a task with top efficiency, it became an empowering moment. It took an extra 5 minutes to finish the task, but I believe the long-term investment in helping him grow was well worth the cost.
When I prioritize the investment in others above short-term efficiency gains, I am more likely to make strides in achieving my level 5 leadership goal.
We add value as leaders when we lead with a combination of unwavering will and humility. Value is truly added when we focus on empowering others.