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What made this good leader great

I have become a student of leadership as I have observed and coached leaders over the years. I have had the good fortune to support many who were highly effective. There were some patterns and similarities, but I also marvel at how many different ways there are to accomplish true leadership.

This past week I had the good fortune to see first hand a model of leadership I had never witnessed and was very impressed with how effective it was.

The situation was a leader coming into a non-profit health program that had suffered at the hands of a leader who was rather autocratic, had lost support of the overall organization leadership and governance, and whose program had fallen into disfavor with its client community.

The incoming leader was Native American, in this case Navaho, serving in a Yupik Eskimo region of Alaska. As we made preparations, he insisted upon a broad range of participation both from his staff and from the Advisory Board to the program. I was concerned that the large group size wasn’t necessary, because we had already solicited input from many in the group, but he insisted. He introduced the session by making the point that this was “your strategic plan”, that the group needed to focus on the clear directive from the board and leadership of the parent organization to reduce high rates of suicide.

And then, he literally disappeared, leaving the group to work out what should be its priorities over the next two days.
When he did engage in the session, he remained silent, often with head in hand, which I feared was exasperation, but was merely contemplation. At one point, when it was clear that we needed to change the process in order to reach consensus, I urged that we reduce the size of the group. He pushed back hard, insisting that disenfranchisement, not listening to one another and not hearing/heeding the voices of Advisory Board members had crippled the program, and that no one should be excluded. So, we carried on.

Although the process took much more time than usual, the outcome was rather magical. Professionals and programs that had competed and disrespected one another for years, listened and cooperated. Defensiveness was absent. The voices that had been silent for years were heard and carried the day. The outcome was innovative and supported by a strong consensus of the group. The group had a) discovered that it was indeed aligned, b) had risen to the challenge of crafting their own future, and c) empowered itself.

Late in the process, I remarked to the leader that, as a student of leadership, I had just witnessed a model I had never seen before, and that the results were remarkable. He responded with a story: “Bill, when my family herds sheep, we let them out in the morning and let them take the lead. We may know of better pasture for them, but we don’t force them to go there. We let them find their way. They end the day satiated and return to camp with ease. Herding them is effortless. That’s how we do it.”

I responded that my personal experience and witness of leaders is that we have strong ego needs. We either need to control or be needed or help, but we define leadership as engagement. Leaders by definition become attached to outcomes or visions of the future that they own. After all, that is the definition of a leader. What he had exhibited would be defined by most leaders as abandonment of responsibility and, yet, the results spoke for themselves.

The session ended with the leader expressing from the heart his gratitude, his pride and his confidence that they would find their way. I cannot say if the path they had chosen would have been his prescription. He had the wisdom, self-confidence and humility to know it doesn’t matter. By exhibiting passion to achieve the outcomes, he knew they would find their way; their own way.

What is a profound witness for me is a leader who was able to navigate himself through a career of high success and achievement, yet able to let go in a way that empowered a group as no other I had witnessed. This was a humbling and profound experience.

I often work with executives who are challenged to truly delegate. This experience will strengthen my ability help executives get there. My hope is that it opens your eyes to another path and puts your existing path in a new light.

If you would like to dialogue on this, I would welcome hearing from you. Please, send me an e-mail.

Bill Dann