Leadership Tips From the Emeritus
Step up. Try. Expect failure, don’t fear it. Try again. Be patient. Breathe. Listen. Get help. Know yourself. Persist. Facilitate. Keep trust. Never lie. Think long term. Act short term. Step back.
That is the sum total of my advice for anyone who wants to be a leader. Cliche, huh? If you’re wondering, I’m now happily in the “step back” phase. I lead the University of the West Student Association as its president from January 2010 to April 2011 and as treasurer before that. I am now quite content to be president emeritus, which is a fancy word for “not my problem any more.” Prior to coming to UWest, I was to two-term student senator and officer in various student clubs at the University of Nebraska. Lest anyone think this was some sort of personal accomplishment, I got each job pretty much the same way – I stepped up when no one else wanted them.
We think leaders are chosen, appointed, of selected through some miraculous process that ensures only the truly qualified get the job. We want to believe they are trained experts who know what they’re doing. Some of them are, but none of them started out that way. They all started out as the kid on the playground who wasn’t afraid to say “do this!” Most of the time, the first leadership role we find ourselves in is purely by chance. Sometimes we have to fight for it, to get people to believe we’ve got a better idea than someone else, but most of the time we just, well, step up. We see a need for direction and we think, “Well, I can’t be any worse than no one at all.” Viola! Leadership.
It’s amazing how many people are afraid to step up. They’re afraid of hard work, scrutiny, headaches, but mostly they’re afraid of failure. They’re afraid of getting things wrong and being blamed, or, worse, being blamed for something entirely beyond their control. It’s very painful to realize that sometimes our best isn’t good enough. Even when we work hard, put our heart and soul into something, we’re bound to fail. That’s samsara in a nutshell. People are right to expect failure, but they’re not right to fear it. We shouldn’t fear it not because it isn’t painful but because it’s inevitable, just like old age, sickness, and death. We will all fail. It’s a fact. Know it and move on. When we let fear of failure prevent us from trying we’re just failing in advance.
Try! Try again! Whatever it is you think is right. Whatever you think is needed. Then be patient. Leaders work with people and people work within systems and systems are very slow to change. They don’t change overnight, even if they seem to. A simple vote in 1964 changed the status of minorities in this country forever, but only after hundreds of year of advocacy for change – slow, painful, incremental change. And although it’s not good enough to tell people who are trapped in suffering by unjust systems to “be patient,” we do need to tell it to ourselves sometimes. Otherwise we’ll just go mad.
Remember to breathe. Because change won’t happen overnight, we need to remember to take care of ourselves. Don’t put your life on hold until all your goals are realized. Don’t give 110%. Don’t even give 100%. We need to give at least 30% to sleep, for starters. Then there’s eating, bathing, and exercising. Find those things in your life that keep you sane and healthy. Prioritize them. Only when you’re sane and healthy can you begin to think about giving some part of yourself to work, to projects, to leadership. Sometimes, that may only be 10%. Make that 10% count.
Listen to others. Be genuinely interested in their problems and their needs – not what you think their problems and needs are – but what they say their problems and needs are. They won’t always be entirely right, but then, neither will you. It’s only by truly working together and feeling for each other that we can come to true understanding. Always listen. Listen at least four times more than you talk (ten times more might be better). Listen to everyone, even and especially the people with whom you disagree. Listening is the only way to learn.
Then get help. Create a support team around yourself upon whom you can rely and then give their opinions at least as much weight as your own, more if it’s their area of expertise. Delegate and don’t try to do everything yourself. Make your expectations clear about what everyone is expected to contribute and be flexible when those expectations don’t work out. Build alliances with others outside your group. Foster networks through reciprocal relationships. Don’t wait for them to come to you. More often then not, you have to be the first to reach out, the first to give.
Learn about others as much as you can, but also learn about yourself. When you’re listening out, listen in. I’ve sat in many meetings, had many discussions, and been surprised at my own reactions to things people say. I’m learning all the time what things trigger me and why. Take time later to really analyze that reaction through reflection, writing, meditation, or discussion with someone you trust. It’s amazing what we learn through other people, not just from them.
Eventually, I always get to the point where things seem intractable. Nothing’s working. Nothing’s moving forward. We’re doing more harm than good. This isn’t just failure, this is backsliding. That’s when all I can do is persist. I don’t mean stay the course and refuse to change. I just mean stay. Sometimes we need to let change happen around us. Everything is impermanent and very often a new ingredient will enter the mix all on its own – but we have to be there when it does. Persistence is one of the strongest traits any leader can have.
Sometimes that new ingredient is a new idea from someone else. Facilitate that idea. The vast majority of leadership is making other people successful. When I listen, I inevitably hear “You know what? It’d be great if this happened!” Most of the time it’s not my job to make that happen (sometimes it is; learn to tell the difference). It’s my job to help them make that happen for themselves. Now, sometimes that means it won’t get done because no one will step up to do it. That’s actually okay. That’s not a failure. That’s a win for personal responsibility, as far as I’m concerned. Because eventually someone will say “It’d be great if this happened!” And you’ll say “Oh, yes, that could be achieved many ways. I would help if you want me to.” And they’ll say “Yes, I can do that!” because they’ve realized from the last bazillion times they tried that 1) you’re not going to do it for them 2) it really isn’t all that hard, and 3) you’re always willing to support them in anything they want to do. That’s not just a win. It’s a coup.
In order to accomplish that, you have to keep people’s trust. When you say you’ll help, you have to help. Be concrete about it. Don’t wait; set up a meeting right then and there. Ask for other volunteers to help on the spot. Tell them exactly what you will and will not do. When someone else takes their idea and runs with it, let them be the leader. When they see you’re not motivated by ego or personal ambition, that your only goal is to help them succeed, their trust will amplify and become something truly remarkable – respect. You’ll need that respect because just as inevitable as failure is disagreement. Respect is the strongest bond I know of that can prevent people from writing each other off when that inevitable disagreement comes along. Once you write someone off, you’ve lost trust, and that relationship will be very hard to recapture. Keep the trust for as long as you can by acting with integrity and compassion, not from ego or ambition.
Never lie. Never ever ever ever lie. If you can’t tell someone, tell them you can’t tell them. If you don’t know, tell them you don’t know. Never make a promise you know you’ll break. Never make a promise you think you might break. Be straight with people about your limitations and how changing circumstances might alter your decisions. If someone tells you something in confidence, keep that confidence. Be very clear and specific about the circumstances in which you may or will share that information, with whom, and in what way. If they say no, you don’t get to share it. Period. Never lie and never break confidences. The world will end. Seriously, I’m not kidding. It really will. If you don’t understand this on an instinctive level, seek some other occupation and stay the hell away from leadership.
If you do happen to go into leadership, always remember to think in the long term and act in the short term. Remember that what you’re doing will affect many other people after you and everyone who does it is gone. Your actions set a precedent and create a model of behavior that will persist long after you’ve forgotten about it. Consciously build institutional memory and capacity that can be easily transferred. Write manuals, if you have to. Keep lots of records. Teach skills. Your time in whatever leadership role you’ve chosen is limited, so make plans that you can accomplish within that time frame. Break long term projects into smaller chunks and then take on only what you know you can finish. Now that the next group might not follow your trajectory. Sew it up with a ribbon and a bow and be ready to hand it over. Don’t leave a half-built mess for someone else to clean up.
Finally, step back before you overstay your welcome. In the beginning you’ll get all the credit, but eventually, they will start to blame you for everything they don’t like. Make a dignified exit. Don’t stick around to gum up the works for the next person; let them make their mark – and their own mistakes. It’s good to be on hand for advice when asked, but its healthy not to offer too much advice unasked. This is hard. It’s hard to hand over the keys to someone when you’re not actually sure they no how to drive. But it’s also very freeing. It’s not your car anymore, after all. Enjoy being carefree for a little while. Until the next time you feel the need to step up anyway.