Photo by author.
Young kids are a great source of humor. Their innocence and charm produces comments that often tickle your funny bone. One day, when our twin boys were three years old, they stood at the living room window watching the onset of autumn. Leaves were falling from the trees in our front yard. As the various colors slowly fell from limbs to lawn, one of them exclaimed, “Uh oh! Papa haffa fik it!” Translation: “Papa has to fix it.” He perceived a problem (leaves falling off the trees) and knew just the man for the job (Super Dad!).
The innocence of children can be a source of humor; it is also a transparent window into their soul and mind. The declaration, “Papa haffa fik it!” communicated a belief that his dad could do anything and knew the answer to any question. Of course, I was and am not omnipotent or omniscient, but I remember those days (which are long gone—they are 16 now), and I was fully aware of the significance of their awe and belief in their dad.
Frankly, it was unnerving because I knew that in reality I mess up multiple times every day. However, I also believe that a young child’s trust in parents is part of God’s design for a healthy, functioning family. Nevertheless, I knew that over time, that innocence would fade and give way to growing independence and confidence in the ability to solve many problems on their own or with people other than their parents.
Those young innocent children are now emerging young adults. Their ability to observe, analyze, and assess the world and their relationships grows day-by-day. As much as I enjoyed the innocence of their youth, I enjoy more these days that they show great promise for who they are, will be, and mostly for what God will do through them.
So what has my kids’ childhood innocence and developing wisdom got to do with strategic leadership? The story I share above is something I think most leaders can identify with because most of you are also parents. I also shared this story because it sets up a contrast for you to think about: Are your employees and followers more like innocent 3-year olds or more like observant, experienced, and perhaps skeptical adults?
The answer is clear, but perhaps the implications are not. Followers, employees, are not wide-eyed, innocent 3-year olds. They are experienced, talented, and thinking adults. (That is who you’ve been recruiting into your organization, right?) They want strong leadership and they want to trust you. That trust is developed as a result of authenticity and honesty in your leadership. They do not want sugar-coated treatments of the real problems that you all face as an organization. Nor do they want command-and-control, autocratic leadership in most cases. (There are some situations where that is appropriate.)
A local home improvement contractor has a business practice that exemplifies this. Quarve Contracting, who has done some very good work on my home, has an open book policy with its employees and subcontractors. They share financial information with these stakeholders so that each has a clear picture of the status of the business and so that each can understand the financial challenges associated with any job. Revealing the costs of labor, materials, and other business expenses, helps each realize how their own work contributes to the success or failure, financially, of that job. Pat and Julie Quarve are open and honest about the challenges of running a high overhead business in a difficult economy. They respect the various stakeholders for their ability to understand and value this information.
Displaying such transparency and authenticity in leadership is not easy. You, the leader, must have a tremendous balance of humility and bold confidence. (Jim Collins calls this “Level 5 Leadership.” His Web site has good materials on this concept.) Of course, you also need to trust your employees. (If you don’t, do you have the right people on your team?) Finally, your organizational culture needs to be one of trust, teamwork, and individual character. Without these elements, your authenticity as a leader might be misused.
So where do you start? What do you do if you want to be more open and transparent with your followers, but you’re not sure if it is safe (for you or for them). Start small. Last week I wrote about taking risks. Take a risk with your closest team members. Share more information and be more honest about small situations facing you and the organization. Tell them you trust them with the information because you need their help in solving the problems. They will at first be skeptical and go slowly to see if you are consistent with this new approach. Stay the course and you will slowly see the team open up more with you, too. That’s when you’ll know authenticity is starting to take hold in the culture and that they may also have started to be more open with their respective teams.
As a leader, you must lead. Leading the way with trust, honesty, and openness will develop a culture where people look each other in the eye, tell the truth, and work together with real information. The effects will be transformational.