Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Effective Leadership is like cultivating the soil to grow positive results. Hitting the ground with a shovel is not cultivating.

Bad leadership can effect campus technology in very large ways. I felt I had to write this post after witnessing bad leadership on so many levels for so long. This is not whining, just a warning. Effective leadership is really hard to find these days. Perhaps it always was hard, but we just need more good leaders right now. I want to focus on bad leaders for a moment and then talk about what makes a good leader. First, there are many types of bad leaders. Some just got the job because they are charismatic or politically connected. There is such a hunger of good leadership that many institutions will take a leap of faith based just based on a resume or an impressive pedigree. Finding a strong leader is harder than most institutions think. In higher education we typically form a committee, look at job posts from other colleges and put together our own advertisement. We do this for most senior level jobs - deans, Vice Presidents and even Presidents. The results of a bad choice can be disastrous - FOR YEARS! Have you witnessed a bad choice of a leader that then haunted and hurt your campus for years? I have.

Bad leaders are often persuasive and engaging. They may be great at cocktail parties. They may even "light up a room" when they enter it. Often, however, these turn to be bad dates where what you thought you were seeing as attractive and exciting is not that at all. After a bad date you can just walk away, when you hire the bad date you own them or they own you. The bad leader often fails to articulate a vision; changes directions constantly; throws out the “vision of the day” and barks at direct reports to get it done; leaves his/her direct reports to sort things out and spends much of their time doing other things; and only shows up at public events and has little or no visibility to the campus. The bad leader’s motivation is often simply to remain in the job.

So what makes a good leader? There are many elements that make a good leader. We all like a visionary who can see around corners and tell us what is coming with great certainty. We like a leader who is a great communicator on stage or off. We want someone who is inspiring. We want someone who makes us all want to be a part of his/her team. We want someone who is not so full of themselves that they can talk to anyone on campus - anyone. We want someone who can represent the college off campus as they raise funds, promote the college, or serve as an icon for what is good about our college or institution. Do you know many leaders like this? I don't either.

It is pretty hard to find this perfect leader. That's not making you feel very good right now, particularly if you’re serving on a search committee. There is a good chance that you will not find your dream date. So what should you focus on? All of the attributes above are important. I like to be inspired by a visionary who is a great communicator. This is great, but what about the everyday leader. Leaders spend most of their time in their offices just like you and me. Hopefully they get out on campus and connect with the people they serve - yes serve. Most spend lots of time working with a small number of direct reports. Leaders can be VPs, directors, and support staff in a small department. Whatever the level, I think the most important skill that he/she needs is to have is the ability to relate to their team. Here is where the cultivating comes in.

Leaders cannot do the work of the organization. They just can't. They are there to lead. What they can do is create an atmosphere where good things can happen and good service and solutions can grow. They need to be able to cultivate the people on their team. They need to be able to be accepting, yet demanding. They need to keep the focus on the goals of the institution every day. They need to live the line or "walk the talk". They cannot cheat or like the Emperor with no clothes, they will be found out and their credibility will vanish.

Effective leaders need to work at connecting with all the people on their team. Even in a large organization and effort to do this needs to be made. This is hard work and there are only so many hours in a day, but even trying is setting a good example and people notice. Back to cultivating. Have you known a boss who seems to get so frustrated by their inability to move an organization or team forward that they try to beat the team in submission. They start pounding the ground with a shovel, metaphorically, by yelling, sending nasty emails, and generally trying to rule through fear. Some use a surrogate to deliver the angry message. I worked for a boss like that once.

So what is cultivating? Cultivating is learning as much about your team as you can. Find out who they are and what they want from life and their careers. Explain what your vision is and encourage them to help you get there. Create an environment where they can share their ideas without fear. Have you ever been at a leadership meeting where after a long diatribe from the leader the group is asked what they think or what their teams are doing to support to the mission? Have you witness dead silence at these moments. People are afraid to say anything for fear that they will be judged or ostracized by the leader. Striking fear into people does not create the kind of team oriented "we are on the same page" environment that makes for a good place to be or work. Now I am not suggesting that every meeting be a Kumbaya love fest. The process of cultivating a team at any level takes time and the building of trust. There is nothing wrong with challenging people. In fact this is a good thing. It builds self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment. Even failures, or failing to meet a goal, can present a mutually educational moment.

So the next time you are looking for a leader, look below the surface. Make every effort to find out what the persons management style really is. Don't ask them. They will tell you how inclusive they are. Dig deeper or pay someone else to dig deeper. Ask their former leadership teams or employees. Ask leaders from the profession who may know them and their style. Find out how they live their daily lives on the campus or in the organization. If they cannot cultivate their team, they probably are not the person you want. I love a good visionary speaker. They can be thought provoking and even exciting. Those are great skills, but the day to day cultivating skills are the most important. Now you can see why good leaders are so hard to find. BTW, if you don't get a good feeling about a potential leader, keep looking. The pain of starting a search over is far less the pain of making a bad choice.