I was recently asked to provide 3-5 “Things You Should Know” on the topic of “Leadership: Vision, Mission, Values & Strategic Planning” for our industry’s trade magazine. Below is what I provided. Let me know if you have something to add.
Leadership and strategic thinking isn’t about having all the answers, it’s, at the core, asking the right questions and then leading a team or organization to discover the best answers. And these answers are critical because it’s around them that a leader builds unity, community, focus and ultimately success.
The following six groups of questions are the most foundational and strategic questions a leader can ask and then help their team or organization answer:
- Why do we exist? What purpose do we fulfill, what difference do we make in the world? If we ceased to exist, what hole would be left? The answer to these questions is typically expressed in a purpose or mission statement.
- What’s most important to us? What are we most deeply passionate about and willing to sacrifice and suffer for? The answer to these questions is stated as an organization’s core values.
- What do we believe to be true? What is it about the world we’re most sure of? What’s true even though we may not like it? The answer to these questions is typically written in a statement of faith or a confession.
- What do we want to become? When we look into the future who and what kind of team or organization do we want to be? What are the kinds of things we’d want others to say about us? Answering these questions will lead to creating a shared vision of your future.
- What do we want to accomplish? 5, 10, 20 years from now, when we look back, how will we know we’ve been successful? What will be the key indicator that we faithfully fulfilled our mission and vision? A Big Hairy Audacious God Goal (BHAGG) answers these questions.
- What makes us distinct? What are the defining characteristics that make us stand out from other similar organizations? How do those outside our organization or team describe the work we do or service we provide? When you answer these questions you’ve articulated your brand promise (in organizations with a Christian mission – it’s often called a philosophy of ministry).
So a leader’s first task is to ask these foundational questions then second, lead their teams to discovering the answers. When these first two tasks are accomplished the leader’s job isn’t finished. The final, unending task of the leader is to teach, remind, highlight, reinforce, and be the biggest communicator and cheerleader of these answers to every stakeholder of the organization. This is the primary task of the leader and one that needs to happen every day, all the time; it’s what makes a leader a leader, and one that makes organizations great.
When I was in high school I remember coming home after our high school football team lost a critical conference game. I played defensive end and had a rough night holding contain, and slowing down our opponents receivers. When I walked into our house both my mom and dad knew I was upset, disappointed and defeated. In an effort to help me move forward they asked me this question –
“Did you do give your best tonight?”
And of course I answered “yes I did” because I wanted to win as badly as any player on the field.
Then my parents said that’s stuck with me ever since,
“Then if you did your best there’s nothing more you could have done to change the outcome of the game. The only thing you can do now is learn from this and improve for the next game.”
My parents wanted me to know that I couldn’t control what others do, the conditions I perform in, and most other factors that impact my performance, but I can control myself. I can always do my best.
But, as I also learned on that Friday night so many years ago, sometimes doing your best isn’t enough. Effort, though important doesn’t equal winning, doing your best doesn’t guarantee success. It just guarantee’s, no matter the results, I don’t have to hang my head.
I also realized that evening that, by definition, we can never do better than our best. There’s no space above doing all we could in a given situation. What we can do, as my parents told me, is to learn so that our top-level can be redefined, our best ceiling can rise. In most cases, unfortunately, the conditions required to create this kind of transformative learning happens after we lose or perform badly.
So, we can and should always do our best in any given situation. But when our best isn’t enough, we need to take the opportunity to learn so that the next time we perform, our best will meet the challenge.
Winning and being on top is a great place to be personally and organizationally. There’s nothing like setting challenging goals, working hard to achieve them and then enjoying the sense of satisfaction that comes with knowing you and your team have won.
Yet this place is one of the most dangerous places to be. We’re at our most vulnerable because winning and being on top is a very slippery and deceptive place.
It’s slippery because no organization, team, or person wins all the time, nor sit on top forever (trust me I know this because I’m a Michigan football fan). This means we can never plan on or expect our lofty perch to last forever. There’s always a fall, a stumble or loss along the way.
And this is exactly why being on top is so deceptive. The longer we’re on top the more it feels like it will last forever, that our organization is somehow immune to whatever causes others to lose or fail. We even begin to feel that we’ve earned the right to be in this place regardless of what we do going forward. We may even admit intellectually that this can’t last forever. Yet too often we never allow this intellectual ascent to descend into our heart and our emotional being. The result is we never truly change our behavior or our direction until we find ourselves no longer on top.
So what can we do to protect ourselves and our organizations when we’re winning or sitting on top?
Play and Lead as if we’re behind.
We need to work as if the wolves are nipping at our heals, the barbarians are at the gate, that impending doom is sitting at our door. We can do this by always setting new goals, tougher standards, and expecting more from ourselves and our teams. If necessary, as leaders, we may need to find or create a crisis that reminds everyone that we’re much more vulnerable than we feel.
Or sometimes it’s as simple as giving all the naturally pessimistic people on our team a voice and really listening to that voice. When we’re on top we lose our sense of urgency about change. Our job as leaders is to create that urgency again, in ourselves and in others. And finally we can never allow ourselves and our teams to make decisions from the perspective of being at the top. The only perspective in which we should make decisions is in the light of being behind.
Finally, whatever we do, we cannot allow ourselves and our team to trust that feeling we have when we’re on top. Instead always, always we need to feel, play and lead as if we’re behind.
I knew better. I knew the two most important pieces of gear I would use on the AT were my shoes and my pack. With everything else I could make some compromises, but not on shoes and packs. They had to be right. If they weren’t right my 7 day experience would be painful and exhausting. And unlike tents or stoves, shoes and packs have to fit correctly. In other words, you have to assure they’re customize to your body and walking style to function well. For instance I bought and broke in a pair Montrail shoes months before the trip. They were high rated trail running and hiking shoes which also fit me well.
On the other hand, I borrowed my pack from a good friend. It’s a quality pack but I never bothered to have it fitted correctly. I only began trying adjusting the straps while standing anxiously at the trail head getting ready to embark on our adventure. Not a very smart move considering my friend is taller and broader shouldered than I am.
So I spent the first four days desperately trying to adjust my pack so it sat properly on my hips and shoulders, all the while each of my shoulders, in turn, became sorer by the hour. Finally, I rigged up the straps with some string I brought (the Boy Scout in me) to hold them in relatively the right position. In the end the pack never quite fit right even after all my MacGyver moves which lead to a very sore body.
What’s the leadership lesson in all this? Well there are two, and you already know what they are. First, make sure you and your team have the right gear to do their job. It needs to be quality gear designed specifically for the work to be done. And second, the gear must meet the needs (style, environment, etc.) of the individual using them. The gear needs to be as personalized as possible. If you follow these two lessons – quality gear, personalized for the person using it – then work will be less painful and you and your team will be less likely to leave the trail early.
And more importantly, at least for us competitive types, is the fact that if we can’t measure the most important things then we can’t set clear, measurable goals for them. So, for example, I can’t set a goal of increasing my love for my wife Denise by 20% (though I’m sure I need to love her more).
Which leads to the shortcoming of the leadership maxim I examined in my last post “what gets measured is what gets done” – you can’t directly measure the most important things in life.
At SpringHill this is the dilemma we face when we want to know if we’re effectively fulfilling our mission of “creating life-impacting experiences that enable young people to know and grow in their relationships with Jesus Christ.” How do you measure a person’s growth in their relationship with the God of the Universe? And even more perplexing how do you set a goal for such transformation?
We’ve accepted that we can’t measure such things directly or with certainty, but at the same time we’ve learned we can measure particular indicators of whether such things are becoming reality. These indicators center on a person’s admitted change in perspective, commitments they’ve made, and the anticipated life change they expect to experience. And when we combine these important indicators with our own professional assessment we begin to understand with some confidence our mission effectiveness. For us, at SpringHill, these indicators provide focus and attention to the most important things without being the final word on such things.
So maybe this old leadership maxim needs to change from “what gets measured is what gets done” to “what gets measured in some way is what gets our needed attention” and it’s this attention that leads to effectiveness.43.928283-85.286682
This past August, on the annual Perry men’s Canadian fishing trip, my boys and I stumbled into a conversation about other types of fishing – fly, saltwater flats, and deep-sea fishing. We agreed that it would be fun to try these other kinds of fishing in addition to our spin casting (traditional), cold water fishing we do, knowing each type of fishing is capable of catching lots of fish.
Yet the more we discussed the idea of trying these other methods of fishing, the more we realized it might not be as good as it sounds. For example, because of our fishing experience, we understand all too well that to be successful catching fish requires the right equipment, knowledge about the body of water to be fished, a working understanding of the habits of the targeted fish, and, most importantly, having the simple experience gained by hours of actual fishing. Which means, because each one requires its own knowledge, experience and equipment, the additional resources (time and money) needed to be successful would make it impossible to be really good at more than one method of fishing.
So it became apparent in our discussion that spreading our limited resources out to thinly between numerous types of fishing would lead us to not being very good at any of them. As a result we decided our best shot at being really good fishermen was to focus our limited resources on one type of fishing (spin casting, cold water fishing).
Which led me to reflect on just how easy it is for individuals, teams and organizations to be enticed by new and novel strategies and opportunities which promise only to deliver the same results (catching fish) as current methods, without considering the additional resources necessary to pursue these strategies nor the negative impact that a wider focus can have on the current work.
“One of the largest issues we face is working with ‘twentysomethings’. Their work ethic is poor, they expect everything to be given to them, and they won’t stay with a commitment. We just don’t know what to do. And now we’re even beginning to wonder about the future of the Church if this is who will be taking over in the years ahead.”
This was the perspective expressed by a leader of a large Christian ministry at a round table discussion of Christian ministry CEO’s I participated in a couple of years ago. And after making his statement most of the other 20 leaders in the room all shook their heads in full agreement with many joining in with their own “horror stories” about working with those” darn twentysomethings”.
Ironically, there was one other Christian camp CEO in the group and when we heard this statement and the following discussion we just looked at each other with our eyebrows raised. You see, Christian camp ministry’s built on the good and faithful work of those “darn twentysomethings”. We couldn’t do what we’re called to do, nor do it nearly half as well (nor nearly as fun) without them.
This whole dialogue came rushing back to me earlier this summer as I interact with our nearly 1000 “twentysomethings” staff we hired to help us create SpringHill Experiences this summer.
Instead what I see in our summer staff is the total opposite what these Christian leaders expressed in that forum. As I shared with that group of leaders we, at SpringHill, serve alongside young adults who are highly committed, deeply concerned about others and the world, and who are willing to make great sacrifices to advance Christ’s Kingdom.
Then I said to these CEO’s – “maybe, instead of looking at the faults of twentysomethings, we should first examine our own leadership and the culture of our organizations to see if we have our own adjustments to make before we write off an entire generation of leaders, because in my experience poor followers are usually the result of poor leadership.”43.928283-85.286682
Sunday evening of Memorial Day I had a blast. I joined 5 other SpringHill leaders plus other staff and volunteers and we grilled steak and chicken for nearly 1000 campers at our Michigan Memorial Day Family Camp. It was a riot being with these folks, exhilarating serving and interacting with our guests, cool working on a big and awesome grill, and it was just plain fun doing something outside my regular work.
These few hours reminded me of something I’ve said to our staff over the years and, unfortunately, have recently forgotten myself – “we work for SpringHill, we’re supposed to have fun, and if we’re not something’s not right”.
Yet when our vision is to accomplish something personally and organizationally significant for people and Christ’s Kingdom, it almost always requires discipline, focus and lots of resources. And all of these things can squeeze out the space in our work to do something just for fun. Yet it’s in having a blast that really good and unexpected things can happen, most of which, somehow and some way, moves us forward in fulfilling our vision and goals.
Such surprises include the opportunity to build into key relationships, hearing first hand from our customers and guests, learning something new, or gaining a new perspective about our work, organization or life. Often one of the best things is we gain a new appreciation for our job and the people we get to do it with.
And frankly, it’s this last surprise that caused me, as I walked home Sunday evening, to give thanks for the privilege I have to do what I do and for the opportunity to do it with people I love.43.928283-85.286682
One of the things I’ve learned is that to run fast you need to lean forward, or as I’ve heard coaches yell to their runners – “lean in”. And from a layperson’s perspective I take this to mean your head and chest should to be stretching forward towards the finish line.
I’ve also learned that a runner needs to be forward leaning right out of the blocks, from their first step right through to their final step at the finish line. Each step, each movement of their entire body, needs to be aligned forward if a runner’s to run their best race.
Now it’s important to understand that this is not a reckless way to run but it’s the posture that puts a runner in the best form to reduced injuries and increase speed. In other words, leaning forward is the best short-term and long-term posture for winning.
Unfortunately the concept of forward leaning has begun to have a bad reputation in military, political, business and other leadership circles because it’s been misapplied. Too often the concept’s used as a guise for aggressive and, and often, reckless strategy.
So let me suggest that truly forward leaning (not reckless) leadership and organizations have these three characteristics in common with runners. They:
- are focused on the finish line
- have all their resources such as money and time, and most importantly, their people (energy, hearts and minds), aligned to race their best time
- are disciplined, intentional and thoughtful in both their planning and in executing their plans
In other words forward leaning leaders and organizations are running their races in a way that achieves victory.43.928283-85.286682
“Defense wins championships” is the often quoted sports proverb about what it takes to win it all. It’s this proverb and its application to my career that motivated me to read Why Smart Executives Fail: And What You Can Learn from Their Mistakesby Sydney Finkelstein. Like Jim Collin’s little book How The Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In, it tells the stories behind the collapse of great companies run by really smart and talented people who, it turns out, focused too much on both personal and organizational offense at the expense of having a championship defense.
And every once in a while it’s good for me to have a little defensive perspective, to be reminded of the attitudes I, as a leader, can have and the actions I can take that could lead SpringHill to “lose the game”. One of the best chapters in the book’s called “Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful People”.
Finkelstein describes these seven habits in this way (as you read each one do as I did and ask yourself “am I displaying any of these habits or tendencies in my leadership?”):
- They see themselves and their companies as dominating their environments, not simply responding to developments in those environments.
- They identify so completely with the company that there is no clear boundary between their personal interests and corporate interests.
- They seem to have all the answers, often dazzling people with the speed and decisiveness with which they can deal with challenging issues.
- They make sure that everyone is 100 percent behind them, ruthlessly eliminating anyone who might undermine their efforts.
- They are consummate company spokespersons, often devoting the largest portion of their efforts to managing and developing the company image.
- They treat intimidatingly difficult obstacles as temporary impediments to be removed or overcome.
- They never hesitate to return to strategies and tactics that made them and their companies successful in the first place.
- They see themselves and their companies as dominating their environments, not simply responding to developments in those environments.