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.
“Winning the right to be heard” is another maxim I learned in my years as a volunteer Young Life leader. It simply meant, as leaders, we worked to have students granted us the opportunity to share the Gospel with them. We’d do this first by going to where they were at (physically, emotionally, socially) and building authentic, caring relationships with them. As a Young Life leader I found this maxim to be true, students were significantly more interested in what I had to say only after I demonstrated that I cared for them first.
Stephen Covey, in his classic book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, identifies this “win the right to be heard” concept as 5th of his seven habits. He called it “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Covey articulates this fundamental truth about human nature – people care about what others have to say only after believing others care for first. And what better way to demonstrate care for another person than to understand their perspective before trying to convince them to move to a different position.
As a leader in a non-profit organization, I’ve found that winning the right to be heard is absolutely the most effective way to move others to a new place. Why? Because non-profits have many constituent groups (including staff, donors, board, volunteers) to whom I lead and, at some level, I also work for and am accountable to. This means I can’t rely solely on my “positional” authority to move people in a new direction. And, more importantly, if I’m after commitment not compliance, then I’m compelled to seek first to understand before I’m understood, because people become committed when they know they’ve been heard.
And this principle is at the center of leadership at SpringHill – to go where we believe God’s called us to go, to be the kind of organization He’s called us to be – we need to earn people’s commitment to our mission and vision, we need their hearts, minds and resources to be with us. And to gain that level of trust, people need to sense first that we know, hear and care for them first as people.43.928283-85.286682