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Apr 2016 | DISRUPTIVE LEADERSHIP

THE LEADER ALWAYS CLEARS THE PATH
ART PETTY

“The leader always clears the path ahead for the team.”

 

This guidance, provided by a valued mentor early in my career, has never been out-of-mind or far out-of-sight in almost three decades of guiding and leading teams around the globe. When my mentor passed away unexpectedly, a few years after the breakfast meeting where he shared this piece of leadership wisdom, my wife helped me transcribe and frame the phrase. It has traveled with me ever since as a reminder of my priority as a leader to knock down obstacles in support of my teams.

 
“When I encounter organizations struggling to navigate change, I invariably find cultures thick with rules and processes that restrict freedom of movement.”
 
When our charter was to build a new business in an old company, my priority was to clear the path. While the intent of the larger firm to build something new was genuine, the size and bureaucracy of the organizations conspired to make life challenging for our fledgling team.
 
Their words said, “help us create this new business to build our future,” but the seemingly never-ending obstacles suggested, “Your special project will comply with how we have always done things here.” It hit a low point when I was told that I could not hire for a critical new position because the title of the role I required—one well established in the marketplace we were entering was not in the master title book used by the firm. Eventually, I convinced them to revise the book, but it took what is best described as a ridiculous amount of effort. The new hire played a key role in our ultimate success.
 
On another occasion, my mentor’s advice served as a powerful reminder to my highest and best use in leading a team charged with helping reinvent our firm’s core technology for a new market. There was never enough time in a day to help secure the resources, negotiate for additional budgets, and fight off the many distractions people wanted to throw in the way of this team. It was my job to clear the path so that they could do their best work.
 
There are always organizationally imposed obstacles that interfere with or slow down your team. The question you should ask yourself is: “How hard am I working at clearing the path?” Chances are, you can do more to help the cause.
 
Ineffective managers and misguided leaders spend most of their time enforcing the rules and throwing up new obstacles in the way of their team members. The leaders who succeed in producing great outcomes knock obstacles out of the way for their teams every single day—sometimes with finesse and sometimes with force.
 
When I encounter organizations struggling to navigate change, I invariably find cultures thick with rules and processes that restrict freedom of movement. The rules might have worked during a different era when control was more important than agility and adaptability, but today they are anachronisms in need of purging.
 
I have worked with organizations who have successfully shed the old rules and processes that inhibited progress and innovation, but these organizations are in the minority. To my observation, they succeeded because of the courageous leaders focused on replacing outdated processes and approaches with systems that supported speed and agility.
 
How courageous are you? Are you prepared to get out in front and start clearing the path for your team and organization? If yes, here are five ideas to help guide and support you during this challenging and important journey.
 

FIVE IDEAS TO HELP YOU CLEAR THE PATH FOR YOUR TEAM:

 
Live a day or a week in the life of your team
Learn about the challenges they face in completing their tasks and pay careful attention to the administrative overhead blocking the way. Observe how they work and at the right time, ask: “What can I do that will allow you to succeed in your job?” Take good notes and keep your commitments.
 
Seek first to understand intent
Strive to understand why seemingly arcane or unreasonable processes and protocols exist. Some intelligent person or group found the process or approach appropriate at some point in time. Once you understand the intent, you are armed to use logic and the math of cost savings and productivity improvements to make the changes while not compromising the intent or insulting the authors.
 
Expect resistance and remain positive
Your gut reaction may be to rail at the ridiculousness of the rules, however, your rational self must prevail. Focus on creating the unarguable argument by proposing new approaches and processes that align with the organization’s objectives and meet the needs of stakeholders for transparency and control.
 
Use the power of cross-functional coalitions to drive change
When fighting against “we’ve always done it this way” thinking and attempting to change outdated processes, your best offensive weapon is a group of like-minded peers and superiors from across the organization. Learn to identify critical stakeholders in every change initiative and engage them in building a new solution. Remember to align with and leverage your boss in this process. You can use her support and, when things work out, it never hurts to have attached the boss’s name to a successful endeavor.
 
Get out in front and protect your team
Being in the line of fire of adversaries and naysayers is part of clearing the path. It can be an uncomfortable spot to occupy, however, you cannot lead from the rear. Remember, meaningful change requires courageous leadership.
 
The role of today’s leader is less about command and control and much more about serve and support. In a world where change is a given, and speed and agility are table-stakes for success, the focal point of the leader’s role must be on flattening the organizational obstacles that slow or block progress. After all, I learned from a very wise man that, “the leader always clears the path for the team.”
 
ART PETTY is a multi-decade software industry executive and a popular leadership and management speaker and author. Art writes the popular Leadership Caffeine™ series at his Management Excellence blog at http://artpetty.com/blog/ and serves as the leadership and management expert and blogger at About.com. His two books: Leadership Caffeine—Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development and Practical Lessons in Leadership, are regularly incorporated in leadership development programs in industry, government and armed services. You can e-mail Art at art [dot] petty [at] artpetty [dot] com.