I keep a copy of a frame of leadership that I came across long ago (above) posted in the room where the management team of United Way for Southeastern Michigan meets each week. We keep these simple guideposts in a visible place because they are worth taking note of each day.

Define: Often, the external world is pushing against leaders of organizations. They are in a position of reacting, instead of being proactive. One of the core reasons for this pushback is that often leaders don’t step back and look at the external context with some distance. Great leaders understand the larger patterns around them and can translate them into meaningful action.

Identify: There are dozens of directions that leaders could pursue. The reality is that there aren’t enough resources to spend on every idea. The ability to focus efforts, strategies, and resources, and make the right decisions on how to use them correctly is key.

My father, who ran his own small business, always taught me that if you want to bring something to the market, ask the simple question, “What is so uniquely different about it that someone would want to give you their hard-earned cash?” Choose a path based on whether that question can be answered with confidence.

Balance: I remember a meeting with Alan Mulally, President and CEO of Ford Motor Company, when he said, “Great leaders need to always balance despair in one hand with hope in the other.” When we are too focused on putting out today’s fires, we can miss opportunities to rebuild something better in their wake.  The ability to balance being grounded in the reality of today while shaping a better future is something with which every leader wrestles.

I love the insight Margaret Wheatley, a writer and management consultant, passed on:

“Now I’m going to talk about servant leadership is natural, and I want to tell you a story I heard on NPR, must have been last fall when there were so many terrible hurricanes. There was a geologist being interviewed. He was a beach geologist, so his field of study was beaches and sand and the like. And at the time he was being interviewed, there was a storm. One of the large hurricanes was pounding the outer bank off the Carolinas. And he was being interviewed about what hurricanes do to beaches. Now, we all know what hurricanes do to beaches and beach houses and such. We feel they’re very destructive, right? They destroy homes and take down power lines and take away even sand, and whole beaches disappear in a hurricane. So this interviewer was talking to this beach geologist about this hurricane going on. And then this is what got my attention. The geologist said, ‘You know I can’t wait to get out on those beaches again once these storms have passed. And I hope to get out there in the next 24 hours.’ And the interviewer said, ‘What do you expect to find out there?’ and I was listening, and I thought he was going to talk about all the destruction he was going to find. What he said really surprised me. He said, ‘I expect to find a new beach.’”

A leader’s role is to know how to handle the crisis of the hurricane, while at the same time, helping others see the new beach.

Shape: Anytime I am around a strong leader, I notice that he or she has a deep sense of the values that guide him or her and the organization. There isn’t much gray area on this. Understanding in real terms the values and standards by which the organization will operate provides the basis for all other things.

A strong leader is like a gardener, planting and nourishing the seeds of the organization’s values, tending to and shaping them. By dedicating attention to building values and rewarding those who embody them, the effective leader increases the organization’s likelihood of success.

There are a hundred things going on in any organization on a daily basis that need attention, so carrying out these tenets can be difficult. Still, understanding and keeping them in mind from day to day would serve any current or future leader well.

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