Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

November 1998
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Leaders Challenge the Process – Part 2

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

The last Letter began to discuss research on leadership by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. Their book, “The Leadership Challenge,” describes five fundamental practices of exemplary leaders. They:

  1. Challenge the process.
  2. Inspire a shared vision.
  3. Enable others to act.
  4. Model the way.
  5. Encourage the heart.

1. Leaders challenge the process (continued).

Since leaders are forever venturing into uncharted waters, they are, of necessity, risk-takers. In their quest for the new and the better, leaders are open to ideas. They are willing to listen to others, and they try untested approaches, accepting the risks of failure that accompany all experimentation.

Without constant innovation, an organization will atrophy. Even the loosest of organizations adopt practices that become traditions. These traditions impose ways of thinking that become constraints, making it impossible to solve new problems or to exploit new opportunities. The leader is the organization’s primary change agent. Thus, it is his responsibility to identify these barriers and to lead his people in breaking free from self-imposed limitations.

This “beyond-the-boundaries” thinking always involves risk. You will never succeed unless you are willing to fail – and to be willing to fail is to assume some risk. This doesn’t mean “selling the farm,” necessarily. “Prudent” risk taking should be the norm. One of the significant differences between the leader and the bureaucrat is the leader’s inclination to encourage others to step out into the unknown rather than play it safe, and to learn from the mistakes that are the inevitable price we pay for innovation, change and learning.

As lifelong learners and risk-takers, leaders will:

a. Set up little experiments. Leaders experiment with new approaches to old problems, and it is cheaper to do this in the early stages of innovation. When you have a new idea for a new product, or approach, try it out soon. Don’t wait until you’ve perfected it.

b. Make it safe for others to experiment. The leader sets the tone for the organization’s creative climate. If you expect those you lead to venture out and take chances, you must make them feel safe and secure in doing so. As much as possible, reduce the costs of failure. Invite innovation and provide the resources necessary to nourish and sustain it. Furthermore, leaders encourage others to take risks by doing so themselves.

c. Eliminate firehosing. It’s way too easy to put down new ideas. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the mantra of those who cling to familiar territory. “It’s too hard.” “It’ll never work.” Like firefighters hosing down a fire, these people douse innovation and extinguish enthusiasm. Leaders must discourage this draining negativity, and help people to see the possibilities that change is full of. Members of one organization agreed that anyone heard firehosing should be required to contribute 25 cents to a fund. Team members then policed each other on a daily basis, morale improved noticeably, and so did the number of innovative ideas!

d. Work even with ideas that sound strange initially. The lifeblood of any organization is a continual flow of new ideas. New innovations rarely appear fully created and ready to implement; they usually require nurturing. Give every idea at least a chance. If you are too quick to reject new ideas, you will lose good ideas in the process and you will also discourage people from offering future ideas through fear of rejection. People who know their ideas will receive a considered and balanced evaluation will be more likely to continue submitting ideas.

e. Honor their risk takers. This boosts morale and reminds people of the need to take risks. Moreover, good attempts must be rewarded, not just successes.

f. Debrief every failure as well as every success. Most innovations fail. Although it’s tempting to let painful memories slide, the lessons are too valuable to be ignored. Especially learn from the failures of others – those are the cheapest mistakes! Ask the following questions: What did we do well? What did we do poorly? What did we learn from this? How can we do better the next time?

g. Rely on God. Pray that God will lead you to new paths of opportunity to fulfill His purposes. He is the greatest Innovator of all!

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