Peter Kerr: Good Leaders Must Have Many Leadership Tools..

December 08, 2014

There are a lot of leadership books out there, and many offer useful tools. But they work only if leaders are flexible enough to fit those tools to the situation at hand.

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{originally posted on faithandleadership.com]

Solomon warned that “of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). This saying has proved especially prescient with regard to books on leadership.

A quick perusal of the leadership section in bookstores reveals a bewildering array of ideas on how to lead -- including even suggestions such as “Lead like Jesus” and “Jesus CEO.”

It would be great if there were indeed a definitive, “proven” solution to leadership, so that we could all read one book and get on with the job of applying its concepts in our workplaces. However, even studying Jesus will never result in a single leadership style, because leadership is relationship-driven.

Relationships are unique and constantly in flux, requiring leaders to be flexible and fit their abilities to their situations and followers. Good leaders must have many leadership tools, have the ability to adapt to the situation at hand, and most importantly, have the relationship intelligence to understand people and lead in a way that optimizes their followers’ potential.

“Leadership tools” is admittedly an ambiguous term, but it essentially includes all the practical advice given in leadership books about how to organize people, run quick and efficient meetings, and execute the process of leading.

It involves things like vision setting, goal orientation, decision making, delegation and team management. Books like “The One Minute Manager” by Ken Blanchard typify this genre. They often offer simple information that seems like common sense after it has been explained.

I’ll never forget a middle manager who, after reading “One Minute Manager,” was blown away by the thought that he could cancel a meeting if there was nothing important to meet about. Thereafter, he applied the new knowledge with gusto and improved productivity by canceling all unnecessary meetings. This also freed him up to visit his followers one-on-one, understand their challenges and build their morale.

One of the most useful tools I have learned regarding meetings is to prioritize agenda items by placing a time limit beside each one. You can then extend the time if necessary, but the explicit allocation helps keep things in perspective and on track.

This idea originated from an appalling two-hour church board meeting where the elders were faced with deciding where to go to lunch, what Christmas decorations to use, and what to do about the youth pastor who was reported to have tried to seduce one of the teenagers.

The board spent half an hour on the lunch decision and an hour on the Christmas decorations and other smaller decisions, leaving less than a half-hour for the most important decision, which they then decided to table.

If they had allocated 90 minutes on the agenda for the youth pastor discussion and no more than five minutes for each of the other decisions, their agenda could have helped them act according to their priorities.

People are always tempted to procrastinate when there is no clear solution, but those instances are exactly why leadership boards meet. Anyone can decide the obvious; it takes a leader to decide the nebulous.

One of my definitions of leadership is that the leader is the person who has to make a decision before having all the necessary facts and who is responsible enough to see that decision to the best possible outcome. Leaders have to decide ahead of the rest and often before they have a complete picture.

Once they have the tools, leaders must assess each situation and adapt their leadership style accordingly. Leadership theories can help, such as the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership model, which suggests that leaders first tell, then sell, then participate and finally delegate as their followers increase in experience.

Leaders must also adapt their decision-making style to their particular followers. Some groups -- those with little motivation or knowledge or time -- need authority. Others -- motivated and informed, with time to deliberate -- benefit from a democratic style. And when the followers have more expertise than the leader, a hands-off approach may be best.

Perhaps the pre-eminent characteristic of a good leader is the ability to understand people and deploy them with maximum effect. Books with this emphasis (John Maxwell’s work, for example) discuss how to lead by example, gain the moral high ground, get to know followers, motivate people, garner feedback, and even punish, forgive and restore. Leaders must strive to establish environments where their followers can thrive, giving them space both to fail and to grow.

For me, one of the most profound lessons about relating to followers comes from the Bible, in the instructions of Paul: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15 NIV). Too often, we try to cheer the sad and depress the happy. But I have found that empathizing with others allows me to help carry some of their sorrow and magnify their joy.

We can all become better leaders, and I hope this categorization helps you clarify your own strengths and identify areas to improve so that you can better navigate the stocked bookstores.

Jesus was unquestionably a great leader, but that doesn’t mean we should all try to be “Jesus CEO.” We can learn timeless principles from past leaders, but we must not simply mimic them.

Good leadership requires the flexibility to make a good fit. We must meet our own challenges by gaining a variety of leadership tools, adapting to our situations and motivating our unique bands of followers. Then we can add to the corpus of literature our own tales of leadership success.  
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