Those who set the purpose or the direction for a team need to exercise their authority and be absolutely insistent about the end states to be achieved, and then hold back and not dictate all the details of the means by which those ends are to be achieved.
And that’s tough for a leader to do. I know how to be an authoritarian and tell everyone what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it. I know how to be a full-scale democrat and say “Okay, what would you all like to do and we’ll all try to come to consensus about that.”
But the right way to set a purpose is to be unapologetic about “This is the mountain that we’re going to climb.” And then not to follow that up by saying “And every time you get to a fork in the trail or a stream that needs to be forded, wait up for me and I’ll tell you how to do it.”
That’s a tough number for leaders to do but it’s really important.
You can fill a bucket pretty quickly under a tap. But try and fill a lot of buckets at once – a drip here, a squirt there – and it can take a long time before you have enough to work with in any of your buckets. And you’re probably wasting time, energy and water moving constantly between them.
Lee must have had something about him – he became editor at 19 – but here’s the thing: he slogged it out writing comics – westerns, crime stories, horror and superhero work – for twenty two years without really hitting the big time. They say he chose Stan Lee as a pen name because he was worried he’d be embarrassed by his work in comics if he ever wrote the Great American Novel.
By the early 60s Lee was fed up, and ready to quit. The Fantastic Four was a last throw of the dice on his wife’s suggestion that he try writing the comics he wanted to write. There was nothing to lose.
He was forty-one years old.
The rest is history.
What if Stan Lee had never written the fantastic four?
A big part of the answer to this question is the choice we always face between now or later – the well known tension between the urgent and the important, a la Steven Covey’s Seven Habits which, incidentally, was the first real book on personal development that I ever read.
As my friend wrote, the answer is usually now and later.
If your house is on fire, put it out.
But as soon as you can, install a fire alarm, and find and eliminate the cause of the fire.
Start focusing on the important, non-urgent things that will make things easier tomorrow. Plant seeds. Enrich the soil. Give gifts to your future self and to others.
Creating the right kind of barriers for yourself and your organisation is essential to getting the deeper tasks done:
I choose not to answer messages about work outside working hours so that I can recharge and do better work during work hours
I don’t automatically take jobs with low pay or unreasonable deadlines, just because it’s a job – other people’s rush doesn’t have to become mine
I’m learning to give a small, early ‘nos’ to some good things so that I can say a big, enthusiastic ‘yes’ to fewer, greater things
My organisation has its own vision and focus. If you want us to help your teachers, let’s talk. If you want us to build schools – that’s not for us, and if that means we’re not for you, that’s fine
Planning less in my day so that I can deal graciously with the things that inevitably do come up – and just so that I can greet my neighbour in the street
Deciding in advance how much I’m prepared to commit
To finish up, Rule 8 can stay as it is. I’d just add one note: with all of these things, now is better than later, but many of the important and exciting things that happen to us just take time, or only happen at the right time. You can’t force them – so it’s worth setting boundaries in advance for how hard you’ll push.
Many of the boundaries that we face are immovable, like limits to the time available to us, or being able to be in one place at a time, or the limited nature of our knowledge, no matter how much we know.
There are other boundaries that we can shift: the resources we have at our disposal, the number of people we partner with or serve, who we partner with, our skills, and the skills of our teams.
In service of the right vision, many of these boundaries are worth shifting.
But where to start? Concentration of force counts: pushing in all directions weakens the force we’re able to apply, and results in slow, frustrating change – if any. Pushing in all directions at once is usually exhausting.
So we decide – even within the immovable boundaries, we make our own, choosing where to apply our effort. This is a helpful way to think about boundaries – not as restrictions that hold you back, but as tools to help you focus.
The number of clients who want to engage deeply with us
The number of people we can manage well
The number of the right sort of people to manage
Our time, and the time of our team
How hard we can work
The speed at which we can learn
Our ability to spot problems
Our ability to fix the problems we do spot
How much other people care
How much we care
What we can get permission to do
Add another ten of your own
And then there are boundaries that we choose for ourselves:
Given that we can serve a limited number of people, who will we try to serve first?
That is to say, who will we serve now, and who won’t we serve now?
Given that there aren’t enough of the right people, will we hire any people? Who won’t we hire?
How hard won’t we work ourselves and our team?
What values won’t we compromise (integrity, quality of product, quality of relationship, health of our team, the environment)?
The same logic applies to all of the above
It all comes down to decisions – I like the understanding of ‘decision’ as a ‘cutting off’ of possibilities. We need to acknowledge what we can’t do and identify what we won’t do so that we can focus on what we can do and will do – and do those things.
Identifying boundaries and limits is a really helpful flipside in the process of thinking through your what’s important to you (values), the change you wish to see in the world (vision), and what’s possible now.
Be a “meaningful specific” rather than a “wandering generality” – it’s the principle of concentration of force and energy to get work done.
Rule 4 ties into Rules 1 and 3 – “real work for real clients” who are “eager to pay” – and if you work at a non-profit organisation it has implications for how you work with both clients and donors.
Rule 4 and clients
For your clients, it means your service is for them. Not for people in general, and it might help your clients… but a specific product or service for their specific needs.
Take education in Indonesia as an example. There’s a huge need for teacher training and resourcing. This is true across the age-range (from pre-school to university level), across different types of school (private and government-run schools), across the whole archipelago, and in any subject area. Within each of these ranges are groups of people with different needs, and trying to serve them all will get you no-where. Trying to produce something for the “average” teacher will dilute your energy and make it impossible to make something meaningful for any individual – and your clients are individuals.
Far, far better to concentrate on the needs of a specific group (helping pre-school teachers at small charity schools to teach reading more effectively) and do it well. If you’re good, you might end up with something that grows and can be made more widely applicable.
Rule 4 and donors
The same principle applies to your donors. It’s hard to go to the world and persuade them that your cause is important, and that they should give you money. It’s much easier to find people who already think what you do is important, and convince them that you do it well enough to be worth supporting.
Again, be specific – who are you helping? Why those people? Why this service? What difference is it making? Tell stories of change in the lives of specific people to explain the work that you do.