When to Allow Failure and When to Rescue

I recently wrote 7 Impractical Leadership Principles and Why I Use Them. One comment on the post stood out to me, because admittedly, as much as I believe in the post, this is a difficult aspect of leadership.

Someone wrote in reference the principle “I watch people fail”:

I am in the middle of the last one you posted and it is tough. Many times I wonder if I should just step in, but I am trying to exercise patience.

That’s a delicate balance. When do you step in and rescue someone and when do you allow the person to possibly fail?

Here is my response:

The balance for me is in how much the failure will injure them versus how much it will teach them.

If I can save them unneeded heartache, then I’m likely to step in an try to help. There are failures we can learn without the need to repeat them. When I was in business, I had people give me fair warning about doing business with certain individuals. In ministry, it’s helpful if I can get a good (or bad) reference before I hire the right (or wrong) person. I am always appreciative of that type of protection and would want to offer it to others.

If, however, I would be stunting the individual’s personal growth by stepping in to rescue them, I may let them fail. Failure is one of life’s greatest educators, so most people grow through trial and error. If, for example, someone on my team wants to try something new. I may feel it isn’t the best decision, or it isn’t the way I would choose to do it, but I usually can’t guarantee it won’t be a success. Instead of going with my gut, I may let the team member follow his or her gut and take a chance. We may discover a home run and I would happily admit my hunch was wrong. Either way, the team member learns something.

The bottom line for me is to discern the greater value…growth of a team member by allowing failure, which ultimately helps the overall team, or protecting a team member from needless injury, which ultimately helps the overall team.

I hope this is helpful in addressing the dilemma. Keep in mind, there are no clear cut lines on leadership issues like this. Every situation is unique. We are keep learning and developing in these areas.

Wow, leadership is hard, isn’t it?

How do you decide when to allow someone fail and when to save them the agony?

The People Doing the Work: A Leadership Pet Peeve

It’s a pet peeve of mine in leadership.

I once had a boss who told me how to do my sales meetings with my department. He wasn’t going to be at the meeting. He didn’t know the people on my team. He was holding me accountable for results in sales, not in organizational leadership, but yet he continually gave me the script for meetings as he thought they should be led. I had to turn in reports, which indicated I had followed his agenda.

I hated it. And, when I could, I secretly altered things and scripted my own way. Maybe it was rebellion…okay, it was rebellion, but…

I never thought he was practicing good leadership.

As a leader…

If you aren’t going to be doing the work, don’t script how it’s done.

You can share your thoughts and ideas…

You can share what you want accomplished…

You can give input…

You can monitor progress…

You can even hold people accountable for progress…

But the people who are actually at the meetings…

Doing the work…

Carrying out the plans…

Getting their hands dirty…

Should determine how the work gets completed.

There, I feel better.

Any questions?

7 Things I Learned from a Poor Management Experience

Years ago I was working in retail. I was in college, but serving as an area manager for a large department store. I was responsible for ordering the basic items in my department, making sure we were always in stock with regular sellers. One of those items was a collar extender. I don’t know that those are even used anymore, and I never used one personally, but basically it was a metal button extender that allowed a man to wear a shirt as the man grew larger, by making the neck bigger. (You know you wanted to know that.)

Anyway, we normally kept a couple boxes with 12 extenders in each in stock. When we had sold one box I was to order another box. They weren’t fast sellers, so it didn’t happen often. I noticed one day that we were down to our last box, so I placed an order, but instead of ordering one box of 12, I incorrectly order 12 boxes of 12. That’s pretty much enough for a decade of extender sells.

I had made a mistake.

How did management handle the issue?

The morning after the arrival of our new case of extenders, a memo was sent to all area managers, in every department, throughout the store. It read something like, “From now on, all orders will need to be signed by a supervisor prior to completion.” I was instantly frustrated, since I knew the memo was a direct response to my mistake. No one had said anything to me. I had not been reprimanded. It was never mentioned otherwise, but now we had a new policy, which affected everyone, because of my one error. (BTW, extenders retailed for $1.25 back then.)

The new mandate slowed down the progress of everyone, because they now had to wait for approval before they could order basic needs. It was not accepted by other managers, proved to be more of an inconvenience than it was worth and soon no one practiced it at all.

What did this experience teach me?

Weakness in leadership never produces the desired result.

How should it have been handled?

In my opinion, I should have been called aside, made aware of my mistake (to let me know they knew), and allowed me learn from the experience. If I continued to make the same error, which I never did again, then further action could have been taken.

The incident helped shape some of my leadership.

Here are 7 things I learned from a poor management experience:

  • Never send an email (today’s memo) to correct an action.
  • Never over-react to a minor issue.
  • Never make a policy to correct a single error.
  • Never single someone out publicly who hasn’t been talked to privately.
  • Never punish everyone for the mistake of one.
  • Never act like it’s not a big deal if you think it’s a big deal.
  • Never be so weak as a leader that you fail to address the real issue, or the real problem, even if the real problem is a person.

I am certain I have repeated each of these myself at times, but the experience truly did shape my leadership and management practices. The best thing this experience did for me was give me a principle I have used and often shared with other leaders:

If you need to slap a hand, bring a ruler and show up in person.

BTW, need a collar extender? I know where you might can find one. :)

(In complete transparency, it’s been almost 30 years and I don’t remember all the specific details of this incident. Also, though this story is from actual experience, in fairness to others involved, I altered some of the details to protect identities.)

Making Decisions versus Finding Solutions

I was working with a church recently that has a leadership issue, which is causing harm to the church. One of the staff members is extremely popular with the people in the church, but he is considered a lousy team player by the rest of the staff. He’s lazy, divisive, and disrespectful to the senior pastor.

The pastor and key leadership realize a change needs to occur. He’s been counseled and threatened with his job, but he knows he is popular and therefore refuses to change. The pastor, who has been at the church less time than the other staff member, knows he could never recover from letting him go.

I was asked to help the church find a solution to the dilemma. If I were simply encouraging them to do the right thing…that would be easy, in my opinion. He needs to go, because of the flippancy he’s shown towards leadership. Unfortunately, what is easy isn’t always best.

It was a reminder:

The answer to problems is often easy, but the solution can often be hard.

Want an easy answer to the above scenario?

There can even be three options on the table. The senior pastor can either fire the associate pastor, quit as the pastor, or live with the problem. That’s easy isn’t it. Choose the one that seems best to you. You could even draw numbers out of a hat for that one if you can’t decide. (One for fire, two for quit, and three for live with…in case you weren’t following.)

Finding the solution to a problem is much more difficult.

I have my particular easy answer, but finding a solution is a more delicate process. It involves making hard decisions and dealing with hard consequences. It could be either of the three easy answers, but a solution is bigger than making a decision. To be a solution it would involve the follow through…clean-up…and the working of the situation for the ultimate good of the organization. That’s hard, messy, difficult work.

Making decisions…Easy

Finding solutions….More difficult.

By the way, great leaders don’t just make decisions…they find solutions.

Honestly, would you rather make decisions or find solutions?

(Please know I changed some details of this story to protect identities.)

If You Want to Attract Leaders…

One of the most frequent criticisms I receive from young leaders about their organizations is that they aren’t given adequate responsibly or authority. They are handed a set of tasks to complete, but they don’t feel they have a part in creating the big picture for the organization. Since most of the young leaders I talk to are in ministry, this means it’s happening in the church too. :)

Do you want to lead a successful organization (church) that attracts leaders? Here’s my best advice:

Hand out visions more than you assign tasks.

In order for the organization to be successful, you’ll need to attract leaders. You know that, right? You need to know something about leaders and potential leaders.

Leaders want to work towards a vision, more than they want complete a set of tasks.

Leaders don’t get excited about checklists and assignments.

Leaders want to join a great vision, then help develop the tasks to accomplish it.

Leaders get excited about faith-stretching, bigger-than-life, jaw-dropping acts of courage. That’s the kind of vision they want to believe in and follow. “To do” list often gets in the way of that kind of fun. Visions excite them, details to complete them don’t.

So, if you want to create a successful organization, recruit leaders, hand them a big vision, with lots of room on the implementation side, then allow them to choose how they will accomplish that vision.

Hand them the vision, then get out of their way and let them do their work.

That doesn’t mean your work is over. They’ll need your help along the way. They’ll still need your help to develop structure, discipline and follow through. But that’s way different than handing them a set of tasks. That’s practicing good leadership and delegation skills. (You can read 4 Critical Aspects of Healthy Delegation HERE.)

I realize this is especially hard for perfectionist leaders who want to control every outcome. (Leaders like me; just being honest.) You’ll have to take a risk on the people you’ve recruited to lead and discipline yourself to let them work in their own way. You’ll get burned a few times, but overall, you’ll find more success when you:

Paint big visions…not specific tasks…

When you do this you’ll attract and develop more leaders and a more successful organization will be built and sustained.

How are you at releasing your vision to others?

Would you rather be handed a vision or a set of tasks to be completed?

What’s the Greatest Killer of Motivation?

Did you catch it?

What’s the greatest killer of motivation?

You thought it was a lack of vision, didn’t you?

But, you can have the greatest vision ever and still see motivation dwindle and momentum die.

The fact is, we have an amazing ability to get bored with good things over time. It doesn’t matter how much we love something, time can cause us to lose interest. All of us can think of something we once loved, but now it’s old news. We have a the sad ability of tiring of wonderful things.

Buy a child a toy at Christmas and they love it…it’s the best Christmas ever…but a few weeks later…they probably aren’t as excited about it anymore. They are ready for some new toys.

Marketers know they have to keep changing things to keep us buying. We get bored easily. That’s why Apple’s stock is through the roof. They keep introducing new products because we get bored with the old ones.

If we aren’t careful, we’ll do that in our relationships too. One of the biggest obstacle in many marriages is boredom. We quit dating…we quit courting…we quit surprising each other… Over time, we get bored in the relationship.

That feeling of boredom comes into the church also. Greeting at the front door was great at first. We met lots of new people and genuinely felt we were making a difference. Now we know everyone and the job has become old. I’m bored. Time killed my motivation.

Going to small group? Working with students? Playing in the band? Fun at first, but time has made me bored.

Perhaps you understand by now. Maybe you’re bored with this post. It was great when it started, but time has taken away your enthusiasm. Let me get to some help. It’s time.

If time is a killer of motivation, what’s the solution?

Keep retelling the vision – Remind yourself and others of why you are doing what you are doing. If your mission is to reach people for Christ, then get excited about that again. Renew your passion for others.

Keep practicing the vision – Sometimes we get busy with doing that we don’t really do what we were called to do. I know, that doesn’t make sense…but perhaps it makes too much sense. I’m not sure what I’m saying, but I know this. If you want to restore your motivation, do the things you’re motivated to do. If reaching broken, hurting people for Christ was the original passion God called you to do, then step away from the routines and busyness of life to start winning a few broken, hurting people for Christ again. Drop the mundane and follow the heart. Renew your personal passion.

Keep sharing the impact of the vision with others – Most likely there are still some people motivated for the vision. Surround yourself with them. Share their stories. Let their enthusiasm rub off on you and others. Live out the vision with others who believe in it as much as you do. It will motivate you as you share the vision with others again.

Have you seen time destroy motivation? What are you doing about it?

10 Things in Leadership that Drive Me Crazy

There are some things in leadership that I could honestly say I despise. Perhaps you have your own list, but this is mine.

Here are 10 things that drive me crazy in leadership:

Responsibility without authority – If you ask someone to lead something; then let them lead.

Small-mindedness – I like big dreams and those that dream them. I’ve never once out-dreamed God. Neither have you.

Naysayers – There is always someone who says it can’t be done.

Laziness – Not only is it a sin, if it is allowed to fester it can be contagious or disruptive to an organization.

Settling – Even if it involves conflict, I want to push for best over mediocre.

Popularity seeking – Leaders who say what they think people want to hear in order to be liked drive me nuts. (Not sure they are technically leaders.)

Power hunger – Leaders who are easily threatened by others or who always try to control others limit people and organizations.

Caution out of fear – I prefer a bold faith every time.

Bullied management – Some leaders get their way from force. That seems cowardly to me.

Passion squelchers – Leaders should energize others to realize their dreams, not stifle them.

What are some things you despise in leadership?

(I posted this basic idea several years ago, but brought it forward again since my readership has grown substantially since then.)

Try to Kill Your Ideas, It Will Make Them Better

Sometimes I try to kill my own ideas.

Especially with an idea that has major consequences for change and potential.

I brought it to the table.

I believe in it.

I want it to happen.

I got people excited about it.

I energized the team.

Now I’m attempting to kill it.

I’m trying to find holes in the idea.

I am questioning the validity of the idea.

I’m even causing some to ask if I still support the idea.

My idea.

What’s my point?

Am I that difficult as a leader?

Well, that may be a matter of opinion, but I have a good reason.

I want the idea to stand the test of time and scrutiny.

If it survives, it has a better chance of succeeding.

If it doesn’t, well, let’s move on to a new idea.

As a leader, I’ve learned I can often get excited about my own ideas. I can get other people excited about my ideas…I can pitch an impressive vision…I can motivate people to say yes to my suggestions.

Whether because of position or power of persuasion, I have the ability to excite people around a cause. I can even find ways to justify my idea, even, if necessary, make it appear it was a “God-given” idea.

The bottom line is I’m capable of being wrong. I’m capable of some really bad ideas. I’m even capable of justifying my personal idea as a “God-idea”. Just being honest.

When an idea hasn’t been tested thoroughly before it meets the vote of the public, and it fails, it puts a strain against my credibility as a leader. If it has been tested, questioned and kicked around thoroughly, especially among the team I lead, it has the full support of everyone from the beginning, actually starts to feel like their idea, and has a better chance of succeeding.

Have a great idea?

Be the first to try to kill it and see if it’s worth pushing forward.

If it passes the test, you’ve got the potential of a great idea.

Have you ever tried to kill one of your own ideas?

5 Ways to Take Back a Delegated Project

I’m a fan of delegation. In fact, I consider myself somewhat of a professional delegator, if there is such a thing. I certainly love to delegate.

If you want to read more of my thoughts on delegation, consider:

5 Reasons Delegation Fails
No Dumping: 5 Keys to Effective Delegation
4 Critical Aspects of Delegation
4 “Easy” Steps to Delegation

Also, on the subject of delegation…

Have you ever given away a project, though, and wished you could take it back?

Recently someone emailed me with the question of how to do it.

Maybe it was the wrong fit. Perhaps the person was overloaded with other responsibilities. It could be they simply weren’t cut out for the task. You may have misjudged their potential, so you gave them the delegation. Now you wish you hadn’t.

What do you do?

How do you take back a delegated project without causing hurt feelings, injuring a valued team member, or causing disruption in the organization? Many times the person has assumed a certain sense of ownership and pride in the assignment, even if they haven’t done a good job with it. Taking the project away from them may feel like personal rejection. What do you do?

Here are 5 ways to take back a delegated project:

Set up the right to remove on the front end – The process should really be clear from the beginning. The culture of a healthy organization has everyone operating as a team. It’s easier to do the right thing on a healthy team, even reassign an project. You may not be able to do that this time, but certainly work towards establishing that environment for the future.

Make sure you delegate well – Effective delegation will eliminate much of the need to take back a project. You can read more about healthy delegation HERE and HERE, but basically, try to help. This can happen at any stage in the project, but ideally should come before and during the process of completing a delegated project. It could be the person doesn’t have all the answers or all the resources to complete what’s been assigned. They may be afraid to ask for help.

Do it quickly – As soon as you realize the person is not going to be able to complete the task, if you’ve tried working with them, but it hasn’t helped, address and re-assign as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it will be for everyone.

Do it graciously – If done correctly, it could be a relief for them, as well as the organization. You may be able to refocus the person’s attention on other things, but certainly you should try to encourage their overall potential in the process.

Help them learn – They may not have been able to do this particular project, but, if handled correctly, It could end up being beneficial for their personal development. Help them see what they did wrong, why the delegated task is being reassigned, and how they could do things differently in the future.

The bottom line is that the organization must move forward. Sometimes that means tasks have to be reassigned. Good leaders are willing to make hard decisions, even if that means taking back a delegated project.

Have you ever had to take back a delegated project? How did you do it?

Structure Can Impede Progress

Recently I received a question about a post entitled “7 Enemies of Organizational Health“. One of those “enemies” I listed as “structure”. The person’s question was, “Are you referring to micromanagement?” He went on to say that we need structure to prevent organizational chaos.

I answered.

Well, yes and no. Micromanagement is an impediment to organizational health, but really I simply meant structure. Let me attempt to explain.

I do agree we need some structure, but not for structure sake, but for progress sake. And there is a difference.

I see it as similar to the concept of grace, freedom and the law. We don’t need laws if we are bound by grace. Grace is actually a higher standard than the law. But, we have to have an established order in our world for progress. It is a wicked world and we could never get anything done without some sense of structure.

In an organizational sense, think about it, if we all did the right thing we wouldn’t need structure. But structure allows for progress. When structure becomes a problem…when it gets in the way…and the kind of structure I was referring to in my post…is when a well-meaning structure impedes progress.

Consider this example:

Imagine a rule that says everyone has to be in the church office from 8 to 5. So, because I want to respect authority, I obey the structure and am dutifully at my desk from 8 AM to 5 PM. The fact is, however, that I work best at 6 in the morning out of the office. Sticking to the structure in this case would limit my ability to be at my best. At the same time, because I’m following the structure, I may not go to the emergency hospital visit at midnight. After all, office hours are over by then.

The bottom line is that structure should enhance not impede progress.

Structure should never get in the way of accomplishing what God plants in your heart to accomplish.

Do you follow my reasoning? What would you add to the discussion?