I wonder if you’ve ever heard this famous sentence: “The British Navy is a system designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.”
Now, the problem with this sentence is that it calls everyone in the Navy an idiot. Obviously that’s not true. Still, there is an important truth here about leadership.
Leaders are different from those they lead. They think differently, perceive the world differently, and —in most cases—behave differently. One religious leader said it like this: “There is a difference between sheep and shepherds.” There’s no arguing with that!
Now, leaders fail when they neglect this truth. Those they lead can’t be expected to know what the leader knows, see as the leader sees, or anticipate what the leader anticipates. This means leaders have to express themselves in terms that reach to those they lead. Otherwise, they will will shoot over their heads and fail to lead them well.
When I realized this years ago, I began to lead in simpler terms. Don’t misunderstand: I wasn’t leading stupid people. But they weren’t inside my mind. They couldn’t know what I meant or wanted unless I made it as clear as possible.
I was leading one particular organization when I finally identified some of its longstanding problems. I tried to address these in long speeches to the staff. It just didn’t work. Eventually, I boiled my thinking down into some terse maxims that everyone in the organization could act upon. I decided to call these “Stephenisms.” Here they are:
1. Prayer is always first.
Everything we do grows out of prayer and intercession.
Make sure people know what they need to know to serve with excellence.
3. No Surprises.
See Number 2 above. Just do it earlier.
4. The right thing is always the right thing.
Doing the right thing is never the wrong thing on the job.
5. We want to be like Disneyland:
Warm and loving on the outside but a well-oiled machine inside.
You should know that I was leading a distinctly Christian organization at the time and this is the reason for the first maxim. The broader point is that when I distilled all my verbiage into these simple terms, people understood, absorbed, and executed. It changed our culture. It made people feel secure. It raised our game in every way.
I arrived at these principles because I thought deeply about what was wrong, then about the behavior I wanted to encourage, and then about the simplest way to inspire that behavior.
Great leaders bridge the gap between themselves and those they lead. They figure out what is wrong, figure out what needs to change, and put solutions in terms others can execute.
Those we lead aren’t idiots. They do, though, need geniuses at the helm who know how to make right actions doable. Be this kind of leader.
That’s it. Have a marvelous Memorial Day Weekend. And please remember well those who have fallen and those who have served.