Organizational Proficiency: Lead More, Suck Less

Good leadership is a challenge and often something people avoid, but it is vital to the success of an organization.

I would tell you that from among the hundreds of supervisors I have worked with over the years (in and out of government), leadership is the single most prevalent challenge and consistent deficit I run into. I know that it is not nearly as seemingly vital as improving staff proficiency or finding that perfect continuity of operations plan that promises to improve your system availability by 84%, but with just a tiny effort leadership can have a profound effect on you and your organization, directly impacting anything and everything that you do. Those lousy training programs you keep buying can’t claim anything close to that and leadership empowers you and your team beyond anything that comes in a box. 

The truth is that the vast majority of us don’t want to lead and do everything possible to avoid it. We are much more comfortable just “going with the flow” as a small business owner I knew used to say, but unfortunately, that approach is what gets us in trouble and what has us underachieving and underperforming in virtually every aspect of our operation.

 As uncomfortable as it might be and as big a burden as you might see it to be, your personal leadership is the one sure way you can assure you are accomplishing the things you want to be and accomplishing them as you want them to be accomplished. We are not talking about hours and hours of additional effort each week, but we are talking about deciding what we want for our organization and just as importantly, we are deciding on how we are going to get there. This sounds like an important journey and one that demands our hands on effort and participation. 

Effective leadership, no matter how much you hate it, misunderstand it, or would seek to deny it, is the absolute key in our accomplishing the things we want to accomplish.

Over the years I have had the distinct honor and pleasure to work with some great supervisors. Though each of these over achievers had their own and unique journey toward success, all of them found a way to lead their people in the directions they needed to go, and all of them found ways to turn their dreams, vision, and goals into a very tangible reality.

Hard work by itself is not going to take that vision you have for your organization and turn it into a staff of caring team members focused on and committed to taking care of our mission. Only leadership can do that. 

Organizational excellence is not about process or tools, it is about you, as a leader, deciding on something better and dedicating your time and effort to that end and in this, moving your people in that direction. Great ideas and vision are only unfulfilled dreams if you can’t turn them into reality. Leadership will allow you to live that reality. 

Those extraordinarily successful supervisors I talked about earlier all paid their dues, all made more than their share of mistakes, and all emerged as leaders focused on excellence. 

I once worked with a Program Director from the General Services Administration who had a very tough time with the concept of leadership and both he and his organization suffered with his inabilities. He had continuing issues with staff turnover, so I approached him one day (I was his leadership coach), hoping to get some insight into his leadership abilities and understand why he was having such difficulty holding onto staff. 

At a certain point in our conversation, as he was in the middle of an angry rant about the latest staff member to abandon him and his organization, I asked him to describe what he thought leadership was. Without the slightest hesitation, he explained that leadership to him was his writing out a new procedure and posting it on the bulletin board in the break room. He was the Program Director (a GS-15), and by his description, his most immediate responsibility in the context of leadership was to tell his staff members how to do things, especially new procedures. 

A little stunned, I asked him what if one of his staff members didn’t understand and did not exactly follow the procedure or chose to ignore it, what would he do then? He said, “Well, write them up, of course!” 

I was of course able to figure out why he was suffering the turnover but had very little success in getting him to try a different approach in leading his staff members and getting them to do the things he wanted done. Asking for something different is easy. Providing the oversight and supervision to make sure things are happening the way they should be is the much more difficult part.  

In the end, this would-be leader left government service and went into something that seemed a much better match for his temperament. He opened a gun shop in Issaquah WA, and the last I heard he was doing very well.

I have rarely met a staff member that I could not get to do the things I needed them to do. Mostly it is just being respectful and willing to stand in front of them and explain what it is we want done and why we want it done a particular way combined with being willing to revisit and provide oversight, support, and validation until we get what we want. This sounds too easy, but truthfully, if I am asking for reasonable things and am willing to provide the necessary oversight to see that it gets done, most folks will do the things we ask them to do, and since we are asking, we might as well ask for something extraordinary. 

As Jack Welch said, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

Who have you grown today? Maybe it’s time to think about leadership.

About the Author

Brian Canning recently retired from the National Institutes of Health (DHHS) as a Change Management Specialist in addition to 30 years in the automotive repair industry with many senior leadership positions. He has been a business consultant and leadership coach and has over 70 articles published, mostly on leadership and business process.