Leading your people across the river without drowning yourself

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Al Geralt
  • Colorado Springs Regional Command Post chief
Leading an organization through a project or crisis can be a lot like leading a group of people across a river. A good leader is worried about the size of the river, strength of the current, temperature of the water and the skillset of the people that have to get across. That's a lot to keep track of. So much so that some leaders forget that they have to cross the river too. What helped me cross many a river in my career were a few simple tips that I kept in mind when working a project or issue.

I don't have to cross the river myself

Leaders often forget that they do not need to develop a mission or leadership guidance in a vacuum. Explain the problem to the team and let the team work out how it should be solved. A good leader will give guidance, ensure the solution is acceptable (within commander's intent) and prevent mission creep. Getting a second pair of eyes on a deliverable or asking for advice from a person of trust is not a sign of weak leadership. By relying on the rest of the team, they will keep you from getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem.

This point also requires a little trust in your team. If you can't trust your team, you will be stuck double and triple checking minutia. It's a sure way to get overwhelmed quickly. Lack of trust can be overcome by good communication, fairly distributing the work and ensuring the right people are doing the right job. Sometimes people need to be trained, reassigned to other tasks or replaced. People might also need to know why you made the change. Properly utilizing people's skills not only increases efficiency, it builds trust on both sides. You are confident people are well used and people are confident that you are looking out for the team.

Stay out of the weeds

Project leaders need to be able to understand every part of their project. A big mistake leaders make is they think they need to understand every last detail, which leads to micromanagement. Micromanagement is a disease that is found in every organization under the sun. It incubates in the leader's frustration with how well things are going. The cure is to keep above the details and provide strategic feedback to the team.

Once a leader is in the weeds, it's the devil to get out of them. More and more important items get ignored while the leader deals with the weeds one at a time. If things are not going right, make more strategic adjustments and communicate them clearly and concisely. The team should deal with the tactics. Remembering that you have to get across the whole river, not just a piece, is vital to success.

The current will pull you off course...roll with it

As a former joint planner, a very appropriate axiom comes to mind in this situation. No plan survives first contact with the enemy! Nothing will go exactly as you saw it in your head. There is one of two ways to deal with this. Spend valuable time and resources fighting to get back on the course you envisioned, or embrace the fact that there might be more than one solution to the problem. Innovation and creative thinking are not confined to the leader. The team can and will devise its own path. The leader's job is to make sure that path meets the boss' intent and fulfills the original objectives of the project.

This advice sounds like common sense for getting the job done right. Unfortunately, too many leaders don't follow them. I have both lead and followed in many teams throughout my career and I've seen leader after leader fall into the pitfalls. I've learned rather painfully myself that common sense is not always so common. Relying on your team, keeping above the minutia and pushing on with confidence and resolve are essential to getting through any situation successfully.