As a child, I played a game called “Follow the Leader.” I was chosen to be at the front of the line and everyone else lined up behind me. If my friends didn’t follow what I did, they had to sit down. They were out of the game. What would have happened if the third kid in line suggested that I move in a different direction and I actually listened to her rather than telling her she was out of the game? Having been a follower and leader in independent school administration for 18 years, I have learned that successful leaders are not the ones who ask people to line up behind them with the intent of simply following their decisions and direction. Successful leaders listen and invite their followers to actively participate in creating the direction.
Seven months ago, I started as Director of Admissions at The Gunnery, which means that I now have a bigger office and more people to lead. I see that as a bonus— there are more people who can share their opinions, more people who participate in the decision making process, and more people to share their vision. As authors Kouzes and Posner discuss in their book The Leadership Challenge, successful leaders don’t dictate vision; they create a shared vision:
What people really want to hear is not simply the leader’s vision. They want to hear about their own aspirations. They want to hear how their dreams will come true and their hopes will be fulfilled. They want to see themselves in the picture of the future that the leader is painting. The very best leaders understand that their key task is inspiring a shared vision, not selling their own idiosyncratic view of the world (p.117).
Perhaps you’re creating a marketing plan to full-pay families, tweaking your revisit day, or simply changing the content of your decision letters. Chances are you have strong ideas about what needs to be done, but I guarantee you will see higher levels of motivation and better outcomes when you invite others to share their vision for implementation.
Whether you are leading an office of four or fourteen, there’s a recipe to creating shared vision. It starts with the establishment of trust. First and foremost, establish trust by cultivating relationships with your team members. Listen to their professional and personal desires, hopes, and aspirations. For some of us, this means stepping outside our comfort zone. Have your cup of coffee on Monday morning in someone else’s office, not your own. Put down your phone and resist the urge to check email. Listen to people’s tales of their kids, their dogs, their weekend duty in the dorm. For those of us who need to perfect the art of listening, I highly recommend this article from Forbes:"Four Ways to be a Better Listener Today."
When you spend time listening to what’s meaningful to others, you build trust. Do this with your office and encourage them to do it with each other. Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Advantage – Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business, cites trust as an essential behavior to building a healthy organization: “Simply stated, it makes teamwork possible.” When you build trust, you create a safe environment for people to disagree with each other and to disagree with you as the leader. It becomes an environment in which everyone feels safe to express their opinion, offer input, and most importantly, share in the vision. And when people experience shared vision, they will follow the leader.