Five Ways to Ensure Leadership Has a Ship(s)

April 10, 2015 by

“Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” Sam Walton

I’ve had this mental model in my head recently of organizations as a ship or ships. In some organizations, it is one huge ship like a cruise ship or an aircraft carrier. The captain moves the wheel and the whole ship turns and moves as one. In other organizations it is quite opposite. The captain is in one ship, perhaps the largest and best equipped, and the units are ships of varying types and sizes ranging from dinghy’s to submarines. In this second model, steering the flotilla requires a different approach and skill set. Many organizations, particularly higher education and research institutions, look more like flotillas than aircraft carriers.

So how does the flotilla leader steer the ships?

1. Boost esteem. In flotillas, leaders are more reliant on their core team, and that core team needs to believe in themselves, their colleagues, and the leader. If the leader disparages or marginalizes one of their executives, they’ve just weakened their own influence and respect among the flotilla. Leaders have the right and the job to make decisions and reject ideas, but if they do so through humiliation, people will learn to be silent and work around them. Also, as one of my younger family members says, “rudeness is the worst.”

2. Be pleasant. OK, the workplace is not Sesame Street. We’re not all going to like each other, however collegiality is important to culture. People adopt the mood of their leader. If you smile, say hello and express sincere interest, they will see you as positive and engaging. If leaders scowl and ignore, then they can’t be surprised if people are dour, fearful and unengaged. And notice I said be pleasant, not act pleasant. Yes, we all have bad days when we’re distracted or upset, and acting may occasionally be necessary.

3. Be angry sparingly. Stuff happens. Leaders are going to be cranky when the financials aren’t good, the systems are down, or the project deadline slips (again). But save the steely eyes and no-nonsense lectures for the real crises. If every little setback results in leaders flipping out, people will stop giving you accurate information. Everything will be green, until the glaring red can’t be hidden any more and leaps out of the water like Jaws.

4. Show humility. Yes, leaders know they are important and everybody else knows it too. Knowing it and flaunting it are two different things. Little things count. Make time for people. Notice when people go the extra mile. Invite questions and comments, especially from the quiet people in the group. And for the love of whatever, stop talking about how you sat in the box during the championship game or flew on the private jet to wherever. You’re a leader, not a celebrity.

5. Tell the truth, proactively. If you don’t know, say it. If you can’t tell people, admit it. If you are pleased, say so publicly. If you aren’t pleased, say so privately and constructively. You’re here to leave the organization better than you find it. Dissembling and obfuscating will leave the organization confused and dysfunctional, not knowledgeable and capable. And watch out for multiple versions of the truth – communicate early, specifically and often. Leaders will sow confusion and delay faster than weeds in summer if they are saying X when your executive team is saying Y.

“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” Sheryl Sandberg

Leaders, steer the ships to warm, calm, sustainable waters, where others will want to join the flotilla.


– Smart-watch vendors, please design a small version of these innovations for those of us with slender wrists. (Are you listening, @Apple?)

– Dave Pelton’s NextDraft blog (and mobile app) is savvy, contemporary and insightful. Like FlipBoard, it will feed your digital addiction, but in a good way.

– Maybe it’s me, but downloading from iBooks is either glacially slow or n/a in airport WiFI in both Boston and Detroit.

– Learned a new hashtag #MM Motivation Monday – get up and embrace the opportunities of a new week. (Recognizing of course that “Monday” for some people is some other day of the week depending on their profession and schedule.)


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