Why Leadership Speed Is Critical To Engaging Your Team

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod

Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared on The Military Leader, a blog by Drew Steadman that provides leader development resources and insight for leaders of all professions.

In a post from earlier this year, I shared some of the guidance I issued during my company command time nearly 10 years ago. In “How Do You Spot a Leader?,” I suggested the notion that leaders naturally move faster than everyone else.

If you are a leader and find yourself moving slowly throughout the day, you are probably not doing enough to help out the team. Most of the time, leaders dart from one event to the next, or are focusing to create a new product/presentation that will help the team. They are always looking to identify problems in the organization and tackle them quickly, so that the organization can become better or more effective.

Leaders create and disseminate energy throughout the organization to keep it moving in the right direction and responding appropriately to the environment. There is an inherent risk, however, for naturally driven leaders who move quickly toward success. Today, I want to talk about this risk.

The Reverse Pony Express

In casual conversation last week, I heard a friend draw a comparison between “individual speed” and “team speed.” I don’t think he had given the terms much thought, but simply used them to label the disconnect that occurs when a leader moves at a pace the team cannot follow.

We see this consistently in purpose-driven, competitive organizations like the military. Passionate men and women prepare for years to assume the mantle of leadership, yet fail to recognize that their subordinates:

  • Don’t share their personal drive for success
  • Don’t have the same level of experience or training
  • Don’t have the same access to information, nor the same organizational perspective as the leader
  • Cannot avoid the fact that they are on a team with other people, which inherently moves slower than the leader (maybe because they’re the ones actually doing the work?)

New leadership comes in and works the team into the ground. It’s the reverse Pony Express effect: Instead of keeping the same rider and swapping the horse to preserve its longevity, we put a fresh rider in the saddle and expect the exhausted horse to keep on running.

What is Your Leadership Speed?

I use the term “Leadership Speed” to describe this notion of competing speeds of organizational activity. Take a quick look at your organization and you’ll quickly see natural divisions in capability that will result in friction. I mentioned the new leader with an old team, but think about how staff sections function at different paces, or the varying responsiveness that subordinate units will show as a result of competing priorities.

Leaders need to recognize that any number of factors influence how effectively the team will be able to keep up with them. Those who ignore this concept risk not only running their teams into the ground, but also failing to meet priorities. They must also come to the realization that not every activity needs to occur at full throttle. But usually it takes a closed-door session or an organizational breakdown for that to sink in.

Dismount and Discover

Here are a few thoughts to help you get out of the saddle and make sure you’re riding at a pace your horse can actually sustain:

  1. Accept. You need to start by admitting that not everyone is as good as you are and that the team can’t instantly achieve the big ideas you come up with. Behind every one of your statements of guidance is a mound of actual work that takes time, energy, talent, patience, and your protection from distraction. Accept that your pony can’t run as fast as you wish it could.
  2. Analyze. Grab a whiteboard, bring in your advisors, and figure out where the team isn’t meeting your expectations. What factors influence that outcome? Are they undertrained? Are they the wrong people for the job? Do they lack resources? How could you have better enabled them for success? Or maybe you have a distorted or misinformed understanding of their work situation?
  3. Ask. Leaders routinely fail to see the power in simply asking for feedback. There’s nothing wrong with asking your teammates and subordinates: Am I pushing the team too hard? What is your section struggling with? Do you have enough time and resources to meet my intent? Do you feel our priorities are appropriate? Does my daily guidance align with those priorities? If you were in my shoes for a day, what would you change? Go ahead, ask and let them speak. What you’ll find is that instead of weakening your position as a leader, you’ll gain enormous respect because your team will feel included, empowered, and enthusiastic about becoming a more effective organization…provided you lead them to be so.
  4. Adjust. Finally, it’s time to refine your leadership speed. Scrutinize your priorities and guidance and admit that everything can’t be the most important thing. Consider what will have to come off the plate if you do X. Review your good ideas to see if they’re the right ideas. Ponder for a moment the vast difference in capability that you’ve gained in your career compared to those you lead. What are you expecting of them that they just haven’t learned yet? Where could you improve effectiveness by teaching instead of scrutinizing? Then, as you close the gap between “individual speed” and “team speed,” remember that shortcomings don’t necessarily mean that your people are running too slowly, but that you might be running too fast.

Finding the Fine Line

I do want to close by highlighting that leaders must also strive to find that fine line between “getting the most out of the team” and “pushing them too hard.” Military leadership will forever require that leaders extract more out of their individuals and teams than they think they are capable of giving. Leaders must push their units, for combat is the Kentucky Derby. But it is also the leader’s responsibility to ensure the horse arrives at the start gate in top condition, not broken from stress and overtraining.

This article, “Leadership Speed and Why It Matters,” originally appeared on The Military Leader.

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