Leadership is hard work, but hard work is not enough…

“Great leaders are made not born…” Vince Lombardi

Even though great leaders are made, most people receive little or no leadership training. It’s no wonder that talented people often become “lone wolves” or “expeditors” instead of effective, inspiring leaders. Neither lone wolves, nor expeditors are bad people. Some may call them emotionally unintelligent. But, even that is unfair. Rather, in a vacuum and without any kind of mentoring or coaching, they resort to coping mechanisms to combat stress and deflect an overabundance of opportunities. Let’s examine what lone wolves and expeditors are like and how these coping mechanism affect them and their organizations.

Scenario One: The Lone Wolf

Vince Lombardi also said that great leaders are made by hard effort. Lone wolves recognize this and often become addicted to hard work. They juggle too many things, and come to believe that too much is riding on their specific efforts to pass anything off. They may overwork themselves and let others off the hook or expect them to put in just as much time as they do – sometimes with little guidance.

Lone wolves usually do not intend to operate in this fashion. They can be brilliant, skilled and often succeed just enough to keep things afloat. They also tend to inspire other managers to operate like lone wolves as well – which can create tremendous amounts of stress and anxiety. They jeopardize their own health and happiness by isolating themselves. And, they unwittingly risk the health and happiness of those around them – as well as the stability of their organizations. They have too little time to build leadership within their ranks. Staff turnover occurs because people are unchallenged and become bored or they are unable and unwilling to match the heroic efforts displayed by their manager or executive leader. And, when the lone wolf inevitably crashes, the organization is not set up to succeed without them.

Scenario Two: The Expeditor

Some people are natural “expeditors.” They hire well and pass nearly everything off. Some are skilled delegators, while others are pretenders, who may not really know the work and are just trying to stay one step ahead of their staff. They are convinced that good managers are overseers, and expect the people they supervise to do all the work. But often this is unintentional. Rarely do true leaders aspire to be expeditors. In some people, it’s a way of avoiding work they’re unfamiliar with and in others, it can be the coping technique of burnt out, former lone wolves. A lone wolf can learn to delegate without being a team player, without setting others up for success and without making them accountable.  They may have a clear vision of the end product, but have no idea how to get there and they leave it all up to their supervisees to figure it out.

Expeditors manage stress by delegating most projects and nearly every task to others so that they can move on to the next thing on their conveyor belts. Victims of their own success, they either become masters of deflection, insisting that something must come off of their plates (and those of their staff) before any new ideas ever can be considered. Or they say yes to almost every opportunity that comes along, filling the plates of others with ill-defined projects that have not been thoughtfully vetted. With experience under their belts, they no longer feel the need to get their hands dirty, or, at best, they cherry-pick the few things they like and feel most successful at.

If they sink their heels in and refuse to even look at anything new, the organization plateaus and stakeholders (donors, investors, partners, board members) become bored and find new shiny balls to play with. Fundraising efforts start to fall flat. Programs do not evolve and instead achieve lackluster results or seem to drop off out of the blue.

Expeditors who see keeping the plates spinning as their top goal, often lose touch with how things are done. And, when staff members quit, plates fall and break because leaders are out of touch. They throw money at filling gaps immediately, hiring the first available candidate without working to find team players who are a good fit or are committed to the cause. They look for experience and experience only – to keep that plate in the air.  

Scenarios Three & Four: The Bright, Aspiring, New Talent and The Qualified Experienced Leader

As I mentioned before, neither great leaders (nor poor ones) are born that way. Lone wolves and expeditors develop over time as coping mechanisms become necessary. Coaching and leadership training is not just for people who have developed bad habits, rather it works just as successfully – if not more so, for developing bright, aspiring new talent and for retaining qualified experienced leaders who may feel isolated or a need to refresh and re-ignite their passion.

Let’s face it. Most leaders have to make difficult decisions, learn how to say no to people with more power and more money than they have and to hire, train and fire staff – though most of us have never been taught how to do these things. Engaging an experienced coach is helpful to leaders of all stripes and can help to facilitate major shifts in organizations or help established organizations (and leaders) to weather the ravages of time.

True success is not built on the heroic efforts of one person or a few top performers. Leaders are not borne out of coping mechanisms, but that’s how organizations often operate. The waters of leadership are navigable but can be murky and they change often. How do you ensure that you have leadership (both executives and leadership within the ranks) that can pivot and adapt?

Outside advice and consulting – a fresh perspective

One of the great benefits of hiring a consultant is gaining experienced advice from someone outside your organization who can provide a fresh perspective. Sometimes the value of a consultant is primarily this “unbiased” perspective. Also, consultants take time to stay on top of trends in the field to offer value beyond their past experience.

When coaching is involved, lone wolves learn to pull their heads away from the grindstone and develop the skills of others. They become more “mentor” than boss. They recognize and build on their own strengths, but are also willing to be vulnerable. They learn healthy ways of coping with stress. They become more confident leaders. They are more willing to listen and to adapt. And, they leverage their considerable talents to greater heights.

One Lone Wolf (a long-time Executive Director) told me that the best money his organization ever spent was on coaching. It helped him and the Operations Director to keep their heads up, stay focused, motivated and ready to adapt to an ever-changing landscape. They came to see problems as opportunities and they were better at developing cohesive teams.

One former “Expeditor” told me that she found so much more joy in her job since she no longer felt like an imposter. She was no longer saying yes without seeing the impacts of the work on others and she strove to understand more aspects of the business so that she could vet opportunities. The organization’s focus became clearer and the staff felt not only happier, but also more competent and began acting like true ambassadors of the mission.

In one instance, the board and outgoing executive director (E.D.) advocated for coaching of the new E.D., as well as the Operations Manager to ensure a smooth leadership transition and to leverage the opportunity for growth and change. In the other instance, the E.D. decided to to hire a coach herself (privately) to help with decision-making, growth, and to gain the training and support she needed to excel.

Hiring a coach for yourself, your organization or your staff is no longer seen as a weakness, but as a strength. In fact, some recent studies show that providing staff coaching is more successful for improving staff retention than other gadgets and gizmos. Beer Friday sounds like fun, but staff members don’t stay with organizations just because they get to wear jeans and drink beer after five on Fridays. They can find that anywhere. Coaching helps them to be more successful and to find more joy in their jobs – in a way that no other perk offers.