One of my core beliefs is that leaders can learn from anyone. To that end, one of my most highly recommended leadership books is Extreme Ownership, specifically its chapter on “leading up and down the chain of command.” It has largely impacted my views and challenged me to handle a recent situation differently—and better—than I would have been naturally inclined to do.
I love the diverse team we have at Hoffer Plastics. I want to surround myself with people who feel like they have a say in the direction we are going. Sometimes, however, this passion can overboil, like it did recently when the team disagreed on the direction of a business strategy. Not being in the meeting when it happened, I was left to getting the facts from others present.
I talked about what happened with all the parties involved, but found myself gravitating to the input from the youngest person on the team. What they lack in experience is made up in their wisdom, and their ability to discern the intricacies of team dynamics. As a leader, I wanted to be intentional in processing the situation with this person as I considered what my next move should be.
So what exactly did it look like to “follow down the chain of command”?
The first action I took was to ask questions about the situation, and listen for themes and revelations within their responses. Before diving into any discussion, I was careful to ensure that any processing of the issue stayed with the issue and did not delve into the complex personalities of those involved in the situation. Sticking to the facts of what happened safeguarded us from gossip, which is both unproductive and unhealthy. Of course, the personalities of those involved come into play, and may need to be addressed, but this should be done one-on-one with the person, not a 3rd party.
Once the clarifying questions gave some scope about the issue, I moved on to the second step by asking this person what they would do if they were in my shoes. This question is powerful because it invites the person into the decision-making process of what action to take. Sitting in the recliner, or the “arm-chair quarterback,” is different than being invited into the decision-making process of what to do next. In fact, this team member stated that what to do next was a hard question to answer given the complexity of the situation at hand. But as they verbally processed the issue one more time, a theme around a lack of role clarity developed in their retelling of the situation. As the leader, I had allowed this lack of clarity to exist, so unbeknownst to this person, their verbal processing helped me clarify what action to take.
The last action I took in this process was not until a day or two later. Going back to this person’s office one more time, I reported back and affirmed that they were helpful. More importantly, I told them exactly the action I was taking based on their inputs. I also reiterated that their help allowed me to take a better action than I might have on my own. As the title of the post suggests, I was following their lead.
Leading people is a hard endeavor. Often leaders like myself look for inputs and help from more seasoned leaders, or through the advice of experts in books and podcasts. As I learned, however, we can also learn from those who are down the “chain of command.” And sometimes following their lead is the best path forward.