Leadership: Take the Stairs

Led Zeppelin sang about a stairway to heaven but is there a stairway, or even a ladder or a step stool, to effective leadership? According to leadership expert James G. Clawson the answer is yes. In his book Level Three Leadership: Getting Below the Surface, Clawson outlines what he believes are the six steps to effective leadership. In this post, I’ll address the first three: clarifying your center, clarifying what’s possible, and clarifying what others can contribute.

First, clarifying your center. Clawson says, “Your center, or core, and its content are crucial to your ability to lead. When your center is clear and focused, you are more likely to have a powerful influence on others. When your center is foggy and diffuse…you’ll be off balance and unable to provide dependable anchor points to others.” He goes on to say that “clarifying your emotional center is about determining what you believe in and value.” We have suggested this before, that effective congregational leadership involves deep consideration about your synagogue’s mission and goals. It is easy to forget in the everyday business aspects of running a synagogue that you, leaders, are in fact running a synagogue – not a business but a house of worship. Congregational leaders are managing the sacred and, as Clawson would argue, keeping this and your congregation’s mission at your board’s center or core is of the utmost importance in being effective leaders.

Most congregations have a thoughtful and well established mission but it never hurts to reexamine it, particularly with the goal of clarifying your center in mind. Clawson offers three considerations to help with this clarification. Two considerations are developing character (considering the moral implications and dealings of your position) and meditation (clearing your mind in an effort to focus); it’s the third consideration, though, that is most important: Engagement. He says that “when we are truly engaged in something, we begin to influence others without even trying.” This, too, will sound familiar to Inside Leadership readers, as in the past we have studied Stephen Covey’s approach to leadership, which says that if you are excited about something and that excitement in palpable, others will gravitate toward you and follow your lead. Clawson agrees, saying “when we are truly engaged, leadership just begins to happen.”

The second step to effective leadership is clarifying what’s possible. “To clarify what is possible,” Clawson says, “is to imagine in sharp detail what can and should happen for…an institution in the future.” By and large, in our parlance this step is known as strategic thinking. When leaders clarify what is possible, they look outward; they think “outside the box” and are not restricted in their scope of thought by what is normative.

Clawson suggests that while many people have no trouble imagining, in vivid detail, how they would act in some fantasy situation – they just pitched a no-hitter or won an Oscar – they often don’t allow their minds time to wander when wondering about their organizational fantasies. Clawson says, “In the rush to respond to the daily press of mail, phone messages, meetings and emergencies, we spend our working lives…working on urgent items,” loosing sight of the long view. Certainly there are issues that require immediate attention; but the next time you and your board meet, consider temporarily eschewing some of the agenda items that are not time sensitive and instead focus deeply and strategically about one item’s big picture. In other words, consider how to address the problem, not just the symptoms.

Last, Clawson’s third step to effective leadership is clarifying what others can contribute. This includes your basic assumptions about others and identifying critical skills. This step is important because as we’ve discussed in past issues, getting buy-in from your congregation can be the lynch pin to successful implementation of a program or policy. Clawson agrees. He says, “Unless you can develop a view of how others can contribute to your objectives and vision, it’s not likely that you’ll be able to get their commitment.”

Clawson argues his point by pointing out that in many business situations, “managers think of their people in terms of the job description they have.” Still others think of their employees “in terms of the job description [management would] like them to fill.” Neither one of these approaches is particularly effective because they do not stem from the person’s actual ability. Instead, this third step challenges leaders to identify other people’s skills and work with them to develop these skills. By recognizing your members’ (or even fellow board members’) talents and empowering them to channel these talents for the good of your congregation, you can create that sense of “buy-in” and the congregation can reap the benefits of their contribution.

Identifying critical skills is also an important part of this third step. When developing leadership in your congregation, it is preferable to seek out people not based on their vocational skills, but rather on these four skills Clawson highlights as critical:

  1. Self-esteem, so that leaders are able to receive feedback without getting defensive
  2. Learning attitude, so leaders are interested and even eager to learn new skills and techniques
  3. Team spirit, so that leaders are willing to share in the work and responsibility for results
  4. Pride in quality, so leaders will want to find ways to improve results

These skills, Clawson urges, are essential to identifying those who will be able to stand by you and serve as effective leaders.