I read a book once about Adolf Hitler, and I remember in particular this story: When the evil despot wanted to hire a chauffeur, he interviewed 30 people for the job, according to author Robert Waite. He selected the smallest of the bunch—a man so short he required special blocks to be able to see over the steering wheel.
Hitler needed to keep everyone around him small—literally and figuratively—in order to make himself look big. Leadership, to him, was one big ego trip.
Those of us who study true leadership know differently. We know the key to success is empowering people around us. We want to help people find their voices, develop their talents, discover their purpose, shake up lives—their own, and those around them.
You may know my nonprofit organization, EQUIP— through its Global Transformation initiative—took on the challenge of helping to advance the country of Guatemala. We knew that if we wanted to transform a country, we needed to transform its people. So a group of John Maxwell Team coaches and I introduced 20,000 Guatemalans—teachers and school administrators, church leaders, politicians, social activists, businesspeople, and others—to the idea of developing and embracing values to empower them to reform their country.
About 54 percent of Guatemalans live below their nation’s poverty level. Half of all children under 5 are chronically malnourished. About a quarter of adults are illiterate. A single entity can’t change those circumstances. But change will come from people all across the country discovering they have the power to make a difference.
When I started in leadership, I spent long hours on the job, relying on my work ethic and productivity to achieve success. But I was doing just about everything myself. I didn’t train anyone. I didn’t empower anyone. I didn’t give anyone the tools or responsibility to share the load. And as soon as my touch wasn’t on a task or initiative, it slowed to a halt.
I’ve since learned that if I empower my team members to take ownership and give them a voice in the process, our efforts together will succeed in ways I never could have achieved on my own.
That’s how to go from being a good leader to an extraordinary one.
Where to start? I use six strategies for extraordinary leadership, all of which focus on developing other people’s potential.
1. Ask questions… often.
Your organization’s future leaders need to understand that a great discussion is the precursor to a great decision. Meaningful, purposeful dialogue not only develops skills and knowledge, but also discernment and decision-making. As the leader, ask questions to get the discussion going.
2. Listen closely.
People feel valued when they feel heard. The author of Christian books David Augsburger says, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.”
Once you engage your team, you’ll see even the most reserved people come forward with ideas. Don’t neglect the newest members of your organization—their fresh perspectives may open your eyes. The day your ideas are no longer the best ideas is the day you know you’ve succeeded in tapping your team’s talents.
3. Identify patterns.
As you ask questions, pay attention to the way people analyze information and make decisions. Are they analytical, or driven by emotion? Are they self-aware? Goal-oriented? Do they see opportunities?
Look for the motivation behind their actions in order to understand how to lead them in the future. Understanding the way other people’s minds work can help you find the right person to handle a particular responsibility.
4. Challenge people’s thinking.
Do you remember the best teachers you ever had? Chances are they were the toughest: They questioned your assumptions, guided you to new revelations, forced you to consider other perspectives and pushed you beyond the limitations you perceived for yourself. Become that teacher.
By challenging your team members’ thinking, you set the stage for their breakthrough moments—those flashes of awareness or clarity we reach through concentrated dialogue. These are critical moments in a young leader’s development.
5. Encourage a focus on solutions.
Early in my career, I started requiring my team to offer three solutions for every problem they brought to me. It was my strategic way of turning problem-bringers into problem-solvers. Then I helped them choose and implement the best of those ideas. And of course I gave credit to the person who suggested it.
6. Model the importance of reflection.
One of the most important things a leader can do is take time to think. As the late psychologist Ester Buchholz, Ph.D., author of The Call of Solitude, said, “Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers.”
I admit it can be hard to shift from a leader-does-all model to one of shared responsibility and empowerment. To do so, you need to overcome your insecurities and ditch the “it’s easier to just do this myself” mentality. Yes, it sometimes seems easier to do it yourself, but that’s shortsighted thinking. Invest in your people now and in time you will see them come into their own as leaders.
Let me leave you with this thought by Theodore Roosevelt: “The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”