When Crap Lead to a Leadership Breakthrough

A friend of mine told me a story I have not forgotten.  He was traveling up a mountain road stuck behind a cattle truck.  He wanted to pass but could not get a clear shot when one of the cows let fly and covered his wind shield in well, fertilizer.
“I nearly crashed…the stuff doesn’t respond to wind shield wipers well.”  He said.

“What did you do?” I queried.

He laughed and said, “I prayed as I pulled over; ‘crap, God why me?’”

“I was really pissed,” he continued.  “I envisioned my paint job being ruined, I smelled like a barnyard – that was going to go over well in my next meeting. Then something strange happened.”

“What?” I asked.

“I don’t way to say God talked to me” he began “…don’t think I am loosing it, but it was like God was talking to me and answered the question I asked in my self-pity, ‘Because you were following too close much like you do with your team, back up enough to coach and not be blinded by the stuff that happens.'”

The encounter changed his approach to leadership – he moved from micro managing (stage managing) his team to holding them accountable for their roles while trusting and mentoring their decision-making processes.

It is amazing what happens when leaders hold their teams to account for outcomes and then mentor them along the way pushing decisions back to the right people when those people attempt to slide out of responsibility.  He stopped retaking delegated authority and then resenting the fact all the work landed on his shoulders.

He took the crappy experience to heart and his team became one of the most effective and efficient management groups in his industry – and they started having fun.  Actually leading and not dictating and micro managing changed the way he viewed his team.  He respected them more versus resenting them. He trusted them more instead of being constantly suspicious of their activity.

On the flip side his team started trusting him.  Understanding mentoring as a leadership activity is the back story about what he learned.  Check out these other two articles and think about how to put mentoring to work in your leadership situation.  http://raywheeler.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/mentors-developing-highly-effective-leaders/ and http://raywheeler.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/4-ways-to-mentor-your-team-to-success/

But, be careful.  No one is exempt from crap happening – make sure your positioning as a leader accounts for the unexpected and that you have the mentoring skills to lead others through the mess.

4 Ways to Mentor Your Team to Success

The Challenge – Control, Trust, Delegation and Accountability
How do leaders expand their organizations without loosing control of vital functions? A small business owner in a rapidly growing business said it this way, “I am one of those small but fast growing companies but like you said some of the issues here at my office might certainly start with me. My biggest issue, I can’t let go. I have to do it all myself. It’s like the saying ‘If you want things done you have to do them yourself’ which takes so much time from my schedule. My problem is trusting my team or teaching them.” (Owner of a Tri-state Business)

Is the choice founders make really a choice between quality or quantity; control or delegation; trust or effectiveness? The owner quoted above like many leaders in both business and the non-profit sector suffers from a false dichotomy. Organizations need both quality and quantity; control and delegation; and trust and effectiveness. Notice that the assumption is clear – no one has the same degree of ambition as I when it comes to my organization’s success. While this is true it is true in degrees and not absolutes.

In an earlier article (http://raywheeler.wordpress.com/2012/05/12/7-tools-mentors-use-to-affirm-effective-leadership/) I discussed the impact Moses’ father-in-law (Jethro) had on changing Moses’ perspective about his role as a leader. It is important to return to the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and Moses’ role in this exodus for a moment to set the stage for what might be called the Moses conundrum i.e., no one has the same ambition I do for this organization.

Nature of the Moses Conundrum

Owners and founders have a unique perspective of their organizations. Consider for a moment that Moses, like almost every founder, faced impossible odds and steep opposition to his vision. Empowered by a catalytic encounter with God in the desert Moses not only faced the opposition of a well established nation as he pursued the dream of a unique identity for his people. He was initially rejected by the very people he worked to liberate because his first efforts at liberation made their lives more miserable. He faced the backlash of Egypt’s pharaoh who sought to squelch the upstart Moses and the idea of an emergent new nation. Owners put everything on the line for their vision – one false step and they lose everything.

I once worked for a privately held company that hired me to help them expand to new markets. I turned down a more lucrative offer to work in a publicly traded company because (1) the privately held company demanded that change happen with greater speed – I could have a direct and immediate impact on outcomes verses the indirect and much slower impact on outcomes in a publicly traded company and (2) I had a greater potential for short-term gains in my own financial position in the privately held company. So, I traded a long-term career opportunity for a very risky but potentially lucrative gig in a privately held company.

I will never forget my shock a few weeks after turning down the third recruiting offer from the public firm (each one more lucrative) when the owner walked into my office and declared, “I don’t trust you.” I felt like decking him on the spot. Several thoughts ran through my mind including the frustration of facing mistrust when I had just sacked a fantastic career offer to engage the adventure of building something from scratch. What was the catalyst to this frustrating encounter? The owner had just put up a million dollars of equity (everything he owned) to fund the expansion. Whose sacrifice for the vision was greater?

Answering the question of sacrifice and investment offers an important insight into what I call the Moses conundrum – no one initially pays the same price as the founder in the first stages of the organization’s lifecycle – everyone takes a risk of significant harm to their future to join the vision of the founder. The conundrum is that even though the founder pays a high initial price – he/she must learn to recruit people to assume an uncomfortable level of risk for the organization to continue to thrive. For example: someone had the guts to be your first hire (unless you hired the first warm body that walked in from the street). If you recruited your first hire because you knew what they could do to be a force multiplier to your time and effort as the owner then recognize and appreciate their risk and recognize/reward them appropriately. Note: recognition has a much greater leverage potential at every stage of the organization’s lifecycle. This doesn’t exclude the need for reward – it is to say reward without recognition and relationship often leads to disappointment and betrayal.

This introduces two big mistakes I see founders make (1) they don’t hire force multipliers they hire stabilizers and (2) they don’t recruit the best they hire to survive another month. If employees or partners are not going to serve as force multipliers they will do more harm than good. A vicious cycle emerges. Founders need force multipliers. They know that no one they hire has made the same initial investment. They don’t know how to find force multipliers so they hire stabilizers (employees who can do exactly what they are told) because they don’t trust anyone with the essence of the business. Stabilizers end up failing to exercise critical thinking skills reaffirming that employees can’t be trusted so the founder takes up more the tasks he/she tried to escape. Employees act slighted and show an entitlement attitude infuriating the owner causing a greater gap in trust and so on.

Owners who fall into the Moses conundrum show one or more of the following dysfunctional behaviors:

  • Impulse versus Innovation. Focus: new ideas. Result: demoralized staff who cannot find consistency in action. Manages by flirting with new ideas, is unpredictable and fails to follow through. Prime focus is on why.
  • Working harder versus working smarter. Focus: task at hand. Result: hard work with the FISH time-table (first in, still here). Manages by crisis without delegation, training, long-range or short-range planning. Prime focus is on what. (See Adolescence and the role of delegation.)
  • Control versus accountability. Focus: doing things right. Result: orderly processes while what needs to be done is eclipsed by how it should be done. Manages a well controlled disaster; the company may go broke but it will do so on time. Prime focus is on how.

Get Out of the Vicious Cycle of Mistrust

How did Jethro’s mentoring help Moses cross the trust threshold to find force multipliers? I have highlighted several points in the text that name the principles founders need to multiply their force multipliers in leadership. Read the text then think through what I have to say about below.

17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain —and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied. Exodus 18:17-23 (NIV)

Jethro illustrates four critical force multipliers leaders need to stay vital and sane as their organizations grow and become more complex:

  1. Outline and explain your core values
  2. Look for People who exhibit characteristics of trust
  3. Delegate based on each person’s capacity and capability
  4. Collaborate on complex issues leave routine issues

Outline and explain your core values

Jethro told Moses to spend time educating the leaders around him on how to live. In other words Jethro wanted Moses to make explicit things that he held implicitly. Your team cannot read your mind. I once gave what I thought was a simple assignment to my administrative coordinator, “Jim,” I said, “we need some signs around this property to direct people – our facility is too confusing.” We had purchased existing structures next to our original site to expand our operations. I was concerned that the hodgepodge of buildings and new parking left visitors confused about how to find their way around the chaos.

On the day the signs were installed I parked in the sanctuary parking lot and climbed out of my car anticipating a professional looking, easy to read “road map” to the facility. What I saw instead were signs nearly too small to read, remnants of a hardware store closeout that neither matched the ambiance of the congregational facility nor the vision we had to present our message and mission with excellence in a community used to spiritual charlatans. I was both frustrated and angry at myself for not communicating with greater clarity what I wanted to see in the signage. I proceeded to rip each sign from the building and walked into Jim’s office with a mangled menagerie of metal scrap. I dropped the now unusable mass on his desk watching in his face that he was horrified at the expectation of what I was about to say. “Jim, this isn’t right. I don’t know what I did wrong in communicating my expectations but when I figure it out I will be back and we can talk about it. Until then don’t worry about the signs.”

That last word of encouragement did not lighten his countenance. I went into my office seething with anger. I recognized that my frustration was not at Jim but at a dissonance I was feeling with the entire staff. They were not doing things the way I wanted them done. We had begun to have exchanges in the office that had an edge to them. I sat and prayed that God would help me, I felt like we were missing an important ingredient to our team.[1]

I asked myself why Jim would buy such junk. It occurred to me that Jim loved to save money, in fact having him serve in the role of administrative coordinator had gotten us some great deals. I continued my rumination, Jim likes a good deal. In fact, he values good deals. I value cost savings too but I also value excellence. Cost savings and excellence balanced each other out in my mind. In Jim’s mind a good deal trumped most other concerns. Jim had not bought junk, he had saved money.

“Ok,” I thought, “I am onto something here.” I continued my list of “most important” things to me. “Let’s see, I value cost savings, relationships, excellence, commitment, truth-telling…” My list of values grew.

I returned to Jim’s office the same afternoon. “Ok Jim,” I began “here is what I did wrong. I gave you a job to do and you did it on time and under budget. But I failed to instill in you the values that have been at the core of my work here the last 7 years.” Thus began a conversation that became a turning point in how I lead.

I illustrated nine core values in an interactive matrix and told Jim that I wanted him to do the assignment again only this time to make certain that he incorporated all nine values in his actions. He tried to hand the assignment back to me – I didn’t blame him for being gun-shy but I insisted on trying this new experiment in leadership action. I had to get past the frustration I was feeling. “Jim, even if I don’t like the final outcome, if you can prove to me that all the values meet in your decision, your decision will stand.” Why? Because I felt these core values were the foundation of our success. The tension I felt with the staff I had recruited rested in the fact I felt dissonance with what had made us successful in the first place.

On the appointed day I parked out back to check the work again. I bounded out of my car with a sense of expectation and laughed the moment I saw the signs. They were excellent, Jim later told me that he negotiated with a sign painter (the best in the county) for custom signs by bartering for our signs by offering the use of our building by sign painter’s family reunion. The source of my laughter was not that the signs were well done. I was delighted with the quality. I laughed because the base color of the signs was maroon, I hate maroon. I walked into Jim’s office still laughing. He looked at me with growing expression of uncertainty. “Jim the signs are great. You met every core value, well done.”

“Then why are you laughing?” he asked.

“That is not important; you did an excellent job meeting our working values. I think I am on to something with this Jim. I think it will make our communication fun again.” I said.

“I agree, but why are you laughing?” Jim pressed for an answer.

I finally relented, “Jim the signs are great, you met the values but I hate maroon. So, just as a matter of my personal taste – I acknowledge that this has nothing to do with our core values – could you avoid doing anything else in that color?”

Jim’s face grew white with anxiety. “Jim, are you ok?” I queried.

“Yea, I am alright but you know those usher shirts you asked me to order? I ordered them in maroon.” Jim said.

I broke into such loud belly laughs that the entire staff gathered around Jim’s office to share the joke. It turned into a great day for me, great because I learned, tested and successfully implemented one of the most important leadership principles I have ever caught.

Reflection spent identifying and applying core values determines to a large extent the success or failure of any team. If the core values of an organization are understood they serve as the coxswain who keeps the tempo and direction clear helping the team work together.

Your own values will decide which alternatives you seriously consider.[2]

Look for people who exhibit characteristics of trust

Next Jethro told Moses to look for capable, God-fearing and honest men. Allow me to translate these characteristics to read: capability, caring and integrity. Jethro helped Moses define trust explicitly thus making it easier to decide what needed to be delegated and who was capable of doing the job.

The research of Burke, Sims, Lazzara and Salas (2007) confirm that a leader’s ability to be successful in encouraging or managing organizational effectiveness is enhanced or reduced by the degree to which their subordinates and co-workers trust him/her and vise versa. Burke, Sims, Lazzara and Salas’ review of research literature concluded that trust within organizations (i.e., person to person, person to leader, team to team and person-organization) possess three broad qualifications: ability (capability), benevolence (caring) and integrity. These are qualifications are elaborated in the table below.

Capability, caring and integrity as factors of trust[3]




  • Setting compelling direction
  • Creation of enabling structure
    • Task knowledge
    • Situation knowledge
    • Setting functional norms
  • Create/sustain supportive context
    • Transformational leadership behaviors
    • Consultative leadership behaviors
    • Transactional leadership behaviors
  • Coaching
  • Accountability
  • Perceptions of justice
  • Value congruence

Delegate based on each person’s capacity and capability

What is important to see in Jethro’s advice is that he not only identified specific qualities of trust but that he also made clear that trust is dynamic and not an either/or proposition. In other words trust people to the degree they are capable of fulfilling that trust. It is as big a mistake to trust people with tasks they are incapable of completing as it is to fail to trust others at all.

Building capacity in your team requires that you provide them with the opportunity to grow their knowledge, skills and abilities in an environment that offers the proper level of risk, feedback and safe guards to compartmentalize the consequences of bad decisions. The aim is not to avoid all bad decisions – after all you have made your fair share – it is to make sure that the scope of decision-making power matches the capacity and capability of the decision maker to deal with a decision’s complexity. This is why Jethro encouraged Moses to build into the judicial system of Israel scope limiters of decision-making power that triggered needed collaboration when the complexity of decisions over reached the experience and ability of the team.

Collaborate on complex issues leave routine issues

Jethro’s identification of the dynamism of trust introduces another important variable in the founder’s success – relationship/collaboration. Jethro’s suggestion to create decision-making scope limiters put Moses in a place of continuous mentoring and collaboration.

The founders I meet often suffer from two leadership deficits related to mistrust: isolation/insulation and task saturation. In following Jethro’s advice Moses avoided the trap of isolation by collaborating with his leaders on more complex decisions. When founders isolate themselves from their teams they cut off the feedback (i.e., become insulated from reality) and suppress the organization’s level of trust. When founders don’t trust their teams they work themselves until they burnout or blowup. By collaborating Moses avoided the burnout inevitable in “doing it all myself” and maintained the proper involvement of strategic activity and decision-making.

Because trust is a two-way street it is important to realize that how people first approach trust is different. While the qualifications of trust seem universal the way people approach trust with another person appears to exist on a continuum. On the one end of the continuum are those people who extend trust once they see evidence for extending such trust. On the other hand are those people who extend trust de facto until one violates their trust. Put these two people in the same company and mistrust occurs almost immediately and often irrevocably because they violate each other’s sense of integrity (i.e., doing what is right by either extending trust in the first place waiting until enough evidence of care, capability and integrity exist to extend trust).

The problem for many leaders is that once trust is lost they cannot explain the dynamics of that loss. Hence the model of Jethro as verified in the research of Burke, Sims, Lazzara and Salas (2007) offers a vocabulary and conceptual model for training and correcting trust. Any leader may become jaded over time when they experience a violation of trust, possessing a model by which to identify the reason for the loss of trust encourages the right kind of conversation to occur between and founder and his/her team so that trust can be restored.

If an organization sustains growth beyond the capability and capacity of the founder it is because the founder has learned to delegate key functions on the basis of her/his explicitly stated core values and explicitly defined trust.


Jethro’s advice to Moses is timely for leaders and founders who find themselves caught in a cycle of burnout because they don’t fully trust their employees. We noted three common traps that develop out of mistrust:

  • Impulse versus Innovation
  • Working harder versus working smarter
  • Control versus accountability

The solution according to Jethro was to find and empower team members who demonstrated the qualities of trust i.e., capability, care and integrity. In finding the right stuff founders, business owners and leaders must consistently execute the following aspects of effectiveness:

  • Outline and explain your core values
  • Look for people who exhibit characteristics of trust
  • Delegate based on each person’s capacity and capability
  • Collaborate on complex issues leave routine issues to others

Do you trust your team? Or are you headed to burnout? Are you fighting to control minutia or do you control the right things to set up force multipliers in the way your team works? The case study of Moses is insightful, Israel was ready to dump him as a leader more than once before Jethro’s influence helped Moses turn back seat drivers into a team of leaders growing in effectiveness. If you don’t have a mentor like Jethro in your life it is time to start looking.

Finally, don’t read this article without comment. Find out how other leaders respond and elaborate on these concepts by offering your own. I know I appreciate comments – so do others. Thanks.

[1] Indeed, I was caught in one of the 10 most common mistakes leaders make. Hans Finzel calls it leadership chaos, we simply were not singing off the same page. Finzel reminds us of four important communication realities, (1) never assume that anyone knows anything, (2) the bigger the group, the more attention must be given to communication, (3) when left in the dark, people tend to dream up wild rumors and (4) communication must be the passionate obsession of effective leaders. I was obsessed alright, but not with communication. I was obsessed with why my staff couldn’t get things done right. The problem, I discovered, was me. (Finzel 1994:113)

[2] Bennis & Nanus 1985:104

[3] Shawn C. Burke, Dana E. Sims, Elizabeth H. Lazzara, and Eduardo Salas, “Trust in Leadership: A Multilevel Review and Integration.” Leadership Quarterly 18, no. 6 (2007): 606-32.