Setting Direction Part 1: Do You Know Where You're Going?

A Common Phenomenon: Lost But Making Great Time

You've probably heard the one about the airline pilot who tells his passengers that he has some good news/bad news for them midway through their flight.

He starts with the bad news which he states by saying, "We are completely lost." He then reassures them by saying, "The good news, however, is that we are making great time."

That seems to typify many leaders today. Not really sure where they are heading but consumed in a flurry of activity. One of the groups I was coaching in the Middle East had this apparent syndrome. I asked them to tell me what accounted for a successful day to them. The answer? The number of emails and texts they were able to address. They were busy. And yet, I would have to also say they were lost but making great time.

To help you in Setting Direction for those you team, the first question you need to ask is:

Where are we going?

Something that is not as obvious as it sounds.

Here are three keys to addressing this important issue.

1. What are we trying to accomplish? What is the mission? The goal? Leadership always begins with a task. What is the task? Why do we exist?

I was working with one group in Europe and attended a two-day "strategic planning session." I mostly observed. As the regional leader and I were heading back to his home city, I asked him how he thought it went. He thought it had gone well.

I then asked him to remind me of the mission of his organization. After stating that for me, I then asked him if that had ever come up in the two-day discussion. He had to agree that it had not even been mentioned. A ton of activities had been mentioned. Yet, what all those activities were supposed to produce never came up.

I shared how years earlier my wife and I have toured an assembly line at the Ford Motor Company plant in Detroit. They were making Ford Mustangs. It was quite interesting.

The assembly line started with two axles. As they moved along this quarter of a mile long line, other parts were added to it through a flurry of activities conducted by dozens of teams. The amazing thing was that at the end of the line, someone drove off a brand new Ford Mustang.

All the labor and busyness along the line was not simply to keep the workers doing something. It was to make something. It was to accomplish the goal of the assembly line...making Ford Mustangs.

Leaders have to be careful not to be lured into the false sense of progress by merely looking at the amount of activity those we lead are doing. We must remember to ask what all that activity is supposed to produce.

2. Is it clear? To everyone? I was chatting with one fellow who was telling me about his vision for his work. I was pressing him on the issue of how clear it was.

He finally had to admit with a touch of frustration, "I have it together in my head. I just can't get it together on paper." I didn't have the heart to tell him that that is really an indication that he doesn't really have it together in his head either.

What many intuitive leaders have a sense for in their heads is not always easy to communicate with clarity to others. This requires discipline and work on the part of those leaders to make it clear, not only to themselves to those who follow.

In fact, the real test is, can those you lead communicate where you are going with clarity and precision? If they can't, it's not their issue. It's yours.

3. Is it reviewed? We have short memories. Plus, we get distracted with the details and detours. With the obstacles and challenges. Our eyes drop from seeing the long-haul goal to gazing on the insects in the weeds.

There's an old saying I heard years ago in the Deep South that said,

"When you're up to your neck in alligators, it's hard to remember that the original objective was to drain the swamp."

Some good questions are simple ones that ask, "Now, where are we supposed to be going? What are we supposed to be accomplishing? What does success look like?"

You've covered these before. The point here is to review them from time to time. To remind everyone again...and again...and again of where you're going to make sure everyone is one the same page and that you all are on the right road.

Keep in mind that the target is not moving. Your team is, though. And that jostling along the journey can get you off track and prevent you from succeeding in your leadership task.

Take a moment to pause and ask yourself: Where are we going? What is the goal? Is it clear? Am I reviewing it periodically?

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