I was at a family wedding a couple of weeks ago and my nieces and nephews observed that I never give them advice about their lives and careers. I was surprised by this, but as I thought about it, I realized it was true. I am generally very reluctant to give people advice, even when they seek it. Life and leadership are all about context. When people seek advice, I always feel that I do not have enough context to tell them “what I would do.” I am pretty humble about our ability to truly understand life in another person’s shoes. Instead, I try to help friends and colleagues explore their values and goals, on the assumption that ultimately, they should trust their own judgment and instincts.
I also realize, however, that I am at the point in my career where I should be trying to pass on some of the things I have learned as a U.S. Marine, mafia prosecutor, aide to Bill Clinton and Chuck Schumer, Oregon Attorney General, Supreme Court advocate, college president, and professor at Harvard, Yale, and Lewis and Clark. And I am increasingly aware of the irony of writing a blog entitled “Leadership in Higher Education,” and running the Rodel Institute, which offers the nation’s premier leadership development programs for public servants, but declining to provide much leadership advice here. So, in the next few months, I will be sharing more thoughts about the nuts and bolts of leadership. Let me know what you think.
So, to start: Leadership 101. The best advice I ever got on leadership came not from a consultant or a coach or a contemporary leadership book, but from Aristotle’s Ethics, written in approximately 350 BCE. In the book, Aristotle writes about what I call “the ethical archer.” He says that being a good person, the goal of ethics, is a lot like archery. In archery, you cannot hit your target unless you know precisely where you are supposed to aim. In the same way, we must have a clear sense of what it means to be a good person before we can become one, because we need a clear goal to shoot at.
I think this applies not just to achieving a good life, but to the effort to become a good leader. You cannot be a great leader, I think, unless you first know precisely what you are trying to achieve and how you are going to achieve it. This clarity of purpose, of knowing what you are trying to accomplish in a particular leadership role, is essential. You cannot steer a ship without a rudder.
So here’s a practical tip: white-board your goals. In every leadership position I have held, I have put up a white board in my office. In the upper left-hand corner, I make a list expressing my vision for the institution. At the top of the list, I write: “In five years, x institution will be…”, and then I add the things that will be true about the organization I am leading five years for now if my leadership team is successful. This long term vision of what the end product looks like serves as a compass for our work. This vision comes from strategic planning work I do with my community, to make sure it is a shared target.
Below that, I make another list: “Goals for this year.” These are the benchmarks, many of them concrete, measurable, metric, deliverable, that we must try to meet this year in order to make progress toward our five year vision.
On the upper-right hand side, I make a list of the values I want our institution to exemplify and that I must exhibit if we are to be the kind of workplace we want. This serves as a reminder that if we leave our values behind while trying to accomplish our metrical annual goals, we will have failed.
Finally, below the values list, I put a series of goals for me personally as a leader. Things I want to accomplish, both serious and fun, if I am going to reach my full professional potential. Unlike the other lists, this one shifts a bit more rapidly, as my sense of my own needs and perspectives changes. For example, one of my personal goals right now is to reach out to more people and connect.
These lists occupy the left and right margins of my white board. I leave the center of the board open, so we can brainstorm during meetings. But here’s the thing: the vision, annual strategic goals, values, and personal goals remain up on my white board permanently. I update the lists periodically, but they are always there, present, a visual remainder of what I am trying to accomplish professionally. When I am on the phone or in a meeting, I can look up, see the board, and ask myself: am I advancing these goals at this moment? If I am feeling a bit lost or frazzled, I just look up at the board to remind myself I am not lost, I just need to refocus on clear established priorities. My leadership team sees the list every time they arrive for a meeting, and it visually prods them to stay on task. Less frequent visitors can see precisely what we are trying to accomplish. All of this advances transparency. There is no hidden agenda. What we are trying to do is clear, visible, and concrete.
Writing things down forces you to be clear and precise, not general, vague, or fuzzy in your thinking. This process can also serve as an important diagnosis tool. If you try to create these lists, but do not know what to write, then you know where you need to put more effort.
Putting your goals out there publicly on a white board serves as a reality check. But you can also do this, if you want, on the privacy of your laptop.