organizational thinking, part 1

my friend, junior zapata, asked me to spend some time with the department heads of his organization, instituto evangelico america latina. started as a school, “america latina” (the shorthand everyone seems to use) is that and much more today. based in guatemala city, they now have 17 locations across guatemala, most of which focus on adult education, offering high school diplomas in areas where schools don’t even exist. they have about 5000 students altogether.

junior brought his 20 or so department heads to antigua, guatemala (to the hotel where jeannie and i were staying) for a day of planning and dreaming. i joined them for the afternoon.

i started our time by reflecting on some stuff from the book “good to great” about level five leaders. in case you haven’t read it, or forgot… good to great was a research-based attempt to identify the factors that could take a previously good organization into a sustained period of significant growth. in other words, the organizations they identified for study had to have existed for a number of years with a reasonably healthy history, but nothing stunning. then, they had to have experienced a marked upward turn in growth that was sustained over a number of years (not just a temporary or short-term spike).

the researchers found a handful of commonalities in these organizations, which is what the book is all about. but one particular finding kicked me in the teeth (or gut, or slightly lower) when i read the book; the concept of the level five leader. collins and his team were surprised to find (they had not hypothesized this) that the leaders of the identified organizations all had similar traits and leadership styles, and that they were not what anyone would have predicted. across the board, these leaders were not interested in the spotlight. they had (according to the book), a paradoxical combination of “professional will” (what i would all, “passion for the mission”), and personal humility.

here are a few quotes…

In contrast to most leaders, level 5 leaders don’t talk about themselves. During interviews, these leaders talked about the organization and the other leaders as long as we’d like, but would deflect discussion about their own contributions. When pressed to talk about themselves, they’d say things like: “I hope I’m not sounding like a big-shot” or “I can’t take credit for our success, we are blessed with wonderful people” or “there are plenty of people in this organization who could do my job better than I do.”

It wasn’t just false modesty. Those who worked with or wrote about these level 5 leaders continually used words like: quiet, humble, modest, shy, reserved, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, and so on.

Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great organization. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious – but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.

Level 5 leaders look out the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well (and if they cannot find a specific person or event to give credit to, they credit good luck). At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility, never blaming bad luck when things go poorly.

the real kicker, for me, was reading collins’ conclusions that one cannot “become” a level five leader. and i knew, when i read the book, that i was not. but after a few months of wrestling with this, it dawned on me: this “cannot become” does not consider the holy spirit’s transformative work. so, as i had been doing for a few years already, i prayed for god to transform me into a more humble leader.

i still laugh every time i see the parenthetical verse in numbers 12:3: (Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.) i laugh, of course, because moses wrote this. nice, mo.

no, i’m not a level five leader. but i’m aspirational; and i do believe that i can look back over the past decade and see the change, see the transformation.

i talked about this with the leaders in guatemala for a few reasons. first, it’s still real for me. second, my friend junior is a lot like me. and third, latin america tends to have a strong hierarchical, personality and position-driven culture. i wanted to prophetically push these leaders to examine their own assumptions and leadership approaches. after i talked for a while, i asked them to spend some time identifying where they were in collins’ five-tiered leadership description. then i asked them to identify how they could lead with more humility. finally, i asked them to write down what impact this kind of leadership would have in their area of responsibility. we had some really interesting discussion around each point (and the notion that this sure seems to be a reflection of the kind of leader jesus was/is).

we took a break, and came back to talk about organizational life-cycles, which i’ll post about another day. but i leave you with a photo of this, the longest power strip i have ever seen. it was on the floor in the center of the tables were we met, powering a dozen macs and a couple pcs…

power strip.JPG

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