Orange barrels. I am pretty confident that all I have to do is mention orange barrels and everyone who reads this will understand what I mean. Road blocks. Traffic snarling confusion. Sit and go nowhere road construction. In America the orange barrel is the symbol for barriers and roadblocks, in the name of progress. A few years ago motorists in Ohio joked that the orange barrel was the State flower. They are just simply everywhere. Yesterday, while my husband and I were travelling through Virginia, we had the privilege of getting behind a truck full of orange barrels. I couldn’t help but wonder to what highway they were headed, and how they would be used to block or redirect traffic. I could only pray that they weren’t going to start putting them down right in front of us!
These tools used in road construction are a great visual representation of leadership in 21st century business. Leaders navigate all types of barriers, roadblocks, redirection, and changes in strategy. It is par of the course in this web-based, global, real-time, 21st century market place. Many folks successfully manage through or around these unforeseen obstacles. Leaders successfully guide their teams through the unforeseen. But, what about courageouse leaders? What attributes differentiate this higher level of leadership from the pack? There are specific choices and believe it or not orange barrels make a great metaphor as we seek to apply leadership capabilities that result in market advantages for our organizations.
1. Courageous leadership is a barrier-free zone. When I led the HR Operations group for the State of Ohio, I made a sign and posted on my door that said, with one symbol, that my office was a barrier-free zone. In my office direct reports and extended teams could come and talk about the problems they were encountering as they endeavored to deliver services. This was the place they could come and not encounter additional barriers. Never would they hear me say, “We can’t do that.” Instead this was a safe place for brain storming new ideas, innovating, problem solving, a bit of designed tension, and maybe even a little whining. An amazing thing happened in a short period of time. Not only did more folks drive through problems to solutions, but soon their work space became a barrier-free zone, too. It was, as many a manager told me, a culture shift; and welcomed.
2. Courageous leaders remove barriers. Pretty often this involves looking out ahead, identifying barriers and actively removing them for our teams. Other times someone may come to us with a barrier that they just cannot get through. A goal or objective is going to be missed if this barrier remains in place. They are hitting roadblocks, smacking up against brick walls, and they need you to take action, do something so that things can get going again. What folks do not need is to hear the sound of the bus engine starting. Or perhaps they have already been thrown under the bus and need you to help them crawl out from underneath. Again, at the State of Ohio we had a compliance issue and at every turn the Manager in charge hit a barrier. This heavily bueraucratic environment continually met the initiative with, “That cannot be done”. So, I used my position (a rare thing for me) and called a meeting with all of the stakeholders from muliple State agencies, getting everyone at the table at one time. (This is not a common practice in the public arena.) Using the language of urgency and presenting the burning platform, even with some fussing and discussing we were able to finally able to gain cooperation, remove the barriers, and move the project foward. Do not underestimate the power of your folks observing your willingness and capability in building collaboration as you model couragous leadership through chaos. As you choose to consistently remove one barrier after another you will build a trust that will result in duplication by others following your lead.
3. Just keep driving. Have you ever noticed, as you drive through the orange barrel construction zone, that you just have to keep driving. If you allow yourself to get flustered, things can get confusing amid the chaos of the redirection to a new traffic pattern. The same thing applies in courageous leadership. Just keep driving through chaos. Keep your eyes on the objective at hand. Do not allow yourself to be confused. As you lead your organization through obstacles, continue on course. Recently I was heading a project for a large organization, with multiple stakeholders and perspectives. Some of the project participants work in cultures fraught with confusion and chaos. Daily they face gossip, conflict, and ladder climbing misdirection. Everyday there was swirl. I just refused to be moved off the project plan. I stayed inside the defined scope of work, put my head down and moved on. To my amazement, folks followed me. Work was completed and delivered. The initiatve moved forward, toward the original goal.
This brings me to the Biblical model. Nehemiah is a historical figure from Israel who encountered obstacles and barriers throughout his project. He did not give confusion makers the time of day. In fact in Nehemiah 6:8 we hear him report that he finally just told the head instigator, ‘What you’re saying is not only untrue, but you are inventing it in your own mind!’ We also see in this diary provided to us by Nehemiah, that he was concerned that his workforce would become discouraged by these nay-sayers. What was his response? He prayed, asking God to strength their hands. In other words, he asked God to prosper the work he and his team were doing. Courageous leaders pray for their work, for the folks on their teams. It is not only okay to do this, but is found in one model after another throughout the Bible; Moses, Joshua, Nehemiah, Esther, David, Paul, Peter, and of course Jesus. James 5:16 – 18 reminds us of the miracluous things that can happen when everyday people pray about their circumstances.
Join the conversation, by sharing. What barrier removing leadership attributes have you found to be beneficial to the work in which your teams are involved?