I like the band Matchbox Twenty. Not so much so that they have high frequency in my iTunes roster, but I sure hum along and tap the steering wheel whenever they come on satellite radio’s 90s on 9. I did recently download Unwell because it’s a tune my 11 year old daughter and I sing together. This band came on the scene in the mid 90s when I was a young 20 something, so they fit my Gen X Zeitgeist.

As a band that I like but don’t love, it fascinates me how often I think of them when reflecting on leadership. Of course, any good or aspiring to be good leader would know that leadership is not a destination but something on which you need always to be reflecting and being deliberate about as you’ll always want to refine and improve. If not, you’re probably not a very good leader.

Back in 2013, I was a college Vice-President and some colleagues nominated me for the nation-wide association of colleges (CICan) award of excellence in leadership. Their nomination was probably more glowing than I deserved, and not only did the nomination win a medal, the colour was Gold.

In an acceptance speech I wrote, I waxed about the lyrics of Matchbox Twenty’s song Real World where they sing “I wonder what it’s like to be the head honcho. I wonder what it’d be like if they all did just what I said.”

How Gen X of them as they wrote this in their twenties. What they were mistakenly surmising echoed a great myth about leadership that runs like this:  Once you’re the boss, you’ve arrived and have it made in the shade. You sit back, feet on desk, bark out orders to the charges and they all just do what you say. The boss is the smartest person in the room and the troops carry out his/her vision.

Except that’s not how leadership works at all, and if that’s how you’re leading or being led, my guess is your company or organization isn’t doing very well in your market space. Or those you lead are actively looking to leave.

Today is the one year anniversary of a very painful leadership lesson I learned the hard way; a very hard way. I was working as the head honcho of a group of volunteer coaches and athletes. We were just getting going into our second season after a wildly successful first season together where success was defined by lots of winning, competing in new realms that had previously been levels above our grade, and a very engaged and joyful culture.

As the leader, I absolutely knew that my athletes had bought 100% into the things we were doing and the approaches we were taking and we had an awesome high performing culture. It was working, we got great results. What I didn’t know was that I had a huge blindspot with my volunteer assistant honchos. My guess, and I have to guess because we never communicated about it until it had blown up beyond repair, is that they agreed I had great rapport and the front line athletes were responding to me really well, but they thought I hogged entirely too much of that relationship. I had overlooked an important constituency in our organization – my peers in leadership. 

You build truly winning teams when those being lead and those helping you lead have a say in their goals, and then a say in how to go about executing the plan. I’m not being naïve - people understand hierarchy and that ultimately someone has to make the decisions, but the players in modern workforces and organizations want to be fulfilled, find purpose - they want to feel the meaning in the things that they are investing their time and emotions into. 

And they want your communication – what you’re thinking, what evidence and data you’re weighing in arriving at decisions, can they help you see something in a different light?  Most will understand that they might not always get their druthers on every decision, but will feel a far greater sense of ownership and engagement in the direction if they feel they’re being meaningfully heard and own a piece of the puzzle.

I actually knew that way before my comeuppance on May 8 of 2017 – I said those very things in a CICan video clip and my Matchbox-inspired acceptance speech and even in my thesis paper on Cultivating a Culture of Innovation in attaining a Master’s degree in Leadership. In between then 2013 and 2017, I’d done a lot of winning as a leader in both the workplace and as a coach – back to back to back provincial championship finals. I was pretty cocksure that I had this leadership thing figured out front to back and sideways. I could act on instinct, not so much on reflection and consultation.

I’ll spare you the gory details but the gist of it was I acted really abruptly with a fellow leader and I followed no due process at all. You see, I was doing all the right things as the results clearly showed. But you’ve heard the saying “everybody has a boss” and so did I in this equation. I served at the discretion and leisure of a Board, also volunteers, and ultimately, they decided that the wrong person was dismissed and relieved me of my duties instead.

I can still argue all the reasons I was right in the conflict and I might even be right about some of them, but ultimately, I had forgotten a lesson a mentor had told me repeatedly:  Process is king. People are key. And never make big decisions with haste and emotion. You can know these things intellectually, but one has to be reflective and deliberate. You have to continually practice and work at your leadership.

It actually scares me a great deal to share this in my professional blogging sphere. This situation was and is very embarrassing for me, but so far, only a few hundred people in our community know about it. The moment I hit post, thousands will be aware.

But I also know that vulnerability is one of the most important traits a leader can possess. There is a rapidly disappearing “old school” of leadership that says never let ‘em see the chinks in your armour, but people respond to leaders that are human and fallible. People want to hear stories about growth, and they want to see themselves in the stories of struggle and learning from mistakes.

Two weeks ago I was upgrading my formal credentials as a coach at a certification clinic, and the instructor had broken us into groups of six coaches, where we were role playing.  For a particular skill, one of us was the head coach, the other the assistant and the other four were role playing the players to be instructed, then rotate. 5/6 of the way through, I shared with these fellow coaches that one thing I was noticing was that when each took her/his turn as the head coach, they did a really good job engaging the players, but not one included the assistant coach in the demonstration or instruction. They certainly didn’t exclude with any intention or malice but they did so anyway – it can be easy to do. All the more reason to be mindful.

Back to pop/alt-rock Matchbox Twenty: this is a band that fractured, even though they had great success. In most bands the lead singer is the head honcho. He or she is the face of the band, the success of the team as often blurred to be the lead singer’s success.  Heck, Rob Thomas even took a time out and did some solo work, and in collaborating with Carlos Santana during that time, won a Grammy for Pete’s sake!

They’d got back together after the hiatus, but the fault lines remained.  A guitarist left the band for good after 10 years and a few years after that, another member left and gave a glimpse into why as he left.

Band member Kyle Cook explained why he couldn’t stay: "For me, the decision was one that was heavily contemplated and meditated on. Among others, the primary reasons were a deterioration of communication, disagreements on when, where, and how we tour, and a general breakdown of democracy in the group."

It made me think of a band that I truly love, and one that takes up more memory on my iTunes than any other. I thought of Gord Downey and the Tragically Hip and something new I learned about them in watching the documentary Long Time Running, and that is how they made the decision early on that every song would be credited to every member, without regard to who wrote how much of the lyrics and who set what percentage of the musical chords.

Did that diminish the legend of Gord Downey?  Hardly. Did it keep the Hip together until literally death do they part and beyond? Undoubtedly. Should leaders always be reflecting and improving and searching for their blind spots and always be learning? Most definitely. The question is whether you will seek out the lessons or if the lesson finds you. 

Jordan Cleland is the President of Jordan Cleland Consulting. He does performance and leadership coaching, keynote and retreat speaking, fund development and public relations consulting. And he’s still coaching kids in sports, only more wisely, both as head coach and an assistant.  

Matchbox Twenty and Lessons on Leadership
by Jordan Cleland 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018