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A Thought on Leadership: Defining Success

As I mentioned last week, I had a very informal chat with a group of Vanderbilt student service leaders about leadership. And now I share some of those thoughts with you.

Last week, I discussed the idea (art, maybe?) of delegation. Today, I'm talking about defining success.

The students asked a lot of questions about conflict:

  • What do you do when someone doesn't do what you ask of them?
  • What if the person you're leading is your friend?
  • What if people don't agree with you?
  • What if you make a mistake?
  • What if someone else makes a mistake?
  • How do you best lead your peers?
  • What if everyone’s 'equal' in rank, but you're in charge for a certain task – what if people don't want to follow you?

While conflict itself demands its own post, I think a lot of the above can be answered not with a discussion on conflict, but with a discussion about success.

I challenged the students to take some time (a half hour, perhaps) in one of their first meetings of the year to talk about success with their group and to answer, as a group, this key question:

How do we know when we're successful?

The answer will vary by group. Some will be successful when they register 100 new voters, some when they've shown six movies about diversity, some when they've increased active blood donors by 50%, and some when all of Vanderbilt knows they exist. While success and its definition will be different for each group, what remains consistent is this: everyone knows what it looks like.

At CoolPeopleCare, one of our key metrics for success is the depth of stories that emerge from our work. We are successful when we hear from people about how our content, products and resources have helped them change the world. Therefore, we all work towards this end, each of us doing our part, performing our tasks in order to help others make a difference. That's the same page we're all on.

And we all know it.

What happens many times is that people would be on the same page, if they only knew what that page looked like. Therefore, there's a deep need right when organizations form or start a new leadership cycle to have a candid and open discussion about how success is defined.

Then, people will work towards that, because especially in voluntary organizations, that's why people are there. So, when conflict does arise, when people question a task they're given or a decision that's been made, they can be reminded how such an act is leading the group toward their predefined goal of success.

Of course, the flip side is this: anyone has the right to question a move if they believe it is not helping the group move towards that idea of success. So, leaders, be prepared to be questioned. The upside is that this can prevent unilateral action and a single person from running a team into the ground. But you may have to pause from time to time to make sure every move is one that is steering the organization in the right direction. But such time is worth every minute.

Defining success will help you not only achieve it, but to make sure the organization thrives after a leader's tenure is over, or when it's time for the founder to move on. Some call it succession planning, and I'll be talking about it next week.

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