When it comes to being a leader, it is easy to gravitate towards the big things. These seem (and actually are) really important.
Do we have a clear vision?
Is there a strong strategy that will take us to the vision?
Do we have the right organizational structures in place?
How clear are our goals and are we holding ourselves accountable to them?
As important as these things are, there is one thing even more important – culture. And even more specifically, the genuine unconditional love of the people who are embarking on this mission with you, and the playing out of this in all of the little moments.
A huge hike
Every year myself and three friends do the Oxfam Trailwalker together. This is a 100km hike, through all sorts of terrain, done straight through day and night, to raise money for some of the poorest people in the world. We tend to complete the walk in 24-26 hours, and it is always a powerful (if not painful!) experience.
If we boil things down to the core level, the most important ingredient to completing that walk is water. If we didn’t have water, our bodies would shut down. No matter what gear we had, how good our pacing strategy was, no matter how clear we were on our vision of completing that walk, if we didn’t have water we wouldn’t make it.
Now, the water isn’t the only thing we need. We also need all the other things I mention. But if we have water, our bodies are hydrated, we have energy, and we have a group of 4 talented and passionate people who are going to figure out all the rest together.
Culture is the water
Culture is the water, in the hiking analogy. If there exists an atmosphere where every person is genuinely valued and is safe to be themselves, safe to create, and safe to experience the inevitable failure that is part of the creative process, then the best comes out of people.
Struggling with your strategy as a leader? If you truly love your people and build an environment where they thrive, those people will help you build a strategy you never could have come up with on your own.
Not sure of the right structure? The people around you will help shape the right structure for you all.
Have a particular weakness? Trust your people and they will fill in your weaknesses with their strengths.
No matter who you are, no matter what your strengths and weaknesses, if you make your #1 priority your people then everything else will find a way to come together.
You drink water in sips
In the Oxfam Trailwalker, you are constantly sipping small amounts of water all the way along the trail. You carry a reserve on your back from which these sips are made.
Imagine for a second what would happen if every so often, even just once every couple of hours, someone opened up your water tank and dropped in a single drop of poison.
You wouldn’t make it to the end. It might even endanger your life. The most vital, most crucial thing needed to complete the walk and keep you in vibrant health would have been corrupted. And it would have devastating effects.
You love your team moment by moment
Every moment of the day, every interaction you have with other people, are like small sips of water. If the moment is grounded in the unconditional valuing of the other person, then it is life-giving water that nourishes both of you.
If on the other hand the worth of the other person is reduced or ignored, the moment becomes like poison. And can have devastating effects on your team and organisation.
If you want to build a truly special culture where people really can thrive, it needs to be intentional and needs to happen in every moment, every interaction, every word, every action, every decision.
And not just when it is easy. Anyone can do that. Your true culture comes through when it is hard. And it is so important for a loving leader to hold the value of their people super high in the times of stress and pressure, in the times of failure, as well as in the times when people are behaving with you in a way that is less than ideal and when there is temptation to become frustrated with the person.
But isn’t that almost impossible?
We are all human, and as hard as we strive not to, there will be moments that push our buttons and cause us to respond in ways that are less than the lofty goal of holding unconditional love for every person in every situation.
While that is true, I will say two things about it.
The first is that the minute we stop striving for that gold standard of being loving in every situation in every way, then it is the start of our demise. It is better to strive and occasionally slip, than to give up on the aspiration.
The second is that as a leader, the love you strive to hold for others is also there for you too.
In the walk, if poison was dripped into your water supply, there would only be one solution – immediately drink the antidote to neutralise the poison.
In the world of leadership, there is only one solution for moments when you fall from the standard you aspire to. And that is humble apology and making amends. There is nothing you can do that is so bad that forgiveness will not be extended to you if you are truly sorry and want to make up for it.
Be intentional today
Today is a blank canvas, ready to be painted. You have countless moments today, and you have the opportunity in every one of them to touch lives, to nourish each person and yourself with life-giving water.
Do this, and amazing things will happen around you. And you will discover that the big things really are the adding up of all the little things.