Moving Mountains

By Trudy Menke 5/30/19

John Maxwell often says that a good leader sees more and sees first, but when there's a mountain up ahead, it's likely everyone can see it, not just the leader.

Mountains are problems. They stand in the middle of our path from here to there. You may recognize these various approaches that leaders take when a mountain comes into view:

"Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult."  – Warren Bennis

1. Some leaders feel that they are called to move the mountain because they are the leader, and yet that's not typically possible. When followers don't believe in the leader's plan to move the mountain, they hold back and even lose faith in the leader. When the mountain doesn't move, the leader looks unrealistic.

2. Sometimes leaders lie about the mountain and claim it isn't a mountain at all. They describe it as something less threatening, like a hill or a mirage. Sometimes the followers will buy into that, and sometimes they won't. Eventually they will reach the mountain, and the leader will be forced to deal with the truth and look unprepared.

3. Another tactic is for leaders to become less focused on going in the direction of the mountain, and wander off in a new direction, because the leader is discouraged by the mountain. The leader may not want to talk about it, even though everyone can see it. Followers may be relieved or frustrated to drift off in a new direction with the leader changing priorities, but the leader may be seen as uncommitted or hasty.

4. Some leaders simply recognize the mountain for what it is, and begin to strategize with the team about all the options as soon as it comes into view...should they go over, under, around or through? Or should they strike out in a new direction? These leaders are often viewed positively – as collaborative and driven.

Teams are made up of many different kinds of people. While some have mountain climbing skills, others are navigators and are willing to chart a course around the mountain to trade time for safety. Some will think long-term and be willing to invest the time to go through the mountain if it makes it easier for those that will follow. Some will, however, be encouraging the team to turn back. 

If the leader doesn't believe there is a solution or won't commit to one, then there's likely to be a sustained loss of positive momentum toward the whole trip. It's likely to be replaced by infighting and blaming, while silos form and different subgroups plan different strategies, all attempting to fill a vacuum of leadership.

"The things we fear most in organizations – fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances – are the primary sources of creativity.” – Margaret Wheatley

Truly, the leader can consider all kinds of options. Much will depend on the value of the destination, the timeline, the weather, the expected costs and the skills of the team. The leader's honesty and willingness to solve the problem should allow the team to work from a place of open communication where the mountain is to be conquered instead of one another.

The leader who takes the role of championing team unity, acknowledging the variety of possible solutions and believing in the team's ability to solve the problem will have the greatest opportunity to make a final decision that is respected. Committing to provide the time and resources to implement the best solution will sustain the team's culture and emotional momentum which makes overcoming mountains easier to begin with.

Mountains, it seems, are interpreted by perspective. Other people's mountains don't always look as big to you as they do to them. You won't be prepared for every mountain, of course, but if you commit to radically grow yourself and your team, I can promise you that almost all mountains will appear smaller to everyone.


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