“Checking In” for the Frustrated Leader

If you have ever carried the burden of leadership, then you probably know what it's like to feel frustrated and overwhelmed, to be stretched too thin, and to question if the people you lead feel happy with the support you are providing. If so, you may be finding yourself in the same dilemma that many leaders, including myself, have found themselves in. That dilemma is taking on a span of control that is far too big for any one person to handle. And in doing so, you now have become the “bottleneck” or “lid” to the organization.





Moses dealt with a very similar problem in Exodus 18. Moses’s father-in-law observes a day when Moses is judging everyone's problems from morning to evening. His analysis of the situation is spot on. “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.”


I like to think of Jethro as the first “leadership consultant” in the Bible. His simple advice was to empower the people. Rather than taking every concern to Moses, there should be a leadership structure that empowers others to solve problems and care for people in smaller groups. There should also be leaders who work to develop other leaders (we like to call them “coaches” and “directors”). Moses would handle only the largest concerns.


The main paradigm shift for Moses was that he was no longer the “doer” for people. Instead, he is now the “developer” of people. Scripture shows how Moses followed Jethro's wise counsel, and the plan worked as intended. “And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves.”



Now for a personal example. A dear friend of mine recently shared her frustrations of being stretched to the point of great distress. She had too many people reporting to her. So many that it was hard to even count. Every problem from every worker needed her attention, and many workers felt that she was not giving them the attention they needed. She needed Moses’ story and Jethro’s wisdom. I am happy to report that she has taken this to heart, and things have improved dramatically for her.


So dear leader, my first word of advice is to empower new leaders and become a developer. But that leads to another question. As we build a new leadership structure, how many people should still directly report to me? I think a better way to phrase the question is like this: How many people will you personally commit to developing? If you cannot spend adequate time developing someone, then the reality is you probably cannot adequately supervise them or help them with their performance.


We can look at our Lord Jesus as an example. Jesus kept twelve disciples. With these twelve, he did life-on-life discipleship. So if Jesus developed twelve and you choose to develop twenty, what does this say about your own sense of pride and control?


Another useful benchmark comes from a fantastic secular leadership book titled The Nine

Lies About Work. In this book, researchers make a data-driven case that “frequency trumps quality.” This means a single annual performance review does little to increase someone’s performance. Instead, you need 52 weekly “sprints.” When weekly check-ins happen, there is a 13 percent increase in performance. By contrast, when check-ins happen only monthly, performance declines by 5 percent.


Using this principle, they then assert that a leader’s true “span of control” is limited to the

number of people that you (and only you) can check in with every week. So if you have twenty direct reports right now, my new challenge for you is to figure out how you are going to schedule meaningful one-on-one check-ins with them every week. Can't do that? Then perhaps it’s time to start delegating and empowering new leaders. Jesus developed twelve. Perhaps your effective span of control is six to eight.


Now comes the final question. How do I do a check-in? I have seen some diversity in this, and in many cases, it’s all good. Of all the examples I have seen, I think the most solid and concise comes from our friend Mac Lake. In his book Leading Leaders, he recommends the following five-part agenda, which I will summarize:


Get Personal: How is home/family life going? Talk about personal hopes, dreams, concerns.

  1. Establish Priorities: Ask the person to identify their own top three priorities. (This develops ownership and empowerment.)

  2. Address Problems: Ask if there is anything that specifically needs your help. Otherwise, guide them to solve their own problems.

  3. Draft a Plan: Ask them to articulate the key things from your time together. Avoid using this time to assign tasks.

  4. Share in Prayer: Pray specifically for their needs.


When we boil it all down, here is the formula for the frustrated leader: 1) Develop a leadership structure. 2) Narrow down the number of direct reports to only those you can develop. 3) Implement a weekly check-in schedule. I know this might sound easier than it really is, but the good news is we are here to help. Leadership development is our passion, and we pray it will be yours as well.


 

Ref:

  • Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World - Marcus Buckingham & Ashley Goodall)

  • Leading Leaders: Developing the Character and Competency to Lead Leaders (Discipling Leaders) - Mac Lake

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