Are You A Firestarter?

As a leader, are you sparking inspiration – or an inferno? Too many leaders do the latter – and don’t understand the difference.

Firestarter Movie Poster Sometimes, nothing can scare an employee so much as the spark of a big idea. You know the kind: The sort half-formed concept that emerges in a larval state from the corner office, but which is expected to somehow manifest itself as a fully realized program, initiative, or task. Almost always, it’s understood that there’s a lot riding on this big idea – next quarter results, bonuses, maybe even careers. And almost always, there is little provided in the way of a roadmap for reaching the destination.

We’re not talking here about grand visions illustrated with incredible levels of detail or carefully formatted plans with clearly defined objectives. We’re talking about fuzzy, poorly articulated, partially conceived ideas which we somehow expect our subordinates to magically transform into robust realities – usually without the benefit of our active involvement or direct guidance. When we do that, we’re being firestarters – or, more specifically arsonists, putting the torch to the orderly functioning of our workplaces and the morale of our employees.

Think about it: How well did you do the last time you were expected to read someone else’s mind – a customer, a boss, a spouse? Chances are, you felt frustration, irritation, resentment, unease, or other unpleasant emotions; chances are you were dissatisfied with the quality of your own work; and chances are the other person was disappointed in the result.

When it comes down to it, dropping a “delegation bomb” on your unsuspecting staff is neither particularly fair nor likely to create desirable results for anyone involved in the process.

“But that’s why I have employees,” you may say. “I need them to do everything I don’t have time to do myself.” Well, of course. But that doesn’t mean that normal rules about reasonable expectations don’t apply. And you’re the boss: Ultimately you are responsible for realizing your ideas, even when the realization is accomplished indirectly through others. To make it happen, you’ve got to take a few specific steps:

  • Match tasks to recipients. An assigned task has to be matched to the knowledge and skill set of your employee, or else you’re setting them up to fail.
  • Define success. Your goal needs to be clearly understood in your mind, and clearly communicated to your employees.
  • Provide a roadmap. When you tell people where to go, you should provide them with some reasonable idea of how you expect them to get there. Articulate the strategy, tactics, and tools you expect your subordinates to use.
  • Prioritize. Clearly define what matters most, what benchmarks must be met, the time frame in which you expect to see progress and/or the final result.
  • Define the feedback loop. Decide how you will receive information, assess progress, and deliver guidance when it’s needed – and make sure everyone on the team understands as well.
  • Remain observant, and remain involved. That doesn’t mean you need to supervise every step; it means you have to remain aware and accessible, able to intercede at critical moments if success is in jeopardy, and attuned to signs that a team member may need additional help.

Consider your role here: You’re the leader, so your job is to lead – not to disappear. To lead effectively, you’ll act as the steward of your spark of inspiration; you’ll direct it, contain it, fan the flames when appropriate, and put it out if necessary. You won’t let it consume your people, their productivity, or their sanity.

Are You A Firestarter?To keep the fire burning brightly but neatly contained, you’ll make sure that expectations are shared and understood; you’ll make sure that your team is adequately skilled, staffed, and resourced to meet the challenge; you’ll ensure that deadlines are realistic, and goals are achievable. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll remain open to learning as you go and adapting your approach – or even modifying your objectives – if it appears necessary to do so.

If it sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is; the best ideas usually are. It’s not as easy as tossing out a concept, issuing marching orders, and hoping for the best, but it’s a lot more likely to generate a successful outcome – and keeping that spark under control.

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