No team left behind: Why guiding is fundamental to great leadership
By Aaron Cox
Leading and guiding are really two different skills, and both are necessary if you want your team to excel.
Shortly after college, my 5 roommates and I found ourselves with a weekend with nothing to do, so we decided to spend our time doing what we often did, and decided to go fishing. We drove several hours out to the White Mountains north of Phoenix outside of Show Low, AZ. Here, we found a stream that feeds Hawley Lake. After following a well chosen dirt road we found a place to park our trucks and walk upstream to find the perfect spot to fish. Once we were loaded up with our poles, and our gear, we headed down to the stream. When we arrived to the stream we fell in line behind one particular roommate, we'll call him John to protect the innocent and the guilty. He was without question the most experienced fisherman among us, in fact it was often rare not to find him fishing, and if you did, he was probably tying flies for going fishing. He had grown up fishing the lakes and streams of the White Mountains, and it was rare to find a spot there that he'd never been to. That being said, none of us were inexperienced fishermen. As soon as we hit the bank of the stream it was clear this was not a place he was considering fishing, but that we were going to move down stream and it would require crossing the stream, walking a few yards downstream and then crossing again, crisscrossing our way down stream for some time. This seemed easy enough to all of us. With John leading the way we worked down stream, only to find that this pattern of criss-crossing the river would be necessary anytime we wanted to move further downstream. To John's dissatisfaction, there were still no spots he felt we could catch any fish. So as we continued to hurry downstream following John, it was very apparent he had not only crossed this river many times before but traveled downstream this way with years of practice. For the rest of us that was not the case. We would watch John glide across the river with every well chosen step finding the perfect stone to keep him from getting even a drop on him the entire trip. However our fates would differ, one by one we would each slip finding a shoe and then a leg standing in the river leaving us soaking wet. as time went on it seemed as if John only got drier and the rest of us were getting wetter. As he continued his trip downstream every few crossings seemed to leave a soaked roommate behind, who was not prepared to make the next crossing. Finally, all that was left was John and myself. Although soaking wet, determined to not fall behind (partially because I was unsure if I could find my way back) I continued to follow until I was far enough behind that I could no longer remotely find the path he had used to cross. I had reached the end of the trip unless I was prepared to find myself even more soaked. So I sat down on the river and decided to fish where I was at, assuming at some point John would come back the way he came.
Thirty minutes later John came gliding back up the river with a fish in hand. Once he reached my location he asked where everyone was, and why we weren't following him. After I explained what had happened to the entire group he asked me to wait where I was and headed back upstream. One by one he collected each roommate, guiding them all back to to my location. Once everyone was sufficiently dry he moved us further downstream, this time playing not only the role of leader but also guide, ensuring the group cleared each crossing and knew how to cross as he did. Eventually he led us all to the location he had designated earlier without us.
Leading and guiding are really two different things and both are necessary to effectively lead a team. John was an effective leader from the moment we arrived, he knew where we needed to be, how to get there, and was able to execute the plan. All important characteristics in a leader, I think we can all agree on that. However in his first trip down the river his focus was on the destination and getting there, not in bringing his slower more inept team with him. However in the second attempt not only did we all arrive (and of course catch A LOT of fish) but we arrived following the path he knew to be successful because he moved just fast enough to push us to our limit while still arriving at the destination successfully as a group.
So how often do we lead but not guide? I can only speak with expertise to the technology industry but I imagine others are not that different. Many who have been in leadership in IT had their first leadership opportunity provided because their technical experience or skill exceeded their peers. So often leading is less of a challenge than guiding. Teaching others with patience when the pressure is on and you can do it five times faster yourself is tough to do. If you get from point A to point B successfully or achieve your objective, but your team is not there with you when you reach success, were you really successful? Probably not. The role of Leader and Guide is to make others successful outside of yourself, and this is usually found in making those you lead more successful, able to accomplish what you are capable of, enabling others to take their skills beyond yours.
As I looked back on this particular fishing expedition it stood out to me for a couple of valuable lessons. My good friend displayed two important points in his mission to lead and guide.
1st - When he had returned asking where everyone was, as he had hurried downstream at his pace, the pace of the expert and not the pace of the less experienced that he was leading. It is easy to lose ourselves in the objective working and driving at the fastest pace we can because our focus on the objective causes us to lose sight of the larger picture. If we lose our team, if we have high turnover of our employees, in the end, doesn't it make reaching the objective harder? The focus of reaching the best fishing hole was blinding the goal of a great fish feast, after all 6 people can catch more fish than one person, even the expert, when given the right tools, the right place, and the right guidance.
2nd - After learning of our demise one by one John did what is often difficult for a leader, admitting his mistake and starting over he collected his followers, not only leading but guiding them to the final destination at their best pace. In the end as a group we were far more successful in the larger goal when the objective was kept into perspective. Did it take longer, yes, but not as long as it took to do it twice.
It is important as leaders and guides that we take time to evaluate our own performance much as we would the performance of our team. If Bob is falling behind, is it because we didn't provide the guidance for him to keep pace? Are we so focused on achievement of the objective that it keeps us from having the team we need to reach the goal? Each of us are learning and growing, or at least should be, we need to be the type of leaders and guides for our teams that we also hope to have assisting our own growth. Although hitting the simple objective may take longer, surpassing the goal will become much easier as you enable your team not only as leader, but also as guide.