Thoughts on Leadership
Being a Hands & Voices leader is a wonderful and life changing experience. Being a Hands &Voices leader can also be a very difficult and frustrating task. As a society today we place a great deal of pressure upon our leaders. A couple of summers ago, I prepared for a talk at the H&V Leadership Conference on the topic of leadership. I ran across many “ideals” or “characteristics” of the perfect leader. These came from websites that were devoted to recruiting people for leadership positions within organizations. From some of the ads on these websites, these organizations were looking for leaders who would be honest, forward looking and thinking, competent, inspiring, intelligent, fair-minded, broad-minded, courageous, straight-forward, creative, a standard bearer, a strategic thinker, a serious but fun loving person; someone who is decisive, able to take criticism, and able to give criticism in an appropriate way. In other words, the ideal leader needed to be all things to all people, and willing to give all of their free time to spend with anyone whenever needed, all before breakfast!
One can look at the national debate within the field of politics to see that a person who pursues a life within the public arena is continuously shot at by well meaning, very passionate folks on both sides of the debate. Leadership, although it is very rewarding, is still none the less a difficult and often painful path for those who are called to it. So what makes a great Hands & Voices leader? What are the skillsets that you and I as leaders within our organization and movement need to focus on to become more effective leaders of our teams?
Let me start by saying that any leader must know what motivates them to lead. I would wager that for most of our parent leaders, the motivation for leading a Hands & Voices team sits at your dinner table each evening. Your child and his or her specific needs and dreams have drawn you to this organization as you experienced support from other parents, and you rolled up your sleeves and “got busy” trying to make a better life for your child. In the process of that, you are helping other families along the way. For our professionals, you too are motivated by the impact you have made on children and their parents; you have specific ideas about “what needs to change” to better serve the needs of children who are deaf or hard of hearing.
The underlying factor, whether you are a parent or professional, is love. Love for your child and love for the children you serve creates the passion within you to become a leader and to help shape our organization into a worldwide movement. You must never get too far away from this motivation or passion because it is the fuel that propels everything that you do and moves us all forward.
My recommendation is that you keep something visual in front of you daily to help remind you of your motivation as you do the work of a Hands & Voices leader. Whether that is a picture of your child, a past student or client, or something else that reminds you of your original passion, you need this tangible reminder so that when things are tough and the deadlines are mounting (and you know they are going to) you will remember why you are here, and you will reach down and pull forth that extra effort to make the world a better place.
The Art of ‘Investing’ as a Leader
I love to watch football; specifically I love to watch college football. Living in Arkansas, that means I can’t help but follow the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. Since I was new to Arkansas via growing up in Oklahoma and some time in Texas, one of the first things I had to learn in my new state was how to do the “Hog Yell.”They make you yell it here just to get your driver’s license WOOOOOOO Pig! SOOOOWIE! (Not really.) One of the perceptions that Arkansas fans have is that because Arkansas is such a small state and we play in a strong football league that we must struggle to attract really talented players to our school. Those who are gifted choose bigger schools in bigger states for their college ball. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it is a handy excuse to explain a bad defeat. If this is the perception, it is a reality to some degree. How do the Razorbacks overcome this? It mostly comes down to the coaches, who take the time to invest in the players. A Razorback team trademark is creating a team of mid to lower level players (talent wise) who have been “coached up” to be able to not only play but to be successful in one of the toughest conferences in college football, the Southeastern Conference.
As a leader within your H& V chapter, you are called upon to “invest” also. One of the unique things about this kind of leadership is that most of the time you don’t get to pick your team, but you can recognize drive and talent in people as they gravitate toward you, and you have to give them opportunities to grow, and educate them, and learn from them. Coaching takes time and a personal investment upon the part of the coach. Building strong relationships with your team is a big part of this process. There is no shortcut for spending time and learning from one another. Occasionally, as part of the ministry staff at a church where I served, my family would be ‘ready to go” following the service while I was still engaged in conversation with a member of the congregation in need. They viewed this time as “cramping into our lunch time.” I saw it as “investing in one of my team members.” Always a challenging line to balance.
If you think about it most of your successes in life, they come from making the investment of your time and energy to build a relationship or to learn and master a skill. I play the piano and guitar, but only because I spent many hours of my childhood with teachers and alone in the practice room, mastering those skills. Today’s struggle and effort result in tomorrow’s beautiful music. The same is true for leadership; we must invest in the lives of those whom we are called upon to lead.
Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, once said: “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” So let me ask a few questions today about how and where you are investing your efforts.
The Art of Listening as a Leader
Listen! One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given in working with people is to not overwhelm them with my brilliance but to simply listen to them. As a chaplain for a hospice agency, a good portion of my day is spent actively listening to the people whose homes I am privileged to enter. A good deal of working with others is taking the time to listen to them and to “hear what they are saying.” If a leader is motivated by love, one of the ways that we express that love to others is to stop talking and listen to them. Taking the time to really listen and hear what they are saying is far from a simple act.
The business of changing the world through your H &V chapter can hinge on listening at the heart of the “to do” list. I remember sitting in a room full of parents a few years ago as one parent after another spoke about the circumstances facing their child at school, at childcare, in their community, or in the medical arena. They spoke about coping with the issues that come with parenting a child who is deaf or hard of hearing. I began to hear common threads and themes that kept coming back to the surface over the course of the evening. I could see “body language” that sometimes matched up with the words that were being spoken and sometimes did not. But one of the things that really resonated with me that day was it seemed a common experience of just about everyone in the room that they felt like they had not been listened to. The seeds of our chapter in Arkansas began that day in that room. Would I be too bold in suggesting that this is why Hands & Voices chapters are springing up around the nation and internationally because parents want to “be heard”?
I have mentioned that a leader invests in the people that he leads. Perhaps the best investment you can give is your listening ear. So what makes a good listener? I want to tell you: you just have to make a choice to do it. Choose to listen. Choose to be fully present with another person. Choose to listen more than you choose to talk. I heard a pastor one time explain it like this, “God gave us two ears to hear with and one mouth to talk with. By design that means that we should strive to listen twice as much as we strive to talk.” Don’t get me wrong, there are many times in leadership that “talking” is going to be needed, but listening is where relationships begin.
Of course you know that there are factors that enhance the listening experience; we learn those things in trying to talk with our kids. Eye contact, an atmosphere that is free of distractions, seeing the person who is talking, focus--all of these things help enhance the communication experience and promote real listening. After someone shares with you, an attempt at rephrasing what you heard can go a long way to help the person feel as though you took the time to understand their story.
Listening is a powerful tool that successful leaders learn to use. Let me encourage you to think about ways to incorporate listening into your interactions with your chapter and you will find your leadership role growing. People will be glad that you are that crazy Hands & Voices leader who invested the time to listen to their victories and struggles.
Remember that world changing is not easy; it is not for cowards, and it needs to get done.