What is a Leader Pt 3: Establishing Champions

If a vision can be held up by a single person, the leader, then the vision is not big enough. If MLK Jr’s. dream had been achievable by him, he would have blocked off a weekend and ended racism. I do not personally like setting visions that are beyond my ability to attain, so you won’t see me giving speeches on my dreams for a better world. I tend to set visions far enough to encompass the three stages of team forming.

For those of you not familiar with the three stages of team forming, they are Forming, Storming, and Norming (these are not my original concepts, I got them from some corporate training and do not remember who to credit). Forming is the creation, storming is the incredible upfront investment required to bring it to reality, and norming is when you stabilize and become durable. Where leaders often fail, in my experience, is about halfway through the storming phase. There is a point in which the system (business, team, whatever) created to attain the vision, the vehicle, is put to the test. This is the do or die point and if you are doing it alone, you’ll probably die…or at least be miserable and over worked (a.k.a. burn out).

This crucial breaking point is when you separate those who think the vision is a cool idea and those who truly believe in it. Stress will always show you what you are working with. Anytime you are unsure of something, put a little pressure on it and see how it, or they, react. In my experience, the truly special often don’t know they are special, but they rise to the occasion. These folks who move to the front when the going gets hard are your champions.

A champion is someone who has moved passed believing in the leader and now believes in the vision. They are experts at their craft. They are the Navy’s SEALs. The Army’s Green Barretts.

Champions are leaders among their peers
Champions are the best and rise to the occasion.

Champions are easy to identify. Others will begin to unconsciously align themselves with, or try to befriend them. It is a genetic social tendency to be associated with someone who offers the greatest opportunity for success. For example, the best hunters would become the tribe leaders because they could offer a lower probability of starvation. A good leader must strategically hire and place high performance, invested individuals to encourage the natural process of forming tribes. You cannot fight human tendency, so embrace it and capitalize.

The biggest concern I’ve heard is that these champions will usurp your leadership. If you remember from part one, a leader is just someone with a different job. They cannot take your job. If you fail and they replace you, they cannot be accused of “stealing.” It is possible, though. If the person you hire has great proficiency, but is selfishly motivated, they may try and take over. This is usually done through the social clout they carry with their peers. If this happens, deal with it directly and quickly. You cannot allow a selfish individual to undo the vision.

Often times, teams do not have champions in place. If this is the case, go find some and do whatever it takes to bring them in. I remember the first champion I recruited. She was struggling with burn out and I offered her my vision…also, a less sucky work environment and more pay. I got her paid too (action demonstrating consistency, earning respect currency). I showed her up fron that I was serious about taking care of her and did not require her to “prove herself.” It was repaid ten fold.

We struggle today with some old ideas about how leaders have to be perfect humans. That is so wrong, and the winners have always understood that. Leaders cannot, and should not, be expected to be strong at everything. That means, a good leader must bring in others who are good at what they struggle with. That also means allowing the champions to lead when the situation calls upon their strengths. Remember that there is an inverse reaction to letting go of control. The more you allow others to lead when they are strong, the more respect as a leader you gain (currency).

The benefits of establishing champions are huge. They are able to take on basic day to day leadership, freeing you to drive towards the vision. They can help shoulder the weight of the team, keeping the leader from burning out. They increase the successful implementation of changes tremendously. The team will get on board with whatever they are on board with. They are extensions of the leader when it comes to driving culture, morale, decision making, peer accountability…the list can go on and on.

Your champions have the biggest impact (yes, greater than the leader) and should receive the most attention. Development is like compounding interest with them. Training every person individually is like putting dollar bills under your mattress. Investing in your champions is like putting it in a savings accounts that earns interest. You will always get out more than you put in. This is because they will lift your team when you are not there. It is an investment in every meaning of the word.

On a more selfish note, champions are what allow you to take days off. They don’t need the leader to push the mission forward towards the vision. They also become the inner circle, where the leader can be vulnerable. They provide useful feedback because they want to win too. They will be the shoulder to lean on when the pressure is to much.

A quick word of caution though, be sure not to punish your good employees with more work. Our tendency as leaders is to send all of the important, or urgent, issues to our champions because we know they will handle it right. The issue with that is that we can unknowingly over burden them. Be sensitive to their responses and always check in with them. It is always worth the effort to ensure your champions are challenged, but not overwhelmed.

Developing champions is difficult to do. Lots of people will want to be in front, but very few are actually capable of handling the task. This is the hardest and most worth while effort in leadership. It is very people focused, honors uniqueness, and maximizes potential. Just remember that the vision is bigger than you, and you cannot be afraid to let others take the wheel.

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