Laws of leadership – getting to know the ropes

When a new sailor arrived on board, he had to learn how to tie knots and which rope hauled up which sail. After which of course they would know the ropes. It is an expression used in all kinds of settings these days, but the principal applies especially well here.

When I graduated from college, the organization I worked for sent my wife and me to a remote post for the express purpose of assisting the on-sight directors. We arrived there full of hope and enthusiasm.

I remember vividly stepping outside our little home that first morning, looking up into the sky, and saying right out loud, “I have no idea what I am supposed to do.”

My degree hung in a new frame on the wall. My head was filled with information. Most of it proved to be conceptually true but turned out to be practically of little immediate value.

Novices often arrive into positions of responsibility fully educated but poorly acclimated. Education can prepare one by providing information, it is not so successful when it comes to applying that information to a problem or in a position of responsibility.

Here’s why? Knowledge can indeed shape one’s perspective, inform one’s mind of the whats and whys, and expand ones capacities to reason. Isn’t it odd that vocational training does the job of preparing one for a job so much more effectively than do a liberal arts or professional education? I can complete a course as a machinist and, with a little guidance as to the exact procedures of the shop I go to work for and the specs of the project assigned to me, get right to work.

But a professional education like I had did little to prepare me for the actual job. It was my specified role to develop and train Native American leaders who would hold positions of authority in local settings on a Native American Reservation. My course load included the things I would instruct in but nothing about how to instruct. It certainly did not contextualize the information in ways the men and women I taught could apply in their setting. It was theoretical and conceptual but not very practical.

This is where effective principal number 1 comes in. Effective leaders understand the times. This is not easily learned without experience. You just have to be there, and be there for a while to know what’s going on. Why?

Because you have a frame of reference that probably does not align with the frame of reference of the person or persons you are trying to work with and lead. They see things differently than you do. Remember this: They own the territory when you arrive. You will have to buy in.

Take your time. It took me nearly two years because the culture was so different from my own. Most leadership settings are not so divergent.

When my son graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, we were privileged to be there for the ceremonies. We held a small reception for him and his associates to celebrate the event. I remember speaking with one of them, herself graduating at the same time. I asked her how she felt. She said, “I am glad to be finished with the course load, but I have no idea what to do next.” I smiled, and told her my story. Then, I encouraged her, “Don’t worry about it. No one knows when they first begin. But you will. You will.”

So what do you do? Unless it is a crisis, do as little as possible until you know what’s going on. First impressions can be false ones. Leaders need double vision. We have to see where we are going but we must also see where we are so we can know where to begin. Join in, get to know your associates, observe how things are done, you’re newly on board so learn the ropes, see better what’s going on. Then, and only then will you be best able to see what to do next.