One of General Colin Powell’s Lessons in Leadership is “Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard.” I have recently learned this lesson the hard way…
My colleague and I are writing a leadership book and decided to hire a professional ghost writer and editor of executive-level books. We had a recommendation from someone we knew who had used his services, we read one of his published books, and asked for a sample edit of our first chapter. We signed an agreement to move forward. However, the remaining chapters were received past deadline and contained many typos and grammatical errors that had not been corrected. We discussed specific issues over the telephone, and promises of grandeur were made, only to leave us disillusioned and disappointed with the product, process and timeliness. We were perhaps afraid to challenge what we knew was not right because he was the “pro” and we did not want to insult him. Instead we waited patiently after each discussion and email sent stating expectations, believing the message was received and we would finally be impressed, but to no avail. What we learned was an expensive lesson. Not only had we already paid 50% up front, but the delay in the final product cost us several thousand dollars in book sales at recent speaking engagements where we had anticipated having the published books. We should have challenged the timeliness sooner and the lack of quality product. Trusting the pros is necessary since there are areas beyond our expertise, however, even the pros can become complacent or distracted. The sample edit was the first and last writing received that added true value to the book. He was certainly a pro at selling himself. He is what we refer to in our leadership patterns as a Strategist.
Strategists are always strategizing for how to get us on board with their ideas, which makes them good at selling concepts, strategies, plans, and services. Another way to say that is they are elegant thinkers and speakers, able to communicate their grandiose ideas in a mesmerizing manner, always finding ways to persuade others to join their viewpoint and buy in to their ideas. Which is exactly what we did with the editor. Every time we spoke on the telephone, he said all the right things and had us believing in him all over again. Strategists have a way of capturing our imagination, so that we dream their dreams and live their dreams. That is how the Strategist hooks us and gains our buy-in. A distinct but subtle difference in a strategic thinker and a Strategist is that the strategic thinker encourages creative ideas from others but always brings it back to what makes sense for the team or organization (the strategic thinker is part of another leadership pattern we discuss in our book and leadership sessions). Whereas a Strategist believes it is less fun at lower altitudes, so they are always thinking at 20,000 feet, outside the status-quo, creative and visionary with their own ideas. The Strategists challenge our companies to move to the next level in a savvy and persuasive manner that sometimes can be perceived as manipulation. It is not because Strategists are deliberately being untruthful, but rather they simply get caught up in their own dream and idea and therefore the minnow sometimes grows in size and ends up explained as a 15 pound Bass fish.
As leaders we need diversity of thought and ideas. We need a Strategist viewpoint to force us to think outside the boundaries. We need to tap into the collective wisdom of our team, both those who think like us and different from us, and at times reach out to the experts internally and externally, to help increase the probability of better outcomes. But we also need to know when to bring it back to reality, to fact-check, to determine what makes sense for our company, and to not be afraid to challenge the pros at times.