Posted on Wednesday, 15th February 2012 by chris wignall
In the last week I’ve read two interesting articles from Outside magazine on prominent American charity figures who have brought both great positives (in terms of raising both profile and funds), and significant negatives (critical press and serious questions about the real impact of the organization) to their causes. While the stories on Greg Mortensen and Lance Armstrong are dramatic, they represent something I think I’ve seen several times on a smaller scale.
I don’t know if the allegations about Lance Armstrong and LiveStrong or Greg Mortensen and CAI are true; only that they serve to raise doubt in the community that is rooted as much in the character of the leader as in the quality of their work. Both organizations have clearly done much that is praiseworthy.
There are all kinds of people lining up to demonize or canonize Lance and Greg, but that is far too simplistic an understanding. Take the time to fully read either of the articles linked above and you’ll soon find that these are complex individuals who are driven by remarkable passion, and who have accomplished remarkable things in multiple fields. (This past weekend Lance achieved the phenomenal result of finishing second overall in his first Ironman triathlon at age 40!)
The charisma and energy that radiates from these Type-A+ leaders makes them magnetic for followers of all kinds. They bring new ideas, new volunteers, and new donors to their fields. In many cases they inspire (or demand) a loyalty that tolerates no second guessing, and model a standard of personal commitment that squelches criticism.
They build significant networks of influence and use them to even further accelerate their compelling vision.
They build teams that are highly motivated, sacrificial, and eager to go above and beyond to fulfill the dream they’ve been given.
They gather opinions from leading experts, but ultimately they follow their own heart and bend the rules when necessary to pursue their consuming call.
They are widely admired, even as some closest to them grow concerned that maybe the public image is a mask for some potentially damaging flaws.
Several years ago the National Basketball Association featured a player named Charles Oakley. “Oak” was an outstanding team leader, willing to do whatever it took to help his teammates succeed. Every game you could count on him battling for rebounds, diving to the floor to retrieve loose balls; and throwing a couple absolutely stupid passes that resulted in easy opportunities for the opposition. Nothing the coach said could convince Oak to change his style of play. He knew he was the ultimate team guy, and for him, it was his own definition of team play that counted. In a strange way his sacrificial approach and radical commitment was actually hiding the fact that he arrogantly believed his way was the only way. He was a great leader, unless you were the one trying to coach him.
I see those same qualities in the stories above and in a number of leaders I’ve interacted with in a variety of charities, churches, and businesses.
Too often these entrepreneurial leaders don’t have the wisdom or support they really need to avoid becoming their own victims. Their ability to get big things done fast frequently causes them to neglect the things necessary to sustain that success, and there’s often a trail of frustrated ex-colleagues and disappointed donors in their wake. They can outrun the shrapnel of their weaknesses longer than most, and many are simply unaware of the damage they cause as they focus forward on the next obstacle and opportunity.
That passion fuels not only outstanding performances, but also leaves them particularly vulnerable to their own blind spots. The single-mindedness needed to initiate a high profile charity (and to excel in mountaineering or endurance sports) is uncommon to the point of being essentially isolating. It must be exceedingly difficult for someone with that kind of success to take advice from others they can’t help but see as inferior. When no one else is as driven, effective, or committed as you are there is little need to consult with others. Critics are just “haters”, cautions are cowardice, and questions are always political.
Most of these stories end with a lot of hurt, confusion, and both the leader and their organizations bruised. Often the leader bounces back to something new while the charity flounders or fails.
I wish I could say I’ve found a way to help. I really haven’t. It takes a deeply felt failure to open the eyes of a world class achiever to their own flaws, and even then there are no guarantees. Without the humility to be raw, self-aware, and vulnerable to a group trusted advisors who aren’t caught up in the magic of the movement, there is little that will break the pattern.
Maybe all we can do in most cases is be aware of the risks involved in hitching our wagons to a shooting star and do our best to surround them with as much personal and organizational protection as possible. If that seems too dangerous the alternative is to stay away from the uncoachable leaders. Riding with them is always exciting, but its not for everyone.