Insecurity of Autonomy! 3 Powerful Protections to Launch Your Success!

Recently I attended a conference where I met a young leader who is experiencing high levels of stress within his organization. As he shared some of the details, I learned he was dealing with a significant level of turnover and has not been able to retain good people for very long. To make matters worse, there were more strategies and ideas to implement than could feasibly be accomplished, and this caused him to have difficulty focusing. He was experiencing growing pains as an emerging leader launching a new nonprofit organization and was simply being stretched in too many different directions.

As I listened to him describe his situation and circumstances, it made me wonder about the accountability structure he had in his life, so I asked him about his advisory team. He confidently responded, "I have a great Board of Directors!" I pressed further and asked him about the Board make-up and their level of involvement, and he responded with a conviction that said, "I've got this one covered."

However, as he described his Board, I soon began to realize, like many new nonprofit organizations, it is made up of friends with great ideas and strategies to help launch the organization and provide some level of financial support. The more I listened to this leader share about his Board and their involvement, it sounded more like a fan club than a Board of Directors. There seemed to be plenty of enthusiasm, affirmation, and support, but what was missing was a measure of objectivity and clear counsel.

Healthy encouragement can feel great when starting an organization, but in this case, it was ultimately causing him to suffer because in reality he has surrounded himself with a group of people who are telling him exactly what he wants to hear, instead of what he needs to hear. Launching anything can feel impossible. Just getting an idea off the ground and birthing it to reality can be daunting. Having people encourage you and support your vision is essential; yet, these individuals may not always be the best options for your advisory team. Whether you're leading a start-up, a nonprofit, a public company, or are simply a solopreneur, think about this: Who has veto power in your life? Who is your circle of counsel, and have you given them permission to speak freely?

Recently I interviewed Peter Greer with HOPE International on our CEO Street Talk podcast. He shared about a time in his life when he was running hard, or his organization was running him, and it had taken its toll on his marriage and family.  When his wife confronted him about the situation, and he realized the implication of his actions, he wrote up his resignation letter, gave it to his wife and told her if she ever felt that way again, he would walk away from his job.

Think about that for a moment... 

  • What are your most important relationships?
  • Is the mission or cause of your organization coming at the expense of your greatest priorities in life and particularly the most important people in your life?
  • If you were to write a resignation letter, who would you give it to? Who has your back? 
  • Who truly cares about you and your mission, and what role do they play in helping you succeed?

What I have learned from all the years I have worked with CEOs and leaders is that that they all have blind spots. Even the most exceptional ones are not immune. Having a circle of people who can speak into those blind spots ultimately protects the leader and the organization and creates sustainability and vitality as well.

Most leaders, especially the entrepreneurial leaders I know, love their autonomy; however, autonomy, for all its freedom, often comes at a price. What is your autonomy costing you? If you have been a leader for any period of time, you probably don't have to look back too far to see where having good counsel around you could've helped you avoid a costly mistake. Having a good advisory team doesn't protect you completely or eliminate all mistakes, but it can help mitigate them. It doesn’t matter if you are a new or seasoned leader, I would like to encourage you to consider these three essential components of a strong advisory team:

1. Authority

My pastor often reminds me that a man under authority is a man of authority. Who has veto power in your life? Who has permission to provide wisdom and much needed counsel when you're putting out fires and responding to the tyranny of the urgent? No matter how great of a leader we think we are, sometimes we're blinded by our own ambition, and we need somebody to come in with a strong arm and protect us. We may even need to be protected from ourselves and our blind spots. Submitting to the authority of a small group of people is essentially saying, "I trust you." In a formal Board setting, when you may be casting your vote right along with the others, the collective weight of votes may not be unanimous in one direction or another, or the vote may not go your way. You need to be able to trust the judgment and experience of the people you’ve surrounded yourself with and allow them to speak into the situation. It may be the right idea but the wrong timing.

2. Good Counsel

Secondly, when we put ourselves under the authority of others, we also invite their counsel. Business is dynamic. Things are happening all the time. There are decisions to be made; new strategies to be considered; new technology to invest in; and people to be hired (and in some cases fired). Financial and human resources need to be maximized; partnerships need to be nurtured; and customers need to be served. And these things occur on a daily basis.  In all of this, there are opportunities to learn from others. It has been said, “There is wisdom in the counsel of many.”  We need to avail ourselves to wisdom and counsel from a variety of sources. 

When you invite leaders with fifteen, twenty, or thirty years of experience in a particular discipline to serve on your advisory team, you're tapping into insight that will help guide your decisions and move you forward. Great leaders are open to gleaning wisdom from others. The challenge is figuring out how to draw out and capture the wisdom of those advisors in your life and work. 

Obtaining good counsel has a great deal to do with the process. What kind of structure needs to be established to maximize the time you have with your advisors? Perhaps you will meet on a quarterly basis, or a have a monthly phone call. Whatever schedule or format you decide upon, having structure creates the opportunity and the environment for your team to offer their very best counsel.  

As the leader, you know the greatest issues you are facing, and you can determine the agenda based on the counsel you need at that time. Providing an agenda that fairly and accurately depicts the situations you would like to address prior to the meeting gives your advisors time to consider the issues and prepare their counsel ahead of time. There is certainly a place for spontaneity, but a ready, fire, aim approach to these sessions is often a misuse of the collective counsel you have assembled to provide the guidance you need in making a decision.

After you have received counsel from your team, the question becomes, “What are you going to do with that counsel, and are you committed to following through with the suggested resolutions?” This leads us to the third essential element of a strong advisory team.

3. Accountability

As a leader, in the midst of your autonomy, you must define the level of accountability you are willing to submit to. This is where the rubber meets the road. You’ve come to a point where you've committed to a certain plan of action that you and your team have determined would lead to a successful outcome for you and your organization, and it is worth your time and discipline to make sure you see it through. A strong advisory team will provide the accountability you need. This accountability will ultimately protect you from distraction and fortify the disciplines you need to achieve the desired outcome. Even as you submit to the authority of your advisory team and listen to their advice, if you lack follow-through, it won’t make a difference. Immature leaders may view accountability as an unnecessary limiting factor, but successful leaders understand it provides great freedom to move toward agreed upon objectives. Accountability is an indispensable tool that will help you focus your attention on the goal and ultimately get you across the finish line.

Whether you lead a nonprofit or public company or are just launching into a new venture, I want to encourage you to formalize, redefine, or even recalibrate the level of the counsel in your life. Who has veto power? Certainly you, as a leader, have a vote, yet the full weight of a strong advisory team will give you the support you need and help you succeed.