When Your Boots Don’t Match The Map, Trust Your Boots

When Your Boots Don’t Match The Map, Trust Your Boots

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… when your boots don’t match the map, trust your boots.

Many years ago I heard a military officer say that. It stuck with me because it was such a pointed and insightful way of saying a couple of wise things. One, that where we think we are versus where we actually are…may not be the same. We need to trust where we actually are – and there’s power in knowing where we are, even if it’s not where we intend to be. Two, our boots on the ground means we’re in it. It could be the work, the details, the action. In short, boots being on the ground means we’re in the details, the micro. And third, there’s another perspective that is opposite of boots on the ground, yet very congruent with boots being on the ground – that’s having an eye in the sky. The macro. Seeing the bigger picture. Something that is vital if our boots don’t match the map!

From the time I first heard that phrase I began to more carefully consider leadership’s role in being boots on the ground versus being an eye in the sky. Shifting from being in the details to seeing the big picture, and knowing when to be in one place over the other. Experience has taught me that much of what challenges us as leaders is knowing when to be in one place or the other, at the right time.

Sometimes we have to be detailed. If the devil is in the details, then so is our saving power. The little things matter. There simply are some things – perhaps many things – that we must get right. But no leader can be most effective by wearing boots all the time. There are times when we need to go to a higher elevation so we can better see things overall. That requires our feet leaving the ground.

The best leaders I’ve known have learned how to navigate between these two places and when to do it. It’s a learned skill, like so many leadership talents. It takes practice, thoughtfulness, diligence and wisdom. The good news is there are times when we stay too long in one place. At other times, we don’t stay long enough. But if we’ll pay close attention to ourselves and listen carefully to our team members, we’ll more easily figure it out.

A city manager who realizes his tendency to micromanage has learned to discipline himself and become more of a collaborative leader. Command and control is more his natural style, but years ago he learned how damaging that can be – especially to self-starters with high ambitions. He’s learned to temper his default style into something far more effective in building a high performing team. That meant learning to take off the boots more, a harder lesson to learn.

As he was learning he found himself in the details of so many things it was dizzying. He was stressed and grew increasingly more tense depending on the nature of the project. In time, everything was an emergency. It seemed everything was top priority…when meant there were no priorities. The team was faltering, unable to perform because the boss was in their business constantly.

In short order, a matter of weeks, he realized his organization was struggling due a lack of vision. It was as though everybody was walking around obsessing over their single piece of the puzzle, but nobody was helping them put their piece in place next to another piece. Nobody was building the puzzle. The result? People lost sight of the fact that they were even building a puzzle.

Being the smart guy that he was, and since he had a high degree of self-awareness that had provoked him to be collaborative, when one of his direct reports quietly and respectively approached him, he listened. The courage to be that leader for the boss was outstanding. Invaluable. “We’re desperate,” said his direct report, “to have somebody who can show us how our work fits into the whole.” He went on to encourage his boss to trust the team to do their work. They could handle that. What they couldn’t do was provide the bigger picture. That was the unique ability the city manager had – and it was a need only he could fill.

It worked. It took time to figure out how to best do it, but he was dedicated to the effort. He pulled his direct reports together and urged them to help him. Happily, they did. It was the best thing he could have done because it gave him multiple perspectives now capable of saying, “Hey, we need you down in these details” or “Hey, we need you to give us a bigger picture.” Today, he’ll tell you that he doesn’t have to really think about when he need his boots or not. His team tells him. He just has to be responsive to their needs.

As a leader sometimes people need the smallest details that you may be able to provide. I used to coach quite a bit of hockey. There’s a lot about the game I know because I’ve studied it for decades. But there are other things I’m ill-equipped to provide because I’ve never played. Enter an experienced player who can best give very precise instruction on certain aspects of the game. Aspects that are important in a one-on-one battle, which is really all hockey is – a series of one-on-one battles all over the rink.

Don’t hesitate to get your boots on for such things, but remember, your boots are best used showing somebody details they might not yet know. So you show them. Then take the boots off and get back where you mostly belong…at an elevation that gives you a bigger perspective so you can see how all the puzzle pieces are coming together. And be sure you share that insight – all of it – with your team. Without you providing that vision they’ll be unable to see how their work is making any difference at all. Over time, that’ll cost them their pride and morale. And the work will suffer. The organization will weaken.

Lead. By example. By coaching. By encouraging. By correcting. By every means necessary…lead. Do it from the ground. Do it from the sky. Stay in touch with the dirt because your boots don’t lie. Keep your focus from the sky though because that’ll drive every member of your team insuring they’re heading in the right direction.

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

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Grow Great a public sector leadership podcastAbout the hosts: Randy Cantrell brings over 4 decades of experience as a business leader and organization builder. Lisa Norris brings almost 3 decades of experience in HR and all things "people." Their shared passion for leadership and developing high-performing cultures provoked them to focus the Grow Great podcast on city government leadership.

The work is about achieving unprecedented success through accelerated learning in helping leaders and executives "figure it out." 

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