11: The Law of the Inner Circle

People who are great leaders are said to be the leaders of many people - they have thousands or millions of followers - but in every instance, the leader works through a smaller group of people, who in turn lead others.

In politics, the leader of a nation has a cabinet of ministers who take leadership from him and give leadership to others; in the military, a general has his colonels; in religion, the pope has his patriarchs. And in each case, a leader's influence passes through the ranks - the general tells the colonels, each colonel tells his major, each major tells his captains, and so on until the orders reach a buck private who actually does something that directly effects the goal. But the leader's initial influence is with a much smaller circle of people than the entirety of his body of followers.

There is the sense among poor leaders that it's lonely at the top: that a good leader is a solo act: the Lone Ranger or a white knight. Simply stated, "that's baloney." In an organization of any size, a leadership cannot command a large group of people, but must work through others. Moreover, he must have the humility to recognize that he cannot go it alone, an needs the support of a group who have competencies he personally lacks.

In order to be successful, the top leader must have an inner circle of others who are themselves good leaders. If he lacks that, his vision will be lost along the chain of command, and he will not accomplish his goals. If the people in his inner circle are strong, and they contribute their influence to achieving the leader's vision, only then can really amazing things be accomplished.

Three Phases to New Growth

The author tells a story of his approach to leadership in a new church:

He divides the leadership into three groups according to their ability to lead. The lowest third, he dismisses right away because they are doing more harm than good. The middle third, he replaced slowly over time. Each time he removed someone, he would replace them with someone better.

His results were that he tripled the congregation in less than ten years, and more than quintupled donations.

(EN: I can reluctantly get behind the notion that the worst leaders are doing more harm than good and have to go, but my sense is that cutting out the middle group is a bit extreme. A good leader develops his staff, and while there are a few hard-cases who likely are easier replaced than trained, simply getting rid of people rather than developing with them is a sign of a weak leader who cannot improve his followers.)

Choosing Your Inner Circle

Under the best of circumstances, a leader should attempt to develop people within his organization who can step into his inner circle: these people understand the organization, and it improve morale if you recruit from within.

The easiest group to develop are those who get it almost immediately and are off and running. The next group are those who are skeptical and not sure what to do, whose reluctance and uncertainty can be overcome with encouragement and training. There are always those who cannot get past their doubt, or who are resistant to change. Some leaders spend the majority of their efforts trying to develop the worst of the bunch, but there's greater return in investing time in your best assets.

The author outlines five types of people he prefers to bring into his own inner circle:

  1. Those with potential value, who may be good leaders, or are on the cusp of becoming good leaders
  2. Those with good attitudes. Regardless of their competence, their positive outlook will boost morale in an organization.
  3. Those who are capable and have competencies that others lack.
  4. Those with a knack for identifying and leveraging the talents of others
  5. Those who are capable of developing others, particularly those who can help others be better leaders

Once you have found the right people, your work is far from over: you will need to develop and encourage them. The three-part task of a leader is to hire the best you can find, develop as much as you can, and hand off everything you possibly can to them.