Many years ago, when I was a boy Scout, my Scoutmaster had a mantra. Wherever we went camping, we were supposed to leave the surroundings better than we found it. That meant that before we left the area, we had to do a thorough cleanup, pick-up, and canvas of the area.
If there were rocks lining the paths, every rock had to be properly in line whether we had disrupted them or not. If there were trash cans in the area, each one had to have the lid properly secured. Any litter that was found had to be picked up, again whether we had created it or not. As we left, we even brushed the pathways behind us, erasing our footprints in the dirt. A little extreme? Perhaps. But the teaching stuck.
Later, as I apprenticed with a master woodworker/craftsman, he too had a similar mantra about borrowing tools and equipment. If he borrowed something from someone, it had to be returned in better condition than it was first received. That meant cleaned, lubricated, polished, or dusted off. This too was a further reminder of the basic teaching. The mindset got fixed in my brain.
We don’t hear that principle shared much anymore these days. Yet there is so much that can be learned from it. The concept applies to leadership in its highest form.
If you are selected to lead a team or organization, why not leave it better than you received it? Leaders are supposed to accomplish things, right? But what about truly trying to leave things better off than they were before you started.
Before we get into more details, there’s one other key element here we should discuss. If you know you’re going to be doing a big clean-up at the end, you are more likely to take care of things during the stay rather than have to do a big bunch of work at the end.
The same is true about leadership dedicated to this kind of mantra.
Do little things daily to create the end result that is better than before. That way you don’t have to make a big push at the end to accomplish the same result.
The Leadership Influence
Choosing to apply this ‘leave it better than before’ principle to your leadership mindset will build a lasting legacy with those around you. If you become the leader that strives to make everything better, you will create a memorable impression that won’t go away. Sadly, the opposite is equally true. How many of us have worked for bosses who left scorched earth behind their reign? You were happy to see them leave.
But the boss or mentor who looked out for your well-being and helped you grow in your career or skill set will long be remembered.
Ways to Leave It Better
What are the ways a leader can make things better? Here are a few I’ve benefitted from.
First, genuinely learn who your people are and what they know how to do. Get into the details of their experience and skill set. Let them know you care about their ability to contribute. If you see gaps, encourage them to grow. Give them tips and ideas on ways to expand their tool kit of abilities.
Help people with networking inside and outside. This is a tricky one. In today’s complex business world, people are feeling overwhelmed with knowing they need to be able to network more, but they are either afraid of doing it or don’t know how.
Stop solving all the problems. Nurture the growth in your team by using key questions when they bring you problems. Encourage them to propose a solution to every problem before they merely lay the problem on your desk. Then share with them the logical process you use to get to a good answer.
Model the right behaviors. Whenever and wherever you show up as a leader, people are watching. Even the most subtle behaviors can become big influencers for those who are following you.
You likely will never win 100% of the time. Accept the 84% rule. A local Texas politician shared this one with me. He had won his election for Mayor by an 84% popular vote. While that is huge by today’s standard for electoral margin, he decided to not alienate the 16% that didn’t vote for him. Instead, he started to earnestly reach out to them and include their views in decisions facing the city.
Give people some slack or you might call it grace. People will make mistakes. The way you as a leader respond to those moments is what will make the difference.
Decide to break old habits. If the bosses you worked for modeled bad habits, don’t let those be yours to keep. A company’s culture evolves in time. The patterns of employee/employer relationships are what really define a culture, not some poster on the wall.
I once coached a senior executive who was responsible for a national network of high-dollar manufacturing facilities. There was big machinery operating under high pressure with potentially toxic environments. People could get hurt or killed. In the day when he was rising up the organization, being a site manager and having to report a problem to the big boss meant getting a chewing out before you got to talk about the details. It was automatic.
I asked this exec about that dynamic. He sheepishly admitted he tended to do the same thing to his people. I asked if it made any difference. He said no. He knew they felt bad and were already dealing with the disappointment. His adding to the dogpile didn’t help. So he agreed to stop doing that.
Things still happened in the plants, but the team culture changed. Site managers realized the big boss was there for them, not a voice to condemn what had happened. They needed his wisdom to orchestrate the resolution. He began focusing on administering those coaching and mentoring moments to help them grow rather than berating and belittling them.
His decision as a leader to show up differently, and make things better than before, broke a legacy of old-school management practice that had lived for decades. In one turn in the leader’s seat, he engrained a newer, more positive mindset in the hearts of the various site managers who would one day be the big boss themselves.
That, my friend, is how you can make a difference, leaving things better than they were before you got there.