JCI (Junior Chamber International) is a membership organisation for young professionals and young entrepreneurs that empowers it's members to learn new skills, grow their networks, give back to the community and experience leadership. Through 150,000 members worldwide, 5,000 local chambers in 120 countries, an army of volunteer self-development enthusiasts is bound to provide profound insights across all areas of personal and professional improvement; especially when it comes to leadership.
In this article I wanted to explore some of the things I have learnt, given the following context:
- Everything done in JCI is voluntary and non-remunerated
- All members have full-time jobs or businesses and must juggle involvement of JCI outside of personal and professional commitments
- With a President, Deputy President, management team and group of committed and engaged members - running a chamber is similar to running a small organisation (more on this later)
At our most recent JCI Bradford Past Presidents Dinner, I was discussing with another attendee what the most powerful lesson he learnt from his JCI involvement. He said that learning to lead people who aren’t paid to follow you is the only way to truly lead. Not only are their no training wheels or stabilisers (as it’s traditionally your first leadership post), your members also don’t have to follow you or your vision. He referred to this as authentic leadership.
This is something I had thought about at length but never really put my views on paper. I’ve always struggled to understand why I got involved with JCI and what it’s taught me. Hopefully, this reflective exercise should shed some light on this and also help others get a different perspective of leadership both in the traditional sense but also in an organisation that's dependent on the good-will of it's members to help shape the organisation.
1. Personal accountability and extreme ownership
Take a look at this TEDx talk by a former US Navy Seal on “Extreme Ownership”. In this talk, the speaker recollects an event that happened whilst on tour in Iraq where his platoon found themselves in friendly fire that left one Iraqi solider dead and many Seals injured.
As he was preparing a debrief to give to his commanding officers, he was running through all the things that went wrong and who could be to blame. After preparing a comprehensive report, 10 minutes before the presentation, he realised that although the reasons are important learning points for next time - he was ultimately to blame.
This is one of my most important leadership lessons and it comes with a heavy weight to bare. If your team fails, you have failed. If someone messed up, you weren't there and you didn't see it coming; it's still your fault. 100%. Yes, there are learning points for next time but you were responsible and if the team fails, you have failed.
It's important to understand the emotional impact of this ethos and it's certainly not one for the faint of heart. The coping mechanism for this is humility and respect for your team. They will try and blame themselves but you mustn't let them. As a team, you can learn for next time but you, as the leader, are solely responsible. This builds a stronger team spirit and enhances personal accountability from your team members.
2. The importance of getting buy-in
Because everything in JCI is voluntary, non-remunerated and done in the spare time of members - those supporting you must buy into your vision. How you manage this is your prerogative but the way I have to work best is simple; share your views, get their feedback, adapt your approach to suit them and delegate respectively.
Without buy-in, members don't own their own their involvement. When rolling out a new strategy, product or process, those impacted by it must buy into it and be able to both engage with it, and in the context of JCI, deliver it.
3. Being positive and banning negativity
We've all been there. We've messed something up in an important situation and we’ve been told off. We’ve all been on the wrong side of the blame-game, whether it’s justified or not. It makes us feel rubbish for the moment and we rarely learn our lesson. It’s also disheartening and without a supportive and constructive environment, under performance can’t be nurtured.
Negativity is poison in JCI. Anything done or said in a negative manner can be the difference between causing friction within a team to losing a vital member. You would never take that risk with a team you respect. Any feedback must be positive, any discussion or debate must be the same. The only thing that can be treated negatively is negativity itself. Luckily, in JCI we have an excuse (we're all here to have fun so keep that kind of language for elsewhere) but making sure that the deflationary tone of negativity doesn't poison your airwaves is an important lesson to learn, in any environment.
4. Accepting people for who they are
Between nature and nurture, there's not much wiggle room for radical self-redesign. The old adage says that people never change, and although I don't disagree, it presents and interesting reflection for leaders. I believe quite passionately in the concept of tabula rasa - you are born with a blank canvas which outside of the free choices you make (and so few of them are actually free choices), people are the products of their environments and thus are pretty much grounded in their ways. People say losing weight/gaining muscle is hard because you are both the sculptor and the marble. It's important when acting in a leadership role that you remember these points.
We all like feedback (providing it's delivered in a constructive and supportive manner) but for me, leadership is about making the most out of the team, not the individuals who make it up. If you're going to suggest improvements to people, you can't expect that process to fundamentally change something that has taken years in the making (like a person). Providing people aren't being disruptive and affecting other members of the team, it's your job as leader to make sure all members of the team are utilised to the best of their willing ability and not ask for an ounce more. If people are underperforming, that's no fault of the individual. Remember my first point. Not only must you accept people for who they are (including their limitations) but you must also accept that they are there because you put them there, and if it's not working out, again, the blame lies with you. Either make the most of what you've got or get them out of the team.
5. Respecting all team members
I can think of few things more insulting than not having genuine respect for every member of your team. Remember points 1 and 4! They are there because you wanted them there (whether they're a member, staff or whoever) at one point. You've made your bed, now you must lie in it. Along with accepting them for who they are, you must also genuinely respect them and their contribution to the team (in any and all ways). There performance is your responsibility and delegating ownership down to them is the right thing to do but accountability still lies with you.
Part of harnessing the potential of your team is respecting all contributions. If things could be better, don't be dismissive - take what they've done and walk them through what you think was missing and do it in a positive way. This is not about you, it's about the team and you need everyone’s buy in on this. Respect their contributions and support them towards making any required improvements.
6. The forgotten virtues - honesty, integrity, humility and trust
As you've no doubt noticed by now, I'm pretty passionate about this stuff. I remember reading somewhere that management is the process of doing things right whereas leadership is about doing the right thing.
The virtues listed above are important to embody this approach to leadership as it hangs on one word – authenticity. This is the hardest lesson to implement as we humans have a natural distrust (and rightfully so) of anything that we deem virtuous. My only suggestion is to be humble about the importance of these and request that people feedback to you when these standards of virtue are not being met. It'll be hard to hear but avoidance of the conversation will only exacerbate matters.
The key part of each of these virtues is in leading by example, although being cognizant of the points made above:
Honesty - always say what you mean and mean what you say.
Integrity - treat all in the same manner you would want (not expect!) to be treated yourself
Humility - always take less of your share of the praise and more of your share of the blame should be re-written. Take none of the praise and all of the blame.
Trust - trust your team completely and they will trust you. If they don't, it's your fault because, and this will come as no surprise to anyone, there's a reason they don't trust you. If this is the case, work towards building it back up. It's all you can do.
These leadership virtues (even simply adopting this mindset) will hugely benefit your leadership development as accountability and responsibility as a natural leader shifts to you, along with it will come the respect and trust of your team.
7. Embracing the challenges
Building on the point about always being positive and never being negative, always rise to any challenge with a smile on your face. If something is not to the expected standard then you'll just have to deal with it. Remembering point 1 (if something is not to standard then there's only one person to blame), you also have to respect your team and be positive and treat it like a challenge you have to overcome.
8. Know yourself
Along with respecting the shortcomings of your team and embracing them - you should also hold yourself in the same regard. This manifests itself in being honest with your own shortcomings and communicating this with your team.
JCI members often learn most about themselves through leadership academies - specifically the following personality profiles; red, yellow, blue and green. For those of you who don't know what these mean, this will give you a short introduction to the profiles.
I'm very red with a redeemable slice of green (if you understand these concepts then you probably understand where a lot of this article is coming from…). I accept that what strengths come from being a red also can be negatives to different people. Sadly I can't change that but as long as we communicate those things and respect each other for doing so, and also provide open forums for this to be raised if necessary, then we can all be mutually respectful of each other.
9. Find good people and get out of their way
As I have probably mentioned many a times already, members of JCI get involved for their own development reasons and everything done is both voluntary, non-remunerated and done outside of working hours. This means no office space, little shared resources and few pre-answered questions.
Part of being a good leader is finding good people and letting them do what they need to do. I feel that terms like 'setting expectations' are not in the interest of positive and supportive leadership, instead, team members should own their roles and responsibilities and then you, as a leader, help them make it a reality. This role is nurturing and supportive. You may be in the driving seat but compassion is your biggest asset in making the vision a reality.
This doesn't mean leave them completely (something I have been guilty of in the past - mainly because I can be too polite, despite being a red…). It means always offering to help and support where they need it. If they're falling behind, that's okay, offer to help. If a deadline is creeping up, that's okay, offer to help. If the deadline is there and it hasn't been done, you should have done it yourself (and it's your fault for not doing this sooner).
10. A lesson earned is a lesson learned
This is my final lesson, and it's probably to most important. All this stuff is great and well help you becoming a more authentic leader. However, and I know how cliché it is to say this, this stuff has to be earned. The most powerful thing JCI has provided me (and something money and training can rarely buy) is a place to earn these lessons. By making the mistakes that I have, I've learned these lessons the hard way.
They say the behind every medal on a general's chest is not a celebration but a reminder, that we all have earned the posts that we hold and every medal will represent a difficult period, a shortcoming, a mistake and, in the context of the military (and not so much in JCI), a lot worse.
I challenge everyone reading this to consider the points made above and appreciate them in the manner in which they were shared, not as a statement of fact, or even one of perspective, but more one of humble reflection.
If you have got this far; first, thank you for taking the time to read this. Secondly, I have a bonus point which I’m referring to as the ‘Authentic Leadership Curse’ which I will happily share with you. Connect with me on LinkedIn and I’ll share my private post on this bonus, a perhaps most important point.
At JCI, members utilize the Active Citizen Framework and volunteer to undertake projects that will help further the Sustainable Development Goals to create positive change in the world. We ensure the success of our projects by offering our members personal and professional development opportunities as well as leaning on our international network for alternative perspectives and even more training sessions, and of course, we always take time to celebrate our successes while reflecting back on what was accomplished. If this sounds interesting to you...