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Leadership as Guardrail: 4 Best Practices

Leadership as Guardrail

“You don’t want to do that!” Uncle Dave said that to me as I opened the car door before we came to a complete stop. I’m not sure exactly what happened next, but it included me not listening to him, the car screeching to a halt, the door swinging open, a loud honking from the swerving pick-up truck next to us, and, perhaps most importantly for this 7-year-old boy, the strong arm of Uncle Dave reaching across from the driver’s side to grab me before I fell out the door and under the wheels of the truck.

I don’t have many memories of Uncle Dave.  Truth is, he wasn’t my uncle, he was my elderly great-uncle, and I think he passed away not too many years after that incident.  But I’ll always remember his strong arm reaching for me before anything bad could happen.

A Leader’s Job: to Serve as a Guardrail for his or her team

Leader – I often think of that analogy as I think of our roles.  At times, you and I are to act as the guardrail, keeping our organizations from moving toward something that may be detrimental to our cause.  There are four specific areas that we need to recognize our role as guardrails:

Leadership as Guardrail #1: Be a guardrail when it comes to our money

Recently I was with 50+ other business owners and leaders.  All of us owned our own businesses.  While a number of us at the meetings were not “daily operators” – we have team members under us doing the direct work, several of these owners were very much owner-operators.  They pushed the ball forward every day.  They have their eyes on day-to-day and even hour-to-hour operations.  From my perspective, they should have much more successful operations because of how close they are to the front line.

Interestingly enough, that was not always the case.  Several of these owners were struggling.  One of the re-occuring realities for the struggling business leaders: they didn’t have a clear budget, they didn’t compile consistent P&L statements, and they did have a real sense of the financial side of their businesses.  Revenues came in, bills came in, and at the end of the month, they counted on there being more money coming in than was going out.

Leader – whether you are a small business owner, the overseer of a non-profit or a divisional leader with a limited scope of responsibilities, you need to know where you money is, have a plan for how to use it, and what to do when things get tight.

Leadership as Guardrail #2: Be a guardrail when it comes to our people

Chloe worked for one of our divisions.  Two years ago I recommended to her manager that she be replaced.  From my perspective, she didn’t have what it took to be successful.  She didn’t appear to be particularly skillful at her work and her customer interactions weren’t stellar.  To his credit, her manager defended her to me, encouraged me to be patient, and promised to work with her.  24 months later, Chloe is still on the team, she’s become highly competent at her job, and customers love her warmth.

And I saw a leader protecting one of his team members.  Well done!

Leadership as Guardrail #3: Be a guardrail when it comes to our time

This one gets personal for me.  I don’t know what your work rhythms look like, but I know mine.  And often I’m not pleased.  I spend way too much time unproductively.  Useless emails clog my in-box, unproductive meetings fill my calendar, phone calls that I should ignore get answered.  Leader – how do you protect your time?  What do you need to do to improve your game?

Leadership as Guardrail #4: Be a guardrail when it comes to our market

Do you know your competition?  When’s the last time you “secret shopped” them?  How about your target market?  How is it changing?  What will it look like in 18 months?  3 years?  5 years?  If you aren’t thinking about these things, who is?

I often write in the space about the visioning aspect of leadership.  I’m excited to think about how we drive our organizations into the future.  It has also been a good reminder to me that oftentimes our job is to protect where we are at.  Leader – how are you doing at acting as a guardrail for your organization?