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Beware of Swooping Leadership
- Brian Dodridge
I’ve done it and it’s been done to me. Likely, you’ve done it and you’ve been on the receiving end. Swooping Leadership: With little background, context or subject matter expertise, swooping in from a higher level leadership position to someone else’s work or “weeds,” and even while uninformed, directing work and making decisions. Now, I thought I had coined a phrase and definition, but after writing my first draft, I Googled “my phrase” and discovered I’m late to the party. But at least I’m bested by a superior leader and writer, Ken Blanchard. That said, he uses a different and likely better phrase, “Seagull Manager,” to describe a similar concept. You can order the book The One Minute Manager and read his chapter and more about his concept in a website post from Modern Servant Leader. That post describes Blanchard’s Seagull Manager term as “individuals who manage by raising alarms based on little knowledge, provide negative feedback, then leave others to clean up the mess.” Reading the book and article would be worthy of your time, but since I’m handling the content with a less negative meaning and context, I’ll go ahead and use my inferior phrase, swooping leadership. Swooping leadership can happen:
- When a leader has delegated work but then has second thoughts and just can’t let it go
- When a leader is bored
- When a leader can’t seem to affect change in their own assigned work
- When a leader feels a little bit of their leadership influence can serve someone or a project
- When the nature of their leadership position may require it (such as, board members)
- Ask questions before you direct. Look, I’m sure you’re a good leader, but if you choose to swoop in, spend some time in discovery before you begin directing. If you spend four minutes in discovery on a project they’ve worked on for four hours, or 40 hours, you’re likely going to misdirect them.
- Guide, don’t push. Your title may give you the freedom to push, but that doesn’t mean you should use it. If your leadership advice is solid, they’ll see you as an asset. And your advice and guidance will be well received and even desired. You have to show them you can provide a better way.
- Suggest from your experience, don’t demand from how you’d handle hypothetically. Your experiences can be valuable. But your experiences are likely not the exact same thing they’re dealing with. So don’t draw parallels from your history to their work when it’s not there. Don’t transpose your leadership wiring and abilities on them—they’re not you. Suggest ideas when it can serve them, but know when “your way” is really just hypothetical.
- Respect the positional authority they have. While I hope they are also good leaders, either way, you need to respect the positional authority they’ve been given and act accordingly. And in the case of decision making boards and elders, know they’re fulfilling their responsibility. They likely have their own job, but someone has asked them to provide oversight and advice. So be accepting of their role in your work.
- Get clarity on your authority and boundaries. Albeit not passive-aggressively, understand what authority you’ve been given to do the work (I’ve blogged on delegation phrases and pathways previously). And if the authority previously given is now being challenged by their swooping, get clarity. You could say something like, “Previously you had given me a clear pathway to research this, think through it and make the decision I feel is best. Am I still free to do that or would you prefer I do this the way you just explained?” This makes the swooper make the choice on boundaries and authority, and they’ll have to own their swooping.
- Be openhanded to their input. Their swooping leadership could make your work better. What if utilizing one of their suggestions would make the work for your church even 2-3 percent better? Wouldn’t that be worth it? Constant swooping leadership can be infuriating, but don’t miss good input because you’re annoyed.