Are You a Lighthouse Leader?

Between the ages of 11 and 12 years old, I lived at a lighthouse – Owl’s Head Lighthouse, to be exact – in Owl’s Head, Maine. The lighthouse is not particularly tall at only about 30 feet, but it is situated on a 100 foot cliff above Rockland Harbor. The lighthouse keeper’s house built in the 1850s was my home, and the rocky cliffs and beaches surrounding the peninsula were our playground. Many nights I would fall asleep to the sound of the foghorn and light flashing into our bedroom window every 10-20 seconds. That lighthouse was nothing if not steady, solid, and consistent (albeit annoying for a pre-teen)!

I had heard of the concept of a lighthouse leader before, but was looking into the topic again recently as I was preparing to share some content for a leadership meeting. I mean, whenever I can use a lighthouse as part of leadership metaphor, I’m all for it! While there were several great resources on the topic, I particularly liked this article from Rodger Dean Duncan on Forbes.com.

Duncan explains that a lighthouse provides three things to travelers: Light, hope and safety. Yes, modern GPS has replaced the need for a lot of what lighthouses provide… but for centuries they were a navigational must. And we all know technology isn’t fool-proof, in which case, an operational lighthouse is not a bad thing to have as back up. But, I digress.

Let’s talk about light, hope, safety, and strength, and how they translate to leadership, especially the type of leadership we need right now during market and economic shifts, and general uncertainty around the world.

A lighthouse leader provides a bright light.

Duncan wrote, “The lighthouse provides bright light. Travelers need to have an illuminated path. They need to see what’s ahead.”

One of the three most important jobs of a leader is to cast the vision and to cast it often. Team members need to understand where they are going and why. Leader’s provide this light by sharing the vision of the organization, narrowing that down to actionable annual/quarterly/monthly goals, and then providing focus, clarity, and direction on a more frequent basis. But it all starts with that initial illumination – which should inspire employees and keep them focused. Not only do team members need to know where they are going and why, they also want to know how they contribute to that bigger mission and vision. This is all part of casting the vision.

A lighthouse leader provides hope.

Duncan wrote, “The lighthouse provides hope. Travelers need assurance that they’re on the right course and that the decisions they’re making are sound.”

After sharing the vision and ensuring that the goals of the organization are clear, a leader must inspect what they expect. It is not sufficient to cast the vision once or proclaim a lofty goal without any follow-up or guidance. This is why we are such big proponents of the Weekly Execution Plan and weekly 1:1 meetings. They are not simply for accountability about what did or did not get done, though that’s part of it. These meetings are also a time for the leader to check-in with their direct report on their development, trouble-shoot any roadblocks that are prohibiting them from achieving their goals, and setting or resetting priorities as needed. In addition, these meetings are used as coaching opportunities so that team members continue to grow in their careers and in their leadership. Business is personal and team members need to know that what they are working on matters to you, to the company, and to them!

A lighthouse leader provides safety.

Duncan wrote, “The lighthouse provides safety. Travelers want to have confidence that the course they’re on is safe, reliable, with no crashes ahead.”

While nothing in life or business is guaranteed, employees want to know that they are working with a leader and a company they can trust. One they can trust to be transparent and vulnerable with them, and that they in turn can be vulnerable and transparent with. This type of work environment does not happen by accident. It does take time and intention. And it starts with the leader role-modeling strong, vulnerable, and transparent behavior. I think it is also important for leaders to develop an environment where direct feedback and fierce conversations are the norm, not the exception. This means that the leader is willing to be wrong, to listen, and to shift their perspective and decisions, after gaining more knowledge or new insights. It also means that the leader accepts and encourages their team members to make mistakes and truly uses those fail-forward moments as ways for everyone to learn and grow. A safe environment is necessary for a company to innovate and grow.

A lighthouse leader provides strength.

Last, but not least, Duncan reminds us in a closing note that a lighthouse, “stands tall and rock solid even during the worst of storms.” To that, I can personally attest. There were many times when my dad was coming home after being out on the ship for several weeks and, no matter what happened out on the ocean, the lighthouse was there, strong and solid, guiding him and his Coast Guardsmen home. The light beamed across the water showing him a safe way back to dock. And above all, the light gave him hope that he would be back home, on land, soon.

When there is volatility in the economy and in the world at large like there is right now, leaders must stand strong and resolute. They will not have all the answers, but they must be willing to make decisions when others will not, and take the hits when those decisions don’t go exactly as planned. Leaders have to step up and show the way forward, with their words and their actions. They must be present, purposeful, and prepared to stay the course, no matter what challenges come their way. Their employees and team members are counting on them to be that lighthouse amidst the storm.

Are you a lighthouse leader? What other characteristics do you think leaders must have for the year ahead?

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