Leadership: A Necessary Craft

 

One of my clearest and earliest memories is of a piece of wood that rested under the light switches and single outlet of my childhood garage in Le Landeron, Switzerland. My board was under four feet tall, but that felt big to me. My drill and bit were probably on their last legs, having been rotated out of my dad’s regular usage, but it didn’t matter as I did not require much power to get through the softwood board. As a five-year old, I recall spending hours down in that garage while my dad worked on a variety of projects, riddling the board with holes, as plumes of sawdust cascaded down, collected on the garage floor and the sweet smell of pine filled the air. It is a powerful and visceral memory for me because of the camaraderie I felt with my dad, but also because even at that age, as I leaned my body weight against the drill and felt the wood fibers slowly tear, I experienced a sense of joy and awe that I believe has been felt by craftspeople throughout human history. This was my introduction to craftsmanship.  

 

As a five-year old, I recall spending hours down in that garage while my dad worked on a variety of projects, riddling the board with holes, as plumes of sawdust cascaded down, collected on the garage floor and the sweet smell of pine filled the air.

 

After my parents divorced and I left Switzerland, my first-generation American grandfather continued my education in Central Pennsylvania. In addition to his work as a contractor and small-town lumber yard owner, he was a gifted poet, sculptor and furniture maker. I have memories of hounding him for more wood scraps from the lumber yard so that I could add to my stock of material for the countless stools that I would build in his basement. They were the perfect gift for a 7-year-old to build; simple to assemble and decorate, and above all they were practical — everyone in my extended family had their own handmade stool. I gained more skills as I grew older and others in my life mentored me in my learning. High school and college summers were spent stacking lumber, putting together customer orders and working as a shop assistant in my family’s lumber yard. Lunch breaks and humid afternoons were spent dreaming of new projects, drawing plans and learning new skills.

 

 
Cousins Building Step Stools.jpg
 

 

In college I was part of my school’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) unit, one of the programs through which a young person can gain an officer commission in the military. My college summers were spent embedded in a Navy unit for six weeks of experiential learning/training or back in the family lumber yard. My first two years of service as a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) with the rank of Ensign — a ship based role focused on gaining navigation and combat systems qualifications and learning to lead a small team of six to eight Sailors — were designed to be an intense experience of learning and development  that would make me a more valuable asset to my command (ship) and the Navy.

When I reported to my ship based in Everett, Washington, one of my first priorities outside of work was to connect with the local Seabee (Naval Construction Battalion) detachment and see if they would let me use their wood shop after hours.  After verifying I knew my way around a shop, they agreed, future shop supervisors did too, and as the Navy moved me around the country over the next six years, I found the time to build a storage trunk in Everett, a mortise and tenon book shelf and workbench in Norfolk, Virginia, and an endless stream of projects out of the shop in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

 

It was this sense of duty, of being in relationship with and of service to others, that helped start maturing my idea of what it meant to be a leader.

 

Spontaneous “eureka” moments of clarity and vision seemed surreal to me; experience had taught me that those moments were the reward of years of work and dedication. Amidst the adventure and upheaval of two cross-country trips, three duty stations, and four deployments in four years, in the fall of 2011 I found myself underway on the USS TYPHOON (PC-5) in the Persian Gulf. Tired, stressed and lamenting the seemingly endless list of computer-based administrative tasks, I found myself longing for the days when my work involved handling power tools, calluses and splinters. In a rare moment of peace that allowed for private reflection on a 174’ ship with 28 other sailors, I recognized an important connection between my love of woodworking and of leading Sailors.

When I first stood before my small division of Sailors, much of the confidence and self-assuredness that comes from the ascension of the social and institutional ranks of a four year college evaporated, as I was confronted with the reality of just how much I had to learn; from them, about them and perhaps most importantly, about myself. In those first months I felt an overwhelming sense of duty, not to country or ship, but more fundamentally, to them. It was this sense of duty, of being in relationship with and of service to others, that helped start maturing my idea of what it meant to be a leader.

 

 
Crew Picture.jpg
 

 

For me, the craftsperson is someone who takes a raw material and alters it in some permanent way, to serve their own purpose (we assume, not always accurately, that it is a greater/higher purpose than the material’s original one). The immutable nature of craft is critical, as it testifies to the deep responsibility and care with which the craftsperson (or leader) must approach their work. Though an obvious concept on the surface — a felled tree cannot be replanted —  discounting the impact we can have objectifies both the craftsperson and the material, the leader and the led. I realized that as a leader, I had been entrusted with a different type of raw material—the complex, challenging, and inspiring—the human. With all of our skills, stories, hopes, ambitions, emotions and fears, we truly are both a beautiful and complicated raw material.

There is an inextricable and fundamental connection between what I believe is a primal sense of fulfillment that the alteration/modification of natural materials brings us and the way in which we conceive of leadership. Too often, and to its great detriment, leadership is reduced too simplistically to a collection of tangible traits and interpersonal skills that one can master. I believe that if we instead took to conceiving of leadership as a craft — engaging with it in the appreciative way that a furniture maker considers a rough-sawn piece of cherry (a healthy, unfelled tree for the purist)—that our pursuit of leadership would result in a far richer and more fulfilling experience for us and those we are entrusted to lead. The leader who aspires to greatness could benefit from considering members of their team as beautiful and complex resources who have been entrusted to their care in the pursuit of a greater good (goal, mission, or purpose).

 

The leader who aspires to greatness could benefit from considering members of their team as beautiful and complex resources who have been entrusted to their care in the pursuit of a greater good.

 

The journey from rough-sawn board to finished coffee table is a long one giving the opportunity for many lessons to be learned along the way. I recently undertook such a journey and it was that experience, considered together with the inclusive leadership development work that we do here at Greatheart Consulting, that served as a launching point for this piece of writing.

Here are three lessons I believe craftsmanship can teach us about leadership development.

The first, and perhaps greatest, is the necessity of humility. An eager young carpenter or furniture maker makes countless mistakes. At the start of their learning, their material seems to work more on them than they on it. Craft is reciprocal in nature because we are shaped through our alteration of the material—perhaps this is the price we pay for causing permanent change. There are clues that should guide our decision-making as craftspeople (e.g. deflection, grain patterns, knots and past lessons learned); however, these clues can easily be missed if we are not open to them. Our individual complexities make these clues far less obvious for the leader, but noting them requires that we listen with intention and accompany others genuinely in their journey.  As leaders we must approach our relationships with humility and the expectation that they are essentially reciprocal. Time and the demands of our roles will impact the degree of reciprocity we might experience, but our expectation and hope should not waver.

The second quality is that of intention, the committed and thoughtful consideration involved in the planning and achieving of our aims. The work of the craftsperson with regard to intention entails careful discernment and deliberate acts in their crafting. Similarly, the leader must approach their work with foresight and thoughtful consideration. This means seeking to know those they are leading on a deeper level — which often results in their own opportunity to be known and seen as their full selves. It means understanding the strengths, merits and skills of each team member intimately. This knowledge means that they don’t ask their team member to do things that they have not been trained or prepared to do without offering the requisite guidance and support. Finally, it requires relinquishing the illusion of total control — people, like raw materials, rarely react exactly as we hope — acknowledging our limitations, and managing the expectations that we have of ourselves, others and of the process in which we are engaged. No matter how much influence, knowledge or experience a leader exerts over a team or situation, total control is a dangerous illusion to rely on; one that blinds us to the possibility of innovative ideas and the beauty of the unexpected. 

Finally, the keystone quality of deep respect; of admiration, esteem and of being present enough to bear witness to beauty. This is perhaps the most essential quality of the craftsperson—and is something that has the potential to transform the way anyone does their work. Artisans, actors, designers, builders, singers, teachers, engineers, painters, coders: all are called to create and bear witness to beauty. In my case, this coffee table was to be a central piece of furniture in our family’s new home. In considering its journey from tree to furniture, I knew that this coffee table would continue to bring me great joy for years to come as loved ones gathered around it.

 

 
Finished Coffee Table.jpg
 

 

There is an honoring that comes from deep respect that must be recognized and discussed as a leadership imperative. The leader must respect and value those they lead as unique individuals who deserve to bring their best selves to work. That respect means honoring their stories and lived experience. The leader should experience esteem and admiration for the individuals they lead, recognize the beauty in the successes of their team and celebrate the shortfalls as opportunities for learning/growth. Finally, the leader of any sized team must recognize and respect the organizational culture for which they are responsible. Curating that culture and nurturing an environment that allows for these qualities to flourish is critical to the long term health and success of the individuals and team as a whole.

By virtue of our humanity, I believe we all are inclined to  seek fulfillment through the crafting and making of beautiful things. We are a people of craft—and craft can provide a valuable lens through which to view our own work as leaders whether we’re making furniture, writing program code or preparing a family meal. Pursuing leadership as a craft will help us to see the humanity, potential and brilliance in each person we interact with. It will help us to acknowledge our own needs and gaps—and to value the contributions others offer. It will cause us to value not only the end-goal or mission, but also the way in which we achieve this goal, and the impact we have on those around us along the way. I believe we will find that approaching the components, tools and results of our work with the humility, intention and respect of a master craftsperson will lead to unexpected lessons and yield unimagined results.