This weekend, I was helping my daughter get moved into her apartment at Texas Tech, and we had to go to the store to get some paint—teal paint to be exact. (Only Pinterest could incite someone to want to decorate their apartment in teal.) You’ve probably seen the machine at a paint store that drips a few drops of concentrated pigment that turns a base paint into the exact color wanted. Of course, it’s computerized so that the machine drops the exact amount based on a perfect formula to create a consistent product every time. It’s a rather impressive machine. I think the person (probably a team) that invented it deserves every penny they’ve earned from it.
In some ways, it’s a picture of what good leadership brings to a situation. For example, leadership is catalytic. Just like the pigments change the product and make it into something that it would never be without it, leadership changes situations. If your leadership and your presence isn’t changing the way things are done and raising the performance of others, then you aren’t leading; you are just managing.
However, as I watched it work, I found myself thinking, “That’s not really how leadership works because no two situations are exactly the same.” There’s no perfect formula for leadership. What works in one setting, with one person, with one city, with one department won’t necessarily work the same way when conditions are different. And conditions are never quite the same. Perhaps that’s why no NFL coach has been able to win a Super Bowl with two different teams.
When it comes to mixing paint, formulas ensure quality. When it comes to leading people, formulas alone won’t ensure success. Leadership formulas can certainly be helpful patterns. They give us templates to “size up” a situation. But, to be a successful leader in each unique situation requires the flexibility and the ability to improvise. That’s why one of my favorite authors, Max DePree, entitled one of his books Leadership Jazz. Great leaders improvise like great jazz players “jam” with other musicians. Sure there’s a musical score, but that simply provides the foundation for creating something that is completely unique in that particular moment.
Paint stores offer a promise based upon a formula. They promise that if the right formula is used then the color of your paint will be the same time after time after time. Leadership can’t make that promise. However, leadership makes a better promise.
Good leadership promises that the leader will be attentive enough, flexible enough, and persistent enough to take the unique dynamics of every setting—and make it something better than it was without good leadership.