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The Law of the Inner Circle

July 23, 2012

(Note: This is part of a series based on John C. Maxwell’s book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.)

John C. Maxwell has written a number of books about leading and leadership.  They all have their merits and some of the books will resonate more with some readers than others, but it is his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership that provides some delicious food for thought for us in the conducting business.

Law Number Eleven (or, Chapter Eleven, as titled in Maxwell’s book) is called “The Law of the Inner Circle.”  The byline for this chapter reads, “A Leader’s Potential is Determined by Those Closest to Him.”

When I recommend Maxwell’s books to friends or classes I teach, I am sure to inform them that his background is in ministry. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to reference Seinfeld, it’s that religion is a personal experience. And, people generally don’t like surprises. So, I tell them that while there’s no quote from scripture at the beginning of each chapter in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, this book is informed by Maxwell’s leadership in the context of a church. And, why wouldn’t that apply to conducting? A church is what an orchestra/ensemble essentially resembles – a body of people who convene based on a similar fundamental set of beliefs. In the case of musicians, it is the shared belief of the power and beauty of music.

(What? Don’t YOU play the tromba marina, too?)

It isn’t too far a stretch to say that a conductor has a ministerial mission. The conductor acts as a conduit connecting the musicians to the composer and to the music-making experience. It can be a wonderful thing.

This chapter begins with Maxwell telling us about an offer he received to become the leader of the Skyline Church in San Diego, California. He began to assess the potential for growth of the church body, it had reached a plateau of 1000 members and had been stuck there for years. During his assessment of the current structure of the church’s leadership, he came to find that there were essentially three categories into which the current staff fell:

  1. The bottom third: ineffective leaders whose impact is not only minimal, but injurious to the organization.
  2. The middle third: find the stronger leaders in this group and develop them. Give them an opportunity to grow.
  3. The top group: Good leaders are important to keep and hard to find.

Maxwell says he “dismissed” the bottom third of leaders right away. He felt that their absence would be nothing but positive. (He doesn’t tell us how he dismissed them, or how he felt about it.) For the middle group he took about a year to process the good leaders from the bad, and then another two years to develop the ones who remained. After about three years, Maxwell had only retained two persons on staff out of the original group (he doesn’t specify how large the original group was).

(Some plateaus are beautiful, others not as much.)

Immediate dismissal of the bottom third of the staff has two noticable effects. First, the organization theoretically improves by shedding people who do not have a positive impact. And second, word gets around quickly that the new leader is “shaking the tree.” While I don’t relish the thought of leading by intimidation, it can be an effective technique for some.

Results? After about 10 years the church grew to 3000 members and the budget grew from $800,000 to more than $5 million a year. While this sounds great, most people ignore the first part: it took a commitment of 10 years! How often are we guilty of not thinking long-term?

The “Law of the Inner Circle” is called a “Mastermind Alliance” by Napoleon Hill and by Jim Collins terms it as, “getting the right people on the bus.” Maxwell, Hill, and Collins all put forth that success and effective leadership requires a component of like-minded people working passionately toward the same mission.  Once Tim Russell said to me “hiring the wrong person is a failure of leadership, 100 per cent of the time.” I responded with, “100 per cent? Certainly some people interview well and then don’t deliver!” He then responded, “Yes, you are right. A greater failure is keeping the wrong person if you hired them.”

Leadership expert Warren Bennis states, “The leader finds greatness in the group, and he or she helps the members find it in themselves.” Recently I received a warm compliment, “You really got the players to buy into the music. Every person from front to back was committed to the music-making.” While I deeply appreciated the compliment, I thought isn’t that what we are all there for? An effective conductor helps each player find the beauty of the music-making within themselves. The next step is helping each musician understand that their contribution is necessary and valued.  How inspired would you be as a participant in an ensemble where you felt you had the chance to give your greatest every time you showed up for rehearsal, and you were truly appreciated for it? I am betting most of us would answer with a resounding “YES! I would be very inspired!”

Maxwell tells us of Hewlett-Packard manager Ned Barnholt who believes there are three groups of people in an organization and their response to leadership and its impact:

  1. Those who get it almost immediately and they’re off and running with it
  2. Those who are skeptical and not sure what to do with it
  3. Those who start out negative and hope it will go away

Barnholt used to spend his time with the third group, trying to convince them to come along with him. But he eventually changed his ways and began to spend most of his time with the first group, “investing in his assets.”

(Here’s you investing in your assets. Go get ’em!)

You may wonder where you should spend your time in your organization. Here are the five types of people Maxwell recommends we bring into our inner circle:

  1. Potential Value – Those who raise up themselves (a “self-starter”)
  2. Positive Value – Those who raise morale in the organization (people who give good energy rather than drain it)
  3. Personal Value – Those who raise up the leader (some orchestras are solely built on this. I call those “vanity projects.”)
  4. Production Value – Those who raise up others (can your leaders within the orchestra inspire others?)
  5. Proven Value – Those who raise up people who raise up other people (can your leaders in your orchestra identify and lift others to be leaders?)

Maxwell recommends, “hire the best staff you can find, develop them as much as you can, and hand off everything you possibly can to them.” He doesn’t mean for us to dump unpleasant tasks on our staff, he means for us to empower and entrust our staff to get good things done.

Lee Iacocca says, “success comes from not what you know, but from who you know and how you present yourself to each of those people.” The Law of the Inner Circle, coupled with the Law of Magnetism, can help to bring the best possible people into your organization.

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