High Capacity Leaders and Low Lids

One of the best leadership books anyone can sit down and read is John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Maxwell’s timeless laws that are linked to real world examples provide a life-shaping read for leaders of any age.

law of the lidThe first law of the book is one that most people remember well, probably because it’s the first law: The Law of the Lid.

Essentially, this law is exactly what it sounds like, in every organization (business, government, church, non-profit, etc) lids exist that determine effectiveness. If someone has a low leadership lid, they’ll usually have low effectiveness. With a high lid, high effectiveness is possible.

For most organizations, when a leader with a high lid capacity is brought in, they can often be moved across different departments and divisions. Unsurprisingly, success follows them. Low lid leaders, however, stifle their departments and divisions. Jim Collins works out some key concepts related to this in Good to Great where he differentiates between different levels of leaders. If we understand both of these concepts together we can see that often, individuals down-line of differing leadership lids have varying results. Usually when a lack of productivity is combined with abnormally high turnover, there is an indication that a low lids is in place. This turnover is often created when a high level, or capacity, leader is forced to work under a low level leader.

In institutionalized organizations, one often finds high capacity leader working in a low lid situation. There are lots of reasons for this, often it is because as an organization becomes established it seeks out, or is allowed to keep, leaders that have more established patterns of service even if they have had falling results. Because of the maintenance mode that is inherent to an institutionalized organization, honest internal reviews and personnel audits are less frequent since the status quo is more important than creating and sustaining a dynamic workforce.

The short version: established organizations thrive off the status quo.

As a result, these organizations are able to hire young talent with higher than average leadership abilities because of the security and experience that can be gained working in that organization. These young leaders begin getting more and more experience and soon find themselves bumping up against their lids.

So, what keeps a high capacity leader in a low lid environment?

Often we see that a series of trade-offs exist. At first that trade-off might be the experience of working in a position and gaining insights beyond a university degree. Perhaps for someone seeking to break into a new industry, this translates to creating a pattern of consistency that is more attractive to future employers than a shiny new MBA or (for churches) MDiv. Other trade-offs could be, the ability to build a network of relationships that will advance one’s career in the future; time to finish off a degree or complete certain certifications; financial stability to create a better personal situation; being able to work around friends who might be likewise employed; being able to get office leavingthe “foot in the door” for an industry; and many others.

The reality is that for high capacity leaders, of any age but usually younger individuals, they will stay in a low leadership lid situation so long as the trade-offs outweigh the cost to their leadership ability.

Once the trade-offs diminish in value, or perceived value, and the opportunities for external advancement increase above the value of the trade-offs, the high capacity leader will leave their low lid environment. Though it happens, it is rare for high capacity leaders to stay in low lid situations for the long-term. True high capacity leaders have the impetus and calling to get beyond their lids and be challenged by high ceilings and bigger venues.

Established organizations can create a lot of success by leveraging the insights, abilities, and passions of new, high capacity leaders and, if they recognize how vital it is to champion the successes of those who move on, can earn higher credibility and performance in allowing these leaders to move on graciously.