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Leadership Guest Post: Who’s Holding Your Ladder?

Today I’ve asked leadership expert Sam Chand to give us one of the most important principles he’s ever learned about leadership.  Sam’s one of the most respected consultants and coaches in the world, and I’m always interested in any insights he has about leadership.  Here’s Sam’s answer to my question:

Waiting for someone to call me into the auditorium, I stared out the window. As I meditated on the points I wanted to cover as a featured speaker at this leadership conference, something in the street below caught my attention.  A man stood on a ladder painting—not that uncommon a sight. I smiled, remembering my student days in college. I had spent my summers doing that kind of work. Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off the man. For several minutes, I watched his graceful motions as he moved his brush and roller across the surface.

As I watched, I noticed that this painter was only covering a limited area. He stretched as far as he could to the left, to the right and even reached above his head. It also occurred to me that he was only going to the height that he was comfortable at, even though the extension ladder he was using could reach much higher. From my painting experience, I remembered that once I was on the ladder and had the necessary resources, I painted a much larger area before taking the additional time needed to climb down and relocate the ladder. It was an efficient method.

“Why isn’t he going higher to paint all the way up? What would allow him to go higher?” I asked myself. Then I saw the reason—no one was holding his ladder. By himself, the painter couldn’t go any further. He had done everything he could by himself. He needed help.

As I watched his graceful strokes, I realized the leadership parallels. Whether we’re talking about churches, businesses or non-profit organizations, the effectiveness of a leader depends on the person or persons holding the ladder—those who are in support roles.

The height that a visionary leader reaches on the ladder to their vision is not controlled by the leader’s capabilities. It’s not even controlled by how inspiring their vision might be. It’s controlled by who’s holding the ladder.

Then another thought struck me: Those who hold the ladders are as important as the leaders themselves.

The visionaries could have all the training possible, the most expensive equipment, years of experience and knowledge about painting, and a blend of expertise and passion about their craft. But that’s not the deciding factor. The ladder holder determines the height to which the ladder climber ascends. “That’s it!” I cried aloud. “Those who hold the ladder control the ascent of the visionaries.”

Additionally, a ladder holder who may be very capable with a 20-foot extension ladder (or vision) may not be the person you want holding your 45-foot extension ladder (a new or enlarged vision). Old ladder holders are rarely adequate at holding new ladders.

STAFF describes the five primary qualities of great ladder holders.

S = Strong—those who can handle instruction and correction.
T = Teachable—those willing to unlearn and relearn.
A = Attentive—those who can learn quickly.
F = Firm—those not blown about by manipulative people.
F = Faithful—those who have full faith and trust in you as their leader.

Your ascent up the ladder of your vision fulfillment is totally dependent on Who’s Holding Your Ladder.

Sam Chand is a Leadership Consultant and author of Leadership Pain.  Find out more at samchand.com.

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8 Comments

  1. It’s also important that we know where we (and the organization) are on the ladder. “Some people are at the top of the ladder, some are in the middle, still more are at the bottom, and a whole lot more don’t even know there is a ladder.” –Robert H. Schuller

  2. I really like that analogy. I’ve worked in supporting roles and it was always encouraging when the leader expressed appreciation for what those of us “holding the ladder” did on his behalf. As I’ve been in leadership roles, I know I would’ve been lost without great team members. We need the strengths and expertise of each other to reach our full potential.

  3. Oh the pain of the ladder. Thanks for this Phil!! What stuck with me the most about this was “Additionally, a ladder holder who may be very capable with a 20-foot extension ladder (or vision) may not be the person you want holding your 45-foot extension ladder (a new or enlarged vision). Old ladder holders are rarely adequate at holding new ladders.” The magic happens when the old ladder holder who worked with the 20 foot extension has the courage, grace and love to actually serve new leaders (not just through words), rallying around them and to help them become great leaders. In turn they become an even greater leader who rose to the ocassion.

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  5. Awesome article, Phil. Sam is a great leader and teacher. I’ve been on both sides of the ladder. I’ve held them for others, and also been 40ft up on one. Both, the one on the leader is as important as the one who holds it. One complements the other.
    Again, thanks for a great post. Great leaders provide great insight. 😉

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