Originally published on November 9, 2017
Last year I was at a counselor meeting to do an observation of a principal. The meeting was focused on students who were struggling to graduate and the efforts that they had taken to date to support those students. This reminded me of a video that I saw a couple of years ago in which a principal was giving a speech on how he managed to get 100 percent of his students (all of which were at-risk) accepted into college. He did this by breaking down the process into steps. The final step that the students did was to put their pennant (or something) high on the wall in the gym. Each time a student did this s/he had a raucous celebration where they could run into the gym to great fanfare and climb the ladder in order to hang the pennant. The thing was, the ladder was old and rickety so you needed to have people hold the ladder for you. This was a special and honored task that required the student to select four people to demonstrate the figurative and literal support required for the student to have achieved this task. I shared this example as a way to explain that maybe with our at-risk students we could do a better job making the steps to graduation a systematic task and to reward students along the way in this process. I said, “I’m doing a bad job explaining it so I recommend just googling the video.”
The principal sent me a link to something and I realized it was the wrong video. That led me to try to find the right video which, despite countless hours searching including reaching out to at least half a dozen people who saw it too, I could not find it. (In the process of writing this letter, I finally found it. I can’t say why I couldn’t before, but here it is in case you’re interested.)
In the meantime, I googled every iteration of ladder and leader that I could and came across Skip Prichard’s blog where he wrote the following about the author of the book Who’s Holding Your Ladder, a book I have since bought and read. In a future Letter, I will share some of what I learned when I read his book. For now, to pique your thinking, the following is from Skip Prichard about Samuel Chand’s book.
Walking through a busy convention floor at Book Expo America, I nearly bumped into him as I dodged through a publisher’s stand on my way to an appointment. It was one of those chance meetings, the ones you don’t expect but you figure somehow it was arranged or planned to happen just that way.
Dr. Samuel R. Chand and I collided, and it started a conversation about leadership and what makes it possible. After our meeting, I had the opportunity to read his books and soak in his ideas. I’m delighted to introduce him to you and share some of our conversation…
The story behind my book Who’s Holding Your Ladder? was an epiphany and came from my experience in 1999 in Long Island, NY. 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 cr