One thing civil engineering and environmental consulting firm leaders can do that their staffs often cannot is make declarations. Owners make declarations. That's how they show up as leaders in their firms. Their lives are influenced by those declarations, but so are the lives of many others. People begin to organize around declarations. Yet leaders often are blind to the power of their positions and the declarations they make (or don't make). And they often are blind to the fact that they must encourage and support their next-generation leaders in making declarations, or their firms will stagnate beyond their direct involvement.
Time out for an English lesson. Let's take a look at some definitions before we go any further:
Assertion – An assertion is a claim that something is true; a statement of fact. It's provable or disprovable.
Assessment – An assessment is an opinion such as, "This is a great movie." Assessments are value-based statements. They are subjective and based on one's view. While assertions are objective, assessments are essentially your relationship to them. "Iron Man 3 is the best movie to come out so far in 2013." I can ground an assessment that a certain movie is the best movie; I can share facts with you why I arrived at that conclusion (e.g., it's the highest grossing film of 2013 to date, etc.).
Declaration – Making a declaration, however, is an action. JFK made a declaration about sending man to the moon and bringing him back safely. It wasn't a simple request or a promise. It was more powerful. It set big things in motion. When Kennedy made his declaration, NASA came into existence – and perhaps even more importantly, Tang got invented! A declaration is relying on a whole bunch of people and things that aren't there at the beginning to eventually come into play.
All leaders make declarations. We can make them because we have the authority to do so. In baseball, when is an out an out? When the umpire says it is. We have a great strike zone box on TV now that clearly shows balls and strikes. But the umps have the authority to call balls and strikes the way they see them. Sometimes you can see a ball that is way out of the TV strike zone but the umpire calls it a strike anyway. They have authority to do so. When a judge or a preacher says you are married, you are married – because they have the authority. You can act like it and live together for years, but until it's declared by a priest or rabbi or justice of the peace, it's not a marriage.
In 1960, Lyndon B. Johnson couldn't have made the declaration that JFK made about sending men to the moon. It wouldn't have carried enough weight to change anything. When LBJ did have the authority, however, things happened around his declarations.
Your future leaders can and should make declarations as well. As long as you support their declarations and don't cut them off at the knees, their direction will be taken. Once that happens, they start showing up as leaders to the rest of the staff – they begin to shape the future.
Think about the declarations you have made and the ripple effects they've had in your organization. Is anyone else in your company ready to make some future waves? If not, why not?
Mark Goodale is principal with Morrissey Goodale LLC in Newton, Mass. Morrissey Goodale LLC is a management consulting and research firm that serves the AEC industry. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.