Leading from the Outside by George Block (2000)



The American Swimming Coaches Association has made the leadership role of coaches at every level—training group, club, LSC, USA Swimming, USOC, FINA and the IOC—central to its mission.  We have both written and spoken extensively about the need for leadership; leadership development, even leadership/management techniques, but we have not dealt with the reality of the leadership experience.


We have been disappointed when one of “our guys” gets elected, but can’t change things.  We have been disappointed when coaches we perceived as leaders were fired by their club or college.  We were frustrated by the “conflict” between USA Swimming and ASCA, but even more frustrated that the absence of conflict has failed to produce results many coaches feel would be significant.


One of the reasons for the frustration is the myth that a leader can “come in and make changes”.  This can easily be done in an organization widely agreed to be failing, but in most organizations, certainly most teams, universities, LSCs and USA Swimming there is little or no consensus that the organization is failing.  This brings us to the real, daily nature of leadership.


Leadership takes time.  Leadership takes patience.  Leading is primarily teaching and allowing time for learning.  It must not only meet the needs of the “followers”, but also elevate them.  This is a critical definition.


Many times I have heard (or used) the expression “leading the wrong way”.  Leading the “wrong way” is not leading.  It is mis-leading!  Leadership is mobilizing people to do something socially useful.


Problems of Leadership

Diversity is a word that has been used so often and in so many ways that it has essentially lost meaning.  If nothing else, the real meaning of diversity has been watered down to mean only ethnic diversity, but ethnic diversity my be the most superficial diversity in the world today. Real diversity is intellectual diversity, a diversity of values.


Real values are made, shaped, tested and refined by rubbing up against real problems, because people interpret problems according to the values they hold.  This is why real problems become emotional so quickly—because they rub our values raw.


Different values shed different lights on the different opportunities and different facets of a situation.  This is why it is so important for leaders in authority to include competing values and perspectives, real diversity.  It is those competing values and perspectives that result in an adaptive success.


An adaptive success is when the organization changes, grows or gains new capacity.  For the most difficult problems, it is these new capacities that are needed.  Tackling tough problems often (usually) requires an evolution of values.  All sides must expand or shift their viewpoints and capabilities.  Attempting to lead, without including all of these competing values, is like driving with blackened windows.  You cannot prepare for or respond to what you cannot see.


Beneficial Conflict

All organizations have a mix of values.  The “competition” that results from this mix explains why organizational change and adaptation results from (and in) conflict.  Conflict and heterogeneity are critical for organizational learning, change and growth.  People may not come to share each other’s values, but they will come to understand them.  They will learn from them.


The problem for the leader is that learning takes time.  Difficult learning takes even more time.  Organizations are much like a school bus driving down the highway.  Most school busses come with a “governor” that limits maximum speed.  It can go, but only so fast.  All organizations have social/historical governors, as well.  The organizations can learn, but only so fast.


Unintended Consequences

A common coaching cliché is “You make your own luck”.  That is essentially the definition of serendipity.  Leaders can take tremendous advantage of serendipity.  I have always defined serendipity as “Looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter”.  Serendipity is looking for something and finding something even better!


Good accidents happen, but only if you’re doing something!  Difficult situations are often avoided because of the inherent pain and conflict, but this avoidance prevents serendipity.  It prevents the organization from discovering something even better than their original objective.  This requires improvisation.  Leaders must improvise.  They have to learn from events and take quick advantage of unplanned opportunities that those events uncover.


Organizational Procrastination

The surest preventative to serendipity is organizational procrastination.  Organizational procrastination prevents action, which makes serendipity impossible.  Unless there is a sense of urgency, an organization will procrastinate.  It becomes the job of the leader to develop that sense of urgency.


Once a problem becomes “urgent”, an organization will do one of three things:

  1. Use an existing “system” to solve it;
  2. Use an existing system to provide short-term relief (at a substantial long-term cost); or
  3. LEARN, CHANGE and GROW to meet the new challenge.


The Leader’s Job

The leader’s real question is “How do we avoid the short-term ‘cop-out’ and do the long-term work.  This makes the essence of leadership facing the tough realities.


3 Definitions

Three definitions must be clarified before we continue.

  1. Leadership is mobilizing people to do something useful.
  2. Authority is conferred power to perform a service. This authority can both be given and taken away.  It is an exchange.  Failure to perform the service means losing one’s authority.
  3. Dominance is based on coercion. There is no exchange.  It is not given; therefore it cannot be withdrawn.



The nature of leadership changes dramatically depending on the “position” of the leader.  By position, I do not mean “rank”; I mean the authority position of the leader.  Is the leader in a position of authority inside an organization, or is the leader in an advocacy position outside the official authority structure of an organization?  This becomes even more ambiguous for the swimming coach who finds him/herself simultaneously inside and outside depending on the issue.


The attached chart (LEADING) attempts to visually depict both the opportunities and limitations of both positions.


Limitations is not a word or concept often associated with leaders, but it is one that must be acknowledged.  It is also important to acknowledge that leaders in both positions (inside and outside) need each other.


Would LBJ have been able to pass his famous Civil Right legislation without Martin Luther King?  Would Martin Luther King have succeeded without the police and military protection provided by LBJ?  Would FINA have made any headway against drugs without the efforts of John Leonard?  Would John Leonard have been successful without behind-the-scenes support of members of FINA’s inner circle?


Please look at the chart



By authority, I am referring to both those with formal and informal authority, inside the formal structure.  Without authority really refers to those outside the formal authority structure of that organization.  What makes the coach’s life so complicated is the duality of his/her role.  The coach will simultaneously be inside the power structure for some issues, while remaining outside for many others.  Confusion or misunderstanding these roles can cause the coach great difficulties.


The inside leader is asked to provide direction, protection and order to the organization.  The outside leader can provide focus.  In order to provide direction, protection and order, the inside leader must be stable.  On the other hand, focus can often be achieved by being dramatic.


When your role is on the inside of an organization, people turn to you for solutions.  As the leader on the outside of the power structure, people look to you to point out problems.  Inside leaders, however, can only deal with “ripe” issues.  Outside leaders have the opportunity to “ripen” them.  People look to their inside leaders for good news.  Meanwhile, the outside leader needs to ask the tough questions.


Types of Problems

There are three types of problems organizations must deal with:

  • Technical
  • Technical/Adaptive
  • Adaptive


Technical problems are the simplest and most obvious, because solutions are in place from similar problems that the organization has dealt successfully with in the past.  Technical problems cause little or no conflict in an organization. The outside leader asks for assistance.  The inside leader recognizes a clear and familiar problem and offers a clear and familiar solution.  All that is left for the outside leader is to offer public appreciation.


Technical/Adaptive problems are the next step up the levels of organizational complexity.  In this situation, the outside leader pressures the power structure for a response to a problem.  The inside leader recognizes a clear problem, unfortunately there is no clear solution.  In these situations, it is the role of the outside leader to collaborate with the inside leader.


The inside leader must ask the hard questions (if he/she yields this role to the outside leader, he/she greatly diminishes his/her authority).  The inside leader must determine if the solution to this problem will require changes in values, attitudes and/or behaviors?  If not, all the organization has to do is develop new technical capacities.  If it will require changes in values, attitudes and/or behaviors, the solution to the problem will take the organization to the highest and most difficult level of organizational adaptation.


Adaptive problems require a “dance” between the inside and outside leaders. Adaptive problems are those when the system recognizes that something is wrong (perhaps very wrong), but it has no idea what the problem is.  The outside leaders apply pressure to the system, in order to make the problem urgent.


When the inside leader responds, the outside leader must relieve the pressure, so that the tough questions get asked.  Again, collaboration is needed and facilitated by the inside leader.  The outside leader collaborates while progress is being made, but opposes when progress is sidetracked.


Adaptive problems require the most skill and sensitivity from both the inside and the outside leaders, but it is the inside leader who must control the process.  The inside leader must make sure that everyone who can contribute and who has a stake in the solution is at the table.  The inside leader must ask the right questions.  He must allow the outside leader to build the pressure when the organization begins to procrastinate and he must relieve the pressure when the organization is dealing with the problem effectively.


Both the inside and the outside leaders must know what tools they have at their disposal and know how to use them.  Equally (if not more) important, both leaders must know their limitations.  At the bottom of attachment 1 is a simple graphic of the limitations of both the leaders WITH authority (inside) and the leaders WITHOUT authority (outside).



The inside leaders, those in positions of authority, cannot focus on single issues.  They were hired or elected to keep the whole system running.  On the other hand, those outside the system, the leaders without authority, must focus on single issues.  If they are trying to oppose ten different initiatives, they lose their effectiveness.  Leaders without authority must bring to the table a laser-like focus and an ability to maintain that focus over the long haul.


Expectations are also an issue.  Leaders with authority must meet the expectations of the entire organization.  They must meet the expectations of those who elected then; those who hired them; and those who were not even a part of the process, but for whom they are responsible.  Leaders without authority only have to meet the expectations of their constituency.  In these situations, their constituency becomes very narrow.  Their constituency are those people with an interest or stake in the solution to this particular problem, who also share the outside leader’’ viewpoint.


These expectations go hand-in-hand with responsibility.  The leader with authority is responsible to the entire organization.  She is responsible to those above her and those below her.  The leader without authority is responsible only to her peers, those whom she represents that share her same interests in the outcome of this situation.


The inside and outside leaders also have vastly different vantagepoints.  These vantagepoints go a long way to shaping the views and responses of the leaders.  The leader with authority operates away from the front lines.  They often lose touch with “how things really are”.  The leader without authority operates from the front lines.  He knows the reality on the ground, but lacks the big picture that is so much more evident to the leader with authority.


In order to solve the problem the two leaders have to take virtually opposite actions.  The inside leader began by bringing people and asking questions.  Now he must narrow his focus from broad questions to specific solutions.  In order to implement these solutions, solve the problem and develop consensus, the outside leader must broaden her focus by moving from representing only her constituency to working with a much larger coalition.


Though the leader with authority brings a great deal of control to the table, one thing he cannot control is the “stimulus”.  He doesn’t know where the next problem will come from or how it will be presented.  This is an area where those outside the formal power structure have control.  They determine how the problem is presented.


Will it be worked out quietly, behind the scenes?  Will it be confrontational?  Will it be viewed as a problem or as an opportunity?  What those without formal authority cannot control is the response of the system.  Will the organization treat them like a virus and organize to “kill” them?  Will the leader with authority focus on this problem and facilitate a response?  Will the problem be too scary or difficult, leading the organization to put a Band-Aid on it now and pay a much greater price later?  The organization’s response is up to those with authority.


Interestingly, both leaders must be careful about which issues they take on and which they avoid.  If the leaders with authority fail to deal with enough issues, they become viewed as obstructionists and lose their authority.  If they try to handle too much and fail too often, they become perceived as ineffective and also lose their authority.


For the leaders outside the power structure, failure to take on enough, significant issues means a loss of their constituency.  Taking on too many turns them in to a lightning rod, where they both burn up and burn out.


As important as both the inside and the outside leaders are in a system, it is the leader with authority who has the much larger “toolbox”.  Please look at attachment 2.  Key leadership tools.


Key Leadership Tools

The leader with authority controls the environment.  She controls the people: who is involved; who is at the table; who contributes what, when.  She controls the stresses: deadlines, community pressure, media pressure, intra-group antagonism are all tools she can use to pressure the group to avoid procrastination.


The authority figure controls the attention.  The organization will only focus on that which he decides to focus.  The authority figure also commands the attention of the rest of the organization as well as the key players outside the organization.


Similarly, he controls the flow of information.  The inside leader decides who contributes what information.  The inside leader also has critical information that is his to provide, or not provide.  He can also decide to whom to provide this information.


The leader with authority exerts the greatest influence by deciding how an issue will be framed.  Framing constitutes the boundaries and context in which the solution will be sought and how the working group will present this solution to the larger organization.


An easy example of the power of framing (perhaps misapplied) comes from the Clinton impeachment.  No matter how hard the leaders without authority tried, they could not overcome the framing of the leader with authority.  “It’s just about sex.”


The leader with authority “creates” the crisis.  As much as the outside forces work, until the leader with authority acknowledges it, there is no crisis.  The inside leader may desperately want to solve this problem, but thinks that his organization is just not ready to deal with it.  Often in that case, he will use the outside leaders to create conflict to disturb the organization and get people thinking about the problem, heating it up, so that he can declare it a crisis when he thinks the organizations is ready to do the work of solving it.


The leader with authority also chooses the process through which the problem gets solved.  Will it be an autocratic process, a consultative process or a collaborative process?  Autocratic solutions are viewed as being politically incorrect, however in many cases they are very appropriate.


It the problem is relatively simple (it can be serious, but still simple), an autocratic solution is very appropriate.  If the “solution” is just the first step toward much greater change, an autocratic decision is called for.  If the organization is “weak”, for example, if you have been brought in to “turn around” a failing club or team, many autocratic decisions will be needed to get things going in the right direction.  An extension of this is a real crisis.  In crisis situations, autocratic decisions are needed.  There is no time for the processes of collaboration and consensus building.


If the problem has many possible solutions, none of which are clearly superior or supported by a majority of the organization, a consultative process is needed.  Many voices need to be brought together, so that views may be heard and viewpoints exchanged.  Consensus must be built.


When the nature of the problem isn’t clear, much less the solution(s), real collaboration is needed.  People must come together first to learn about the problem, then to develop consensus on the solution(s).


This is all possible, because the leader with authority has trust.  If the leader did not have trust, she would not have been given the authority in the first place, but trust is a fragile and dynamic characteristic.  Trust is based on perceived competence and values.  The leader is granted authority because her “followers” believe she is competent and shares their same, general values.


Once she has this trust, every action she makes either earns more, or loses that trust.  Either her actions build trust in her competence and values, or it erodes that trust in her competence and values.  That is why leaders with authority are so reluctant to take on “unsolvable” problems.  They can only lose.  Their trust and their perceived competence can only go down.


Once the leader knows what tools are at his disposal, he must follow the proper steps is solving the organizational problems that confront him.


Key Leadership Steps

First, identify the problem…the real problem.  What is the situation?  What values are at stake?  When the problem affects people’s values, the problem immediately generates emotion.  When people’s response seems out of proportion to the (state) issue, you know that there is something bigger hidden below the surface.  You have to find out what that is.


Second, keep the stress tolerable.  There are very few problems that don’t pit one “faction” against another.  It is up to you, as the leader, to keep the heat on (so there is reason to solve the problem), but not let it boil over (and do damage to the organization).  It is also important to keep the stress tolerable on you, so that you can use all of your tools and solve the problem.


Third, keep the focus on the issues.  It is very easy to let either (or both) side slip into scapegoating and make the other side the problem.  You have to keep everyone working to learn about the problem, about each other’s viewpoints and help everyone discover a solution that everyone will support.


Fourth (and perhaps most important), make THEM solve the problem.  The only way everyone will support the eventual outcome is if everyone has a significant stake in the development of the solution.  If you solve it (because often the solution is obvious to an uninvolved party), neither side will support the solution at the first difficulty.


You have to help them and make them do the work, but at a pace they can handle.  It may be significantly better, faster, easier if you “solve” it, but it won’t last and YOU may be the one to go, because you will be blamed for its failure.  If they develop the solution, they won’t let it fail!  This takes time.


Both sides are learning new “facts” and being exposed to each other’s values, which is much more difficult than learning facts.  Although it may seem interminably slow, as long as everyone is making a legitimate effort, support them and let it occur at their own pace.


Occasionally, there is a real, outside deadline that must be met.  In those instances, agree in advance to a timetable for the achievement of certain intermediate markers.  Whatever “exists” on those days becomes real.


Finally, protect your “adversaries”…those leaders without authority.  They point out problems that need to be fixed.  They “ripen” issues that, without their efforts, the organization would never develop the will to face.  They can force people to confront issues that you can’t.


How do you, as the leader with authority, know how you’re doing?  There are certain symptoms, or signals, that can tell you a great deal about the organization’s health and the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of your leadership efforts.


Leadership Indicators

Social stresses within the group, or organizational stresses, show you areas of needed work.  This is an area that needs your attention and has been ignored by you or your predecessor.


Personal attacks on you point out work that you avoided.


Finding yourself overworked trying to deal with organizational problems tells you that you haven’t brought the right people to the table, or if you have, you haven’t given them the problem.  Don’t do the work!  Instead, challenge, then support, those who are involved in the problem, or who have a significant stake in the outcome, to develop the solution.


Again, this takes time, but it saves you work and builds a solution that is supported in the long run.


If you find yourself burning out or feeling like you can’t see the forest for the trees, you are staying immersed in the details too long, or with too many consecutive issues.  As the leader, you must keep your eye on the big picture.  Immersion in the details of this type of problem solving, by definition, takes your eye off the big picture.


Immerse yourself to get the work done, then step back.  Get the big picture again.  Re-gain perspective before you try to deal with the next issue.  Don’t get caught going from fire to fire.


Typical Swimming Coach Errors

By the nature of our work, we are simultaneously inside on certain issues and outside on others.  We get ourselves into trouble, sometimes serious—job threatening—trouble, by not recognizing which leadership role to play, then recognizing both the tools and the limitations of that position.


Take the typical Swim Club Board of Directors Agenda.  As we go down that agenda, we will find certain issues in which we are the leaders with authority and others where we are the leaders without authority.  We get in trouble when we don’t deal with these two situations appropriately.


Acting like we are in authority when we are not, alienates those who are in authority and makes us appear ineffective when we select the wrong tools for the situation.  Repeatedly alienating those who are in authority, while simultaneously appearing ineffective is a recipe for job loss…and it has been.


As a coach, it can seem very frustrating and as if we are powerless, when we select the wrong leadership role-and hence the wrong leadership tools-for a situation.  Just because in a specific situation you are outside, a leader without authority, does not mean that you abandon your leadership role, or cannot have an impact.


The signers of our Declaration of Independence were leaders without authority.  Martin Luther King was a leader without authority.  John Leonard was/is a leader without authority in the Drug Wars.


Often the only authority a leader without authority has is moral authority, but that is the greatest authority of all.






WITH authority: formal & informal                                             WITHOUT authority

direction-protection-order                                                                focus

                must be stable                                                                                      can be dramatic


People turn to you for solutions.                                                       You point out problems.

On “ripe” issues                                                                                  You can “ripen” issues

                People want “Good News”                                                               You can ask tough questions.


TECHNICAL SOLUTIONS (leader provides answers)

clear problem                       leader recognizes                                ask

                clear solution                       leader provides                    appreciates



clear problem              leader recognizes                    pressure

            unknown solution        leader & followers provide      collaborate

                                                            asks the hard questions


                                                            will it require changes in

                                                            values, attitudes, behaviors?


                                                             if not, develop new technical



ADAPTIVE SOLUTION (leader provides questions)

unknown problem       system recognizes                    pressure & relief

            unknown solution        system provides                       collaboration & opposition


                                                            asks the questions


                                                            sustains & relieves pressure

                                                            must know and use tools




Leaders WITH authority                                                 Leaders WITHOUT authority


  1. Cannot focus on single issues 1.  Must focus on single issue
  2. Must meet expectations of system 2.  Must meet expectation of constituency
  3. Responsible to “above and below” 3.  Responsible only to “peers”
  4. Operates away from the front line 4.  Lacks the big picture
  5. Must narrow from questions to solutions 5.  Must broaden from constituency to


  1. Cannot manage stimulus 6.  Cannot manage response
  2. Can be obstructional/ineffective 7.  Can become a lightning rod



Key leadership TOOLS


  1. Controls the environment: people and stresses
  2. Controls the attention
  • Commands it
  • Directs it
  1. Controls the information
  • Has it
  • Provides it
  1. Frames the issues
  2. “Creates” the crisis/conflict
  3. Chooses the process
  • Autocratic: simple situation, first step, weak system, crisis
  • Consultative
  • Collaborative
  1. Trust (based on competence and values)
  • Has it
  • Earns more
  • Loses it

Key leadership STEPS


  1. Identify the challenge: What is the situation and values at stake?  What is the problem?

What are people fighting about?

  1. Keep the stress tolerable: First control yourself, then others.  Act!
  2. Focus on issues, not scapegoating, pretending, attacking individuals, etc.
  3. Require followers to develop solutions, but at a rate at which they can be successful.
  4. Protect “adversaries”…leaders without authority. They help you ripen and focus issues.

They can force people to confront issues that you can’t.



Key leadership INDICATORS


SOCIAL/SYSTEM STRESSES                 show you               AREAS OF NEEDED WORK

ATTACKS ON YOU                                                   show you               WORK YOU AVOIDED


DON’T DO THE WORK                                            instead                   CHALLENGE/HELP THOSE



IMERSE YOURSELF                                 then                        REMOVE YOURSELF

to get the work done                                                                                           to re-gain perspective

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