Don’t Confuse a Clear View for a Short Distance

Glacier Bay cruise - Alaska nature landscape. Glacier Bay Nation

Several years ago, my husband and I were on vacation at a scenic location when we saw a ruin in the distance and decided to hike over and check it out. After following a somewhat treacherous trail for much longer than it we thought it would take to get to the structure, we looked to the horizon and realized the site didn’t seem any closer than when we started. At that point, we began to question if we should continue . . . it was already late in the afternoon, and once we got there we would have to walk all the way back . . . but it looked so cool, and we had already come this far, so we decided to press on. We probably stopped two more times to have a similar conversation before we actually made it to the ruin — which was totally worth the trip, even though it was approaching dusk by the time we wound our way back along a narrow path to return to our car.

I had to smile as a quote I had read several years earlier popped into my head. “Don’t confuse a clear view for a short distance.” Credited to Kevin Kelly, I have had numerous opportunities to be reminded of the truth of this statement. The bottom line is, most major projects take longer, and include more twists and turns, than we expect at the outset. And if we don’t have a clear view of where we are headed, it is easy to stop after the first few bumps in the road and decide the trip really isn’t worth it. But when you have a clear picture of the destination in your head, you are much more likely to press on through the brambles, the steep drop-offs, and rocky paths. Making a commitment to persevere toward a clear view can lead to amazing results — not only when you reach (or exceed!) your destination, but also in the increased levels of collaboration and support that can happen within a team along the way.

The reverse is also true. Without a clear destination in mind, even a fairly easy path can seem overwhelming, or require too much effort. A vague or foggy description of the view doesn’t inspire near the energy or enthusiasm needed to complete the trip. The journey is sure to include numerous uncontrollable variables, and there will be multiple scenarios that could come to pass. You will have to adapt and make course corrections along the way. But when everyone is clear on the ultimate destination, they are more likely to respond to these challenges as simply that — challenges to overcome, not insurmountable obstacles on the way to a fuzzy destination, which have caused many a team to stop short of their goal.

It is true that, as a leader, you should never confuse a clear view for a short distance . . . but you should also never underestimate the power of a clear view to motivate your team to stretch beyond what they might have otherwise imagined.

Note: This entry was originally published May 14, 2014.

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Lifted by Laughter

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Last night I laughed. Not a polite chuckle at someone’s earnest attempt at humor, but a way-down-deep belly laugh with a group of people with whom I have a history, who know my shortcomings and love me anyway. And it revived my spirit as few other things could.

Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we leaders need that. We need a tribe of friends who don’t care about our title or our role or the many professional responsibilities we might have. Sure, they can be proud of you. They can respect your accomplishments, but they aren’t afraid to call you a dork, or poke fun at some of your most unscripted, nonleader-like moments. They keep your feet firmly planted on the ground and yet, illogically, they also make the most lofty goals seem attainable simply because they believe in you. No, they probably don’t say it, but when you are with them, you feel it.

Leadership can be lonely work. At times, you are called to make decisions that you would rather not have to make, and deal with situations that are far from ideal. It can wear on your soul, no matter how much you love your organization and its mission. And yet, if you’re lucky, just when you are starting to feel a bit frayed at the edges, your tribe steps in. Not with sympathy (are you kidding?) but rather with a firm reminder that you are more than your role in the organization (really, you’re not all that!). They pull you down to size and ultimately, that is what allows you to soar. That is what allows you to make the hard decisions so that your organization, and the people in it, can also reach new heights.

If you don’t have a tribe like that, find one. Make one. Be one for someone else. This leadership gig is too hard not to have a motley crew that will be there for you regardless of the bumps you encounter on any given day . . . who will roll their eyes at you, tell you to get over it, and then proceed to make you laugh so hard that the stress that was tying you in knots seems like a distant memory.

For those of us who take our role as a leader seriously, that is all the more reason not to take ourselves seriously. And the best way I know to keep it all in perspective is to surround yourself with a loyal, honest, and slightly irreverent tribe . . . and laugh.

Enough

Close Up Transparent Teacup With Black Tea Spilling Over Because

E•nough: pronoun 1. as much or as many as required. adjective 1. to the required degree or extent.

Often proceeded by the words “never” or “not”.

Okay, that last part wasn’t really included in dictionary. It just feels like those words are frequently expressed together… as in “rarely enough time,” “not enough resources,” or “never good enough.” As leaders, we may often hear about or experience the concept of “enough” only when there is a lack of it — and as a result, even thinking about the word feels like a losing battle.

What if, instead, we started to look at “enough” as a motivator rather than a drain on our energy? Perhaps the key is to consider it at the beginning of the process, proactively identifying what is enough, rather than waiting until the end of an effort, and using it as an explanation of why we came up short. For example, what if you approached a challenging situation with your team from the perspective of “I am confident our team has enough experience and ingenuity to figure this out!” Suddenly, “enough” feels a lot more like a shot in the arm than a kick in the gut, doesn’t it?

When used as a planning tool, “enough” can provide a framework that allows us to unleash our best, most creative selves. We prioritize and make the most of what we have instead of continually looking for something more. “Enough” suddenly starts to feel like plenty. Go back and read that first definition — as much or as many as required. When we start with an abundance mindset, believing we have all that we require, it is amazing what a team of committed professionals can accomplish. To paraphrase Henry Ford, if you think you have enough, or if you think you don’t, you’re right.

Granted, this may feel a bit odd at first for those who have historically placed a scarcity descriptor (i.e. not, never, etc.) in front of the word enough.  If that is the case in your organization, then it is your job as the leader to help frame “enough” as a source of abundance. Enough is all that you need. Would more be nice? It might seem like it. But if your success hinges on more, then victory always feels just outside your grasp. Once you start to proactively identify “how much or many are required” for the goal before you, one of two things will happen. You can either identify a path to get there, or look around and realize you already have the resources you need to succeed.

And that is enough.

A Fair Investment

Trimming My Horses Hooves

It is county fair week in my community. As a 4-Her growing up, and a 4-H leader as an adult, fair week was the culmination of a year’s worth of work (granted, with a lot of it crammed into the last few weeks before the fair!) and truly the highlight of the summer. Without a doubt, 4-H laid the foundation for the leadership skills I use on a daily basis — public speaking, record keeping, long-range planning, time management, creativity, imagination, strategy, and working as part of a team. “Head, heart, hands and health”, and “learning by doing” are still a part of my approach to leadership, even all these years later.

Like any endeavor, 4-Hers gets out of the experience what they — and the volunteer leaders who guide their efforts — put into it. Maybe your first opportunities for leadership came through scouts, or boys and girls club, or another organization that encouraged skill development from an early age. While often overlooked or taken for granted, it is the volunteer leaders who make such opportunities possible . . . volunteer leaders who encourage, guide, and occasionally cajole young people to stretch and grow and glimpse their potential.

For years at conferences and gatherings of leaders I have heard, and continue to hear, that one of the top organizational concerns is the lack of people willing to step into leadership roles. Organizations are investing significant resources into leadership development activities for their staff members with mixed results, and wringing their hands over what will happen when the current organizational leaders retire. Maybe, just maybe, we need to move upstream and not wait until a senior executive is approaching retirement to think about cultivating new leaders.

Maybe the most effective strategy for leadership development comes in the form of a wide-eyed kid who wants to be part of something. Maybe it’s time we leaders pay it forward by finding a way to engage with a young person, to help them see and choose from a host of possibilities to develop their leadership skills . . . when they are 8 or 10 or 12, rather than waiting until they are 25 or 30 to start. Yes, I know you don’t have time to volunteer. No doubt your to-do list is overflowing and you are being pulled in too many directions. One of them might even be to figure out how to develop the leadership skills of your staff . . .

Part of a leader’s job is to make investments in the long-term. That’s our kids, your workforce of tomorrow. And I’ll let you in on a little secret . . . the kids aren’t the only ones who will learn and grow in the process. You will too. Learning by doing indeed.

See you at the fair.

Trade-Ups, Not Trade-Offs

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As leaders, part of our responsibility is to maximize the resources before us. And yet, far too many leaders squander what could be one of their greatest assets — the diversity of experiences and perspectives among their staff — because they think their view of how the world works is THE right perspective. Peter Senge refers to such deeply held internal images or perspectives as “mental models,” and we are often unaware of how they may be influencing our actions until we bump into someone else’s view of the world that is different from our own. When that occurs, many people default to an assumption that “I am right, so you must be wrong.”

What if instead of taking an either/or approach, we considered both/and? Roger Martin refers to people who leverage diverse viewpoints as integrative thinkers. Leaders who are willing to walk through the tension of opposing ideas have the opportunity to draw on the wisdom of multiple perspectives to arrive at a solution that is stronger than any of the initial stances. In effect, the outcome can be a trade-up, not a trade-off.

Make no mistake, working for the trade-up can be messy. It takes a strong, confident leader to hold the reins of a diversity of perspectives while keeping the team focused on the collective end goal. And yet, that is a critical part of the equation if you want 1+1 to equal 3. Trade-offs are about winners and losers — 1+1-1=1. And while that approach may seem quicker and easier, when trade-offs are a leader’s standard response, you will eventually lose the engagement of a chunk of your people. They will start (actively or passively) working against you rather than with you. Trade-off indeed.

So how do you start in your effort to trade-up?

  • Decide. The first step is for a leader to decide — and clearly communicate — that you are going for the trade-up, not the trade-off. Otherwise, it is too easy to settle when the going gets tough.
  • Listen. Not to rebut someone’s position, but to hear what they are saying. How are their experiences or perspectives different from your own?
  • Inquire. Genuinely seek to understand someone’s feedback to your own perspective. Repeat back to them what you are hearing to ensure your defenses aren’t skewing the feedback.
  • Invite. Invite all involved to search for solutions that take various perspectives into account and result in a stronger option than any of those originally presented.

Trade-ups may seem less efficient… in the beginning. However, working toward a common goal rather than against “the other side” builds a momentum and a long-term framework for success that allows you to leapfrog ahead of those focused on either/or. I’ll take 3 over 1 any day.

Trade-up or trade-off. The choice is yours.

 

The Right Answer

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Most of us have been “taught” that the path to success is to find the right answer. In our formal education, we typically received a good or not-so-good grade based on whether we could come up with the right answer. We landed the job, at least seemingly, because we gave the right answers. We were given the opportunity to take on a leadership role because…well…we were good at providing the right answers. It can be a rude awakening, then, to realize that as one’s leadership responsibilities grow, the number of “right” answers starts to shrink.

As Marshall Goldsmith noted, “What got you here won’t get you there.” Leadership isn’t about the black and white of right or wrong answers. There are lots of smart, talented people in your organization who can make those calls. Leadership is all about living in the gray of possibility and potential, assessing and adapting, and recognizing that even if you look at the exact same trends and listen to the same experts, the best answer for your organization might be totally different from what would work somewhere else.

Leadership is all about searching for, and taking the risk to implement, the best answer not the right one. Semantics? Not really. Because if you are waiting for the clear “right” answer, you won’t be leading, you’ll be following. The “best” answer in the moment takes into account the external environment and expert opinion — balanced against your strategic goals and the internal gifts and graces of your organization — mixed with a wildcard of variables including insight from sources unrelated to your work, individual passion, other priorities, and a healthy measure of gut instinct (otherwise known as a nudge from your innate wisdom regarding the best way forward).

If that seems like a lot of moving parts, you’re right, it is. But here’s the good news: the best answer is not carved in stone. “Best” is more flexible and adaptable to new knowledge, giving you a greater probability of success. Whereas “right” either is or isn’t, “best” is relative. Tomorrow’s best may be better than today’s.

 One final note — making the best decision requires a leader to commit to a direction without any guarantees — that’s the job. So if you’re looking for the right answer for how to lead, here it is: You have to decide.

Know Your Batting Order

Have you ever been stressed out by trying to keep too many balls in the air, and all at once you run across something so simple and so profound that it stops you in your tracks? Yep, me too. In fact, I was recently reading a blog post by Anne Lamott when three little words jumped off the page . . .

“Grace bats last.”

I love that! First and foremost because I count on receiving a measure of grace in my own life, but also because those three words provide so much guidance to us as leaders.

If you are in a position of leadership, sooner or later (or both) you will be called on to make a difficult decision — one that is not popular, and maybe even has a negative impact on someone else. That’s part of the job, but how you carry out such decisions can make a huge difference in how you are perceived as a leader.

I think far too often, we get the batting order mixed up. We start out by being overly flexible, willing to negotiate expectations, trying to be patient and accommodating at all costs . . . until we reach the end of our rope, we’re done, we draw the line, and we’re the bad guy. What if, instead, we set clear guidelines/boundaries/expectations at the beginning, and consistently held people accountable to those. When that happens, you separate out those situations that are never going to work from those that really could. And if a situation that looks promising needs a bit of a concession, a measure of grace, you will still have the energy and ability to accommodate a special circumstance.

Even when you have to make a decision that will be hard to some to accept, I believe the best leaders find a way to offer a measure of grace in the process. Make the difficult decision, yes, and then carry it out with great kindness. Be more generous than you have to be in the process. Sure, some will think you’re soft, but most will see you as fair, and someone they want to work with . . . You know, the whole Golden rule thing . . .

Lastly, we may occasionally need to remind ourselves that grace bats last for us as leaders, too. Our impact is more than the sum of a single decision or action. Too often, I’ve seen leaders afraid to swing at an opportunity because they fear they may strike out based on a single action. While I suppose there are circumstances where that could happen, in most cases, we will be judged by the long view, by the total sum of our actions.

So take that swing, do what you know you need to do, and then let grace bat last.

Note: Originally posted on July 15, 2015

If the Shoe Fits

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Have you heard the story of about the owner of a shoe store back in the 1890s? He had been hearing about the many people in Africa and thought perhaps that would be a good place to expand his business. He sent two sales people on a ship to explore the potential. One went to the East coast of Africa, one to the West. Shortly after they landed, the owner received a telegraph from the first sales person. “All hope is lost. No one here wears shoes.” Shortly after that, the owner received a telegraph from the second sales person. “Huge opportunity. No one here has shoes yet.”

Which salesperson are you?

 It is easy to get stuck in a single perspective, especially when you have been successful as a result of that point of view. There is a reason why innovative ideas tend to come from upstart companies (or people inside the organization who dance to the beat of their own drum). When something is working, it may seem foolhardy to disrupt the status quo… except the status quo will eventually get disrupted. The only question is if it will be by you or someone else.

For those who saw a bit of themselves in the first sales person, who aren’t naturally wired to step outside of what seems self-evident or to turn logic on its ear, how do you start to look at things differently? Sometimes changing your perspective  – even slightly – can make a huge difference in seeing new possibilities. So how do you go about changing your perspective?

• Read something from authors who offer a counter-intuitive perspective. I would suggest Daniel Pink’s Flip Manifesto or A Brief Guide to World Domination by Chris Guillebeau. Both are quick reads, and even if you don’t act on any of the ideas, they will stretch your thinking in new directions.

•  Find those “disrupters” in your company (every organization has at least one) and rather than trying to get them to conform, listen to their ideas and perspective. Again, you have the choice of whether to act on any of the suggestions, but at the very least, let their point of view stretch your own.

•  Look at the skills and competencies of your staff, as opposed to the roles they currently fill, and consider if those skills could be used differently, or to address a different challenge. Another option is to look at trends in other industries and ask what would happen if you applied those same ideas to your industry.

These are but a fraction of the things you can do to change your perspective about the opportunities before you. The first step is to recognize that you need to. Maybe you need to stop and ask yourself…if the shoe fits.

Refueling the Tank

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On my way home from work last night, the fuel light came on in my car. At first I was a bit surprised at how quickly the gas gauge had dropped over the last few days — it didn’t seem like it should be running that low. When I stopped to consciously think about the numerous “short trips” I had made in recent days, however, it wasn’t surprising that my tank was almost dry.

How nice it would be for us as leaders to have a “fuel light” that would automatically come on when we were getting close to an empty tank. Sometimes we lose track of all the things pulling on our time and energy and which deplete the gas we have for the trip ahead. Unless we consciously keep track of our fuel levels, leaders may find themselves running out of gas sooner than they expected, and often at the most inopportune times.

Most of us actually can monitor the fuel we have available for the journey before us if only we take the time to pay attention.

•  Look at your map— your schedule — for the week ahead. Most vehicles (that’s you) can only travel so many miles before they run out of gas. How many “miles” are on this week’s schedule? Where along the way do you plan to fill up your tank? The more miles you have to travel, the more fill-ups you need. Yes, I know you may feel like you don’t have the time. That is exactly when you need to be most conscious about refueling… or you may just find yourself stranded and out of gas halfway to your destination.

 •  Fill up when the opportunity presents itself. Sometimes, the best time to fill up is when you still have a half a tank of gas left. Maybe you are in the vicinity, it is a “brand” that you especially like, or you know there is a long stretch of road ahead and refueling now will reduce the stress later in the trip. Give yourself permission to fill up now. No one ever said you have to wait until your tank is on empty to refuel.

•  Know your fuel gauge. Sometimes, the second half of your tank drops a lot faster than the first half. Lots of starts and stops or rapid acceleration uses more gas than the same number of miles traveled on an open road. Different types of fuel may result in a different level of performance. And of course, it is always helpful to know how many miles you can actually travel once your fuel light comes before your tank is totally empty.

You may not have the advantage of a fuel light to let you know when your gas is running low, but with a bit of attention you have the tools to gauge when it is time to refuel your tank.

Hindsight Visionary

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Have you ever noticed that “visionary leaders” are only identified as such after the fact…once their crazy, improbable, unrealistic idea that few thought was actually feasible has proven its worth?

What are the lessons for leaders in this observation?

 Sometimes our most “visionary” ideas seem crazy, improbable and unrealistic to others when we first propose them. Smart, experienced people whose opinion you value will point out the barriers to your idea, maybe even question the logic of what you are considering. They will probably be right…and sometimes leaders have to put logic in a box…not forever, but at least long enough to establish the potential upside should you succeed with said crazy idea.

It is also important to note that most visionary leaders don’t start out trying to be visionary. They start out trying to address an issue that has not been solved by applying logic. As Albert Einstein once noted, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will get you everywhere else.” Logic feels safer, but often times the answer lies “somewhere else”.

New ideas can be challenging, risky, even painful, and yet a visionary leader’s commitment to finding a solution has to be stronger than the comfort of what they know. It is a leader’s job to envision a way forward, and then to paint a picture for others so they too can see the potential for success.

Finally, visionary leaders decide. Once they have shared the vision, listened to the logical arguments and considered both the potential risks and rewards, leaders have to make the call. The world is full of dreamers who did everything but this final step in the process. There are no guarantees. Sometimes, you just have to leap: not blindly — it can and should be a calculated risk — but you still have to make a choice to step away from what you know based on the belief of what could be. True, you might come up short…and then again you might not. You won’t know until you try.

You will only be considered visionary in hindsight. First, you have to be willing to take the leap.