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.
If you spend much time at softball or baseball games, you are likely to hear a coach or enthusiastic spectator encourage the players to “charge the ball” so they can (in theory) make the play/get the out as quickly as possible. It’s a great strategy . . . sometimes. Other times, because of an odd bounce or the angle or speed of the ball, the player who hangs back can make the adjustments necessary to make the best play. How does a player know when to charge the ball and when to hang back? Instincts, confidence, and practice . . . lots of practice.
The same holds true for a leader. Sometimes we have to “charge the play”, to make a quick instinctual assessment and move to where we thinkthe opportunity will be. This can result in a clear competitive advantage. It can also result in an error if the situation bounces in an unanticipated direction. Hanging back to see how things play out can besmart in some situations. In others, this strategy will allow competitors to get on base and score ahead of you. So what is a leader to do?
- Consider the conditions of the field.
Is it your “home field” that you know well or somewhere you have never played before? Can you gauge how things are likely to “bounce” on the infield (what trends can you identify)? Are there distractions like the sun in your eyes or wind blowing the dirt on the infield (other program challenges or low morale)?
- Consider the opportunity.
What is the score, the inning and the number of outs? Can you afford to hang back and make the safe decision, take the easy out? There is nothing wrong with that if the conditions allow it. In fact, this can be a good strategy to keep from wearing your staff out. In other situations, you need to speed up the game or make some critical plays if you are to win the game.
- Consider your capacity and that of your team.
Are you and your team energized and ready to go? Is everyone on their toes, prepared to make the quick play and back each other up? Or have you been going at full tilt for a long time and starting to wear out? Is it the bottom of the ninth with two outs and you have to dig deep to make it happen?
Once you have considered these variables, you have to commit to charging or hanging back. Not sort-of-make a decision (waffling doesn’t win games) . . . commit. And sometimes you will make the wrong decision. That is where the practice part comes in. Stay in the game. Try again. You only get better by working at it. That is where leadership instincts and confidence come from — practice, lots and lots of practice.
The opportunities are there. The decision is yours. Charge . . . or hang back?
At the risk of dating myself, when I was growing up it was fairly common for one to be cautioned not to “get too big for your britches.” Consider it a Midwestern reframe of the admonition from Proverbs 16:18 that “Pride goeth . . . before the fall.” It seems that a growing number of people in positions of leadership today could use a reminder of that basic principle. It is not about you . . . really.
I understand that there can be a whole lot of gray in the world of leadership. You chart a course for your organization . . . things go well, you’re hearing positive feedback that you are on the right path . . . you feel emboldened to move farther down that path, downplaying the voices of caution because, well, just look at all of your (umm . . . your organization’s) accomplishments. It is about this time that one of those voices of caution might be coming from inside, pointing out that your britches are getting a bit tight.
It is true that when you are in a position of leadership, you have to make hard decisions that some might not agree with. The fact that the call is yours to make, however, in no way means it is okay to stop listening to others. You are able to make the best decisions, in part, because you consider views that may differ from your own. Your primary goal is to make the best choice for your organization. Why would you not want to hear a range of opinions?
It takes a confident leader, whose britches fit well, to seek the insight of those who have a different perspective. Being respectful of someone who sees things differently than you do is a reflection of your leadership not a validation of their argument. Jim Collins talks about Level 5 Leadership, which is the balance of personal humility and fierce resolve on behalf of your organization. That’s the trick to make sure you don’t get too big for your britches. The focus should be on getting it right for your organization, not you being right.
Oh, and one more thing . . . just like staying in good physical shape, deciding not to get too big for your britches can’t be a one-time decision. You have to make an awareness of the slippery slope of over-confidence an on-going part of your leadership journey. Sure, we all go there once in a while — consider it your periodic hot fudge sundae — but on a day-in, day-out basis, keep the focus where it belongs – on your organization – and you won’t have to worry about fitting into your britches!
There are days that my inbox seems to be overrun with emails from people who have discovered the perfect system for time management, employee motivation, dealing with problem staff . . . you name the challenge, and someone has a 7-step plan to address it. Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in continuous learning and finding strategies to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of my work. I also believe there is no one strategy or approach that works for everyone, and it concerns me when I see leaders second-guess their innate wisdom because an “expert” suggests a different approach. (Apparently, after a certain age, some of us no longer hear parental whispers in our ear asking, “If all your friends jumped off a bridge . . .”)
Trust your gut. That is where your innate wisdom lies. People of faith may experience God’s guidance through such twinges. Think about it. When individuals challenge each other with the phrase “have you got the guts” or comment that something “took guts”, they are usually talking about something more than “nerve”. They are talking about courage . . . conviction . . . resolve . . . the willingness to make decisions others would be hesitant to make because you were compelled by an internal nudge. The wisdom of your gut.
A few items to note related to gutsy leadership:
• Your gut is not going to scream over all the external noise going on in your life. You have to get quiet enough, for long enough, to let the message unfold. That can be hard with deadlines and distractions and a to-do list that is a mile long.
• Listening to your gut can be hard because may not tell you what you want to hear. Go ahead . . . try to argue with it. I have found that inner pull to be pretty persistent and to possess an enviable track record for being right.
• You can usually back up that nudge with facts and a plausible plan for the path you are choosing to pursue, which helps you — and everyone else impacted by the decision — feel more comfortable moving forward.
• When you try to rationalize your way out of what you know in your gut to be true (which we all try to do from time to time), just realize that you will probably get another chance to make the right decision, even if that means digging your way of the hole you created by making convincing yourself to make the wrong one.
Leadership is not a black and white endeavor. It requires a sharp mind and a heart that is open to following one’s innate wisdom. Do you have the guts?
I have a tendency to get frustrated with people in positions of leadership who, when faced with a difficult situation, default to telling their team that, “We don’t have a choice.” You always have a choice. You may not like the choices before you. There may be a high cost for a choice, financial or otherwise. You may wish you weren’t the one who had to make the choice. But, you always have one.
You are the leader. People are looking to you to see how they should respond. Even when you have to choose between the lesser of two evils, make the choice. Don’t default and let “them” make the decision for you. (You know, them . . . those people who are telling you that you “have to” do whatever it is you would rather not do.) There is a confidence, a sense of control, that comes when you consider all the options, good or bad, and pick one. No one is doing it “to you”. You are not a helpless bystander in someone else’s plan. The choice is yours.
Even when you find yourself in the midst of a situation, not of your making, you can still choose how you respond. You can wallow in the midst of it all, proclaiming that it is not your fault (which it very well may not be), or you can put one foot in front of the other and walk your way out of the situation. You’ll likely have a lot of company in “ain’t it awful land”, but people want their leaders to chart a course to a better place. And the best way forward is usually to decide to take a step . . . and then another. You can always course correct along the way if you need to, but momentum favors the person who is moving. Sometimes, the best solution comes three steps in, and you never would have seen it if you didn’t choose to move forward.
I am a big believer in plans, and yet sometimes perfecting the plan can become a way to avoid making a choice. “Oh, we will (fill in the blank) as soon as soon as we work out all the details.” So work them out. Make a decision, even a small one, that moves your effort forward. Leaders need to lead. That means choosing a destination, making the hard decisions if you need to, and then helping your people find a way forward. You are a leader. That’s what leaders do.
The choice is yours.
I have been hearing “industry experts” report that we are facing “unprecedented levels of change” for more than a quarter-century. Such pronouncements can cause a great deal of stress, and likely more than a few sleepless nights, for conscientious leaders committed to helping their organizations succeed. But . . . what if the experts are looking at it all wrong?
I lead a 165-year-old organization, and as I look back over our history it appears that significant amounts of change have been going on ever since 1853. Unprecedented means, “never done or known before.” People, we have done change! Yes, the circumstances are different, the speed at which occurs may be faster, but change is not an unprecedented thing . . . and when we act like it is, all we accomplish is to increase our angst, foster uncertainty in our staff and undermine our ability to respond most effectively.
Change is a process and there are specific steps you can take to increase your likelihood of achieving your desired outcome (I recommend John Kotter’s work as a good starting point). Here is what the industry experts don’t tell you — effectively managing change is far more about you than it is about any external factors that may be “unprecedented.”
Consider it through the lens of baseball. When you step up to the plate to bat, you may face all kinds of pitchers. Some throw right-handed, some left. Some pitch at speeds you may have never seen before, others have a change-up that can catch you off guard. The strike zone may be a moving target depending on the umpire, the sun might be in your eyes or the wind blowing dust in your face. The catcher may crowd you and the spectators may be creating distracting levels of noise. And even with all of these variables — some of which you may not have encountered before — your batting average is largely a result of what you do and not the uncontrollable factors swirling around you. Don’t allow yourself to get psyched out by the spectator (who may even see himself as an expert) shouting, “swing batter swing,” or by the reputation of the pitcher, or a host of other variables. Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.
Change becomes overwhelming when we focus more of our attention on what we can’t control instead of what we can. Yes, pay attention to what is going on around you, adapt if you need to, and then bring your focus back to what you can impact . . . the specific steps you can take. What you focus on grows. Focus on what you know and what you can control.
Unprecedented? Not so much. You’ve got this!
Have you ever noticed when you are feeling overwhelmed by a challenging situation, competing demands, or simply too much to do (or maybe all three!) it can at times feel like “mental vertigo.” Your mind just keeps spinning and you feel a bit off-balance from the stress of it all. It can become a vicious cycle that leaves you feeling dizzy and hesitant to take a step forward. But you are supposed to be the calm, cool and collected leader . . . so if you find yourself in such a situation, what are you supposed to do? Find something solid to move toward.
You may not have the answers to everything that caused your mind to whirl, but there is always something you can do to plant your feet on solid ground . . . and doing something is often the only way to stop the spinning. Stressing about the mountain you have to climb doesn’t make it any smaller (in fact, usually just the opposite), so find a foothold and take a step. The funny thing is, once you start moving forward, you usually find your balance and a path appears.
You’re likely not the only one in your organization dealing with mental vertigo. Helping your people maneuver up, down and around the many tasks before them without losing their balance is a key task of a leader. You need to serve as the solid footing, or at least a steady guide, to keep your people moving forward. How? Show them how to take a step toward something solid. Encourage them to break a task into small pieces and to move ahead.
Solid leadership is about forging a path and guiding your team, through the whirl of circumstances before you. It doesn’t mean you never feel off balance. It simply means when you do, you take a deep breath, find something solid to hold on to, and then forge ahead. It is not some mythical aspiration where you will always have the answers. It is about having a clear strategy for how to move ahead when you don’t. When you figure out how to remain calm and level-headed when the world is spinning around you, your people will too. That is solid leadership.
Do you want to grow as a leader, or are you satisfied with maintaining the status quo in terms of your leadership impact? Before you respond, consider this . . . leadership growth requires that you move outside your comfort zone.
When leaders achieve a level of success, there is a tendency to want to keep doing what has gotten you to this point. You know how to do it. It obviously worked. You have “arrived” as a leader. Why would you want to switch up your strategy now? Well, for starters, circumstances change and using an old approach to respond to new variables rarely produces the desired results. To quote Marshall Goldsmith, “what got you here won’t get you there.”
Leadership growth happens at the far side, the outer edge, of what you know. That doesn’t mean your experience and past success isn’t real and valid. It simply means that to increase your impact tomorrow, you have to be willing to challenge and adapt and stretch into the discomfort of not knowing for sure how you are going to accomplish your next goal — only that you will. In Learning Leadership Kouzes and Posner note that challenge is the defining context for leadership. If we didn’t have challenges, we wouldn’t need leaders.
So if challenge is the defining context for leadership, then real leadership cannot be about “getting there” or reaching a comfort zone. It is about finding a way through gnarly problems on the path toward incredible opportunities. It’s about growing and stretching and striving for more. It is about stepping into uncharted waters because reaching the destination is worth the risk.
Does every leader occasionally have fantasies about changing the world from the cozy confines of their comfort zone? Probably. And it’s fine — smart even — to hang out in that space every once in a while, to catch your breath and recharge your engines. Ultimately, however, to increase your leadership impact, you have to stand on the edge of uncertainty and decide move forward. Because when you step outside of your comfort zone, when you commit to taking on the leadership challenge before you, you chart a course that allows your team to also move forward . . . providing the opportunity for them to stretch and grow on the path toward organizational success.
The choice to stretch into the uncertainty is yours to make. That is both the comfort and the challenge of leadership growth.
I live in the Midwest. It is April. It has snowed the last three Sundays. Seriously, we made snow ice cream on Easter! Sometimes, during the season when you expect the crocuses and dogwoods and daffodils to start blooming, you get a snowstorm instead. And when that happens, you can whine, and complain, and wring your hands . . . or you can make snow ice cream.
Sooner or later, your best-laid plans are going to get snowed on. You can (and should!) plan and coordinate and attend to every detail within your control. The problem is, there are just so many variables that are outside of your control. When an unexpected storm rears its head and derails your plan, it is a leader’s responsibility to forge a new path forward. How do you prepare for Springtime snows?
- Acknowledge that it can happen. If you expect that all of your plans are going to play out exactly as you have imagined, you set yourself up for disappointment. In effect, it is a leader’s job to bring a sweater, grab an umbrella, pack a snack . . . have a Plan B so you don’t miss a beat when the weather changes.
- Embrace the change in your plans. When the Springtime snows happen, your people are going to look to you to see if they should be stressed, or worried, or upset. The energy you bring to the challenge at hand is contagious. Fake it until you make it if you have to, but it is a leader’s responsibility to embrace the change in plans, not wallow in what could have been.
- Recognize the opportunity in the snow. When you embrace and make the most of unexpected situations, you just might be surprised by how often the results exceed what you would have achieved with your original plans. Years from now, I’m guessing we’ll be talking about the fun we had the Easter we made snow ice cream.
When you sign on to be a leader, you also sign on to the inevitable Springtime snows. Expect it, prepare for it, embrace it, and recognize that there can be untold opportunities hidden amidst the unexpected turn in the weather . . . if only you step forward to find them.
Springtime snows, while unexpected, can be absolutely beautiful . . . especially when viewed over a bowl of freshly made ice cream!
Walk into any bookstore (okay . . . or peruse Amazon) and you will undoubtedly find a large section of books on management and leadership. Helping people hone their leadership skills has become quite an industry. Too bad generations of moms and grandmas didn’t copyright their advice to their children, because while we have dressed it up and come up with some impressive sounding new terminology, much of today’s leadership wisdom has its roots in the guidance we were given as children.
While the comparisons could fill volumes (and just might . . . stay tuned!), one important reminder for leaders who are overscheduled, with to-do lists that seem to grow of their own accord, is to cut your food into bite-sized pieces. Yes. I’m serious.
Too many of us look at the overwhelming portions on our plate and stew and stress over how we will ever get around to everything before us. We spend mental energy developing strategies for how we’re going to eat it . . . pushing things around on our plate in an attempt to make it appear more manageable . . . in some cases probably even hiding a few peas under the potatoes . . . which of course only postpones the inevitable. The only solution? Cut it into bite-sized pieces and start eating.
Sure, the proposal is going to take a lot of effort. Don’t double the time it takes, and triple the stress, by spending days fretting about how you’re going to get it done. Cut it up and start eating. Yes, reviewing the monthly reports is one of your least favorite tasks. Slice it down to size, eat it fast and get it over with rather than having it continue to stare at you from the middle of your plate. (Warning…the longer you look at it, the bigger it appears!)
Going to the other extreme doesn’t work either. Trying to take on too much at once — the equivalent of shoving giant pieces of food into your mouth — only creates a choking hazard. As a result, what might seem like the most efficient way forward can actually take longer, and cause more pain and suffering in the long run. Bite. Sized. Pieces.
Yes, this task would be a lot easier if you were the only one filling your plate. Unfortunately, leaders don’t always get to choose what lands on their platter, however, they do get to determine how to tackle what is before them. And as usual, Mom knew what she was talking about.