The Choice is Yours

Concept of choice with crossroads spliting in two waysI 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.

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You’ve Got This!

Panorama Of Empty Baseball Field At Night From Behind Home PateI 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!

Solid Leadership

Digital composite of Business man walking up mountain peak in thHave 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.

The Challenge of Leadership

Top View of Business Shoes on the floor with the text: Life BegiDo 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.

Springtime Snows

Snow ice cream on beautiful plate, closeup

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!

Bite-Sized​ Pieces

Apple Pie.png

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.

Bite-sized pieces.

It’s not about the Roar

Lion roaring, sitting, Panthera Leo, 10 years old, isolated on white
Originally published December 3, 2014

I have a plaque hanging over my desk that reads, “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow’. “

 I have lost count of the number of times that sentiment has given me comfort at the end of a particularly challenging day. Sometimes, leadership is about two steps forward and one step back. It’s about continuing to push on the flywheel, even when you don’t see any progress, because you know it is cumulative efforts that get things rolling. It’s about persisting in putting one foot in front of the other, even when the path is covered in fog. Courageous is not usually the word we think of to describe ourselves in such situations, but maybe it should be…

How many opportunities are lost because we don’t have the perseverance, the courage, to push on through the difficulties, setbacks, and disappointments? Or the courage to step out into the unknown, even though such a move could advance your mission? How many times is it dogged (courageous) determination, rather than singular pronouncements, that make the difference in achieving the win?

In some respects, roaring courage is “easier”. That courage we call on at a moment of crisis, or when we draw a line in the sand. Those moments when we have to act — when people look to us to roar — do take courage, but in many cases, the situation is forcing our hand. Not so with quiet courage. Quiet courage is about making the hard decisions even when it is likely that no one will notice. Quiet courage is about continuing through the challenges in your pursuit of a goal because it is too important to stop short. Quiet courage comes from that small, still, voice inside that won’t settle for less.

Most leaders will have to display roaring courage from time to time, but it is episodic. You make a roaringly courageous decision, and then do your best to get back to business as usual as soon as possible. Quiet courage is more of a characteristic, it’s how you approach your leadership responsibilities — or at least try to — day in and day out.

Quiet courage may be overlooked or mislabeled, but make no mistake, it is courage …

… After all, it’s not about the roar.

Mere Mortals

Measuretape

As a general rule, leaders tend to be high achievers. We like to set stretch goals for ourselves and strive for what we, or the all-knowing “experts in the field”, have identified as the ideal target, the emerging trend and/or the path to success in the future. That is not a bad thing per se . . . however in addition to measuring your performance against someone’s version of “the ideal”, it is also important to occasionally compare yourself to mere mortals. What exactly do I mean by that?

  • Have you ever listened to a webinar or gone to a training session that promised to highlight “cutting edge strategies,” only to realize that you have been doing those things for some time?
  • Perhaps you were concerned by the push for performance metrics, anxious that your outcomes would fall short, but discovered that you had more than enough data to meet expectations.
  • Maybe you were a bit intimidated by your perception of what a colleague had achieved and then learned that your accomplishments, while different, were certainly comparable.

You likely have your own examples. The point here is not that you should set your sights on a less lofty goal. Keep striving for the ideal, just don’t assume that everyone else is all that far in front of you. It is easy for some expert in a cozy office somewhere to tell you what you should be doing . . . sharing the advice with such confidence that it seems like everyone else must have it figured out. They don’t. So give yourself permission to quit measuring your performance against some imaginary perfect leader or organization. Of course, you shouldn’t overstate your place in the world either. That is why an occasional assessment of the progress of mere mortals is helpful.

A “mere mortal review” might light a fire under you if you are lagging behind. It might result in cutting yourself some slack if you are ahead of the game. At the very least, it will provide you with a more concrete and comparable sense of your performance in the real world. Once you have completed this check-up, please feel free to go back to striving for the ideal, setting the bar high and pushing to achieve more . . . because when you achieve more, you pave the way for all of us mere mortals to do the same.

Days Like This

CalenderThere will be days like this.

Your schedule was booked to the brim with meetings . . . on top of the project that had to be completed by the end of the day . . . and that was before three other things popped up that required your attention. It feels like distractions are undermining your ability to do your job. Except, if you’re a leader, the distractions are your job. What is being undermined is your well- laid plan that tied all of your leadership goals into a nice neat package.

More often than not, leadership doesn’t happen in a predictable, orderly fashion. It happens in the mess of drive-by comments, unexpected challenges and surprising opportunities. Sure, the planned things still have to happen, but if your goal is to eliminate distractions from your schedule you are going to be one frustrated leader. Embrace the unpredictability. Allow yourself to find the joy and potential in the unexpected. If you are too busy stressing over the fact that your plans have been derailed, you might totally miss the chance to have a significant impact on an individual or situation.

On days like this, your attitude can make all the difference. Will you focus on what didn’t get done or the people you were able to help? Will you let the interruptions ruin your day or find a way for them to add to it? You have the choice. You’re the leader. What kind of example will you set for those who look to you for how to handle life’s unexpected twists and turns?

What if, on days like this, you made a conscious decision to look on each distraction as an opportunity . . . to view the unexpected occurrence through the lens of possibility? At the very least, it will make the day less frustrating, and at best it can lead to a path far beyond what you might have achieved had you stuck with your original plan.

You may not always get to choose how your day unfolds, but do you do get to choose your perspective. Sometimes the greatest leadership opportunities start out as days like this.

Seeing It First

Businessman with binoculars spying on competitors.As leaders, we have the rare privilege and responsibility of peering through the fog to view the destination ahead. We have to see it first, and then help our teams embrace the path if we are to have maximum impact for our organizations. Of course, the way forward is rarely clearly marked or smoothly paved — if it were, there would be no need for a leader! How, then, does one go about clearly seeing the destination so you can bring it into focus for your team?

  • You won’t find your path by looking behind you. It is good to understand where you have been, and how that experience has shaped your team’s skills and potential. However, once you have identified these things, looking harder at the past does nothing to illuminate the way forward.
  • Use your mission as a compass. There is so much noise out there today, telling you that you “have to” go one way or another . . . here is the easy path . . . this route has the surest funding . . . “everyone” is going this way . . . Listen to what others are saying, but check your compass before you choose a trail.
  • Robert Frost had it right. Sometimes taking the road less traveled can make all the difference in extending your mission reach. There is some degree of risk in virtually every decision. If you understand your team’s unique gifts and graces, and you are clear on your mission, what may look like a risky option to others may actually be the most calculated and reasonable path forward.
  • Look up! You can’t see the mountaintop by looking at your feet. There is a time for checking your footing, but that time is not when you want to bring the destination into focus. You can be standing in one spot and see two totally different things depending on which direction you are looking. Look up.
  • Describe it, in detail. A leader can often see things from his or her vantage point that are not obvious to those on the front lines. It is our job, once we see the destination, to describe it in such a clear and compelling way that our staff members can see it too and are excited to make the trip with us.

Regardless of how foggy it may seem, an opportunity is out there. Before an organization can rally its efforts toward reaching the destination, however, a leader has to see it first.