A Servant and a Debtor

Card you envelope thank nobody copy paperAccording to Max DePree, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.”

Most leaders understand that part of their job is to define reality for their organizations and, at least as we approach Thanksgiving, will pause to say thanks to their staff. However, many of us in positions of leadership would do well to consider how we could redouble our efforts in the middle — by focusing on being a servant and a debtor in our organizations.

If the first thought that popped into your head after reading that last sentence was that you are too busy for all that warm and fuzzy stuff . . . that it might sound good but you need to make sure there is a clear return on investment for your efforts . . . I would simply point out that you might be surprised at how small actions on your part can have a significant impact on the culture of your organization, and its ultimate success. What exactly do I mean by small actions?

Ask your people for their opinion, and then really listen to what they have to say. So often as leaders, we listen to respond, to make a case for our position, rather than to hear what our people are thinking. You might be surprised at what you learn when you listen to hear. As an added bonus, your staff can tell the difference, and they feel valued when you truly seek their opinion.

Make it your priority to help your staff, rather than just expecting them to help you. When you help your staff — whether by removing barriers, helping them tackle a problem, or finding ways to make their job easier — you create reciprocal energy that ultimately moves the organization forward. Really . . . it is not all about you and your goals.

Take a few minutes each day —not just at Thanksgiving — to say thanks. It won’t take a lot of time, I promise. Noticing and acknowledging a person’s effort virtually guarantees you will see more of that behavior. Even better, take two minutes and send a hand-written note. Such simple yet uncommon actions leave a lasting impression. (Ever saved a note that you received?)

Those suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. Help clean up after an event . . . call or text someone to let them know you have their back . . . laugh with people . . . model organizational values . . . you get the idea. Long term, your people probably won’t remember this quarter’s goals. They will remember how you supported their efforts . . . as a debtor and a servant. And you will have even more reasons to give thanks.

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The Leadership Tightrope

A confident businessman with briefcase walking ahead on a tightrLeadership is a balancing act, and like even the most experienced tightrope walkers, leaders must always be aware of maintaining their center of gravity between confidence and being convinced.

What exactly do I mean by that?

Confidence is recognizing that one is responding in the best way possible given the information available at the time. Some people just naturally have confidence in their actions. For many others, it develops over time, with experience. Confidence is about trusting one’s instincts, believing that you have the ability to weigh out the options and make a decision that serves your organization well.

Being convinced, on the other hand, means that you are sure you have the answers. That may seem like splitting hairs, but in reality, there is a major distinction between these two characteristics. People who are convinced quit seeking new information. After all, if you have the answers, why waste your time listening to additional input. Confident people, on the other hand, continuously seek out new information. They see it as critical to making the best decision in the moment.

The tricky part is, people who are convinced actually may have had the answer . . . at one point in time, for one specific situation. It worked. They figured it out. They built the model, identified the missing link, accurately predicted the situation. The flaw in this way of thinking is that variables are changing all the time. However, when people are lauded for identifying the right answer one time . . . well . . . when you are recognized for selling hammers, it is easy for every situation to start looking like a nail.

This balancing is a part of what Collins refers to as Level 5 Leadership – someone who displays both fierce resolve and personal humility. Put another way, the increase in ego that comes from being convinced that you have THE answer may blind you to the new information that could yield the best result. So how does one successfully walk the tightrope between confidence and being convinced?

  1. Recognize that most solutions are situational. Sure, there are some universal truths…but unless you are dealing with gravity or chemical reactions, let’s just assume you haven’t stumbled on to one.
  2. Develop a framework for thinking rather than automatic responses. It can be very helpful to run your consideration through a set of values, a vision for the outcome, that helps guide your thinking without dictating specific actions.
  3. Always look for the unique variables that could impact your decision. Consciously looking for differences keeps you from relying on a solution that was ideally suited to an entirely different situation.

Hoping for more specific answers on how to traverse this tightrope? Sorry, that would require me being convinced I have the answers. Rather, I will remain confident you can figure it out…one step at a time.

 

The Hard Truth

Hard Truth GrSome days, leadership is just plain hard. And as much as we might like it to be different in those moments when we have to make a decision with no clear path forward, I think it is supposed to be hard. Struggling through the hard stuff is how we learn and grow and gain greater clarity . . . and yes, at times stumble, but ultimately chart a better course. It is shouldering the pushback, the skepticism, the lack of understanding of well-intended people, (including yourself!) while you strive toward the larger vision.

True, this is not the picture of leadership that you typically see highlighted in feature stories that talk about the confident, charismatic stuff of which great leaders are made. The piece that gets left out of the story is that the confidence comes on the other side, once you have worked your way through the tough stuff. So what is a leader to do when firmly wedged between what feels like a rock and a hard place?

  • Walk all the way around the issue. If you think there is only one option, one choice, you just aren’t looking closely enough. Gather input from a cross-section of people. The more clearly you can identify what is going on “underneath” different perspectives, the better you can put things in context.
  • Make the case yourself, out loud, for both perspectives. Things sometimes sound different when you say them out loud than they do in your head, and making both arguments yourself helps minimize the impact of personalities on your consideration.
  • Recognize that “grappling” is part of the process. This is the hard part . . . the lonely inner wrestling about the best decision. It does not make you indecisive or weak or somehow deficit in your capabilities. It means you care enough to put yourself through the wringer as you search for the right choice.
  • Sleep on it. Once you have found a place to land, let it sit. Sleep on it. Yes, I know that you are down to the wire and it feels like you have to come up with an answer right now. Sleep on it. The extra measure of clarity that can come with the light of a new day is well worth a short delay in the final call.

Does knowing these steps make the process of leadership easier? Not really. There will still be plenty of situations where your heart and your head, your trusted advisors, and your short and long-term perspectives will be in conflict. It will be draining and frustrating, and just plain hard. But . . . somehow it helps to know that it is part of the process. That this is how it works. And the potential gain is worth the pain that a leader will endure getting there.

That, my friends, is the hard truth of leadership.

Sail Your Ship

Sailing To The Sunrise“A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” — John A. Shedd

Easy enough to say about a ship, but what about your organization? How long have you been anchored in the same spot? Sure you keep the deck swabbed, work hard to keep things shined up and even test the sails on a regular basis . . . but how long has it been since you really sailed?

Think about it . . . what was your organization built for? Probably not just hanging out in waters that feel safe. Oh, I understand the hesitation . . . and you’re right, you likely will encounter gusting winds, choppy waters and even a storm or two . . . you may end up drifting into uncharted waters and there is a chance you’ll end up somewhere entirely different from where you thought you were going when you set sail.

All true. But what was your organization built for? I’m guessing it was not to do what is easy, or safe, or free from stress (who needs a leader for that?). To accomplish important goals, you have to push off from the shore and follow the navigational beacons.

  • Use your mission, vision, and values as your compass. Early captains may have used the stars to keep them on course. Your mission, vision, and values are equally reliable in helping ensure you are heading in the right direction.
  • Focus on the destination, not a specific route. Things rarely go exactly as planned. If you are focused primarily on how you intend to get somewhere rather than where you are going, it will be much harder to adapt to changing currents.
  • Count on your crew. If you have built a well-rounded team, you will have a range of gifts and graces to aid you on the journey. Ask their opinion, listen to their insight, and let them help you steer the ship.
  • Know how to cut through the waves. When things get choppy, commit to a path and go. You may choose to head straight through at a good steady speed, or cut to one side or another . . . but rest assured, proceeding slowly or waffling midway through will result in a rough ride for everyone.
  • Go. Studying charts, looking at the forecasts, and getting advice from others are all well and good, but the only way you are going to get anywhere is to start. Even if you’re uncertain. The only guarantee is what will happen if you never cast off. You’ll be safe, but you won’t succeed.

So take a deep breath, and sail your ship.

 

Paint Swatches

Paint ChipsI can view a paint swatch and have a pretty good idea of what it will look like in a room. My husband is somewhat baffled by how I can look at a 2 inch square of color and know if it will work in a 12 x 14-foot space. Practice . . . lots of practice. Oh, maybe not always with paint, but isn’t that what we leaders do every time we consider a new opportunity?

Most opportunities don’t come to us fully formed. Rather we notice possibilities, like little squares of color, and it is up to a leader to extrapolate what the opportunities could look like if they were to be expanded to a larger scale. Unfortunately, some people in positions of leadership struggle to know what that spark of color can look like when it is infused throughout the organization, so they simply spin their wheels and expend their energy going back and forth between several options but never actually making a decision. Others will dip their toes in and buy a little bit of several colors to try on the wall. This is helpful for some leaders, but for others dabbling in multiple possibilities, it only confuses the matter more.

The only way to maximize an opportunity is to get it on the wall . . . to make a choice and start painting. For those who still struggle to decide which color will give the best overall result, I have a few pointers.

  • Know what you’re going for. Why are you looking at paint swatches in the first place? Is your current space too monotone and you’re looking for a bit diversification, are things getting a bit dated and you want to respond to emerging trends, do you need to perk up or calm down the environment? Maybe you just like to be on the leading edge of the next big thing. Always know the intent of the effort.
  • Consider the furnishings in the room. If you view an opportunity in isolation, the “color” may look good by itself but may clash with everything else in the room. A great idea that detracts from all the things that are currently working in your organization really isn’t such a great idea, no matter how cool the color chip may look by itself.
  • Make a decision. Thinking about a new color, considering the nuances of one shade over another is all well and good . . . but if you want something to change, ultimately you have to make a decision and start painting. It is only paint. You can change the color down the road if you need to, but in all my years, I have never seen a wall spontaneously paint itself. The leader has to decide and then act.

There are a rainbow of opportunities before every organization. Pick a swatch and start painting.

The Other 93%

Unhappy Discontent Woman And Man Look With Disgusting ExpressionWhether or not you believe Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s oft-quoted research that 55% of communication happens through nonverbals, 38% through vocal elements, and only 7% through the words we use, most people will concede that nonverbals play a major role in communications. So why is it that so many leaders seem to focus only on words and ignore the other 93%?

For starters, open two-way communication gets harder when people are placed in positions of leadership. Most people who report to you will be good students. Good students give the teacher the answer he or she wants to hear, whether or not they actually believe it’s true. After all, giving the “right” answer is the way you get good grades, right? So most people’s words tend to reinforce what the leader is already thinking . . . thus giving a 7% confirmation that everyone is on the same page regarding the best course of action.

But aren’t words more “concrete” than all subjective, nonverbal stuff? In a word, no. When words and nonverbals are in conflict trust the nonverbals, which are often unconscious and reflect true feelings or intentions. (Anyone who has raised a teenager can vouch for the truth of this concept.) People may say what they think they are supposed to, but for the leader who takes the time to “listen” to the nonverbals, there can be a whole host of information being communicated that isn’t being “said.” Whether it is a lack of eye contact, gestures or physical movement (such as someone tapping their foot, drumming their fingers or crossing their arms), how a person positions themselves in the room, or “the look on their face”, your people can say a lot without saying a word.

What can a leader do to make sure you are hearing the full message? Focus on the complete “conversation” taking place, not just the words being shared — by you or someone else. If you are thinking about what you are going to say next, you can miss subtle nonverbal cues that are communicating loud and clear if only you are attentive enough to notice. If a person’s words and nonverbals are inconsistent, ask for clarification — not in an accusing way, but in a spirit of seeking to understand . . . “Joe, you seem uncomfortable/unconvinced/skeptical . . . do you see the matter differently?” And then give Joe the opportunity to share his perspective.

When you consistently loop back with your people in this way, a) they will start to believe that you really do want to know what they are thinking, b) they will feel seen and valued because you noticed something that they may not have even been aware of conveying, and c) you will gain the value of the full message your people are communicating — through words they share . . . and the other 93%.

Shades of Gray

White Painted Textured Background With Brush StrokesIt seems far too common these days to find headlines that reflect an apparent lack of ethics in leadership. How does this happen? What has led to what some might consider to be an ethics crisis among leaders? Is it power? . . . ego? . . . a lack of morals? Undoubtedly in some cases, it is one or all of these things. In other cases, however, the issue is not so black and white.

Choices between right and wrong are fairly easy. It’s making choices between two “right” answers that gets a bit trickier . . . where each possible choice reflects a core value of the organization, and a decision has to be made regarding which value should take precedence in a given situation. Suddenly, a leader may be faced with a whole lot of gray.

Should decisions be made in the best interest of . . .

. . . the individual or the organization?

. . . short-term or long-term impact?

. . . responsibility or loyalty?

. . . duty, rights, virtue or relationships?

It all depends on where you are standing, the perspective you choose, as you weigh the options.

When external rules or expectations would direct an organization to take a course of action that would not be in the best interest of a specific individual, what is an organization to do? Look out for the individual and risk some degree of sanction for the organization? Perhaps . . . if you used an individual lens. What if such sanction would impact the organization’s ability to serve other individuals in the future, would that change the decision? Does the degree of harm — to the individual or the organization — factor into the decision? So many shades of gray.

Leaders have to deal, often on a daily basis, with the messy reality of competing demands, pressures, expectations and values. Courses of action that may seem clear in hindsight are often mired in a gray fog at the point a leader must choose a path forward. That is simply the reality of leadership. So how does one make the “best” ethical decision?

  • Clearly articulate organizational values and the predominant perspective the organization will use to guide decision-making. For example, “we will act in ways that sustain the organization for the long term.”
  • Engage in transparent dialog to gain a variety of perspectives. At times, a leader may not even recognize there could be other perspectives to consider. Voicing the dilemma, encouraging feedback, and discussing options can help clarify the path forward.
  • Step back from the issue at hand. When you look at any decision too narrowly it can keep you from considering the full implications of a decision. Ethics can be a slippery slope when you look at individual decisions in isolation.

Know your values and priorities, openly discuss the tough decisions, and look at the big picture. The answer still may not be black and white, but taking these steps can help a leader reduce the shades of gray.

Time to Act

time to act ext on wooden cubes on a wooden background“It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.”

I’ve seen this insight, and variations thereof, credited to a number of different people — probably because of the innate truth of the statement. And yet, how often do we as leaders get so hung up on developing our plans . . . to change the culture, to launch a new initiative, to pursue a strategic direction . . . that we never really get around to doing anything.

Now let me be clear, I am a big proponent of plans (as anyone who works with me can attest). According to Google, the definition of a plan is “a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something; an intention or decision about what on is going to do.” The end result of the effort is to do, to act . . . not to create the perfect plan!

Have you ever had a plan thrust on you from some external source and thought the concept probably made a lot of sense to someone sitting in an office somewhere, but from a practical application standpoint it was not possible/made no sense/had numerous unintended consequences? Yep. What do you think the chances are that someone has ever had that thought about one of your well-crafted plans?

That is why it is better to view plans as fluid, living documents. Get a basic understanding of your end goal, get the project rolling, and then adapt as you get new information. Act your way into a new way of thinking. Because here’s the deal . . . there is no way to anticipate all of the variables you will encounter at the beginning of an initiative — no matter how much time and effort was put into developing the plan. Detailed plans may make us feel better . . . rigidly sticking to them, however, may actually diminish our results.

I can’t tell you how many times we have encountered totally unexpected opportunities because we acted, and then were willing to adapt our plan along the way. Hear me loud and clear, adapting a plan doesn’t mean the plan failed . . . it means the plan moved you to the point that you had new information with which to make a better decision.

Get clear on your end goal — your intent — and then yes, identify the best that you know at the time, along with the unknown but important variables, to develop a plan. Don’t expect it to be perfect. Expect it to be enough to start, to move you in the right direction. And then . . . it’s time to act.

Chocolate Covered Cherries

Three Cordial CherriesMy Grandma Duncan loved chocolate covered cherries. To say I did not would be a sizeable understatement. Every holiday, as she opened the dreaded candy box and urged me to have one, I just knew that ball of syrupy sweetness was going to get bigger and bigger in my mouth as I chewed, threatening to totally gag me. Looking back, I’m fairly certain the fretting beforehand was much worse than the candies (although my throat still tightens at the mere mention of them). Call it the “chocolate covered cherry effect” . . . the anticipation — and angst — of a looming challenge has caused many a leader to choke.

We’ve all been there. Expert predictions/trends/new rules foretell of significant disruptions to the way your organization functions . . . and stewing about the looming shadow of uncertainty only causes it to grow in your mind. Chocolate covered cherry effect. The more you chew on it, the bigger it becomes.

Certainly, you should identify and carefully consider the challenges before you. The key is how you approach it. The chocolate covered cherry effect happens when you get stuck on what the challenge is going to do to you. A much more effective, and energizing, leadership strategy is to identify what you will do to move past the challenge, and maximize the resulting opportunities.

The thing you focus on grows. Do you want to focus on the challenge — the chocolate covered cherry — or do you want to focus on what you can accomplish when you move past it? A few tips for those interested keeping their challenges in perspective:

1) Thoughtfully consider the challenge, gather input from multiple viewpoints, and then make a decision. You will rarely have all the information you would like. Get enough and then decide. The longer you chew on it, the bigger the challenge feels.

2) Remember, you know how to do this. I have eaten a number of chocolate covered cherries in my life, and none of them killed me. You have faced, and conquered, challenges before. Recognize that you have the skills to move through it.

3) Take it a bite at a time. Part of what can make challenges seem so overwhelming is that you often can’t see how you’ll get all the way through at the outset. That’s okay. Start eating away at the challenge. The path will become clearer as you go.

4) It’s worth the effort. In the grand scheme of things, the chocolate covered cherries were a small price to pay compared to the joys of holidays with my grandparents. I would have missed so much if I couldn’t see past that challenge to possibilities that came with it.

The thing you focus on grows. And I certainly don’t want that to be the chocolate covered cherries. What about you?

Get Out of the Way

No More ConceptSometimes as a leader, we create barriers to our own progress, and if we — and our organizations — are to maximize our potential, we first need to get out of our own way. Yes, I’m sure that you can easily think of a leader whose confidence appears to outpace his or her ability. Let’s just work with the assumption that those individuals are not likely to invest time in reading this leadership blog . . . and so for those who are reading, it seems quite plausible that you may at times underestimate your unique capabilities. Still unconvinced? Ask yourself . . .

  • Have you ever gone to a conference session and thought I (or my people) know all that and more/have more hands-on experience/could do that in my/our sleep?

 

  • Have you ever become aware of an organization that implemented a program you had considered but never acted on, that is being lauded as “ground-breaking”?

 

  • Have you ever believed a course of action could be really impactful, but after a few “no’s” you convinced yourself it would never happen?

 

  • Have you ever read a book or article that articulates something you have known for years but thought it sounded too simplistic so you never shared it?

 

  • Have you ever ignored what your gut was telling you because some “expert” recommended you move in another direction?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then chances are that you are selling yourself and your organization short, and you might want to consider getting out of your own way.

I am not suggesting you should adopt a self-congratulatory style or take on undue risk. I am suggesting you strive for what Jim Collins refers to as Level Five Leadership — personal humility coupled with professional will. Many leaders have one or the other. If you are heavy on the humility side (in many ways an admirable trait), that may at times keep you from shining a light on your organization’s unique capabilities and expertise. In other cases, there may be a tendency to think that others know what you know (not true) or assume that because something seems basic/logical/self-evident to you that others recognize it as well (also not true). If any of these things have a ring of truth to you, maybe it’s time to get out of your own way.

How? Start small. Share what you are thinking. It doesn’t have to be complex or perfect or groundbreaking (although it might be). Don’t try to be all things to all people. Get clear on your vision and then go all in — as only you can. Don’t let the fear of standing out, or being criticized hold you back. Sometimes one of the biggest barriers to our organization reaching its full potential is closer than we realize.

Get out of the way.