Making Room

Available Room Sign On Board

As Christmas approaches, regardless of your faith tradition, there are many leadership lessons to be learned from the birth of the Christ child. One that stands out to me at this particular moment in time is the concept of making room.

Jesus was an illegitimate child born to lowly foreigners who were seemingly ill-equipped to care for their child. To say they would be considered an “at risk” family was probably an understatement. And yet, from such humble beginnings came one of the greatest leaders of all time. Can you make room in your concept of who is “leadership material” to open the door to an unlikely candidate who brings something totally new to the table?

Much of the buzz about the Christ child was coming from people who really didn’t grasp the big picture, you know, uneducated shepherds. Granted, there were those wise men, but they were from another country and really didn’t understand King Herod’s strategic goals. Surely if he reasoned with them, they would understand the need to get things back on course . . . Easy to see the flaws in Herod’s approach in hindsight, but can you make room amid your well-laid plans to pivot when an unexpected distraction (um, opportunity) presents itself?

Logical, rational thinking would not have supported the conclusion that people throughout the world would still be talking about this seemingly random, inconsequential (well except for the star thing, but certainly that could be explained away) occurrence more than 2000 years later . . . and yet they are. Can you make room in your performance-based, metric-centric, fact-driven lens to pay attention to passion and potential, to look past probability to see possibility?

It is much easier to say no to making room. Truly, the Inn Keeper had no more space available — at least not what one would typically think of as space that could be used for lodging. Making room often requires a leader to look at things a bit differently than most people would see as typical or reasonable or necessary. Making room requires getting people to change their ways, at times having uncomfortable conversations, and not being certain of exactly how things will turn out.

At its core, making room is a decision of the heart . . . based on values, and mission, and an aspirational vision of the kind of place you want your organization to be. Making room takes courage, and faith in what could be, regardless of how unlikely something might appear at the outset. Making room is really what leadership is all about.

My hope for you this holiday season, and into the New Year, is that you take a moment to pause, look around, and consider where you should be challenging yourself and your organization . . . by making room.


Pieces of Perfection

Christmas Tree

I have a collection of porcelain Christmas ornaments that I have had for a number of years. They were all gifts that highlighted important moments in my life. Each year, I would carefully place them on our tree, making sure they were secure on the branch. And then one year, one of them fell, bouncing from branch to branch in a seemingly slow motion journey to the floor. After the initial pain of seeing something I held dear in pieces on the floor, I had a decision to make. Throw away the broken ornament and maybe look for a replacement, or try to glue the figurine back together as best I could, knowing it would never be the same?

As I pulled the scarred ornament out of its box this year, and positioned it on the tree so the unrepairable hole in the back was less obvious, I recognized that while it was less perfect than the other ornaments in the collection, it never fails to make me smile. As leaders, in our quest to have everything run perfectly, we can lose sight of the fact that sometimes the most imperfect part of our work can actually have the most meaning. That is where our effort can have the biggest impact.

Maybe your challenge isn’t gluing together broken pieces. It could be deciding whether to replace a fading ornament with something new, or taking a big risk to totally turn the tree upside down without knowing for sure how it will turn out. Too often, we unnecessarily set ourselves up to fail by making perfection the goal . . . in all things . . . at all times. Perhaps the best way to find fulfillment as a leader is to instead look for pieces of perfection . . . which may, in fact, be quite different than what you originally envisioned. It could be

. . . Improvising with Plan B when Plan A fell apart, and having it surpass all expectations

. . .Thinking you could never replace a key player who walked away, only to have an even better fit step to the table.

. . . Falling short on the original goals of a project, but making a connection that led to even bigger opportunities.

Pieces of perfection come into view when we let go of some preordained picture of what success is supposed to look like. Not to lower the bar on the impact you are trying to have, simply to recognize that there may be any number of ways to get there.

My Christmas tree is filled with mismatched ornaments, tarnished ones, and aging grade school creations that make my sons cringe . . . all hanging along side shiny new additions, and of course my porcelain figurines. I’m certain a designer would not call it a perfect tree. I’m equally sure that it is filled with meaning . . . and pieces of perfection.


Big Yellow Hats


When my (now 31-year-old) nephew was young, he loved Curious George. If you know the story, through the many circumstances in which “George was curious,” the man with the big yellow hat encouraged him to explore, but was always there to keep him from going too far afield. George learned a great deal because the man with the big yellow hat allowed him the freedom to try new things.

Are you a “big yellow hat” leader? Do you encourage your staff to ask why, experiment, test theories and take risks, even when you know that sometimes they will stub their toes? According to a new report from The Bridgespan Group two of the core components in building a capacity for innovation within your organization are a curious culture, and catalytic leadership.

George was allowed to live in a curious culture. He took risks, and when he “failed” it became a lesson-filled learning opportunity. For the skeptics out there who are thinking your organization isn’t a cartoon and you can’t afford to have your staff play around, I would respond that, yes, there are risks that come with innovating. There are also costs associated with always coloring within the lines drawn by others. Just recognize that if you want your staff to identify creative approaches to the challenges before them, you have to let them explore a bit and ask “what if.” You have to let them be curious.

And what, exactly, is catalytic leadership? Merriam-Webster defines a catalyst as “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. Catalytic leadership provides the push needed to get the ball rolling in a specific, focused direction. The man in the big yellow hat always identified where they were going or what they were going to do, he simply allowed George the freedom to be curious along the way. Catalytic leadership isn’t about letting staff focus their energies in twelve different directions. It is about articulating a vision and priorities, and then letting your people grapple and experiment with the best way to get there. It is about mentoring and encouraging collaboration and hands-on learning. It is about allowing your staff to find a path forward.

Being a big yellow hat leader takes patience and the ability to embrace ambiguity. It requires a recognition that progress rarely happens in straight lines or amid a tangle of rules, and that one rarely knows the route to the end of the journey when standing at the beginning of it. It requires a clear vision of the destination and the ability to inspire others and serve as a role-model for embracing possibilities.

How exactly does one become a big yellow hat leader? The first step . . . is to be curious.

Lessons from the Blarney Stone

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I have kissed the Blarney Stone. Perhaps this will come as no surprise to those who know me. What may be a surprise, however, is that far more than simply endowing one with the gift of gab, this experience can also grant a glimpse into fundamental, but often unspoken, reality of leadership.

It is a journey to get there. Many people assume that the Blarney Stone is on the ground — that they simply have to arrive at Blarney Castle, take a leisurely stroll, maybe wait in line a bit, and then kiss the stone. Umm . . . not so much. The Blarney stone is on top of the castle ruins, and you have to climb up four stories on narrow winding stairs to get there. Likewise, there is a tendency to think that simply because someone has been placed in a position of leadership they have arrived at the destination. Little do they know that it’s a trek filled with twists and turns and uneven steps before one reaches the ultimate destination. Being placed in a position of leadership is akin to making it to the grounds of Blarney Castle. You’re moving in the right direction, but you’re not there yet.

Lots of people think they want to do it. Many people just assume if you’re going to Ireland, kissing the stone will be part of your itinerary. Even when you get to the castle grounds, you hear people buzzing about it. Then comes the realization of what it takes to get to the Stone. The crowds start to thin. Some people start the climb, but then opt out after a story or two. Others get all the way to the top, see what is really required, and then keep walking. Only a portion of those who started willingly take the plunge. I often hear concerns of how few are stepping up to take on leadership roles. As much as people may talk about wanting to lead, they ultimately may decide it’s not for them. That’s okay. That doesn’t make them less valuable to the organization. It simply means this is not the path for everyone.

Even when you get there, there will be moments of questioning your sanity. Look at the picture above. See the glimpse of blue through a hole at the top of the ruin. Yep, that’s where it is . . . on the outer ledge of that opening. To reach the stone, you have to sit on the edge, lean over backwards and out to actually reach the thing. But not to worry, there is a tiny little Irishman (who is 80 if he is a day) sitting there to hold your legs. And there are a couple bars and a bit of chicken wire to help break your fall should you lose your balance. Why would anyone want to do this? Good question. The best answer I have (at least when it comes to leadership) comes from Parker Palmer who said, “Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’” Leadership is a vocation that not everyone is called to, and even if you are, that does not mean it’s an easy path.

A family member snapped a picture of me as I was kissing the stone. The look on my face is one of determination tinged with a bit of terror. The fact that those emotions were quickly followed by a huge grin doesn’t mean they were any less a part of the experience. Leadership is a tough, scary, at times lonely, and ultimately amazing journey that is worth every step . . . and that’s no blarney!

Unintended Messages



As a leader, you are sending messages all the time. Unfortunately, sometimes the message you think you’re sending is not the message that people are receiving. How does that happen? It all comes down to intent and context – your intent and their context.

You know what you are trying to accomplish — your intent. But unless those you hope to lead are mind readers, they may see your “what” but not your “why.” For example, you may have some team members you have not been spending as much face time with as others (the what). Your intent (the why) may be that you know they are doing a great job, and frankly they just don’t need that much guidance from you (in other words, you think you are sending a positive message) or maybe there is another “hot spot” that requires more of your attention (a neutral message), or it just doesn’t occur to you that your actions are sending a message at all (hint, you are always sending a message).

Depending on their context — their past experiences, perception of the current environment, personality, what they have going on outside of work — your people may interpret the “what” (in this example, not spending as much face time) as a negative rather than the positive or neutral message you intended. They might interpret your “what” as meaning that you see their role as less important, you are not as excited about what they are contributing to the mix, or something else entirely.

How can you make sure that the message you think you’re sending is, in fact, the one your people are receiving? Tell them your intent. Such an easy way to avoid an unintended message, but one we leaders often overlook. We tell ourselves that, “they know you . . . (trust them . . . need to focus your energies on a unique opportunity . . . fill in the blank that applies to you). I’m here to tell you, that whole expectation of mind-reading staff really doesn’t work out so well. Tell them your intent.

And how are you supposed to know the myriad of factors (the context) that may impact how someone interprets your actions? Well for starters, once people understand your why, many of what you would consider to be “misinterpretations” are easily cleared up. When you tell people your intent, one of three things can happen 1) something that made no sense to them now does; 2) they have the opportunity to ask questions, share their perspective or offer an alternate suggestion; or 3) they still have a different interpretation of your message, but at least you are aware of it and have a chance to respond. Simple step . . . big impact.

What unintended messages are you sending to those you hope to lead?


water in glass

It has been well established that one important factor in maintaining overall health is to stay well hydrated. Just as water keeps a plant from withering away, our bodies need water to function at their peak. Have you ever noticed, however, that sometimes we don’t notice how thirsty we really are until we drink a bit of water and then realize we are absolutely parched? That’s why you need to hydrate at regular intervals rather than waiting until you feel thirsty. The same need for regular hydration applies to “leadership health.”

Leaders need to hydrate their mind. Taking in new ideas, new knowledge, keeps your mind vital and functioning at its peak. Books, articles, Ted talks, conferences, conversations with people who see the world differently than you do … there are so many ways to keep your mind from becoming dry and brittle. Just like neglecting to drink enough water, it is easy to convince ourselves that our mind isn’t thirsty. We have enough ideas, what we are doing is working just fine, and besides we have no time for all that stuff. Really? Drink in some new knowledge. You just might be amazed at how thirsty you really are.

Leaders also need to hydrate their relationships. I’m not talking about interacting with people at agenda-laden meetings. Those might build respect, but they don’t build relationships. Relationships come from unstructured time spent with people. You need to drink in the opportunities to interact informally, both with work colleagues and personal friends. You need the time and space to ask questions and have spontaneous conversations that allow you to “be real” with people, in both deep and light-hearted ways. Ignoring this thirst is perhaps the quickest route to becoming a dry, crispy, lonely, leader.

Leaders need to hydrate their heart and soul. In the midst of the, at times, scorching responsibilities of leading, it is critical that leaders don’t try to just sweat it out. When you feel like you can least afford it is when it is most important to carve out time to replenish your “why,” to make sure it doesn’t quietly wilt away. What grounds you? What drives you? Why are you doing what you’re doing? Prayer, soaking in the wonder of nature, reflection, time spent with family and friends, interacting with a child … there are as many ways to quench this thirst, to nourish your heart and soul, as there are individuals. Just make sure you do it, whatever “it” is for you.

So you want to remain in this leadership gig for the long haul? Hydrate your body, yes, but also make sure you replenish your mind, your relationships, and your heart and soul. Starting today, take the time and drink it in!

Who Has Your Back?

Standing out from the crowd

Do you lead in such a way that your staff will have your back when the chips are down? Not out of a sense of fear of the repercussions if they don’t . . . that’s simply compliance. I’m talking about staff willingly stepping up to do what needs to be done when you are otherwise occupied, with or without being asked, to support you individually and ultimately the organization as a whole. It is a huge weight off a leader’s shoulders to know that when the unexpected happens, their team will handle what needs to be handled, no questions asked. And yet, I regularly see leaders at off-site meetings who spend the majority of the time on the phone dealing with issues at their office, or who never truly relax on vacation because they are tethered to their computer. Heaven forbid if a personal crisis hits and they suddenly can’t keep their finger on what their staff is doing. That’s not leading, that is micromanaging, and it is exhausting for everyone involved.

So how do you lead so your staff will have your back when the chips are down?

Have their back. Do you offer your staff a measure of grace, and step in to provide support when “life gets in the way” for them (even when it’s inconvenient for you)? If you are understanding of the individual challenges your staff face, there is a much greater likelihood that they will return the favor (you know, that whole Golden Rule thing).

Trust them to handle things. Presumably you have people in senior leadership positions because they have proven themselves capable and trustworthy. The best way to show them you trust them is to let them make independent decisions. Will they handle things the way that you would every time? Nope. However, the vast majority of the time the way they handle it will turn out just fine. And if it doesn’t, it provides a learning opportunity for all involved.

Keep them in the loop. Your staff can’t support things they don’t know about. It does not make you more powerful, or more in control, when you are the only one holding all the information . . . it simply makes you more stressed when the unexpected happens. A few minutes regularly invested in communicating with your staff can save you huge amounts of time and energy in the long run.

I’m sure my team has grown weary of hearing me say, “If you get hit by a bus tomorrow . . .” but leaders should be able to be sideswiped by the unexpected and know that their organization will be able to carry on without missing a beat. The three principles above are a good place to start.

Yes, leadership responsibilities can weigh heavy, but they become more manageable when you have built a team that you know will have your back.

Be Somebody

Relationship Building words on a ball or sphere to illustrate ne

With all the volatility in the human services industry, in many states, certainly in our country and in our world, it could be easy to question the impact that any one leader can have. That thought brought to mind the memory of a prominent business leader in my community who often said, “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.”

Today, more than ever, we need anyone who would consider themself a leader to be somebody.

I’m not suggesting that you have to fix every problem or take on the world. But the only way we are going to eat the elephants before us is one bite at a time . . . and it’s time to get eating. Take a few minutes, right now, to consider one thing you can do this week to build a bridge with someone who sees things differently than you do — be that a government funder, a competitor, a staff member, a neighbor or member of your community. Take a step forward. It’s what leaders do.

Will your efforts always have the intended results? Nope. To quote Kent Keith (although often attributed to Mother Teresa), do it anyway. Leaders make decisions, and take action, for long-term gains not short-term popularity. Have you ever noticed that something as simple as a phone call or a single conversation can make a huge difference in a situation? One phone call. One moment of empathy. To focus on our common goals, rather than our different strategies to accomplish those goals. Do it. Be somebody.

Because here’s the thing . . . if you are in a leadership position, people are going to be watching you. And if you do one thing, regardless of how small, to positively impact a situation, others will see your example and be encouraged to do likewise. Heaven knows there are plenty of examples of people in leadership positions who have taken shortcuts, or checked their values at the door, only to have those who followed them to feel justified in doing likewise. The same concept works in reverse. When you extend a hand rather than build a wall, others will notice and do likewise. Be somebody.

Yes, I know you’re busy. You don’t have time to put one more thing on your plate. Here’s the beauty of what I am suggesting. In the long-run, the investments you make in building bridges will save you time. Numerous research studies have verified the quantifiable positive impact of high-trust environments. That’s a big part of what we are missing today, isn’t it . . . trust? And you don’t gain trust with words, you gain it with actions. Leaders don’t look around for sometime else to take care of the challenges before them. They act. You can, too.

Be somebody.

Gift Wrapping

Female hands in winter gloves with christmas gift box

As much as I’m a fan of nicely wrapped Christmas presents, I also recognize that the outer wrapping has little bearing on the real gift inside. As noted in the children’s sermon at church last Sunday, what I consider to be the greatest gift ever — the Christ child — came wrapped in what could be compared to tattered brown paper. No flashy ribbons or bows. No indication of status and majesty. No special privileges or expectations.

It is easy to get caught up in the trappings of leadership, and how others think the “package” should look. I’m guessing we’ve all been guilty from time to time of wrapping ourselves in a shiny coat of “fake it till you make it,” while feeling we were totally in over our heads. And while that might get you through in the short term, that is no way to lead for the long haul . . . a phony wrapper will only drag you down and minimize the gifts you bring to the table.

Being authentic, when that doesn’t match someone else’s idea of what a leadership package should look like, can be a hard thing to do. But guess what? Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, with a variety of dispositions and styles, and trying to wrap yourself up to look like a “should” (you know . . . you should be more reserved . . . you should be more decisive . . . or analytical . . . or outgoing . . .) discounts your unique perspectives and abilities. You weren’t chosen for a leadership role because your package looked just like everyone else’s (how boring would that be?!?) You may complement other packages, sure, or maybe your gifts coordinate with an overall strategy, but here’s the bottom line: You will never reach your leadership potential by trying to be something you are not, and putting a pretty bow on the box isn’t going to fool anyone.

When I hear industry experts talk about the impending “leadership crisis,” with predictions that there just won’t be enough people willing to take on leadership roles, it occurs to me that maybe we need to be willing to accept a package that looks a little different that the one we have come to associate with “leadership.”   Does it really matter if the gift comes wrapped in rumpled newspaper or covered with glitter and curly ribbon? It is the gifts and graces inside the package that will make all the difference.

As we approach a new year, my challenge to you is to look past the color-coordinated shiny paper and bows. Maybe, just maybe, the present you need can be found inside a brown paper wrapper.

Leading in Life

Good leaders take their jobs very seriously. They work hard, and even when they’re not “at” work, their mind is often “on” work. And yet, the best leaders also recognize that their life is not defined by a professional role. They are someone’s child, perhaps they are a spouse and/or parent, a friend, a neighbor … These relationships often came before, and with luck will last long after, any particular leadership position. These are the relationships, and the memories, that will sustain a soul during challenging times, and warm a heart on the most ordinary of days. These are the relationships that add richness, not only to your life, but also your ability to lead whole people … who also have lives outside of work.

Work life balance. While the term itself might be a bit of misnomer . . . life always seems to be tilting one direction or another . . . the idea of integrating the multiple parts of life is critical for you and those you lead. Kids have ball games and doctor appointments, appliance repair people want to come during the day, and family crises rarely confine themselves to evenings and weekends. As the saying goes, life happens … to you and your staff. Embrace it. Make room for it. Of course it doesn’t happen at convenient times … bummer … carve out the time for it anyway. And make sure your staff know it’s okay for them to do the same.

While I have always been vocal in communicating my commitment to being a family friendly organization, a senior leader in our organization once pointed out that it didn’t matter what I said . . . If staff didn’t see me modeling the behavior, they wouldn’t really think it was okay. Point well taken. There will always be meetings, deadlines, and things you should be doing at work. Your son won’t always be playing t-ball. There will likely be times your parents could use an extra measure of support. Spouses have special events that you want to be a part of. You can’t get those times back. Take them.

And find a way for your staff to live a whole life as well. Yes, there will be times when you may be thinking, “So-and-so” is gone AGAIN!?! (Have you ever noticed that flu tends to travel through the entire family one person at a time . . . and sport seasons have a lot of games in a short amount of time?) Trust me, you can tell the difference between a slacker and someone who is working really hard to fit in a very full life. Even if it is at times inconvenient, those are the people I want in my organization. And the way to keep them is to support them as they try to juggle it all.

You see, being a great leader requires more than meeting a deadline, completing a project, or meeting strategic goals. Sometimes it requires offering a measure of understanding and grace for well-rounded staff (including yourself) who provide the foundation for your organization’s long-term success.

Frying/draining/demoralizing your people by expecting 110% at all times, regardless of the situation, is a sure-fire way to limit your organization’s ultimate impact. On the flip side, being supportive of, and role modeling, creative ways to integrate both work and a full life outside the office walls is a key step in the journey from “just” being a leader at work, to being a leader in life.