Blowing Bubbles

After somewhat in-depth and totally unscientific research, I can report that it is impossible (or at least highly unlikely) to remain stressed out while blowing bubbles. Yes, I said bubbles – that soapy child’s concoction that you can pick up at your local dollar store. Maybe it is the deep, steady exhale required to unleash the bubbles, or the distracting pleasure of focusing on the size and color of the delicate floating creation. Have you ever seen anyone scowl or furrow their brow while blowing bubbles? I didn’t think so. Smiles and laughter are the most common response. It doesn’t take special equipment, or a membership, or a lot of time. And yet, blowing bubbles can be more grounding than a lot of other far more complicated strategies. 

Even if having a bottle of bubbles tucked in your desk drawer isn’t your calming strategy of choice (although don’t knock it until you have tried it), every leader needs to know what immediate, in-the-moment techniques are most effective for helping you center yourself in the midst of a high-stress situation. Maybe for you it is taking a five minute walk outside. Or making lists of details and options. A quick phone call with a family member — not about the stressor, just to ground yourself — may be helpful for some people. For others savoring a piece of good dark chocolate can provide the brief respite that allows them to calm their thinking and sharpen their focus.

There is not one right way to tap into your wise inner core in the midst of a stressful situation. Your people may prefer a totally different approach than you do, and that’s okay . . . as long as you have all taken the time to figure out what works best for individual members of your team. Someone who is calmed by making lists and getting details on paper may find talking a walk stresses them out because they are “wasting” time that they could be using to dissect the challenge. For others, without taking a few moments to breathe and gain perspective, their thought process may be scattered all over the place. In the heat of the moment, it is important to offer a measure of grace for members of your team who ground themselves differently than you do. And it is easier to do that if you have considered in advance how to best support your colleagues while also honoring what works best for you.

Not sure what in-the-moment strategy works best for you? While I can’t give you a definitive answer, you might want to start by blowing bubbles.

Tend the Forest

Forest scene; Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash
Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

You can’t see the forest for the trees.

It’s one of those phrases that we all have heard, and yet we fail to heed its warning time and again. We spend so much time addressing the crisis du jour, our ever-growing to-do list, today’s opportunity or our competitors most recent actions that we lose sight of the big picture . . . the forest . . . if we were ever really clear on the big picture in the first place. 

Here’s the thing. Individual trees can get struck by lightning. A bigger tree might block the sun and so the one in its shadow may never grow to its full potential. Or you plant a seed with great confidence, only to be disappointed that it doesn’t seem to take root like you expected. If your primary focus is on the tree, such set-backs can send you into a tailspin, scurrying around to respond to this crisis or that. 

When you step back and focus on the forest, however, you recognize that not every tree will be a majestic oak, and that’s okay. You don’t have to turn yourself inside out for every project as long as you are keeping your eye on the well-being of the whole. You can acknowledge that some seeds germinate at a slower pace — or maybe not at all, but it is still worth the effort to plant them.

Keeping your focus on the forest doesn’t eliminate the day-to-day challenges of leading, but it does help keep them in context so you can focus on the end game. From a big picture perspective, it is easier to recognize that some of your best laid plans may not work out the way you had hoped, but one particular “tree” is simply that . . . one tree in a whole forest of pathways and opportunities. 

The biggest challenge comes when you have not clearly defined the forest. What are the three or four big goals you are working toward? Not 57 . . . that’s tree counting. You have to push past seeing every project — every tree — as an end unto itself. Define the forest.  Arriving at that kind of focus is harder than you think. But when you get there, it is much easier to step back and find a different path to your destination when things don’t go as you had hoped. And they won’t. 

If you are having one of those weeks where you feel like you are simply running from tree to tree, stop. Take a deep breath. And tend the forest.

Spring Rains

spring white flower in the rainHave you ever noticed that in the Springtime, entire landscapes can change in a day? One well-timed rain shower can make entire hillsides come to life, blooming with energy and possibilities. Of course, that only happens if the seeds for that growth were already there. Sure, they may have been dormant during the stark cold winter, but they were in the right place, just waiting for the Spring rains.

Nature is patient. We leaders . . . sometimes not so much. We want to plant seeds — in terms of our people, our plans, our vision — and then have them immediately germinate and bloom. Unfortunately, that is not the way it works. You have to plant bulbs in the fall, before the frost and gray skies of Winter, if you want them to flower in the Spring . . . or cultivate seeds in the Spring to reap the harvest in late summer or fall. But it is Springtime, after the brown and sometimes frigid Winter, that the transformation is most obvious.

What does a “Spring rain” look like in your organization? Perhaps a major opportunity comes your way that you are positioned to take advantage of because you have been preparing your people and organization for just such a situation. Some (i.e. those who didn’t plan ahead) will label such opportunities as a lucky break. Seneca described that kind of luck as a situation where “preparation meets opportunity”. The Spring rains bring the opportunity. You as the leader are responsible for the preparation part.

Preparing for the Spring rains means you can’t just focus on this week’s weather forecast. Yes, you have to be aware of it for other reasons, but this week’s weather has little to do with what the next season holds. As a leader, you have to adapt to the current storms, but ultimately you also have to plant the seeds for the subsequent season. And then you have to wait. That’s the catch, isn’t it? We are so accustomed to instant gratification, immediate return on investment, focusing the next quarter’s outcomes, that investing in the long term can seem like a quaint but unrealistic concept. Maybe the unrealistic part is not the concept, but our expectations as leaders.

The Spring rains will come. Perhaps not exactly when you want them to, and sometimes to a greater or lesser degree than you would ideally like, but they will come. The question is whether you have prepared your organizational landscape to blossom and burst with new life when the time comes. For those leaders who recognize their critical role as a patient cultivator . . . who have experienced Spring’s beauty . . . nothing is more satisfying than sitting back and watching it rain!

Complicated ≠ Complex

Is that thorny challenge before you complicated or complex? Because it can’t be both.

While there is a tendency to use those two words interchangeably, they really mean very different things. Complicated challenges are hard. They can be difficult to figure out. But once you identify the parts and how they interact, complicated challenges are predictable. You can develop systems around them. There is an order, a logic, to complicated things. They can be repeated. Yes, it may take a specialized level of skill or expertise, but complicated challenges can be solved. Sending a rocket to the moon is complicated. Writing computer code is complicated. But there is a formula for success.

Complex challenges, on the other hand, are unpredictable. With complex challenges, you cannot look at the individual parts and find a linear cause and effect chain.  You have to consider the ever-shifting whole. For complex challenges, there is not predictability or a single right answer. Complex challenges require one to be agile, willing to experiment, fail and adapt. Complex challenges are a moving target. They are ambiguous. You don’t “solve” complex problems. You have to lead your way through them.

If you are a leader, you need to find really smart people to focus on your complicated challenges so you can spend your time on the complex ones. For example, what is the best strategy to expand your market share? Well that depends on what your competitors do. That depends on what happens to the price of your raw materials. That depends on how people react your offerings . . . you get the picture. You have to consider the interplay of all the moving parts to make the best decision at that moment in time. A week from now, the variables may be different. Are you willing to experiment and fail? Are you comfortable continually recalibrating based on new information, while also recognizing that you have to get a product to market?

Don’t limit your impact by approaching a complex problem like a complicated one. Too many leaders get stuck because they think if they just gather more “data” they will find the right path forward. Complex challenges are not like a math problem. There is not a single right answer. And the minute one of the variables change, the options before you change as well. With complex challenges, you need to consider the information before you and take the next best step. Then reassess, recalibrate, and take the next best step. Yes, be clear on where you are trying to get to, but you cannot chart your entire path before you start because the “best” way forward is constantly shifting.

Complex challenges require confidence . . . to make a decision that doesn’t come with a guarantee. They require humility . . . to know that you most likely need to course correct.

They require agility . . . because you have to quickly assess the situation and decide.

Complex challenges require leadership . . . it’s really no more complicated than that.

They

Do you know the one thing that diminishes a leader’s energy more than anything else? 

“They”  

As in, they won’t let us do that . . . they don’t understand . . . they just made our job more difficult. All of these things may be true, however do you feel the depletion of energy, almost like a reverse battery, with each successive “they?” When you focus on they, or them, you give away your power. As a result, you feel ever more confined by the box of something you can’t control. 

I’m not suggesting that you should deny the reality of the situation. I am, however, challenging you to shift your focus. “I understand we are being told we can’t do that. And here is how we are going to respond” . . . “There seems to be a lack of understanding about this. How can we help bridge the gap?” Do you feel the difference in energy? They statements are the equivalent to throwing your hands up. They becomes the reason you quit trying. I or we statements are about action. I or we remind you, and everyone on your team, that you have a choice. It may not be an easy choice, or a popular choice, but you have a choice. You can affect the outcome. And that is energizing.

Never make the solution to a challenge something outside your control. Doing so makes you a victim to circumstance . . . feel your energy draining away? “Oh poor me” never accomplished anything important. In fact, it shrinks you down smaller and smaller with each retelling of the tale (and, oh how we like to repeat our tales of woe). If you feel yourself in that spot . . . stop, take an energizing breath, and focus on how we are going to respond. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you can choose to take a step. 

Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl noted that, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” In that space lies your energy as a leader. Don’t stop short. Don’t stop at they. Your people need you to get to the we — that is how you grow, and how you expand your influence as a leader and as an organization.

They are always going to be there. Will you let them deplete your energy, or will you step forward and recharge your leadership? The choice is yours.

Strong Enough to be Kind

Do you have the strength to be kind? 

In the midst of an increasingly caustic, blaming, shout-over-you culture, you could perhaps be wondering if those two things — strength and kindness — really go together. I would contend that today more than ever, we need leaders who are strong enough to be kind.

Kindness is about being considerate and respectful. You can say hard things or hold people accountable and still be kind. In fact, it is much easier for people to actually hear what you have to say when you share your thoughts in a considerate, respectful manner. When you offer feedback — even feedback that may be hard to hear — with a positive intent, people tend be to less defensive and more likely to consider the perspective you are offering. Kindness often fosters the kind of genuine conversation that rarely happens with a strong-arm, command and control approach.

In many cases people mistakenly equate being kind with making people comfortable. But think about it . . . is it considerate and respectful to withhold feedback from someone that would help them be more successful just because the conversation will make them – or you – uncomfortable? Too often, we dance around the issue we are trying to address, alluding to the point but not actually making it, all under the guise of being “kind.” But that approach really isn’t. What often happens is that we are “kindly” unclear as to our expectations, we then get frustrated because the person didn’t get the point or change their behavior, which increases the likelihood that we will ultimately respond in an unkind manner. It’s a vicious cycle that far too many people fall into.

You can be considerate and still be clear. You can be respectful and still challenge someone’s perspective. You can be kind and still have high standards. If someone reacts negatively to your message, you do not have to respond by matching their tone or tactic. While that may feel momentarily satisfying, it ultimately diminishes your impact. You display greater strength as a leader when you remain respectful, share your intent and don’t get sucked into an escalating tit for tat. Granted in some situations, that is easier said than done. At the end of the day, however, the reason you should be kind is not because someone has earned it or deserves it, but because it is a reflection of your leadership. 

Are you strong enough to be kind?

The Enemy of Good

Voltaire is credited with first noting, “The best is the enemy of the good.” Even with all of the variations of this saying offered by those we look to for wisdom, the concept still trips us up . . . We are afraid that we might not say something in the best way, so we don’t say anything at all . . .  Our success isn’t 100% assured, so we never start . . . We give too much weight to someone else’s critique and allow it to undermine our confidence in a plan.

For those of you (okay, those of us) who strive to be the best (fill in the blank), let’s set the record straight: Best is a relative term. It lies in the eye of the beholder. Best is a “binary trap” that keeps far too many people from ever starting. It’s a false sense of either/or — either you are the best or you’re not — that drains the energy out of a lot of things that could be pretty awesome. So what steps can you take to make sure the quest for the best doesn’t become the enemy of good?

• Recognize that there is no such thing as a perfect plan. Have you ever developed a plan for anything that went exactly the way you thought it would? Plans provide the guardrails that give you a place to start, and a general idea of the direction you should go. However, even “the best” plan will evolve as you move through it, so why not give yourself a head start with a plan that is “good enough to get going” and adapt as needed?

• “Best” is a point in time, excellence is a journey. Pick your sport — the “best” on any given day may not be in the next game/race/match. Continuous improvement, upping your game, strengthening your fundamental skills is something that we all can strive for, regardless of the score at a particular point in time. Thinking about how to be the best doesn’t move the dime, so get out there and start already.

There will always be someone who disagrees. Even if you feel you have the best plan, the best people, the best strategy . . . there will always be someone who thinks you are full of hooey. There is a critic around every corner, especially for someone who holds themselves out as a leader, who is taking the risk to move forward. Instead of being discouraged, why not see the critique as an indication that you are creating enough forward momentum to challenge the status quo, and then use that as motivation to keep going.

Where is “best” your enemy? Maybe it is time to call its bluff.

And when you do, don’t be surprised if you find yourself moving right past good, all the way to amazing! 

Trying on Shoes

Originally Published November 11, 2015

I believe one of the keys to wise leadership is the ability to try on a lot of shoes . . . not all of which will be comfortable. Some may pinch a bit, or have you tottering to maintain your balance. Some will be well-worn and rather tattered with little to no support. Others will be thick and rigid like a ton of bricks. And dozens of others will fall somewhere in between. But the time and effort it takes to walk a mile in someone’s shoes (not a block, a block is easy, we’re talking a mile here) can make all the difference in moving you from “reasonable” . . . “justifiable” decisions to truly impactful ones.

You may make one decision when all you see is a child’s disruptive behavior, and you want that behavior to stop. You may make an entirely different decision when you realize that no one was home to get the child up in the morning, he is basically raising his baby sister, he is scared and hungry, and putting on a tough exterior so no one will know. If you’re going for impact, simply addressing the behavior will to little to truly change the situation.

While it may be easier to empathize with a child, the same concept applies to staff, contractors, partner organizations — you know, those we call “grown-ups.”  When one of these individuals acts in a seemingly illogical, from your perspective detrimental, or otherwise aggravating manner, do you insist that they fall in line (afterall, you’re the leader, right?!?) or do you dig a bit deeper to see why they are responding as they are?

You’re right. You don’t have time to hold everyone’s hand, to nurse them along until they can get on board. And I’m sure you will have much more time down the line, when your project gets derailed and you have invest the time to go back and try to re-group, or fill the void left by a partner who decided to walk away. I understand, your shoes are really comfortable. Why should you mess with trying on someone else’s shoes?

Because, hopefully, you’re in this leadership gig for the long haul. And making decisions without taking into consideration other perspectives is short-sighted.  That doesn’t mean that everyone is going to like every decision you make, but it does mean when you seek first to understand you have a better chance of reaching your ultimate goals. 

So how do you know when you need to test drive some new footwear? A good starting point is when you find yourself taking a hard line on something, and aren’t interested in someone else’s opinion. That is usually exactly when you need to take a walk the most. You ultimately may not change your position, and that’s fine. When people know you looked at a situation from their perspective, even if they aren’t thrilled with the ultimate decision, it becomes easier for them to come on board and take the journey with you.

Maybe it’s time you tried on some new shoes.

The Opportunity of New Dimensions

The mind, once stretched by a new idea never returns to its original dimensions.Oliver Wendell Holmes

All of us have had our minds stretched in the last year. Things we might have been sure would never work, actually did. Ideas we had been talking about but hadn’t implemented fell into place much more smoothly than we might have imagined (nothing like a crisis to reduce resistance to change!). We learned that expectations around what was “required” to do our job perhaps weren’t really quite as non-negotiable as we thought. And the creativity, oh the creativity and adaptability we have witnessed in the past 12 months . . .

So now that people are beginning to talk about a return to “normal,” how should you as a leader go about guiding people toward something that, for all practical purposes, will never return to its original dimensions?

Recognize that “business as usual” won’t be. Those clear parameters no longer exist. This may trigger a sense of loss among those craving the seeming stability of “normal,” and enthusiasm from those who don’t want to give up the perceived benefits of new ways of working. No matter where they fall on the continuum, people will be looking to you to define the new normal.

It is the leader’s job to navigate divergent expectations. How can you provide predictability while also capitalizing on the positives of new-found flexibility? Where do your own desires or expectations fall in the mix? Is it necessary to have consistent expectations across the board, or can you have different “rules” for different roles? There is no proven best path on this one, and you still have to pick one.

Keep talking. Many leaders dramatically increased their communication and transparency during the pandemic. Your people have come to expect it. Don’t stop just because you are moving out of “crisis mode.” Everyone benefits when you keep the dialog going. Yes, it takes an investment of time. It is time well spent.

Don’t forget the human connection. In person, absolutely. Nothing replaces three-dimensions and spontaneous interactions . . . and yet, there was also a human side to the glimpses we gained into each other’s lives by zooming into make-shift home offices. How can we maintain that connection with, and appreciation for, the whole person we would hope to lead?

We have all been stretched. There is no going back. That also means you have a rare opportunity to provide a new dimension to your leadership, and your organization. How will you shape them?

Are You an Effective Leader?

What does an effective leader look like?

This question came up in a recent conversation with a colleague. In my experience, most people tend to answer this question in one of three ways:

  1. They describe an effective leader with whom they have interacted.
  2. Their picture is shaped by whomever the business media currently identify as a successful leader that others should emulate.
  3. They cherry-pick the most laudable characteristics from a group of leaders to create some mythical super-leader.

None of these approaches are effective in helping you identify how you can be an effective leader. (Which is really why we ask the question in the first place, right?).  Introverts and extroverts can both be effective leaders. Visionaries and those with a process orientation can both be effective leaders. The highly educated and bootstrap entrepreneurs, with a diverse set of skills and experiences can be effective leaders. Birth order, gender, height . . . there have been those who have attempted to connect all of these traits and skills to leadership success, and yet a singular picture of effective leadership remains elusive . . . maybe because there is no such thing as a singular picture of an effective leader.

Leadership is about two things: goals and influence. To lead effectively, you have to have a clear picture of where you are going, and the ability to persuade others to follow you in the quest. And while the first half of that equation may seem to the be easiest, it is often where would-be leaders struggle the most. Too many leaders set goals that may seem clear on the surface but, in trying to remain open to a myriad of possibilities, are actually way too broad. We want to serve children and families — okay, how? We want to expand into California — okay, LA or Sacramento? We want to be the industry leader — okay, what steps are we going to take to get there?

Part of setting effective goals is connecting the dots for those you would hope to influence. Here is where we are going — specifically. Here is why we are going there. Here is what I need you to do to help us get there. Why is that so hard? Because the more you focus on the singular thing you are working towards, the more you say no to other options. It there risk in a singular focus? Sure. But it is also hard to maximize your influence when you are hedging your bets.

Want to be an effective leader? Start with the goal you are leading towards.