December Leadership


Well gang, here we are… smack dab in the middle of December… you know, that month where most of us try to cram about three months worth of activity into 31 holiday-filled days. Yep, that’s the one. Chances are, you and your staff are working hard to complete end-of-the-year projects (in addition to your “regular” workload), carve out extra time for a host of tasks that contribute your goals for holiday cheer, participate in a range of gatherings with family and friends, and of course allow enough space to focus on the real Reason for the season. If you’re not careful, the sheer volume of activity and expectations can overwhelm your best intentions and those of the people you hope to lead. So what’s the best strategy for modeling December Leadership?

  • A time for every task.

Especially during this month, untethered items on a to-do list tend to grow in our minds and zap our energy. It is like a constant low drone of “gotta get done, gotta get done, gotta get done.” The simple act of scheduling time for specific tasks allows you to remove them from your brain until the appointed hour. (Really… give it a try!)

  • Focus on the moment, not the list.

Then, give the current task or activity your full energy and attention. If other things start to creep into your brain, intentionally stop, remind yourself when you will focus on that item, and then bring your focus back to the here and now. Work projects will be completed more quickly, social gatherings aren’t weighed down by anticipatory worry, and you can truly enjoy time spent with family, friends and special traditions.

  • Talk slower, and look people in the eye.

When you appear rushed or distracted, you transfer that stress onto those with whom you are interacting, and really, that is not the gift they are hoping to receive from you this month. There may be times where you feel a bit like a duck (you know… when you look like you’re gliding through the water but under the surface you’re paddling like crazy), but even then, gliding feels better than frantically splashing about and as a result you will feel calmer, too.

  • Whenever possible, stick to the routine.

It may feel like you don’t have time for those activities that have helped center you the other eleven months of the year — be that exercise, healthy eating, time for reflection — but it just might be those very things that make it easier for you to accommodate all of the extra stuff we want to fit into the month.

  • Remember… he’s watching you… 

Okay, maybe you are long past believing in Santa, but you can rest assured your people are watching you. You set the tone for how to not just endure, but to truly embrace this month in all its glory. That, my friends, is December Leadership.


Hard Work, Joy, and Chocolate


If I had to sum up the secret to leadership success in three words, they would be hard work, joy, and chocolate. (Okay, I realize that is technically 4 words, but 3 ideas, so go with me here!) Sure there are countless books and articles on leadership that go to great lengths teasing out the nuances of what it takes to be successful, but at its core, I’m convinced these three things pretty much capture it.

Hard Work.

There is no way around it. Effective leadership takes countless hours and significant effort… in thinking about the most effective way to address the challenges before you (at all hours of the day and night)… in doing the research to expand your understanding of an issue or topic or idea… in guiding a diverse group of people, with a range of ideas and perspectives, to rally around a single organizational goal. Sort of like trying to put together a complex piece of equipment with no instructions while also attempting to herd cats — full of challenge, even on those days when you see little to no progress. If you want to be an effective leader, hard work is a given… so what fuels you to persist with of all that effort?


Yes, even in the midst of the cat herding and a lack of instructions, the best leaders also find joy in their role. Joy in the opportunity to chart a course that moves your organization forward… in helping others recognize, and maximize, gifts and graces they may not have known they possessed… in seeing an idea take hold and gain momentum in ways that exceeds your expectations. One tip: In most cases, joy doesn’t seek you out. You have to look for it. Where? Perhaps in the friendly banter of co-workers, or the invitation to be part of something (that may, in fact, require hard work, but is exciting nonetheless), or in the recognition of a hard won accomplishment. What you focus on grows…choose joy, and…


Okay, I suppose I could have made the third word, exercise (which is also important) but sometimes a leader just needs the kind of 30-second sensory hug that a good piece of chocolate can provide. Maybe for you it is taking a few moments to be mindful, walk outside, or make a quick call to a friend or loved one. It’s about knowing when you are being pulled toward a swirling vortex, and making a choice to momentarily hit pause and regain your footing — Little nuggets of self care that clear your mind and boost your spirit.

Hard work, joy and chocolate… works for me!


Leadership Lessons?


I lead a human services organization, and have often noted that the same strategies we use with the kids and families we serve also work with our staff, and those outside the agency with whom we interact. Sure, if you read books and articles on “leadership” the terminology might be a bit different than we use in our direct services, but the concepts really aren’t. Sometimes, I think we leaders simply make it too hard.

I recently had the privilege of presenting at a TEDx event on lessons we have learned from our work with kids and families. While these lessons are highlighted as applying to “any child, in any situation”, I invite you to also consider these lessons from the perspective of how they might apply to your interactions with individuals in your own organization.

  • Relationships are primary
  • All behavior has meaning
  • How you respond shapes your (child’s/co-worker’s/colleague’s) response

I hope you’ll give it a listen and let me know what you think. Are these lessons primarily for kids, or maybe, just maybe, are they also lessons for leadership… and life?

You can watch the full presentation by clicking here.

Thankful In


Last week, at our organization’s annual Thanksgiving feast attended by the children and families we serve, as well as staff and guests, our chaplain reminded all of us that we can give thanks in difficult times without giving thanks for the difficult times. While he may have been specifically referring to the challenging situations our young people have experienced, the message holds true for all of us who would aspire to be leaders.

Leadership is hard. As I have noted many times in this blog, walking through difficult situations is part of the process. And while scores of studies have proven that gratitude offers a range of physical, psychological and social benefits, sometimes it is hard to be grateful for the challenges that come with this role we worked so diligently to attain. Maybe that’s because the challenges aren’t where we need to focus our gratitude.

This week, and in the days and weeks to come, I hope you will pause to give thanks — not for the challenges before you, but in the midst of them.

  • Give thanks that you have people around you who bring skills to the table that you may lack, and who are willing to walk alongside you on your journey;
  • Give thanks for the privilege of being in a role that will cause you to grow and stretch in ways that you otherwise might not, and that will prepare you for new opportunities ahead;
  • Give thanks that you have the experience to know with confidence that you and your organization are far more than any current situation, and you are up to the challenges before you;
  • Give thanks for the occasional humbling reminders that it is not about you, that you are but a caretaker for a larger mission that requires your very best;
  • Give thanks for the family and friends who sustain you, who allow you to vent or ponder, who can call you on your stuff and make you laugh until you forget the burdens of the day.

What would you add to that list?

Many years ago, I gave a colleague and friend a plaque that said, “I know God won’t give me more than I can handle, I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.” Perhaps a bit tongue in cheek, but a good reminder to be thankful in, even on those days you can’t be thankful for.

That is my wish for you, when the days are long and the stress is high . . . that you can pause, take a deep breath, and focus on being thankful in.



Your Leadership Reality


Have you ever noticed that an organization’s reality is shaped not simply by the “facts” of a situation, but also the boxes it does or does not put around itself? Where we are standing, and the parameters we may see as constraining us, contributes to our sense of what is or is not “realistic”. That is why, when faced with seemingly identical circumstances, two different individuals or organizations may view the situation in dramatically different ways. In the words of Henry Ford, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

How, then, can you as a leader help your organization see the possibilities rather than the limitations of your current circumstances?

First, try wondering, as in “I wonder if…” Wondering with people encourages them to consider new possibilities. It is less definitive than, “I think we should,” so it tends to get less automatic resistance. Wondering invites conversation and exploration that builds on a thread of an idea, stretching people’s mind in gentle ways that can open a door to new perspectives. If someone tries to put the brakes on the conversation by saying, “that’s not possible,” simply steer around “the barrier of their box” by continuing the conversation with, “if it were possible, though, what might it look like?” Once you and your team get excited about what could be, you just might be surprised by how often a potential path forward emerges.

Secondly, and perhaps counter intuitively, focus first and foremost on your goal, not your limitations. Focusing on barriers siphons the energy out of the room. Focusing on how you will deal with the barriers to reach a clearly defined destination energizes a room. What’s the difference? The first strategy is passive. It is letting something outside of your control limit you. The second approach is active. It acknowledges the barrier and focuses on the way over, under or around it. Same circumstances, entirely different perspective.

Finally, do something. Don’t wait for the entire plan to come together before you act. Continue to refine the plan as you go, but get started. The longer you sit in one place, the more likely you are to focus on the barriers not the destination, and whatever you focus on grows.

To paraphrase Mr. Ford, if you feel limited by the barriers or optimistic about the opportunities before you, you are right. What’s your leadership reality?

Somebody Leadership

Dense Of Yard Signs For Primary, Midterm Election In America

As the dust settles on the contentious midterm elections, with a myriad of people feeling excited/vindicated/emboldened/sad/discouraged/disillusioned and a whole host of emotions in between, I am left to wonder… How did we get here?

What prompted civility to be tossed aside as a naïve aspiration? When did a willingness to listen to a diversity of ideas — demonstrated time and again as a leadership strength — somehow get cast as weak or waffling? How did we allow our perception of “truth” to get so distorted that fact checking has become a cottage industry? And perhaps the most important question of all, what are we — who aspire to be leaders —doing about it?

A long-time community leader in the town I’m from was known for saying, “I wondered why somebody didn’t do something. And then I realized that I was somebody.” So what can we as leaders — as somebodies — do about the contentious culture that has taken hold in our country? Sure, you can point a finger at individuals or groups you believe “started it” (why does that sound like a 10-year-old response to a parent asking what happened?). Regardless of how we got here, the question remains… what should a leader do about it?

In the book Crediblity: How Leaders Gain and Lose it, Why People Demand It, authors Kouzes and Posner have drawn on 30 years of research to determine that the four top traits of admired leaders — which are consistent over time and across geography — are: honest, forward-looking, inspiring and competent. These mirror the key sources of credibility: trustworthiness, expertise and dynamism. If, as Kouzes and Posner contend, credibility is the foundation of effective leadership, then those of us who would hope to influence the actions of others need to focus daily on being honest, competent and inspiring. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Being the change means engaging in “somebody leadership”… not just complaining about “the way things are” but taking steps to make them different. It means being honest, competent and inspiring at the highest levels, even when others are using a lower bar. It means modeling the behavior you expect from others… no excuses, no exceptions. It takes a strong leader — a somebody leader — to be kind, curious and respectful, not because someone else “deserves” it, but because it is a reflection on you and the change you seek.

It is easy to point a finger “out there” for the toxic environment we are experiencing. If we want to effect change, however, the place to start is “in here”.

Want somebody to do something? You are somebody.


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.

Note: This post was originally published October 21, 2015.