Embracing Your Ignorance


“Your ignorance is growing faster than your knowledge.” — Jack Uldrich

Wow. Okay. The truth of that statement makes it no less humbling — at least for those of us who wear the hat of leader, and to whom people turn to for answers. I had the chance to hear Mr. Uldrich, a futurist and author of Business as Unusual, where he challenged all of us to question what we “know” to be true. Different perspectives, combining variables in new and unique ways, and advances in knowledge and technology can quickly make our knowledge outdated, irrelevant, or both.

So . . . if your ignorance is growing faster than your knowledge, and you need to reconsider what you have experienced to be true, where does that leave you as a leader charged with guiding your organization forward? Questions. It leaves you with questions. And that’s not a bad thing, because questions lead you to answers.

The logic of that notwithstanding, it takes a confident leader to be curious . . . to ask, and explore, and stretch your thinking, perhaps based on an insight from someone far less experienced than you or your senior team. Having experience with what has worked may actually make it harder to imagine what could be . . . so be careful about discounting what may initially seem like a crazy idea just because it has little to no resemblance to how you have done things in the past. How many things that we would written off as unrealistic six months ago now seem like a practical solution to the challenges before us?

So how do you embrace your ignorance while still managing to lead? For starters, be a role model of the importance of continuous learning by:

•  Exploring a totally different field, either by reading, talking to someone, watching YouTube, etc. What trends are at the forefront in that industry? What if you overlaid those same trends on your industry?

•  Talking to a new hire, who is younger and less experienced that you. Ask them what they think the next be disrupter will be to your organization or industry, and why. Resist the urge to share your thoughts. Speak up only to seek a greater understanding of their perspective.

•  Running out the impact of the most “far-fetched” trends, even if you think they are unlikely . . . If “this” happened today, how would we respond? (and “it won’t happen” is not an acceptable answer!)

Effective leadership requires curiosity, and a recognition that there is always more to learn. Embrace your ignorance  . . . it’s the first step in expanding your knowledge.

The Most Important Part of the Pivot

As organizations continue to adapt to the numerous ripples of the global pandemic, many a pundit has waxed poetic about the need for leaders to “pivot” their business model . . . to reimagine how to maximize their organizations’ impact in the midst of a dramatic change in the ground rules. While that particular term — pivot — has been overused in the last six months, almost to the point of making some leaders twitch at its mere utterance, there is a key aspect of the word that seems to have been overlooked.

In most cases, the advice about pivoting focuses on the need for significant, rapid change. And while many organizations have had to do just that, there is another facet of the word that has largely been neglected . . . When something pivots, one part of the object (or organization) may swing widely from point “a” to point “b”, however another part remains planted in a fixed location. The definition of pivot, when used as a noun, is the “shaft or pin on which something turns.” The pivot doesn’t change. In fact, it is the stationary nature of one part of the object or organization that allows the whole to successfully rotate from one direction to another.

Rather than being overwhelmed by the many ways you and your people have had to change course, perhaps swinging in a totally new direction, why not focus on those things that are anchoring your organization . . . that have remained constant in the midst of the pandemic:

Your mission, vision and values;

The skills and abilities of your people;

Your strategic goals.

Breath in the stability of these core foundational elements. Yes, you may have had to shift how you go about reaching your strategic goals, the way you maximize the gifts and graces of your people, or the steps you take to carry out your mission . . . but the solid base — the part that allows you to pivot — stands strong. Focus there. In the same way that a dancer focuses on a fixed point during a spin to keep from getting dizzy, or someone prone to motion sickness focuses their eyes on things that aren’t moving to keep the nausea at bay, focusing on those things that are unchanging in the midst of this pandemic can go a long way toward helping you keep your bearings. The firm foundation of your mission vision and values, the depth and resiliency of your staff, and the clear intent of your strategic goals all give you as a leader as solid place to plant your foot. A place that enables you to adapt with confidence — to pivot — in ways that extend your mission, even in the most uncertain of times.

Defiant Joy

Originally Published August 25, 2015

I am a naturally upbeat person who brings my whole self — my faith, values, life experience and unique way of seeing the world — to the work at hand. After studying a wide range to styles, I simply believe that is the best way to lead. Some might think it is easier to lead this way when you work at a faith-based and/or human service organization as I do, but I know many great leaders who find a way to authentically express their values and perspectives wherever they work. They seem to have taken to heart St. Francis of Assisi’s challenge to “Preach the gospel every day . . . when necessary, use words.”

Of course, some days, that’s easier than others. Regardless of your approach, leadership is hard work. And the fact that a leader may be optimistic/encouraging/enthusiastic . . . pick your adjective . . . doesn’t mean they are a “Polly Anna”, or that they don’t realize the gravity, or possible down sides, of the issues before them. I believe the most effective leaders are aware of the weight of their decisions AND believe a positive outcome is possible. Jim Collins calls this the “Stockdale Paradox” . . . good story behind it, but not a very catchy or self-evident phrase. I ran across a term recently that basically captures the same idea, but made me sit up and instantly know I wanted to steal the phrase.

Defiant Joy. I want to lead with that.

Giving credit where credit is due, the phrase came from the book Fight Back With Joy, where Margaret Feinberg wrote about her journey with breast cancer and the chemotherapy treatments that almost killed her. While keenly aware of the grim odds and torturous journey before her, Ms. Feinberg fought back with joy. Sure, she felt like she had been run over by a truck, had friends disappoint her, despaired about why her/why now, and acknowledged that some days it would have been easier to just give up . . . and still she chose to draw strength, not from an unrealistic optimism, but from a defiant joy. An “in spite of” joy, a “take that” joy, a conscious declaration that she had a choice even the longest odds couldn’t take from her. She could maintain her joy.

What would happen if we led that way? Sure there are external variables impacting our organizations that we will never be able to fully control . . . and sometimes the only option is to choose the lesser of the evils . . . and there will days where you want to pull your hair out and ring someone’s neck all at the same time. Are you tenacious enough to find the joy, the possibilities, in the midst of all of that? Can you step back and say “Here is the ugly/annoying/painful truth, and here is what we are going to do to move beyond that, right here, right now.” Call it a positive re-frame, a proactive action, or defiant joy. There is an energy, and maybe even a sly grin, that comes from knowing the choice is yours.

Seeing the Whole Elephant

Have you heard the fable about the six blind men and the elephant? Each encountered a different part of the elephant — the trunk, the tail, the side, the tusk — and based on that experience, each is convinced that he is right, and everyone else is wrong, about what an elephant is like. The “facts” they based their decisions on were “right”, however they only represented one slice of the larger picture of the elephant.

Oh how easy it is to confuse “right” with “only” . . . as in, “these facts or experiences are true, therefore the answer is clear.” The trouble with that perspective is that it causes one to stop looking for other, perhaps contradictory, variables that may also be accurate. And the more expertise or experience you have with one slice of what is true, the more entrenched and confident you become that your perspective is THE correct one. As a result, you focus on those things that confirm your point of view, and disregard those that might support another equally valid answer.

Are you courageous enough as a leader to consider that there might other perspectives that are also “right”?  Are you willing to seek out the sparks of insight that can be gained by accepting that two seemingly contradictory viewpoints could both be true? Do you have the confidence to wade through the puzzling and piecing together, the discomfort and debate, to arrive at a richer and more nuanced picture of the elephant before you? If you don’t, it’s a pretty safe bet your people won’t either.

What would happen if you encouraged productive dissent? If you rewarded people for challenging the status quo . . . if you framed it as a responsibility for your staff to intentionally consider a range of perspectives as a prerequisite for arriving at the best possible decision? It is hard for people to “speak truth to power” if they think that truth will be discounted without consideration. What if, instead, you created a safe place for people to challenge, question, and wrestle their way to a solution that considered a range of facts? What if you fostered a culture that believed the mission of the organization was so critical that it would be irresponsible for you not to intentionally raise, and work through, seemingly incompatible variables . . . with the expectation that thoughtful consideration would lead to better solutions? While that may be easy to agree with in principle, it is much harder to carry out when you and your key advisors are all convinced of the validity of your perspective.

Don’t confuse right with only. It’s your responsibility as a leader to see the whole elephant.

Fine is a Four Letter Word

Fine is a four letter word. My recall is that my sister was the first to utter those profound words of wisdom, and we have reminded each other of the sentiment on more than one occasion.

Why is fine a four letter word? From a leadership perspective, it’s a cop-out . . . When someone asks how you or your organization are doing and you say, “fine” . . . are things really fine or is the response simply a way to change the topic of discussion? “Fine” is like poking a hole in a balloon and watching all the air leak out. It’s a four letter word because, quite simply, it is not an appropriate response from someone who hopes to move people to action. Who wants to follow a leader who aspires to fine?

Leadership requires passion. It doesn’t have to be a flashy or outspoken, but there has to be a deep commitment and drive to sustain you through the tough days (and if you don’t think there are tough days, you haven’t been a leader!) Fine is utterly lacking in emotion. It is a deflection of the challenges before you and as a result, people don’t believe it. They might follow your cue and choose not to probe deeper at the moment, but your authenticity takes a hit.

I’m not suggesting you should unload every stressor on someone who is simply trying to make pleasant conversation, but acknowledging, “we have some real challenges before us, and I’m grateful to have such a strong team to help us through the storm,” or maybe “I’m not sure how we are going to get through this, but given our track record in dealing with tough stuff I am confident we’ll find a way” feel both more real and more confident than “fine.” People have to believe in what you are saying if you want them to walk alongside you during the tough stuff. Does “fine” motivate you?

Trust in our leaders and institutions seems to diminish further with every news cycle. We do ourselves a disservice if our words indicate everything is okay when circumstances would seem to suggest otherwise. Transparency builds confidence even, and perhaps especially, when the message is a hard one to hear. Banishing the word “fine” from your vocabulary may seem like a little thing (although it is harder than you might think!), and yet little things can make a difference — for you and for those you would hope to lead.

Fine is a four letter word. Maybe it’s time to clean up your language.

How’s Your Balance?

In my organization’s work with struggling children and their families, one of the basic tenets of our approach is that when you increase structure, you must increase nurture. News flash . . . the same things that work for struggling kids and families also work with the grown-ups you are charged with leading.

When you increase structure, you must increase nurture. That sounds simple enough in theory, however most of us are wired to skew one way or another. If you are a high structure leader, it may seem logical that the way to address continued “misbehaving” on the part of your staff is simply to provide increased structure, more “rules” and less autonomy. For the high nurture leaders out there, you may be proud of your incredibly supportive culture and believe that when you take care of your people, when you do a better job of understanding and responding of their needs, their performance will improve.

If you are strongly wired one way or another, it may seem counter-intuitive to provide the “opposite” of what feels most appropriate given the situation. All things in moderation, my friend. Let’s return to looking at the situation through the lens of our work with kids. Kids need structure. Not heavy-handed or punitive rules, and not 57 of them, however they need to know your expectations and the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Likewise, kids need nurture. They need to know that they can screw up and you will still love and support them. That doesn’t mean you should be a pushover, or doormat to their every whim, but they need you to see them and to be a source of safety and security.

So what, exactly, does the structure/nurture balance look like in the work environment?

  • Providing clear expectations and accountability, AND a willingness to offer guidance and support to help your people meet those expectations.
  • Making the hard decisions, AND being kinder than you need to be in carrying them out.
  • Really listening to and acknowledging the feedback, ideas and proposals offered by your people AND challenging them to demonstrate how their ideas advance the strategic goals of the organization.

Here’s the hard thing about the structure/nurture balance. Under stress, most of us revert to our natural tendencies. If a staff member has fallen far short of your expectations on a critical project and you are a high structure leader, your response is likely to include more expectations and less flexibility. Or, if you are a high nurture leader, you may focus more on responding to the individual explanations or perceived barriers rather than the unmet needs of the organization. In those moments, after you have tried one “dose” of your preferred approach and didn’t get the results you had hoped . . .stop . . . take a deep breath, and intentionally choose a counterbalancing behavior.

What have you got to lose? What you were doing wasn’t working anyway.

How’s your balance?

Culture Doesn’t Happen in Theory

Much has been written in the business press — from Inc. to Harvard Business Review, Fast Company to Strategy + Business — about the importance of culture fit in organizations. The wisdom suggests that cultural fit is more important than skill and experience (assuming basic qualifications for the role) when it comes to making a good hire.

While it is difficult to find a universally accepted definition of culture, some of the most common components of how people describe culture include: “How we do things around here;” shared and observable patterns of behavior; values and rituals; underlying beliefs and assumptions; a common understanding; an informal control system. It would seem, based on these descriptions, that culture shapes how people think and act in an organization . . . so hiring someone for culture fit means (consciously or unconsciously) hiring people who think and act in ways consistent with the ways people already in the organization think and act.

At the same time, organizations are gaining a keen appreciation for the importance, and bottom line impact, of teams with a diversity of lived experience, perspective and skills. Which begs the question . . . are culture fit and diverse teams mutually exclusive?

Technically, the answer is no. In reality, however, it’s up to you. Culture doesn’t happen in theory. Do your actions demonstrate a desire to embrace different perspectives within your culture?

• Do you reward people for challenging the status quo? Are you welcoming of new ideas and different perspectives . . . really?

• Do your policies, procedures or practices create an unnecessarily narrow picture of expected behavior . . . perhaps simply because “we have always done it that way”?

• Do you shine a light on areas of peace and harmony in your organization or on the value of vigorous and at times uncomfortable conversations?

If any of the above questions gave you pause, maybe you need to be more specific in defining what “culture fit” means in your organization. What if, instead of looking for people who think and act like you, you focus on finding people who share your values and goals? What if you as a leader clearly articulate an expectation that the organization explores a diversity of perspectives related to your goals because that is how the best decisions get made? Perhaps that sounds simplistic in theory . . . but are you doing it in practice?

Culture doesn’t happen in theory.

Tea Bags

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Originally Published on September 9, 2015

I’ve always been a fan of the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “A woman is like a tea bag. You can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

Of course, you could easily replace the word “woman” with “leader.” A key tenet of leadership 101 is that, as a leader, it is not a matter of if you will find yourself in difficult, challenging situations — hot water — but when. And as much as you might think you know how you will react in such situations, you often don’t until you are in the midst of it.

Usually “hot water” entails a higher than average number of uncontrollable variables. For those leaders who like to be in control at all times (know any of those?!?), this can be extremely challenging. Add to this the fact that your staff will be watching how you respond to give them an indication of how they should respond. Remember, calm begets calm . . . even if you have to fake it till you make it!

So how do you steep the strongest leadership out of a hot water situation?

First, realize that no matter the situation, there are things you can control. You can choose to take a deep breath, which will help move you out of the reactive, fight/flight/freeze part of your brain and into the part of your brain where you can think rationally. This is the first step toward responding in (what at least appears to be) a thoughtful, decisive manner. In most cases, there aren’t nearly as many things that you “have to” do as some external source might want you to think. You might “have to” do them to get the response the external source is seeking, but it may or may not produce the outcome you want. In fact, your calm consideration is usually the best antidote to an external frenzy.

Stonewalling, acting like everything is okay, going “underground”, or looking for a scapegoat is much the same as ripping a hole in your tea bag. All your power seeps out, and in the end you will often end up having to swallow the bitter dregs . . . and deal with the lingering aftertaste for a long time to come.

It is also good to remember that a bit of hot water every now and then isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hot water mixed with a good tea bag can wake you up, keep you on your toes, and hone your focus on what is most important (. . . that would be your mission, your people, your long-term viability . . .)

As a tea drinker, I like my morning mug steaming, strong, and filled to the brim. Two or three of those, a deep breath for good measure, and I’m ready to face whatever comes my way.

Marshmallow Test for Leaders

Marshmallows Laid Out In The Shape Of A Heart Isolated On A Gray

The famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, originally conducted in the 1970’s, has had a resurgence in popularity of late, with parents posting their child’s performance in the experiment on Facebook for all the world to see. The premise of the experiment is this: The researcher/parent puts one marshmallow in front of their child, and then tells the child that he or she can have a second marshmallow if the child can go 15 minutes without eating the first one. The researcher/parent then leaves the room for 15 minutes — all the while recording how the child handles the dilemma. As entertaining as the footage can be, it does spur the question . . . if there was a marshmallow test for leaders, how would you perform?

Do today’s leaders have the patience, the willingness to persevere, the ability to delay gratification even if waiting means doubling their reward? In a world that increasingly expects speed, agility, and the ability to change course at the drop of a hat . . . what is a leader to do when maximizing the gain requires patience and a long term view? How do you respond when board members, shareholders, staff members, and various other stakeholders seem to be figuratively chanting “eat, eat, eat!” How do you hold off?

Clarity.

Clarity around the goal.

Clarity about why you want to get there.

Clarity in your communications.

Unfortunately, clarity for a leader can be much harder than it is for a child. We have so many choices. So much information. So many experts telling us what we should or shouldn’t do. Someone always has a “better way,” a new opportunity, competitors are offering new features, and someone read something somewhere that we should consider. It is hard work to distill down all the possibilities into a clear path forward, because saying yes to one path means saying no to another. But once you have a clarity of focus, an amazing thing happens . . .

Clarity is like a volume button. It allows you to turn down the background noise. It allows you to look at the marshmallow and see where the rewards will take you, rather than be distracted by the voices singing the praises of the immediate sugar rush. Clarity makes decisions easier. It gives one the patience, the perseverance — and perhaps surprisingly even the agility and ability to change course — in pursuit of a clear goal.

When you have clarity, you can stare down the marshmallows before you with confidence and lead on . . . toward a reward that is twice as sweet.

Exploit and Explore

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As a leader trying to maximize the impact of your organization, there are two important and seemingly opposing tasks you have to focus on: exploiting and exploring.

While sometimes cast with a negative connotation, the word exploit is actually defined as “make full use of and derive benefit from.” Are you doing this with your programs or services? Have you squeezed every ounce of value or benefit from your current efforts? What kinds of incremental change — tweaking if you will — could you and your team implement that would create additional efficiency/effectiveness/benefit? Not sure? Ask your people.

The potential for exploitation is often most easily seen by those closest to the product or service. Chances are your frontline staff could identify a host of small changes that could make a big difference. Exploitation is about maximizing systems and processes. It is internally focused and detail oriented. It may not be as flashy as exploration, but it is also less risky. It is the tortoise in the race with the hare . . . and we all recall who won that race.

Exploration on the other hand is externally focused. It is all about scanning the environment for new opportunities. It is about making novel connections and leaps in thinking — viewing the world with fresh eyes and seeing opportunities not previously considered. The trick with exploration is to have a clear vision or goal the organization is working toward. Otherwise, if the sky is the limit, interesting but unproductive distractions — rabbit trails — can easily pull you off course. Exploration can provide big wins. It can also drain resources for an idea with no guarantee of return.

How do you balance the tension between exploiting and exploring?

  1. Know which approach you skew toward as a leader, and surround yourself with people who provide a counterbalance. If you are a proud explorer, you need people who will focus on the details and ask the hard questions. Likewise, if you are a practical exploiter, find people you trust to stretch your comfort zones with new ideas.
  1. Give wings to your exploiters and roots to your explorers. At least initially, you will probably need to ask exploiters for their input, and give them permission to stretch the rules or change the systems. Provide your explorers parameters regarding testing little bets before investing in big ones.
  1. Know that it’s rarely 50/50 split. As a general rule, most organizations need more exploiters than explorers. Exploiters are about the strength of today. Explorers are about the potential of tomorrow. Once the explorers identify and test the next big thing, it is the exploiters who develop the systems and processes to take the idea to scale. Both play a critical role, but you need more exploiters.

Where are you and your organization at on the continuum? 

Exploit. Explore. Lead.