It’s Not A Volume Game

How is it that we have access to more data than at any time in the history of our species, and yet wisdom seems to be in such short supply? Perhaps it’s because, in spite of our super-sized efforts to stack “fact” upon “fact,” on the premise that more is better, wisdom isn’t a volume game . . . it’s a vision game.

  • Wisdom requires the ability to see what is most important, sometimes in spite of the overwhelming reams of information at our disposal. (Ever experience the wisdom of a child that cuts through all the superfluous stuff to identify a foundational truth? Yeah . . . that).
  • Wisdom is confident enough to look for points of connection that perhaps have not been considered before because they resided in different “boxes,” in our own or someone else’s mind.
  • Wisdom casts its eye past “knowing” in search of understanding, past sides toward seeking solutions. And that’s a whole lot harder that solely focusing on a single set of facts.

I am certainly not suggesting that leadership doesn’t require a baseline level of knowledge or experience to competently carry out our responsibilities. I think it does. And yet, past a certain point, adding volume may contribute to an increase in accumulated knowledge . . . but that is not the same as an increase in wisdom. It is easy to convince ourselves that smarter = wiser, however smart is about intelligence, wisdom is about judgement. Two very different things. 

There are lots of really smart people in this world. Surround yourself with them. Learn from them. Just remember, your job as the leader isn’t to be the smartest person in the room, it is to seek out the wisest solutions for your organization. Wisdom requires you to consider a range of variables and perspectives, and then to run that information through the sieve of your own experiences and insight (that is, your best judgement) to bring into focus the best path forward.  Not the most popular. . . or the easiest path . . . or the one with the greatest amount of supporting documentation. 

Wisdom isn’t a volume game. It’s a vision game. And we need more leaders on the team.

No Shoulding Allowed

In our organization’s work with children and families, one of the core tenants we teach our staff is to start where the child and family is at — not where you think they ought to be, or where you are, but where they are in that moment. “Shoulding” them, shaming them or scolding them because of where they are does not help them move forward faster. In fact, such approaches often raise their defenses in ways that slow their progress. Guess what? The same principles that work with kids and families also work with the grown-ups you are trying to lead on a daily basis.

Leaders often find themselves “farther ahead” than their people. Before we implement a change initiative, or try to get our people to think differently about a topic or approach, we have usually already been thinking about it for a while. We have worked through the questions, the alternative options, and done our own internal wrangling before we decide to introduce the new approach. And yet even though we had to walk through that process before moving forward, once we have reached a conclusion, there is a tendency to expect that our people will immediately get on board — just because we think they should. Oh, wouldn’t that make life easier . . .

Even in our hurry up, instant everything world, there is no shortcut around Lao Tzu’s observation that, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Have you given your people a roadmap for how to get from where they are to the intended destination, or have you just assumed they would figure it out the same way you did? Blaming, bullying or belittling someone who isn’t where you want them to be rarely prompts them to get on board.

So how do you encourage someone to take that first (or second) step?

            • Identify the goal and assume positive intent.

            • Clearly articulate why the new course of action is important.

            • Walk them through the steps you took in arriving at your decision.

            • Listen to and acknowledge their perspectives, questions and concerns.

            • Develop a path forward that honors a range of “starting points.”

Just because someone isn’t where we want them to be, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are difficult, or uncommitted, or not as smart as we are . . . it simply means they are in a different spot.  You’re the leader. You still get to make the call. Consider, however, that the time spent getting people on board on the front end allows you to go farther and get there faster. 

Need to lead your people somewhere important? Start where they are. No shoulding allowed.

Past the No

As a leader, if you are willing to stop at the first no, you simply didn’t want it bad enough. Period.

Leadership is about influencing the behavior of others to strive for a clear destination. In most cases, it’s about charting a course toward a big hairy goal that followers otherwise would not achieve. If the intention is to continue on the same well-trod path, you don’t need a leader. In that context, the first “no” is simply an indication that you are bumping up against the system designed to maintain the status quo – which should happen if you are trying to accomplish something new!

Leaders strive for better, or more, or simpler, or faster, or less costly, or to right a wrong . . . a vision that is different from what has previously been experienced or achieved. Because of that, the same thinking that was used in the past won’t get you where you’re going (even if you use a bigger hammer!) The first “no” simply reminds you that the new goal is going to require a different approach. Leaders see past the no.

A phrase I think captures this sentiment (and I have been known to utter from time to time) is . . . “No doesn’t mean No, it means not yet.” The key to effective leadership isn’t about the path, it is about the destination. That means, if the first path is blocked, you look for a second. If the second approach doesn’t work, you consider a third. For Thomas Edison, it meant trying 1,000 different options before arriving at the one that led to the lightbulb.

The place where leaders often stumble is focusing more of our energy on the path than on the destination. Our ego gets tangled up in being convinced that we have identified THE way forward, and if that way doesn’t work then we tell ourselves (and others reinforce for us) that it must not be possible. Confidence might have a louder voice, but commitment and curiosity win the day.

Committed leaders see past the no and wonder, “How else could we approach this?” They ask people with different experiences or perspectives, “What would you do?” They recognize that sometimes people who “know less” about a particular industry/system/problem may actually be able to come up with a solution that people with deep expertise, or past success, might overlook. It is that “what else” curiosity that enables leaders and their teams make the break-through discoveries that are only apparent once you move past the second or third (or thirtieth) no.

Frustrated because it seems like you’ve hit a brick wall? Take a deep breath, and look past the no.

Standing Tall

Originally Published January 26, 2016

No matter who you are, or how much you do all the right things from a leadership perspective, there will be days  . . . oh yes, you know those days. Someone disappoints you, or undermines what you thought was a collective effort, or otherwise blindsides you with their actions. The days when friends and family can take one look at you and, without you even uttering a word, instantly respond with “Wow, bad day?” Yeah, those days.

Those are the days where all the waxing philosophical about leadership goes out the window and you come face to face with a decision. Who are you really going to be as a leader? Will you respond in kind to the offending action, or will you choose to take the high road. It may seem like an easy decision as you sit at your computer and read this; it likely will be far less clear or easy when you are in the middle of said situation.

And yet, someone has to be the grown-up and keep things in perspective . . . and if you accepted a leadership position in an organization that you care deeply about, that should probably be you. Because here’s the deal. No matter how someone else acts, you get to decide how you will respond. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” A similar, although far less eloquent, sentiment straight out of my rural roots says “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get muddy and the pig likes it.”

Regardless of the words, you get the picture. It is hard to stand tall and stoop at the same time. And no matter how it might feel in the moment, people will notice and remember how you respond. Your people. The ones you want to trust and follow you.

Now let me be clear. I am not suggesting that taking the high road means you simply ignore or become a doormat for someone’s actions. Accountability is part of your responsibility too, and you can choose to hold someone accountable in a transparent, clear and professional matter.  Really, you can. Check your frustration at the door, look the individual in the eye, calmly state how you plan to respond, and then move on.

As leaders, our job would certainly be easier if everyone treated us the way we want to be treated. But then, I’m guessing most of us didn’t get into this job because we were looking for easy. Easy is nice when you can get it, but impact is what drives most leaders, and you rarely reach the point of impact without a few bumps along the way.

The best way to handle the bumps? Stand tall and lead on.

Seeing the Ladder

As one year draws to a close, and we consider how to continue to “up our game” in the coming year, my wish for you — and for all of us who would hope to lead — is the ability to see the ladders that are tripping us up. Ladders that remain invisible until we intentionally go looking for them. Ladders of Inference. (Ladders of what?)

Ladders of Inference impact our thinking, reasoning and decision making, and what we “know” to be true. However, the process happens so automatically in our minds that most people remain totally unaware that they are climbing the ladder. Here’s how it works.

            Rung 1: We experience a situation where there is a range of observable data.

            Rung 2: We select which data we are going to notice/focus on in the situation.

            Rung 3: We add meaning to the data based on our personal or cultural experience.

            Rung 4: We make assumptions based on the meaning we added to the data.

            Rung 5: We draw conclusions based on those assumptions.

            Rung 6: We adopt beliefs about the world.

            Rung 7: We act based on those beliefs.

For example, if I am meeting a colleague for a meeting and he is late, with no apology, no explanation . . .  even if the rest of our conversation was very productive . . . I may choose to focus on the fact that he was late (data I selected) which is disrespectful (my meaning) which must mean that he does not value me or my ideas (assumptions). Come to think about it, he has always acted like he is smarter than me (adopted beliefs). Well, this is the last time I adjust my schedule to help him out (act on beliefs) . . . All before the coffee gets cold.

And here’s the tricky part . . . most people are absolutely confident their beliefs are THE truth. They believe the truth is obvious, because it is based on real data . . . the data they selected. This is why two people can be at the same meeting/event/interaction and come away with a totally different perception of what happened . . . and be absolutely sure that their interpretation is what “really” took place. It their mind, it is obvious! In all likelihood, the two individuals selected different data to focus on, they made different assumptions, added different meaning, and an objective bystander would be convinced the two could not have been at the same place based on their takeaways. Sound familiar?

So how do you start to dismantle the ladder? 

  1. Start with open ended questions — Can you help me understand your reasoning? What other possible explanation is there for what happened?
  2. Have people with a diversity of experiences around the table. Men, women, people of color or of different ages may all see or experience an action differently.
  3. Openly state your assumptions. Speaking them out loud can either reinforce or dilute their impact on your decision-making.

Making decisions based on past experience, and yes, some assumptions, isn’t all bad . . . as long as you’re not tripping on a ladder you didn’t even know was there.

Ugly Christmas Sweater

About ten years ago, my son asked if he could borrow one of my Christmas sweaters. There was a basketball game that evening, and the student section was all going to wear ugly Christmas sweaters. I said sure, and showed him the storage bag where I kept my sweaters. After digging through a bit, he pulled out a festive cardigan and said, “This is perfect!” Somewhat surprised by the sweater he picked, I commented that his choice was not an ugly sweater. I can still see the somewhat pitying look in his eyes as he said, “Yes, Mom. It is.” Oh…

Here is what I have decided about my Christmas sweaters — which I purchased to look festive, not to draw snickers from my children or their friends . . . Long after my initial purchase, I was still seeing the sweaters with the same eyes I used when I bought them. Styles may have changed (a lot), but I still saw that cute Santa sweater as a fun way to celebrate the holidays. 

Hmmm . . . maybe as this year draws to a close, it is a good time to review our leadership strategies to see if there are any ugly Christmas sweaters hidden (at least to our eyes) in plain sight.   

Are you still getting feedback from your people in the same way you did 10 years ago? Or in the way that is most comfortable to you? Have you asked your people how they would like to share their ideas so you can build maximum engagement?

  • Are you clinging to a level of formality, or rigidity, or hierarchical structure that might need a refresh? Especially after this past year, when so much in our lives was turned on end, are there adaptations that it would be helpful to retain in the long term?
  • Are there “sacred cows” in your organizations that may need to be held up to the scrutiny of today’s variables and realities — to be viewed with a fresh lens?
  • Are you willing to ask your people what practices need to be adapted, or ended altogether, in your organization? Chances are, your people will see opportunities, or ugly sweaters, that you simply aren’t seeing.

I’m not suggesting that you need to totally upend your leadership approach, or act on every idea that is offered to you. However, the exercise just might help you see some of your practices with new eyes.

By the way, this week I received my annual picture of my now adult son donning my (now his) ugly Christmas sweater. It is good to know that it continues to bring holiday cheer to others, years later and miles away.

Wishing you and yours a blessed holiday season . . . ugly Christmas sweaters optional.

Never Settle

Every leader has had situations that didn’t go their way . . . best laid plans that went awry. Or, we have found ourselves in circumstances where we knew exactly what we wanted, and we simply couldn’t have it in the way we envisioned. Or we were faced with a range of undesirable options with no best, or even good, way forward. My advice in in such situations . . . never settle.

When you settle, you give your power away. You are saying — to yourself and your people — “I didn’t have a choice,” or “This was the best we could do.” Do you feel your energy slipping away even when you read those words? And for the pragmatists reading this who may be thinking, “Well, sometimes you don’t have a choice” . . . you always have a choice.

Yes, there will be times when you know exactly what you want, or think you need, and it simply seems out of reach. Not settling may mean reimagining what “it” looks like. There is always more than one way to reach an outcome. Not settling may mean you choose a path that is different, out of the ordinary, dare I even say better than the one you originally envisioned. It is the option that you only discover when you have bumped up against the limits that cause most to settle, and you make a choice to say, “We are going to find another way.” Do you feel the resolve in that statement? The commitment to dig deep, to look beyond the limits you have placed on yourself, and find a different route forward?

So how do you not settle when you are faced with a host of lousy options . . . when your choices come down to bad or worse? First, you own it. Don’t blame the circumstances, or “them” (whoever that particular villain is at the moment). Sometimes being a leader means having to make really hard choices. Yes, it stinks. And it is part of the job. So don’t settle. Look beyond the current challenging circumstances to your desired destination, and then make the choice that best positions you to reach that goal. And once you have made a decision, put one foot in front of the other and walk through the tough stuff to the rewards on the other side. Settling means wallowing, and why would you want to hang out any longer than necessary in the muck of lousy circumstances?

How you handle the challenges before either diminishes your influence as a leader, or adds to your team’s willingness help you reach the destination. My advice? Never settle.

Time and Energy

How are you spending your time and energy?

As much as we tend to group those two things together, they are really not the same thing. That was reinforced for me this week as I was reading an article and stumbled onto this statement that stopped me in my tracks: Energy is a renewable resource. Time is not.

Wow. Talk about speaking into a leader’s life in the midst of a pandemic. Energy is a renewable resource. Time is not. How much time have you spent in recent months doing things that sucked the energy out of your life? Amid reports of remote staff spending more hours working than ever before . . . the endless stream of emails about webinars distracting/promising to help you find a path through these “disruptive times” . . . trying to make the best decision in the midst of ever-changing variables and contradictory guidance . . . have you ever looked up, completely depleted, and wonder what happened to your day?

Yes, leading entails some responsibilities that can weigh heavily at times. All the more reason we need to clearly understand what energizes us, what goal we are working toward, so we can tap into the “flow” that allows us to maximize and grow the impact of our efforts. A few tips to consider:

“Shoulds” take time.

Shoulds are someone else’s expectations imposed on you. They expend your time but do nothing to build your energy. Interestingly the same activity, when tied to a goal you embrace, can serve as an energizing indicator of progress. Which leads to the next consideration . . .

Clear goals build energy.

The clearer the goal, the easier it is to build the motivation — the energy — that will propel you forward. The more specific you are, the more you increase your momentum (in effect, renewing your resources). That momentum also helps you view the tough stuff you are likely to encounter on the way as forward progress rather than a drain on your time.

You get to decide.

We all get the same amount of time. You can spend it defensively, responding to the goals and expectations of others, or proactively choosing, and clearly articulating, the destination you are working toward. One path allows you to check the box at the end of the day. The other gives you the resources to step forward toward new possibilities.

Energy is a renewable resource. Time is not. Choose wisely.

Is Confidence Over-Rated?

Many of us have this picture of a successful leader as someone who is confident and decisive. The problem with that view of leadership is this: When we as leaders feel less than confident regarding the best path forward we may start to doubt our ability to lead . . . yet our willingness to question our own thinking may actually be a sign of superior leadership. Which might prompt one to ask, “Is confidence over-rated?”

In Good to Great, Jim Collins notes a Level 5 Leader demonstrates personal humility and professional will. Blair Shepherd from PwC identifies one of the six paradoxes of leadership as the “humble hero”. And, there is a growing body of research on the importance of intellectual humility in innovative problem solving — a key aspect of effective leadership.

Okay, so it would seem that humility is a good thing. Is confidence the opposite of humility . . . thereby making it a bad thing? Actually, arrogance is the opposite of humility, and arrogance does negatively impact your ability to lead. Arrogance is an exaggerated sense of superiority — “I’m the leader, therefore my ideas are the best ideas.” True confidence comes not from thinking you have all the answers, but from a recognition of your skills and abilities — “I may not know the answer right now, but I have the tools to figure it out.” Humility is a recognition of the strengths of others as well as the limits of one’s own importance — “By listening to and learning from others, we can arrive at the best solution. It’s not all about me.”

Arrogance shouts, humility listens, confidence deliberates.

Confidence isn’t over-rated, but it is often ill-defined. Confidence is not about having all the answers. (Whew!) It is about knowing you have the ability to figure things out. Confidence brings calm. It encourages curiosity. It considers options. It steps forward courageously, and recalibrates when necessary. Confidence is also contagious. When a leader demonstrates it, followers gain it. As noted above, true confidence is often laced with humility — “It’s not about me, but it is up to me.” 

Feeling less than confident? Remember, just because you don’t have the answer right now doesn’t mean that you don’t have the ability to find a solution. Decide that you’re going to get there, take a deep breath, seek input from others, and then take a step. It’s the best way to get to the other side. Of that, I am confident.

Thorns and Thanks

Originally Published November 25, 2015

As we prepare for Thanksgiving, and reflect on the many blessings in our lives . . . after we take a few moments to acknowledge how our days are enriched by family, friends, home and hearth . . . maybe, just maybe, we should also recognize the importance of thorns in our lives.

Seriously, this is not Thanksgiving carb-induced babbling. I’m talking about those people or situations that are a thorn in your side, a burr under your saddle, that might start out as a minor irritant but simply won’t go away. Yep, those. You would be surprised how often, hidden inside the aggravation of said thorn, there is a leadership lesson . . . and the irritation of the situation is unlikely to go away until the lesson is extracted.

I’m not referring to the one and done annoying people/situations. That’s just life. I’m talking about the things that just keep poking at you. You think you have addressed the situation and yet it keeps rearing its head time and again. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to ask yourself what you’re supposed to learn from the situation. Why is this such an irritant and what are you going to do differently to get a different outcome?

Easier said than done, I know. But, rest assured, you will continue to be presented the opportunity until you learn the lesson, so you might as well get after it. What kind of lessons might you learn? Maybe it’s about how to best channel someone’s gifts and graces, or finding a way to make them part of the solution rather than an on-going problem. Maybe it’s about the the intentional decision to find a way to move forward, rather than pointing out all the flaws or roadblocks in a given situation. Maybe it’s about choosing to collaborate rather than compete, and the willingness to give a little to ultimately find a win-win. Usually, it’s about moving from a negative mindset toward one with a positive potential. It’s a willingness to risk asking “what if”, even if that is not the most popular option.

Indecision, waffling, wallowing, bellyaching . . . believe it or not, these can be pretty comfortable places to live. You have a lot of company and no one expects much from you. Except that thorn, which will just keep poking at you until you decide to do something about it. And once you do, you just might be amazed at the opportunities that present themselves. The end result of your actions, which might never have happened without the irritation of the thorn, could give you many new reasons to be thankful.

So there you have it. On this Thanksgiving, I wish you countless blessings and good fortune . . . and one or two thorns to keep you searching for new possibilities.