Getting Off the White Horse

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Have you ever caught yourself buying into the myth that leaders are supposed to have all of the answers? It’s easy to do. A lot of people have visions — maybe even expectations — of the fearless leader riding in on a white horse armed with the wisdom and insight to resolve thorny challenges that have previously gone unsolved. Now, I’m not saying you won’t solve many a thorny issue. I am saying that the idea of a leader doing that single-handedly is not only a myth, it is a weight that can exhaust the leader and undermine the very task he or she was charged with accomplishing in the first place.

Maybe the best way to dispel the myth (and cut yourself some slack if you have bought into that myth) is by reframing the leader’s charge. What if, rather than expecting a leader to have all of answers, we instead looked to them to ask the right questions? Sure the right questions lead to solid decisions, but the distinction isn’t just a matter of semantics. When a leader believes he or she has to come up with the answers in isolation, they can only draw on their own wisdom and experience — and even if they have plenty of both, they are still only considering a single perspective… their own. If, instead, the leader posed key questions to a group of trusted team members, a variety of perspectives could be considered before deciding on a way forward, increasing the likelihood of both the acceptance of and success with the chosen strategy.

An improved strategy isn’t the only benefit that comes from a leader getting off the white horse. When a leader asks questions, he or she is also modeling for their team how they think through a challenge and what variables need to tracked or explored. This allows team members to strengthen their own critical thinking skills and furthers their professional development.

Involving your team in tackling hard problems builds a sense of we. It allows the team to share in the weight of the issue, lightening the load for the leader while at the same time increasing the understanding and commitment of the team. It maximizes the value of the unique skills and abilities of your team members, which are likely different from your own.

I appreciate that the leader is responsible for performance of the organization. It’s not the “what” I am challenging… it is the “how”. Maybe, just maybe, the first step in tackling the thorny challenges before you is to get off the white horse.

Assumption Potholes

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As leaders, it is easy to make assumptions… and whether we recognize them as such or not, they can cause jarring aggravation for you and the people you hope to lead. Almost like the abrupt jolt of an unseen pothole. While the list of expectations that can trip you up is long, I would offer the following as perhaps among the most common assumption potholes:

You assume that if something seems logical to you, it will seem logical to everyone else.

Nope. Not even close. Each one of us sees the world through the lens of our lived experiences. So for people who have lived experiences similar to yours, perhaps what seems logical to you may also make common sense to them. For everyone else, this may not be the case. How do you keep this notion of what is logical from tripping you up? Explicitly state the frame of reference from which you are working — your logic — so that a) people understand where you are coming from and/or b) they have the opportunity to share their frame of reference, if it is different from yours, so that everyone can get on the same page.

You assume that just because something is easy for you, that means it is easy.

Some leaders have a tendency to downplay their unique gifts and graces and the wealth of experience they bring to the table. As a result, you may overestimate others’ ability to, for example, develop a comprehensive plan that takes into account a wide range of strategic variables. Just because that may be YOUR gift, that does not mean that a staff member, who has other gifts and graces, is going to be able to complete the project with the same ease and enthusiasm that you do. Easy is in the eye of the beholder, so be intentional in learning about what is “easy” for your staff and, when possible, let them take the lead in those things rather than assuming your easy is the same as theirs.

You assume because you understood the point you were trying to make, you were clear.

Of course you think you clearly communicated your point — you know what you were trying to say! The intended recipients of your profound message likely had fifty-seven other things on their mind, which means they may only have heard half of it, or filtered it through a lens you hadn’t considered or that you don’t feel is inaccurate. Perhaps the best way to combat this type of assumption (both for you and your staff) is to start with your intent. What do you intend to accomplish or convey with the message you are about to share? Lead with that, rather than assume people can read your mind.

What would you add to the list? Like any pothole, you have to see your assumptions before you can patch them… and ultimately pave the way to a smoother journey.

 

 

 

 

The Long-Game of Leadership

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I am trying to cut down on my caffeine intake. Adapting to this change is unpleasant for me (and quite possibly for those around me as well…) In the midst of pursuing this goal, it definitely does not feel like a good thing — headaches, sluggishness and the knowledge that the means to make the “pain” go away is as close as the next cup of tea (or two or three). And yet I persist, because of the benefits that I am confident will come when I make it to the other side of this unpleasant shift in behavior.

In most cases, change involves both some degree of pain (for you and/or those around you) and a measure of time to walk through that discomfort to get to the good stuff on the other side. In our instant everything, immediate gratification, “I want the results/the pain to stop/the reward right now” world, it can be harder than ever for leaders to stay the course and see a major change through to get to “the good stuff” on the other side. There can be immense pushback to the “pain”, especially if the benefits aren’t immediately apparent. How many times have you heard people in organizations talk about the management “idea of the month”… with the attitude of “I’ll just outwait their attempt at change and it will go away.” (and many times, it does — which only reinforces this opinion!)

Leadership — true leadership — is a long game. It is not about this week or this month or this quarter. It is about recognizing and pursuing the shifts that need to be made now to prepare us to capitalize on opportunities next year, or five years from now, or ten. And it is hard. Staff and boards and those with whom you are partnering (add your own groups to the list) understandably want to see results. Of course leaders do, too… but long-term results often take long-term effort… and habits, and considerations, and perspectives that are different from those being pursued by many others. So there is pain, it takes time, and many may question why you are doing what you are doing. Where do I sign up, right?

Here’s what I know. Persistence pays off. And if people understand why you are asking them to do things that feel hard or uncomfortable, they may still grumble but they will be much more likely to stay the course. You have to be abundantly clear, and then become a broken record, on the why. You have to make the end goal so understandable, and so compelling, that your people will willingly walk through the pain, and have the patience, to reach the reward on the other side.

It’s not for the faint of heart, or the impatient, or uncertain, but the leadership long game may be exactly what your organization needs. Are you up for the challenge?

Confident Leadership

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How confident are you as a leader? Are you confident enough to listen with an open mind to people whose opinions or perspectives may differ from yours? Perhaps that’s not what you think of when you hear the word confidence. Perhaps you think of someone with a strong conviction, who is absolutely convinced that they have identified the right approach. I’m certainly not suggesting that confidence and conviction aren’t important in a leader… but maybe, just maybe, we are directing them toward the wrong thing.

I have a strong conviction in my organization’s mission, and I am confident that we are and will continue to positively impact many lives because of that. Those are big picture Whys and Whats, and things that leaders should be confident about. Where we get into trouble is when we assume the “How” we have identified is the only way to get there. Sure, the “How” we are proposing may seem like the best solution from our perspective… but if the Why and What are really that important, wouldn’t a confident leader want to know how others see the situation? To, in Stephen Covey’s words, “seek first to understand”? Are you, as a leader, committed enough to your Why to entertain the notion that a perspective different from your own might be the best way to get there?

I was recently struck by a comment from an interview with Cameron Davies where he noted, “I used to have a boss at Disney who would say to me, ‘If you only hire people within your industry, you’ll never be smarter than anybody else in your industry.’” If you want to stretch beyond what you have accomplished in the past in pursuit of your “Why”, are you confident enough to seek out people whose experience and approach may be different from your own? True, you may listen with an open mind and still decide that your original approach is best given the circumstances… and if that is the case, you can be even more confident in the chosen approach precisely because you have considered a variety of perspectives.

I’ve written before about growth mindsets and how they can help move your organization forward. As noted by the Neuroleadership Institute, fixed mindsets try to “prove” the value of something, whereas growth mindsets are about “improving” to reach a lofty goal. A confident leader is one whose desire to improve is stronger than the urge to prove… who is willing to consider multiple perspectives and acknowledge that sometimes seeing a situation with new eyes can lead to new solutions…

It is an approach to leadership worth striving for. Of that, I am confident!

Jumping Over the Candlestick

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Jack be nimble,

Jack be quick,

Jack jump over the candlestick.

While there are few who would accuse Mother Goose of being a bastion of leadership wisdom, don’t sell the old gal short. Sometimes simple wisdom comes from unexpected places, and many an “expert” could benefit from taking note.

There is so much emphasis today on systems and processes, evidence-based and measured, best-practice and prescriptive… I get it… funders want to make sure their resources have the greatest impact, consumers want a guarantee that what they are purchasing will have the intended results, and employers want to know that their employees will behave in a predictable manner. The thing is, people (consumers), and the problems they want solved (or needs they want met) aren’t systematic, measured or prescriptive.

I am certainly not saying an organization doesn’t need systems, measures or knowledge of what has been proven effective. Just ask my staff, we have plenty of all of those. I get concerned, however, when the pendulum swings too far toward believing success is only found along a single path. After all, if we don’t challenge ourselves to see a situation with new eyes, how will we ever find a solution to unmet needs?

Sometimes we need to follow in the path of ole’ Jack and be nimble and quick . . . zig when others are zagging, experiment, fail fast and try again. Sure, not every effort will have the intended results, but the willingness to consider a new approach or possibility, and the comfort in shifting course based on changing variables, is the only way I know to successfully leap over a candlestick.

A word of warning — people (funders, monitors, even concerned friends) will likely try to discourage you from “breaking the rules”. Think about it… who really thought David would be able to take Goliath down with three small stones… a seasoned expert would probably tell Jack jumping over was not an advisable way to get to the other side of a candlestick. Breakthroughs don’t come from following the orderly well-trod path. Incremental change might come that way, but not game-changing advances.

So what’s the answer? Systems and evidence and best practice have their place, and may even be your mainstay as an organization, but I believe you need a few Jacks on staff, too. You need some people who have a knack for disrupting the status quo, who are not willing to accept that this is the best we can do, who question whether conventional wisdom is really all that wise. Carve out a spot for these people, and give them enough leeway to approach something from an entirely different angle. What happens when you do? Well, let’s just say…

…I’ll see you on the other side of the candlestick!

Note: This entry was originally posted on January 7, 2015.

Can You See Them?

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I’m always amazed by night vision or heat-seeking goggles that allow the user to see things that otherwise would not be visible to the naked eye. Wouldn’t it be great if the same technology could be used to develop “systems-seeking” glasses to help you identify and focus in on the unseen forces that may be derailing a leader’s best-laid plans?

The systems that impact our efforts may seem “invisible” to the untrained eye, but just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t hard at work. What exactly do I mean by system? Systems are individual actions/functions that interact in a prescribed way to achieve a specific outcome — much like a set of gears that work together to run a machine. Too often in a work environment, we try to change or impact a “single gear” and then don’t understand why our effort isn’t successful… maybe our people just aren’t trying enough… perhaps they haven’t grasped the larger vision you are trying to achieve… or maybe, just maybe, you failed to see an underlying system.

Short of someone inventing system-seeking glasses, a few pointers regarding systems that might help you recognize their existence:

1) When multiple people are behaving in ways that don’t make sense to you, start looking for the system that is shaping their actions.

If one person is behaving in an unexpected way, it may be a misunderstanding, a learning curve, or some other unique circumstance. However, if multiple managers respond to a request in a similar manner and it feels like, from your perspective, they are just being difficult, start looking for the system that is shaping their actions, because…

2) The “job” of a system is to create a consistent, efficient response — in effect, to maintain the status quo.

Think of a bureaucracy (because it is often easier to see someone else’s systems). Everyone is funneled into filling out the same forms and following the same steps because the job of the bureaucracy, the system, is to achieve a particular result and someone decided this series of steps leads to the desired result. When systems are working, they will resist change . . .that is the purpose of a system! Pushing harder on your people to change, without addressing the underlying systems within which they are working, frustrates everyone — you and your people.

3) To increase the odds of success in a change effort, start by asking what systems will be impacted.

Too often, change initiatives are planned in a vacuum and focus solely on the intended goal of the effort rather than considering how the initiative fits into, or will impact, larger organizational systems. It is much easier for your people to embrace a change when it is presented in the context of the current organizational systems.

The good new is, once you know how to look for “unseen” systems they become easier to recognize… Guess maybe you don’t need those glasses after all.

‘Tis the Season

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As the holiday season winds down, and the “undecorating” begins… as you stand in all the shiny new possibilities that a new year brings, having read more than your share of “how to make this your best year ever” blogs/posts/articles… as you wade through the sea of ever-mounting expectations — both those of others as well as your own… I would simply offer the wisdom/solace/perspective of Ecclesiastes. For everything there is a season.

What season is this for you? Is it a time for taking bold steps, or for building stability? Is it a time for focusing internally or externally? Is it a time for endings, and the corresponding new beginnings, or a time to stay the course? It is a season with great clarity and focus, or one with restless uncertainty? A season may or may not be of your choosing. Regardless, you get to decide how to approach it. A few thoughts to consider:

  • Recognize that there is not a right or a wrong season.

I recently attended a retirement party for a long-time friend who is roughly the same age as me. A retirement party! While we have shared many life experiences, and I am extremely happy for her, we are not in the same season. She is entering one of her choosing, and I am carrying on in mine. Neither is right or wrong, they are simply different, and that is okay. Envying someone else’s season does nothing to maximize your own. When you as a leader can embrace the season you are in, it becomes easier for your people to do likewise.

  • Sometimes you have to endure a season, and look for the lessons it holds.

Leaders are sometimes thrust into seasons they would not choose. That doesn’t mean they can’t control how they will respond. Sitting down and wallowing in “oh poor me land” rarely gets you to the other side. It is fine to acknowledge that the current season stinks, but then a leader has to decide what he or she is going to do about it… whether that means offering themselves or others a measure of grace, clearly articulating the end goal and what you will do to get there, or something else entirely. Making conscious choices about how you will move forward helps you recognize that the current season is just that… a season that will pass, leaving in its wake lessons that can serve you well going forward.

  • Just because you aren’t in a specific season now doesn’t mean you won’t be in the future.

In our competitive, high-expectation, instant everything world, patience and perspective tend to be in short supply. And yet, in my experience, seasons — either positive or negative — often happen on schedules that are immune to our deadlines or expectations. Making peace and acknowledging where you are may be just what it takes to move toward where you would like to be.

‘Tis the season.