Golden Leadership

Originally Published November 9, 2016

What does one write in a leadership blog the day after one of the most contentious, divisive national elections in recent history? We need more leaders. I’m not talking about individuals who covet positions of leadership for the perceived power and prestige such roles might bring. I’m talking about people who feel compelled to step up to the plate, right where they are, to change a circumstance.

True leadership is not about a position. It is about having a purpose, and how you treat others on the way to fulfilling that purpose.

Which should be a source of encouragement, regardless of whether you are excited, anxious or in a bit of a stupor about the results of yesterday’s election. You can step up and take a leadership role, right now, right where you are, to work toward an improved circumstance. How?

For starters, listen. When was the last time you truly listened to someone who had a perspective different from your own — not with the goal of telling them why and how they are wrong, but to try to understand where they were coming from? You aren’t going to change someone’s perspective simply by shouting louder or questioning their intelligence, and you won’t make the best decisions by only listening to those who already agree with you. Granted, part of leadership is making decisions that won’t please everyone, however if you can allow those with a different perspective to feel heard, and treat them with respect, it is likely you will gain followers even if they don’t agree with every decision you make.

Secondly, be willing to question your thinking. No one is “right” all the time. And just because a decision might have been the best solution with one set of circumstances, when variables change sometimes the most appropriate response changes too. I’m not suggesting that you don’t hold true to your values and purpose. You absolutely should. However rigidity and an unwillingness to consider new information or to look for a “third way” doesn’t expand your influence or strengthen your position, it only makes it harder to accomplish your goal.

Finally, take the plank of your own eye before you go after the speck in someone else’s. Pointing fingers, being judgmental or condescending or patronizing lessens your own credibility more than that of those you are calling out. Again, that does not mean you should condone inappropriate actions or downplay your values, but somewhere along the way it seems we checked respect at the door. You can disagree with someone, or make the hard decisions, while still being respectful.

Bottom line, the golden rule really is still golden. Treat others the way you want to be treated. If you are less than enthusiastic about those seeking positions of leadership, be a role model of the kind of leader you want. On this “day after” my challenge to each of you is simply this…

Be a golden example.

The Tightrope Through Discontentment

Our world is filled with discontentment right now — politics, the pandemic, social injustice — which has magnified the “normal” challenges organizations face. People are searching for leaders to help them find a path forward. And yet, given the full continuum of deeply held beliefs that have come to the surface in recent months, how does a leader navigate the tightrope through discontentment to find more solid footing?

1. Start inside.

It is critical to focus on your center of gravity when walking a tightrope. One way to do that is by starting with your values and your people. While your people may express a range of beliefs, or raise concerns that are different from your own experiences, focus on the relationships. These are the same people who stayed late to help you on a project. The ones who have laughed with you and shared family milestones. There have always been topics on which you have disagreed, but you didn’t let them overshadow the goals and values you shared. Focus there first.

2. Stay attuned.

To maintain your balance on the tightrope, you have to be aware of what is going on around you. It requires seeking out multiple points of view and listening to hear perspectives that are different from your own, or challenge your intended path forward. Thoughtfully consider and when appropriate shift your behavior based on that input. The winds of change may appear to whip up quickly, but in reality the signs were there for those who were paying attention.

3. Expect to feel unsteady.

There is a reason that so few people choose to walk the tightrope of leadership. It is hard, uncomfortable work. You can go from feeling steady to incredibly wobbly in a single step. You have to be flexible enough to absorb the feelings of imbalance while also keeping your eye firmly focused on your end goal. It is the ability to move with the wire, time after time, that enables on-going success.

4. Don’t look down.

Although you need to remain attuned to what is going on around you, it is also important to recognize that some people only focus on the downside of a situation. If you are looking for affirmation from or allow yourself to be distracted by such people, you will be much more likely to lose your balance. Does someone shoot down every possible resolution, or when you solve one challenge instantly present another? If so, it’s time to look up and move on.

5. Step out.

One step at a time. With each step, observe your surroundings, re-orient if you need to, decide the next best step, and then take it. Over and over again. The only way to get across the tightrope is to cross it.

Yes, discontentment is high right now, and leading through it may feel like walking a tightrope. Yet now more than ever, we need leaders willing to step up and step out. Are you up for the challenge?

Don’t Turn a Blind Eye

I recently read about an eye-opening study about leaders’ blind spots regarding their own growing edges. The study — conducted over 15 years, with 500 leaders from throughout the world and including feedback from 10,000 of their peers — showed that when leaders were asked to name three areas where they could improve their leadership, and their peers were asked the same question (to identify three areas of improvement for the leader) in 80% of the assessments the leader’s and peers’ responses differed on all three of the identified areas for improvement. All three! In 80% of the cases!

Are we as leaders really that blind to where we need to improve? While the findings from this study — which suggest that for 8 out of 10 of us the answer is yes — are unexpected and a bit humbling, they also instantly brought to mind an experience I had a number of years ago with my senior team. We had all completed a standardized behavioral assessment and were comparing and discussing our results. I distinctly remember commenting that I thought my results were totally on the mark except for this one characteristic, and that wasn’t me at all. Almost in unison, the majority of my team instantly responded, “Oh yes it is!” Hmmm . . . blind eye, indeed.

So how does a leader go about revealing their blind spots, and actually using that information as a springboard for growth?

1. Recognize that identifying blind spots is a tool, not a test.

Understanding your areas for improvement is the first step in strengthening your leadership. This knowledge allows you to identify where to focus your energy to expand your influence and effectiveness as a leader. It is not a contest or a comparison. Each of us is a unique individual, with different strengths and areas for improvement.

2. It is not a debate.

They call them blind spots because you can’t see them! That means you may get feedback you don’t understand or agree with, or you think is not consistent with your intentions. Arguing that someone’s feedback is not accurate, trying to justify your actions, or stating that’s just “who you are” does nothing to strengthen your leadership. What it does do is make it less likely that people will offer you feedback going forward.

3. Find an objective conversation starter.

Standardized behavioral assessments can help start the conversation. In our organization we use the Predictive Index, however there are a number of well-researched options available. If you are concerned that people may “sugar-coat” their feedback to you, using the results of the assessment — which people can agree with, provide examples of, etc. — can create a “safe” way to start the conversation.

Are you turning a blind eye to your growing edges?

Maybe the best way to find out is to ask your people what they see.

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.