Leading Through Lines in the Sand

magnezis-magnestic-261259-unsplash

This is not the blog I planned to write today. I even spent part of the morning trying to talk myself out of it . . . and yet . . . in the increasingly frustrated, fractured, win/lose environments that many of us are trying to guide our organizations through — and beyond —perhaps it is worth a few minutes to consider how to lead in the midst of “lines in the sand.”

Part of the job of a leader is to model the behavior you want to see magnified in your organization. That responsibility is greatest during challenging times, when emotions can run high and the pressure is great. In such situations, which unfortunately seem all too common, what can a leader do to rise above either/or positions to chart a course forward?

  • Listen… to understand, not to find a point of leverage with which to reinforce your point. Too often, we treat listening like a defensive skill rather than an educational opportunity. Listening with an open mind can be hard, yet it also opens the door to step two…

 

  • Find common ground. Focusing on your differences, especially when viewed through the perspective of a single lens (i.e. your own), only serves to highlight barriers, rather than seeking a path to move beyond them. Ask yourself, is your goal to be right or is your goal to find a solution?

 

  • Be respectful. Whether you think someone deserves it is not the point. Treating others with respect is not about their behavior or something they have earned. It is a reflection on you as a leader.

 

You might be surprised at how often these three simple steps, and the resulting conversations, can lead to a path forward. Still there will be times that, in spite of your best efforts, you may be unable to find a solution everyone can agree to and you will have to make a hard decision. Not a threat. Not a dare. Not a competing line in the sand. A difficult but necessary choice. That’s the job of a leader. So make the decision… and then be kinder than you have to be in carrying it out. No gloating or demonizing or kicking someone when they are down.

When you do these things —listen respectfully, trying to find common ground, and when need be make the hard decisions then carry them out in a kind manner— a funny thing starts to happen. You will be faced with fewer lines in the sand. Consistently choosing to look for solutions rather than sides is contagious, but someone has to take the first step.

Are you willing to lead the way?

The Art of the Edit

Canva - Correcting, Papers, English Teacher, Teacher, English.jpg

I am in the middle of an editing project. Editing can be hard… especially for leaders… especially if we are editing our own work. After all, we wouldn’t have included the information in the first place if it wasn’t important, right? We want to make sure people understand every detail of what we are trying to convey, and once we craft the message a certain way, it is hard to imagine anything less achieving our goal. If you find yourself nodding your head at that last sentence, this blog is for you.

Less is more.

Yes, your message is important. Yes, you may have spent months considering every possible option to develop a plan outlining the best path forward. That’s what leaders do. And in most cases, your people — be they employees, volunteers, board members, the general public — want to know what time it is, not how you built the watch. You need to have that information. They do not.

Edited information generates more excitement and buy-in than reams of details.

Think about it…

  • Do you think it is more likely people will read a 2-inch thick packet of information or a two-page document? They may ask questions about something in that 2-inch packet, and since you put it together, you will have no problem answering their question. But if they don’t read the information because it looks too intimidating, or like it will take too much time to sort through, you — and your message — have lost. Go with the 2 pages.
  • Do you think it is more likely that your staff will remember and get excited about your strategic goals if they are buried in a 47-page document, or if they are boiled down to 3 or 4 key themes? If they can’t remember what your strategic goals are, how in the world are your people going to make decisions that help move your organization toward accomplishing them? Focus, my friend, focus.

Editing takes time. It is hard work. As Pascal noted, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” True. And it is worth the effort… every time… not only for those who are the intended recipients of your message, but for you as a leader as well. The more you can distill your message down to it’s core essence, the more powerful it becomes.

Less really is more. If you want to maximize your impact as a leader, take the time to master the art of the edit.

Getting Off the White Horse

elijah-hail-182441-unsplash

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

marc-olivier-jodoin-502572-unsplash.jpg

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

jeshoots-com-632498-unsplash

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

yougotthis

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

Candlestick.jpg

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.