Tend the Forest

Forest scene; Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash
Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

You can’t see the forest for the trees.

It’s one of those phrases that we all have heard, and yet we fail to heed its warning time and again. We spend so much time addressing the crisis du jour, our ever-growing to-do list, today’s opportunity or our competitors most recent actions that we lose sight of the big picture . . . the forest . . . if we were ever really clear on the big picture in the first place. 

Here’s the thing. Individual trees can get struck by lightning. A bigger tree might block the sun and so the one in its shadow may never grow to its full potential. Or you plant a seed with great confidence, only to be disappointed that it doesn’t seem to take root like you expected. If your primary focus is on the tree, such set-backs can send you into a tailspin, scurrying around to respond to this crisis or that. 

When you step back and focus on the forest, however, you recognize that not every tree will be a majestic oak, and that’s okay. You don’t have to turn yourself inside out for every project as long as you are keeping your eye on the well-being of the whole. You can acknowledge that some seeds germinate at a slower pace — or maybe not at all, but it is still worth the effort to plant them.

Keeping your focus on the forest doesn’t eliminate the day-to-day challenges of leading, but it does help keep them in context so you can focus on the end game. From a big picture perspective, it is easier to recognize that some of your best laid plans may not work out the way you had hoped, but one particular “tree” is simply that . . . one tree in a whole forest of pathways and opportunities. 

The biggest challenge comes when you have not clearly defined the forest. What are the three or four big goals you are working toward? Not 57 . . . that’s tree counting. You have to push past seeing every project — every tree — as an end unto itself. Define the forest.  Arriving at that kind of focus is harder than you think. But when you get there, it is much easier to step back and find a different path to your destination when things don’t go as you had hoped. And they won’t. 

If you are having one of those weeks where you feel like you are simply running from tree to tree, stop. Take a deep breath. And tend the forest.

Spring Rains

spring white flower in the rainHave you ever noticed that in the Springtime, entire landscapes can change in a day? One well-timed rain shower can make entire hillsides come to life, blooming with energy and possibilities. Of course, that only happens if the seeds for that growth were already there. Sure, they may have been dormant during the stark cold winter, but they were in the right place, just waiting for the Spring rains.

Nature is patient. We leaders . . . sometimes not so much. We want to plant seeds — in terms of our people, our plans, our vision — and then have them immediately germinate and bloom. Unfortunately, that is not the way it works. You have to plant bulbs in the fall, before the frost and gray skies of Winter, if you want them to flower in the Spring . . . or cultivate seeds in the Spring to reap the harvest in late summer or fall. But it is Springtime, after the brown and sometimes frigid Winter, that the transformation is most obvious.

What does a “Spring rain” look like in your organization? Perhaps a major opportunity comes your way that you are positioned to take advantage of because you have been preparing your people and organization for just such a situation. Some (i.e. those who didn’t plan ahead) will label such opportunities as a lucky break. Seneca described that kind of luck as a situation where “preparation meets opportunity”. The Spring rains bring the opportunity. You as the leader are responsible for the preparation part.

Preparing for the Spring rains means you can’t just focus on this week’s weather forecast. Yes, you have to be aware of it for other reasons, but this week’s weather has little to do with what the next season holds. As a leader, you have to adapt to the current storms, but ultimately you also have to plant the seeds for the subsequent season. And then you have to wait. That’s the catch, isn’t it? We are so accustomed to instant gratification, immediate return on investment, focusing the next quarter’s outcomes, that investing in the long term can seem like a quaint but unrealistic concept. Maybe the unrealistic part is not the concept, but our expectations as leaders.

The Spring rains will come. Perhaps not exactly when you want them to, and sometimes to a greater or lesser degree than you would ideally like, but they will come. The question is whether you have prepared your organizational landscape to blossom and burst with new life when the time comes. For those leaders who recognize their critical role as a patient cultivator . . . who have experienced Spring’s beauty . . . nothing is more satisfying than sitting back and watching it rain!

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.

Know Your Batting Order

Have you ever been stressed out by trying to keep too many balls in the air, and all at once you run across something so simple and so profound that it stops you in your tracks? Yep, me too. In fact, I was recently reading a blog post by Anne Lamott when three little words jumped off the page . . .

“Grace bats last.”

I love that! First and foremost because I count on receiving a measure of grace in my own life, but also because those three words provide so much guidance to us as leaders.

If you are in a position of leadership, sooner or later (or both) you will be called on to make a difficult decision — one that is not popular, and maybe even has a negative impact on someone else. That’s part of the job, but how you carry out such decisions can make a huge difference in how you are perceived as a leader.

I think far too often, we get the batting order mixed up. We start out by being overly flexible, willing to negotiate expectations, trying to be patient and accommodating at all costs . . . until we reach the end of our rope, we’re done, we draw the line, and we’re the bad guy. What if, instead, we set clear guidelines/boundaries/expectations at the beginning, and consistently held people accountable to those. When that happens, you separate out those situations that are never going to work from those that really could. And if a situation that looks promising needs a bit of a concession, a measure of grace, you will still have the energy and ability to accommodate a special circumstance.

Even when you have to make a decision that will be hard to some to accept, I believe the best leaders find a way to offer a measure of grace in the process. Make the difficult decision, yes, and then carry it out with great kindness. Be more generous than you have to be in the process. Sure, some will think you’re soft, but most will see you as fair, and someone they want to work with . . . You know, the whole Golden rule thing . . .

Lastly, we may occasionally need to remind ourselves that grace bats last for us as leaders, too. Our impact is more than the sum of a single decision or action. Too often, I’ve seen leaders afraid to swing at an opportunity because they fear they may strike out based on a single action. While I suppose there are circumstances where that could happen, in most cases, we will be judged by the long view, by the total sum of our actions.

So take that swing, do what you know you need to do, and then let grace bat last.

Note: Originally posted on July 15, 2015

The Choice is Yours

Concept of choice with crossroads spliting in two waysI have a tendency to get frustrated with people in positions of leadership who, when faced with a difficult situation, default to telling their team that, “We don’t have a choice.” You always have a choice. You may not like the choices before you. There may be a high cost for a choice, financial or otherwise. You may wish you weren’t the one who had to make the choice. But, you always have one.

You are the leader. People are looking to you to see how they should respond. Even when you have to choose between the lesser of two evils, make the choice. Don’t default and let “them” make the decision for you. (You know, them . . . those people who are telling you that you “have to” do whatever it is you would rather not do.) There is a confidence, a sense of control, that comes when you consider all the options, good or bad, and pick one. No one is doing it “to you”. You are not a helpless bystander in someone else’s plan. The choice is yours.

Even when you find yourself in the midst of a situation, not of your making, you can still choose how you respond. You can wallow in the midst of it all, proclaiming that it is not your fault (which it very well may not be), or you can put one foot in front of the other and walk your way out of the situation. You’ll likely have a lot of company in “ain’t it awful land”, but people want their leaders to chart a course to a better place. And the best way forward is usually to decide to take a step . . . and then another. You can always course correct along the way if you need to, but momentum favors the person who is moving. Sometimes, the best solution comes three steps in, and you never would have seen it if you didn’t choose to move forward.

I am a big believer in plans, and yet sometimes perfecting the plan can become a way to avoid making a choice. “Oh, we will (fill in the blank) as soon as soon as we work out all the details.” So work them out. Make a decision, even a small one, that moves your effort forward. Leaders need to lead. That means choosing a destination, making the hard decisions if you need to, and then helping your people find a way forward. You are a leader. That’s what leaders do.

The choice is yours.

You’ve Got This!

Panorama Of Empty Baseball Field At Night From Behind Home PateI have been hearing “industry experts” report that we are facing “unprecedented levels of change” for more than a quarter-century. Such pronouncements can cause a great deal of stress, and likely more than a few sleepless nights, for conscientious leaders committed to helping their organizations succeed. But . . . what if the experts are looking at it all wrong?

I lead a 165-year-old organization, and as I look back over our history it appears that significant amounts of change have been going on ever since 1853. Unprecedented means, “never done or known before.” People, we have done change! Yes, the circumstances are different, the speed at which occurs may be faster, but change is not an unprecedented thing . . . and when we act like it is, all we accomplish is to increase our angst, foster uncertainty in our staff and undermine our ability to respond most effectively.

Change is a process and there are specific steps you can take to increase your likelihood of achieving your desired outcome (I recommend John Kotter’s work as a good starting point). Here is what the industry experts don’t tell you — effectively managing change is far more about you than it is about any external factors that may be “unprecedented.”

Consider it through the lens of baseball. When you step up to the plate to bat, you may face all kinds of pitchers. Some throw right-handed, some left. Some pitch at speeds you may have never seen before, others have a change-up that can catch you off guard. The strike zone may be a moving target depending on the umpire, the sun might be in your eyes or the wind blowing dust in your face. The catcher may crowd you and the spectators may be creating distracting levels of noise. And even with all of these variables — some of which you may not have encountered before — your batting average is largely a result of what you do and not the uncontrollable factors swirling around you. Don’t allow yourself to get psyched out by the spectator (who may even see himself as an expert) shouting, “swing batter swing,” or by the reputation of the pitcher, or a host of other variables. Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.

Change becomes overwhelming when we focus more of our attention on what we can’t control instead of what we can. Yes, pay attention to what is going on around you, adapt if you need to, and then bring your focus back to what you can impact . . . the specific steps you can take. What you focus on grows. Focus on what you know and what you can control.

Unprecedented? Not so much. You’ve got this!

Solid Leadership

Digital composite of Business man walking up mountain peak in thHave you ever noticed when you are feeling overwhelmed by a challenging situation, competing demands, or simply too much to do (or maybe all three!) it can at times feel like “mental vertigo.” Your mind just keeps spinning and you feel a bit off-balance from the stress of it all. It can become a vicious cycle that leaves you feeling dizzy and hesitant to take a step forward. But you are supposed to be the calm, cool and collected leader . . . so if you find yourself in such a situation, what are you supposed to do? Find something solid to move toward.

You may not have the answers to everything that caused your mind to whirl, but there is always something you can do to plant your feet on solid ground . . . and doing something is often the only way to stop the spinning. Stressing about the mountain you have to climb doesn’t make it any smaller (in fact, usually just the opposite), so find a foothold and take a step. The funny thing is, once you start moving forward, you usually find your balance and a path appears.

You’re likely not the only one in your organization dealing with mental vertigo. Helping your people maneuver up, down and around the many tasks before them without losing their balance is a key task of a leader. You need to serve as the solid footing, or at least a steady guide, to keep your people moving forward. How? Show them how to take a step toward something solid. Encourage them to break a task into small pieces and to move ahead.

Solid leadership is about forging a path and guiding your team, through the whirl of circumstances before you. It doesn’t mean you never feel off balance. It simply means when you do, you take a deep breath, find something solid to hold on to, and then forge ahead. It is not some mythical aspiration where you will always have the answers. It is about having a clear strategy for how to move ahead when you don’t. When you figure out how to remain calm and level-headed when the world is spinning around you, your people will too. That is solid leadership.

The Challenge of Leadership

Top View of Business Shoes on the floor with the text: Life BegiDo you want to grow as a leader, or are you satisfied with maintaining the status quo in terms of your leadership impact? Before you respond, consider this . . . leadership growth requires that you move outside your comfort zone.

When leaders achieve a level of success, there is a tendency to want to keep doing what has gotten you to this point. You know how to do it. It obviously worked. You have “arrived” as a leader. Why would you want to switch up your strategy now? Well, for starters, circumstances change and using an old approach to respond to new variables rarely produces the desired results. To quote Marshall Goldsmith, “what got you here won’t get you there.”

Leadership growth happens at the far side, the outer edge, of what you know. That doesn’t mean your experience and past success isn’t real and valid. It simply means that to increase your impact tomorrow, you have to be willing to challenge and adapt and stretch into the discomfort of not knowing for sure how you are going to accomplish your next goal — only that you will. In Learning Leadership Kouzes and Posner note that challenge is the defining context for leadership. If we didn’t have challenges, we wouldn’t need leaders.

So if challenge is the defining context for leadership, then real leadership cannot be about “getting there” or reaching a comfort zone. It is about finding a way through gnarly problems on the path toward incredible opportunities. It’s about growing and stretching and striving for more. It is about stepping into uncharted waters because reaching the destination is worth the risk.

Does every leader occasionally have fantasies about changing the world from the cozy confines of their comfort zone? Probably. And it’s fine — smart even — to hang out in that space every once in a while, to catch your breath and recharge your engines. Ultimately, however, to increase your leadership impact, you have to stand on the edge of uncertainty and decide move forward. Because when you step outside of your comfort zone, when you commit to taking on the leadership challenge before you, you chart a course that allows your team to also move forward . . . providing the opportunity for them to stretch and grow on the path toward organizational success.

The choice to stretch into the uncertainty is yours to make. That is both the comfort and the challenge of leadership growth.

Springtime Snows

Snow ice cream on beautiful plate, closeup

I live in the Midwest. It is April. It has snowed the last three Sundays. Seriously, we made snow ice cream on Easter! Sometimes, during the season when you expect the crocuses and dogwoods and daffodils to start blooming, you get a snowstorm instead. And when that happens, you can whine, and complain, and wring your hands . . . or you can make snow ice cream.

Sooner or later, your best-laid plans are going to get snowed on. You can (and should!) plan and coordinate and attend to every detail within your control. The problem is, there are just so many variables that are outside of your control. When an unexpected storm rears its head and derails your plan, it is a leader’s responsibility to forge a new path forward. How do you prepare for Springtime snows?

  • Acknowledge that it can happen. If you expect that all of your plans are going to play out exactly as you have imagined, you set yourself up for disappointment. In effect, it is a leader’s job to bring a sweater, grab an umbrella, pack a snack . . . have a Plan B so you don’t miss a beat when the weather changes.
  • Embrace the change in your plans. When the Springtime snows happen, your people are going to look to you to see if they should be stressed, or worried, or upset. The energy you bring to the challenge at hand is contagious. Fake it until you make it if you have to, but it is a leader’s responsibility to embrace the change in plans, not wallow in what could have been.
  • Recognize the opportunity in the snow. When you embrace and make the most of unexpected situations, you just might be surprised by how often the results exceed what you would have achieved with your original plans. Years from now, I’m guessing we’ll be talking about the fun we had the Easter we made snow ice cream.

When you sign on to be a leader, you also sign on to the inevitable Springtime snows. Expect it, prepare for it, embrace it, and recognize that there can be untold opportunities hidden amidst the unexpected turn in the weather . . . if only you step forward to find them.

Springtime snows, while unexpected, can be absolutely beautiful . . . especially when viewed over a bowl of freshly made ice cream!

Bite-Sized​ Pieces

Apple Pie.png

Walk into any bookstore (okay . . . or peruse Amazon) and you will undoubtedly find a large section of books on management and leadership. Helping people hone their leadership skills has become quite an industry. Too bad generations of moms and grandmas didn’t copyright their advice to their children, because while we have dressed it up and come up with some impressive sounding new terminology, much of today’s leadership wisdom has its roots in the guidance we were given as children.

While the comparisons could fill volumes (and just might . . . stay tuned!), one important reminder for leaders who are overscheduled, with to-do lists that seem to grow of their own accord, is to cut your food into bite-sized pieces. Yes. I’m serious.

Too many of us look at the overwhelming portions on our plate and stew and stress over how we will ever get around to everything before us. We spend mental energy developing strategies for how we’re going to eat it . . . pushing things around on our plate in an attempt to make it appear more manageable . . . in some cases probably even hiding a few peas under the potatoes . . . which of course only postpones the inevitable. The only solution? Cut it into bite-sized pieces and start eating.

Sure, the proposal is going to take a lot of effort. Don’t double the time it takes, and triple the stress, by spending days fretting about how you’re going to get it done. Cut it up and start eating. Yes, reviewing the monthly reports is one of your least favorite tasks. Slice it down to size, eat it fast and get it over with rather than having it continue to stare at you from the middle of your plate. (Warning…the longer you look at it, the bigger it appears!)

Going to the other extreme doesn’t work either. Trying to take on too much at once — the equivalent of shoving giant pieces of food into your mouth — only creates a choking hazard. As a result, what might seem like the most efficient way forward can actually take longer, and cause more pain and suffering in the long run. Bite. Sized. Pieces.

Yes, this task would be a lot easier if you were the only one filling your plate. Unfortunately, leaders don’t always get to choose what lands on their platter, however, they do get to determine how to tackle what is before them. And as usual, Mom knew what she was talking about.

Bite-sized pieces.