Quit Making Empty Promises


In the midst of an especially crazy day . . . or week . . . or month . . . many a leader has promised him or herself (and likely a bevy of followers) that once we reach X-milestone, things will calm down . . . if you can just make it to Y, things will even out and get easier . . . once we finish the Z initiative, we’ll have a chance to catch our breath. While those promises to yourself and others may be uttered with the best of intentions, in reality they only lead to a greater sense of frustration and exhaustion.

Why? Because the calm . . . an easier pace . . . down time, is not going to just magically happen. When the current project concludes, there will be three more to take its place — projects that you as the leader probably initiated! At the recent Global Leadership Summit author and speaker Danielle Strickland noted that, “There is no changing the future without disrupting the present.” Read that line again. Isn’t that what we are about as leaders — changing the future for our organizations, or those things we are most passionate about?

If disrupting the present is the means to achieve our goal (and when you see it in black and white, it really is hard to deny the truth of that statement) then saying “just hang on until . . .” quickly becomes an empty promise. And an empty promise is one of the quickest ways to suck the energy out of an effort, regardless of how important the project may be. So how can a leader keep themselves, and their team, motivated in the midst of what may feel like ever-increasing demands?

  • Acknowledge that disruption is not episodic.

It is the path required to get to a goal that you care about. Don’t set yourself or your people up for disappointment by thinking you just have to “get through it.” Disruption is an on-going means to an end, rather than a singular unpleasant experience.

  • Shift your focus to “within” not “after”.

How can you find some measure of balance, identifying opportunities to recharge your batteries, in the midstof the disruption rather than thinking those things will suddenly become easier after you reach some mythical milestone? If disruption is the new normal, then you need to model how to thrive within such an environment, not just sputter your way through looking for a finish line.

  • Reframe disruption as progress.

The definition of disruption is “disturbance or problem which interrupts an event, activity or process.” That feels bad. The definition of progress is “forward or onward movement toward a destination.” That feels good. ( . . .even if that movement interrupts an event, activity or process . . .) How you view a situation makes all the difference.

Want to change the future? Quit making empty promises.

Effective Leadership in One Word


I have bookshelves filled with leadership books. I have advanced degrees in the subject. I’ve attended countless seminars, listened to podcasts, followed blogs and train on the topic. And through all that exploration and study, I have come to realize that good leadership can be boiled down to one word. Sure we have lots of vocabulary to slice and dice or give a particular spin to the topic, but when all is said and done it really all boils down to a single concept.

And that concept isn’t unique to the field of leadership. I am privileged to lead a human service organization. For a number of years, my team and I have commented on the overlap between best practices in human services and in leadership. I vividly recall a number of years ago doing a book study with our supervisors on The Speed of Trust and the initial response from many of them was, “This is a leadership book? This is what we do with our kids!” Yep.

Last week, we had a team of staff members attend the Global Leadership Summit. During a presentation on negotiation, I heard a staff member in the row in front of me lean over to a co-worker and whisper “That’s PACE!” — a technique we use in working with our most challenging kids. And she was right. In another example, in the recently released book The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership two key concepts highlighted are mentalizing (defined in the book as reflecting on what others are thinking, and what they are likely to do next) and neuroplasticity (the ability to develop new connections in the brain) — both of which our clinicians have incorporated into our work for some time. So what is this one word, this single concept that is the essence of effective leadership (and working with kids and families)?


The mantra we use in our organization is “Relationship are primary.” Without a relationship, none of the other tools — whether they come from leadership or human service experts — will be effective. Leaders need followers. And to follow you, to believe in the vision you are casting and take steps to bring it to reality, there has to be some type of relationship with those you hope to lead. Sure, everyone can point to people in positions of leadership who don’t invest in building relationships, but will the best people choose to follow them for the long term?

Yes relationships take time to build. They can be messy, invigorating, frustrating and at times unpredictable. And they are absolutely critical if you hope to maximize your impact as a leader. It is just as simple and complicated as that.

Leadership Top Ten


In a coaching session earlier this week, the person I was meeting with asked if I had a “top ten leadership tips”. After giving it some thought, I offer the following list (which should come as no surprise to those who follow my blog as I am sure I have touched on all of these — many more than once — in the last five years):

1. Holding a position of authority is not the same as being a leader.

A clear vision and engaged followers are what makes a strong leader, not the ability to demand compliance.

2. Take the time to get crystal clear on where you are going.

Going slow to go fast may seem counter-intuitive, but every decision becomes easier when you and your team know the destination.

3. Nice matters.

Make the hard decisions you need to make, and then be kinder than you have to be in carrying them out. It’s not about whether the other party is “deserving” of such treatment. Your behavior is a reflection on you.

4. Stand firm in your values, and remain open to change in everything else.

Unexpected variables will happen and may require a shift in tactics. Clarity on your underlying intent, however, will keep you on course.

5. Talk less. Listen more.

. . . And not to just those who confirm your thinking. Listen to people who disagree with you, people whose ideas seem unrealistic, who have life experiences that are different from your own. Wisdom and insight come from considering diverse perspectives.

6. As soon as you see yourself as an expert, you are sunk.

The minute you stop learning — when you think you have “arrived” — is when you start falling behind. You may know a lot, but there is always more to learn. Stay curious.

7. Don’t mistake a clear view for a short distance.

The really important stuff almost always takes longer and is harder than you predict at the outset. Persistence wins far more races that bursts of enthusiasm, so don’t quit too soon.

8. It’s not about you . . . really.

Leadership is hard, and it can be lonely, and at times requires a good pair of iron shorts. Presumably you didn’t step into this role for the glory, but because you believed in the larger mission. When you keep your focus there, the hard stuff feels less personal.

9. Be brutally honest about your current reality AND confident you’ll reach your goal.

Sugar-coating a situation does nothing to help you and your team move to a different spot. Acknowledging where you are increases the likelihood you’ll find a path to where you want to be.

10. You always have a choice.

Rationalizing that “you don’t have a choice” takes your power away as a leader. You always have a choice. It may be choosing between two difficult options, but part of being a leader is making hard choices. If it was easy, anyone could do it.

What would you add to this list?


Are You Giving Too Little?


Does your to-do list feel like an ever-increasing weight . . . like every time you take one thing off the top, three things have been added to the bottom? Are you feeling “crispy”, like you are one more “should” away from burning out? If so, take a deep breath (no really, I mean it . . . in through your nose . . . out through your mouth) and consider this Parker Palmer quote from Let Your Live Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

“Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess — the ultimate in giving too little!”

Read that again and think about it.

When you are focusing on projects that play to your strengths, that you are passionate about, the size of the task, the hours is takes, doesn’t run you down . . . each step in the journey energizes you! When you are maximizing your unique gifts and graces you can accomplish amazing things  . . . and then wake up the next day ready to tackle the next challenge.

It is when you are trying to complete tasks that take time and energy away from the very things that made you successful in the first place that you feel depleted, like you are slogging through quicksand. For those of you thinking that is a nice but unrealistic notion . . . that you would love to focus on what you do best, but this is reality and that means tackling tasks that can be frustrating, mind-numbing and energy-draining, I would offer the following observations:

  • That’s a cop-out.

If you are a leader, you are responsible for making sure things get done, not necessarily for doing them all yourself. And the very things that are mind-numbing for you may be totally energizing for someone else because the tasks align with theirgifts and graces. Find them and give them the opportunity. It’s a total win-win.

  • You’re not looking at the big picture.

When you consider tasks in isolation, they can seem tedious and not a top priority. However, when you look at the role they play in helping you accomplish a bigger goal, suddenly they can feel less like a waste of time and more like a stepping stone. Perspective is everything so have a clear view of the end goal.

  • You’re the leader. You can say no.

Just because it has always been part of the role, or someone expects you do to something, that doesn’t mean it is the best use of your time. If it drains you and doesn’t serve the larger goal of the organization, stop doing it. Instead, focus your energy on things that play to your strengths and serve the larger interests of the organization.

Worn out and feeling on the verge of burn-out? Maybe you’re giving too little.




Searching for the Simple Path


We’ve all been lured in by the compelling titles . . . XYZ in Five Easy Steps . . . Three Must-Do Strategies . . . Seven Skills You Need to Succeed . . . Especially on days when you feel like you are drowning in the complexity, the push and pull, the sheer weight of leading a project or organization, how nice would it be to have someone clearly identify a simpler path that perhaps you missed amid the chaos? I hate to break it to you, but if it’s simplicity you want, there is a fairly good chance you are looking in the wrong place.

Consider the perspective of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who noted, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”  Most of us are looking in the wrong place! We are looking for simple leadership solutions that will allow us to avoid the complexity that threatens to overwhelm us. Unfortunately, the only way to do that is to stay right where you are . . . and even then the cloud of complexity is going to continue to hang over you, taunting you into continued inaction.

Truly, the only solution if you would hope to be an effective leader is to walk through the complexity and emerge on the other side — that is where enduring simplicity lies. The journey is not for the faint of heart. Far too many leaders get so caught up in the whirlwind that they find themselves spinning endlessly, reluctant to take a step for fear of it being the wrong one. If that sounds familiar, there are a number of tools you can use to turn down the volume of distractions swirling around you and identify the best path forward.

Perhaps a business model canvas would help provide clarity, or scenario planning, or developing a focused yet flexible strategic framework. What do all of these tools have in common? They push you to make decisions. To choose a path among the myriad of options, put it on paper so everyone can be on the same page, and then start moving forward one decision at a time.

Once you have taken the time to clearly identify your values, mission and distinctive competencies (which is harder than it sounds!) you just might be surprised at how a path forward begins to emerge. Often it seems so clear, so simple, you wonder how you couldn’t see it earlier. Maybe you were simply looking in the wrong place.

See you on the other side!

The Genius of Curiosity


Far too often, the higher one moves in the organizational chart, the less curious we become. It is not hard to see how it happens. Presumably, a person is promoted or given more responsibility because of a track record of good decisions. This can lead to growing confidence that the leader knows what is “right” for the organization. And over time, amid a hectic pace and growing responsibilities, it is easy to start simply assuming one’s perspective is the best one — you are the leader, afterall — and so you start asking fewer questions, believing you (in all your wisdom) understand the situation. Or maybe you somehow think asking questions, or listening to those with a different perspective, make you look weak or indecisive. The irony is, those things actually strengthen your leadership impact. How?

  • Help me understand” opens the door for an exchange of ideas. It invites people who may have a different perspective to engage with you in a dialog. Leaders often fail to recognize how much their position in the organization is a barrier to the free exchange of valuable information that is readily available. That’s why you have to ask. Yes, such conversations can be uncomfortable . . . your view of things may be challenged . . . and yet, when you are willing to sit in that discomfort you encourage the free flow of information, which is key in making good decisions.
  • “Wondering” prompts people to consider perspectives they otherwise wouldn’t. It provides a context for understanding behavior without passing judgment. Genuinely asking, “I wonder why they would do that . . .” is a way to begin unearthing motivations (which might be three steps back from actions) so you can respond to the cause, not just the symptom, which ultimately increases your long-term effectiveness.
  • “How can we improve?” fosters innovation — which many organizations talk about but far too few intentionally pursue. Your current success, understandably, builds confidence in your processes and approach. However, that confidence is often the biggest deterrent to the curiosity that spurs break-through innovation. Why invest in “fixing” what isn’t broken? Because if you don’t, someone else will. Your organizational systems are designed to maintain the status quo, so it takes intentional questioning on the part of the leader to stay ahead of the curve.

That is the genius of curiosity . . . it allows you to make better decisions, increase your long-term effectiveness and stay ahead of the curve. Why wouldn’t a leader want to do that?

I’m curious. What do you think?

Choosing Your Road


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

                                                                                        — Robert Frost

It is easy for leaders to romanticize Frost’s words . . . to speak confidently about the desire to forge a new path, to venture into uncharted territory — of course with the presumption of discovering exciting new vistas. The reality, however, is that many paths less traveled are that way for a reason, and a bold explorer is just as likely (if not more so) to find steep inclines, thorny undergrowth or any number of other obstacles that will block the way to the intended destination. And even when there is a way forward, the less traveled path will most certainly offer challenges one would not encounter on a well-trod route. In a day and age when there is low tolerance for “failure” on the part of a leader, how do you decide if it is worth the risk to take your organization down the path less traveled? A few questions to consider:

What is the downside — specifically —of taking the path that most are following?

In most cases, the path others are following is the easiest, most efficient way forward. Why would you want to take on something harder, riskier, lonelier and more likely to deplete your resources? There may be a reason. Just make sure you know what it is, and can explain it clearly and simply to those you need to follow you, or support you, on the quest.

What are the possible gains — again, specifically — of the road less traveled?

A leader should always consider the cost-to-benefit ratio of a potential decision. Wanting a fresh path, feeling lost in the crowd, trying to explore new options may all be considerations, but do those possible benefits outweigh the risks of the unknown? Can you articulate exactly why it is worth leveraging your credibility as a leader to go in a direction most have decided against?

Is this the right time to move in a different direction?

Even if you are convinced that the potential rewards of charting your own path outweigh the risks, is now the right time to make the move? Why? What are the risks and/or possible rewards of waiting?

When you step away from the noise of the crowd, the experts, rebels and the naysayers and answer these three questions — for your organization — the decision of which path to take becomes clear. Note, that I did not say it becomes easy, only that it becomes clear. And that clarity . . . I’m talking single-sentence-explanation clarity  . . . will make all the difference, regardless of which road you choose.

See you on the path!