Steeping Your Leadership

Originally Published September 9, 2015

I’ve always been a fan of the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “A woman is like a tea bag. You can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

Of course, you could easily replace the word “woman” with “leader.” A key tenet of leadership 101 is that, as a leader, it is not a matter of if you will find yourself in difficult, challenging situations — hot water — but when. And as much as you might think you know how you will react in such situations, you often don’t until you are in the midst of it.

Usually “hot water” entails a higher than average number of uncontrollable variables. For those leaders who like to be in control at all times (know any of those?!?), this can be extremely challenging. Add to this the fact that your staff will be watching how you respond to give them an indication of how they should respond. Remember, calm begets calm . . . even if you have to fake it till you make it!

So how do you steep the strongest leadership out of a hot water situation?

First, realize that no matter the situation, there are things you can control. You can choose to take a deep breath, which will help move you out of the reactive, fight/flight/freeze part of your brain and into the part of your brain where you can think rationally. This is the first step toward responding in (what at least appears to be) a thoughtful, decisive manner. In most cases, there aren’t nearly as many things that you “have to” do as some external source might want you to think. You might “have to” do them to get the response the external source is seeking, but it may or may not produce the outcome you want. In fact, your calm consideration is usually the best antidote to an external frenzy.  

Stonewalling, acting like everything is okay, going “underground”, or looking for a scapegoat is much the same as ripping a hole in your tea bag. All your power seeps out, and in the end you will often end up having to swallow the bitter dregs . . . and deal with the lingering aftertaste for a long time to come.

It is also good to remember that a bit of hot water every now and then isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hot water mixed with a good tea bag can wake you up, keep you on your toes, and hone your focus on what is most important (. . . that would be your mission, your people, your long-term viability . . .)

As a tea drinker, I like my morning mug steaming, strong, and filled to the brim. Two or three of those, a deep breath for good measure, and I’m ready to face whatever comes my way.

What Are You Feeding

You may have heard the Indian legend of a grandfather talking to his grandson about the battle that goes on inside people . . . a battle of two wolves. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. After thinking about this a moment, the grandson asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The grandfather simply replied, “The one that you feed.”

Perhaps there is no better example of that legend than social media. The documentary Social Dilemma highlights how the types of things you view on social media multiply on your feed because built-in algorithms steer you to more of the same, making it easy to lose sight of the fact that there are perspectives that differ from those you are seeing. Beyond social media, in our increasingly polarized society, there seems to be daily pressure to pick a side . . . stake out a position . . . feed a wolf.

On your leadership journey, how can you tilt the odds in favor of the good wolf?

Feed curiosity. What additional perspectives are out there? What experiences have people had that prompt them to see a situation differently? “Help me understand . . .” can be one of the most powerful questions a leader can ask. When a person moves up the organizational chart, they often begin to lose their curiosity, and become more convinced that they have the answers. Bonus benefit . . . curiosity also helps build buy-in from your team members, who feel heard and valued.

Feed optimism. I’m not talking about being a Pollyanna here. I am suggesting you assume positive intent. First, it taps into curiosity . . . why would someone, who also wants the best in this situation, see things differently than I do? Feeding optimism also prompts you to focus the the positives, the strengths, of both your people and a given situation. Research from Gallop indicates that a strengths-based approach builds employee engagement, which is increasingly critical for organizational success. And for those thinking optimism sounds nice but you have a business to run, research also shows that optimists are significantly more likely than pessimists to experience financial health.

Feed Joy. Joy is about gratitude. It is about an energizing sense of purpose. Unlike happiness, joy is not dependent on the circumstances. Joy comes from knowing you can impact a situation. It comes from connecting with people, acknowledging contributions, and cheering each other on. Feeding joy is about celebrating. It is an antidote to stress. Joy is about being in the moment. It sparks creativity, improves your mood, and often changes how you see a situation. Joy is a choice. And joy begets joy — when your people see you expressing joy, it gives them permission to do the same.

Curiosity, optimism and joy grow the good wolf. What are you feeding?

Calling All Elephants

Originally Published November 4, 2014

In virtually any leadership team, no matter how high functioning, there will be times when the group is hesitant to bring up a question or concern. Perhaps it is because the topic is something about which the leader is passionate, or really committed to making happen. Maybe they feel like a decision has already been made, or the organization is “too far down the road” to change course, or that sharing a concern will undermine a relationship they have with someone else on the team. Regardless of the cause, an attuned leader may sense the caution in the room, but not be able to put a finger on the source of the unease. It is times like these that a team needs someone who is willing to “name the elephant in the room.”

I am blessed to have a member of my leadership team who willingly takes on this role. She is rarely the first one to speak up, but when she senses people are dancing around something that is weighing on them, she will either name the issue if she knows what it is, or point out that she senses some hesitancy and asks about it. She is able to do this in a supportive, non- confrontational way that makes it feel safe for people to speak their mind. (Not that speaking their mind is usually a problem with my team, but you catch my drift.) Her simple acknowledgement or inquiry has the effect of almost instantly making the conversation more “real”. You can almost feel the room take a deep breath because questions or concerns can now be openly discussed. At times, with additional information, the concerns are allayed. Other times, we tweak the direction or change course all together based on the conversation. In virtually every case though, we all leave the meeting feeling better about it. There is no need to have a “meeting after the meeting” because we addressed the concerns where they should be addressed — amongst the entire team.

If you don’t have someone on your team who naturally assumes this role, why not assign the task of naming the elephant in the room? If it has been assigned to someone, there won’t be the hesitancy of speaking out of turn … they are simply doing what you asked them to do. The effect is the same whether the elephant namer is a voluntary or assigned role. You as the leader have an added layer of protection against unnamed undercurrents that could ultimately undermine your efforts.

One note of caution … This strategy only works if the leader is willing to hear and respond to feedback, even when that feedback messes with well-laid plans. Elephants only come out to play when it feels safe to do so. And if an elephant gets shot down in an embarrassing or derogatory way, don’t expect other ones to show up at future meetings. They’ll instead decide to dance around amongst small groups after the meeting.

In today’s complex, fast-paced, circus of a world, it takes everyone’s best thinking to achieve the optimum outcome. And sometimes, you can only get to that best thinking by seeing, and naming, the elephant in the room.

Are You Solving the Right Problem?

At a meeting earlier this week — amid frustration about a recent bureaucratic rule change — one of my colleagues made a rather profound statement. “They are trying to solve the wrong problem!” She was right. (In fact, this problem was an unintended consequence of a previous sweeping decision . . .)

“They are trying to solve the wrong problem.” How does that happen? And have you ever been the “they” in that observation? To answer the second question, probably.

To answer the first question, we have to take a brief dive into systems thinking. Two of the key tenets of systems thinking are the interconnectedness of systems (think circular rather than linear) and the reality that cause and effect can be separated in time and space. In many cases, however, that is not how we think. Most people are short term thinkers — Here is the apparent problem. What is the most logical (linear) conclusion from where I am sitting, and what steps do I need to take to solve the problem?

That “logical” approach is what often leads to trying to solve the wrong problem. For example, say a manufacturing firm suddenly has an increase in accidents because of falls related to liquid on the floor. The linear response might be increased safety training, or reprimanding the employees charged with keeping the facility clean. In all likelihood, that is addressing the wrong problem. The problem may have actually come from four steps back  . . . because purchasing (following the “logical” rule of accepting the lowest bid) got a great deal on gaskets, which were faultly and resulted in increased leaks.

As leaders, we are charged with solving problems quickly and effectively. To do that, we often look at the specific situation and the most immediate solution. We solve the narrowly defined “what” rather than taking the time to identify the more big-picture “why”. It’s a balancing act between speed and depth. So how do you increase the likelihood that you are solving the right problem?

Leading your search for answers with the simple phrase “Help me understand . . .”, and taking your questions to the people closest to the issue (rather than someone sitting in an office somewhere) is the best way to get at the real problem. When you get the answer to your first question, base your next “help me understand” inquiry on that information. You may have to use this approach four or five times, each time moving closer to the real root of the issue, and the “right problem.” It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but it does take an open mind to consider that the real cause may be four steps removed from the effect that appears to be the problem.

Your people look to you to solve the challenges before them. The “obvious” answer may or may not resolve your dilemma. It all depends on if you are solving the right problem.

“Don’t Confuse a Clear View for a Short Distance”

Originally Published May 14, 2014.

Several years ago, my husband and I were on vacation at a scenic location when we saw a ruin in the distance and decided to hike over and check it out. After following a somewhat treacherous trail for much longer than it we thought it would take to get to the structure, we looked to the horizon and realized the site didn’t seem any closer than when we started. At that point, we began to question if we should continue . . . it was already late in the afternoon, and once we got there we would have to walk all the way back . . . but it looked so cool, and we had already come this far, so we decided to press on. We probably stopped two more times to have a similar conversation before we actually made it to the ruin — which was totally worth the trip, even though it was approaching dusk by the time we wound our way back along a narrow path to return to our car.

I had to smile as a quote I had read several years earlier popped into my head. “Don’t confuse a clear view for a short distance.” Credited to Kevin Kelly, I have had numerous opportunities to be reminded of the truth of this statement. The bottom line is, most major projects take longer, and include more twists and turns, than we expect at the outset. And if we don’t have a clear view of where we are headed, it is easy to stop after the first few bumps in the road and decide the trip really isn’t worth it. But when you have a clear picture of the destination in your head, you are much more likely to press on through the brambles, the steep drop-offs, and rocky paths. Making a commitment to persevere toward a clear view can lead to amazing results — not only when you reach (or exceed!) your destination, but also in the increased levels of collaboration and support that can happen within a team along the way.

The reverse is also true. Without a clear destination in mind, even a fairly easy path can seem overwhelming, or require too much effort. A vague or foggy description of the view doesn’t inspire near the energy or enthusiasm needed to complete the trip. The journey is sure to include numerous uncontrollable variables, and there will be multiple scenarios that could come to pass. You will have to adapt and make course corrections along the way. But when everyone is clear on the ultimate destination, they are more likely to respond to these challenges as simply that — challenges to overcome, not insurmountable obstacles on the way to a fuzzy destination, which have caused many a team to stop short of their goal.

It is true that, as a leader, you should never confuse a clear view for a short distance . . . but you should also never underestimate the power of a clear view to motivate your team to stretch beyond what they might have otherwise imagined.

When a “No Brainer” Isn’t

As a leader, it can be frustrating when something seems like a “no brainer” to you, and yet some portion of your team seems to dig their heels in and resist. Are they intentionally just trying to be difficult? How could they not see what is so clear to you? Do you have the right people on the team? Oh, and one more question . . . did it ever occur to you that they might be asking the same questions about you?

More often than not, the issue is not a matter of intelligence or commitment or intentionally being difficult (okay, occasionally, but let’s not automatically go there) . . . it is simply that you and your team member may be coming at the issue from a different perspective. There are a few steps you can can take to see if this might be the case.

1. Identify the perspective are you making your decision from. Is it a business decision? A mission decision? A decision influenced by your board or one or more other stakeholders? If you find this hard to answer, write your justifications for the decision on a piece of paper. Seeing something in black and white can sometimes bring a level of clarity that is harder to recognize when you are debating things in your head.

2. Consider the issue from a different perspective . . . even if you think it is a less relevant perspective. It may be less relevant to you, but is it for your people? Is your decision driven by your unique position in the agency? Are you taking variables into consideration that your people may not be? Conversely, are they looking at potential impacts of the decision that you are overlooking? How might their past experiences shape their point of view?

3. Ask your people why they are resisting. It is amazing how much you can learn by asking rather than telling. If you have considered the issue from a different perspective, ask your staff if that is the source of their resistance, or if it is something else. Even if your assumption in incorrect, the fact that you are trying to understand makes it more likely that your people will share their perspective. (FYI, this is a seek to understand moment, not a means of gaining tactical advantage . . .)

4. Reconsider your position based on this new information. You may or may not change your decision, but understanding where people’s resistance is coming from helps you frame your final decision in a way that recognizes the perspective of others. When people feel heard, they are more likely accept the ultimate decision and also to share their perspective in the future.

When your people resist the direction you are going, you have a choice to simply push harder, or step back and look for the source of the resistance. Which is more effective in the long run? No brainer.

Finding Your Spot

As leaders, many of us have a dizzying array of responsibilities, expectations, plans and distractions. That is unlikely to change. Assuming you have delegated where you can, the question becomes how to maintain your balance in the midst of the whirlwind of urgent and important situations vying for your attention? How is it that some leaders appear calm, cool and collected in managing the on-slaught, while others seem to stagger from one crisis to the next? Maybe the first group are better spotters.

Although I was never a ballerina (cute tutu-clad pictures from my youth not-with-standing), the reason seasoned dancers can spin repeatedly without getting dizzy is a technique called spotting, where they keep their eyes focused on the same spot for as long as possible and refocus on that spot with each rotation.

Where are your eyes focused as a leader? On the fourteen different things clamoring for your attention, or the overarching vision that ties everything together? Honing in on a singular, unifying focus can bring a surprising sense of balance. There may be a swirl of activities that contribute to achieving a stated goal, but in your mind’s eye that single point of focus can keep you from getting dizzy.

The trick is to identify the single spot on which you are going to focus, which of course is easier said than done. As Oliver Wendell Holmes 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.” In the leadership journey, many of us get stuck in the complexity phase, never making it through to the simplicity . . . the single point of focus . . . on the other side. If you feel stuck in the complexity, maybe it’s time to find your spot.

Finding your spot requires stepping back and asking why you are doing what you are doing? What is the common thread? It may be hard to see in the swirl of the day-to-day, because our to-do lists tend to focus on the what, not the why . . . and yet it is the why that allows us to maintain our balance. Take the time to find the why, the spot, that connects the things (or at least most of the things) vying for your attention.

I’m not suggesting that identifying a single point of focus is going to reduce the number of things on your to-do list. I am suggesting that when you realize all of your activities are pushing you toward a singular goal, instead of pulling you in fourteen different directions, those tasks become energizing rather than making you dizzy.

Find your spot.

You Always Have a Choice

The on-going pandemic continues to throw leaders unanticipated curve balls that are outside our control. Talented people, who you had big plans for, may choose to leave your organization. Bureaucracies impose onerous, seemingly illogical rules that make your life more difficult. There is a lot in leadership that is totally outside your control, that seems to undermine your best-laid plans and chip away at your authority and autonomy. But here’s the good news . . .

You always have a choice.

And in making that choice, you regain your power as a leader . . . (even if your choice doesn’t pan out quite the way you had hoped.)

One clear sign that you need to step up as a leader is when “they” become the enemy. You know, as in “they” have no idea how this impacts us (probably true) . . . “they” can’t switch directions on us mid-stream (it seems they can) . . .“they” won’t let us do something . . . Do you feel your energy, your can-do spirit, slipping away with each ensuing “they?” Sure we all need an occasional pity party, but the longer you hang out there, the more you give away your power as a leader. Quit wallowing. Just stop.

You always have a choice.

I am not suggesting the choices are easy or ideal, but each time you make a decision about what “we” will do, instead of perseverating about what “they” have done, you start to regain your leadership footing. Even if the direction you choose has its own challenges and set-backs, the simple act of deciding pulls you off your heels and onto your toes, where you can be more responsive to whatever comes your way. Making a decision, rather than allowing decisions to be imposed on you, propels you forward. And when you are moving, it is easier to shift, adapt, and change directions based on new opportunities and variables that are now available to you . . . simply because you made a decision.

Another pitfall, which feels more productive than wallowing but has the same energy-sucking outcome, is waiting to arrive at the perfect decision/plan/approach. There is no such thing . . . and acting like you’ll find it if you just look a bit harder still results in you being stuck and powerless. Consider the data before you, make the best decision you can with the information you have, and move on. Then repeat the process over and over again until you reach your destination.

It really is that simple. Let “them” drain your energy away, or step up and decide how “we” are going to tackle the challenges before you. The choice is yours.

Three Ways to Step Out of Your Box

How many times have you limited your options, and your impact, because you assumed something wasn’t possible? People used to think running a 4-minute mile was impossible . . . until Roger Bannister did it in 1954. Once Bannister proved it was possible, more than 1400 people have achieved that milestone. How many creative solutions, that we would have considered unrealistic three years ago, have people implemented to address the challenges they have faced as a result of the pandemic?

You will never accomplish something you don’t think is possible.

And here’s the really tricky part . . . the more “expertise” you have, the more you tend to put artificial limits around yourself and your organizations. When you have been recognized for doing things in a particular way, it is really difficult to discard “what works” for a totally different approach that may or may not yield the expected results. That’s why the most unique solutions rarely come from the industry leaders . . . those people who have found success based on old rules and self-imposed perspectives of how things are done. It is the upstarts, who aren’t bound by what has worked in the past, who can see totally new and different possibilities.

So how you you step our of your self-imposed box and expand your perspective of what is possible? Three suggestions:

1. Read outside your industry or typical areas of interest.

Learning about what worked in manufacturing may spur an idea for your human service organization. Are there translatable lessons in how an entrepreneur from another country overcame an “insurmountable” barrier? Have you considered the approach that someone from a younger generation or different cultural background is using and is it relevant to your work? You’ll never know, you are only consuming information from people who basically think like you do.

2. Ask questions . . .

. . . Of your customers, your front-line staff, people in a totally different line of work. And then, instead of immediately pushing back against their feedback, get curious. “Help me understand . . .” is a great way to dig deeper and get a better appreciation for where they are coming from. Even if a particular suggestion seems unrealistic, it may open the doors for you to consider a different approach than you otherwise would have.

3. Keep moving.

Change is constant. Even the most perfect solution in this moment in time may not be tomorrow. Therefore, when something changes, that does not mean the way you have approached it in the past is bad or wrong. It simply means that the variables are different. Success comes not in reaching a destination, but the on-going journey. Change is much easier to embrace when you see change as part of the process rather than an inditement of how you have done something in the past.

You will never accomplish something you don’t think is possible. How are you boxing yourself in?

What’s the Sizzle?

When I was in college, my advertising courses touted the importance of “selling the sizzle, not the steak.” More recently, Simon Sinek became famous for challenging us all to find our “why”. And in the midst of what is being dubbed “the great resignation,” the message we’re hearing is that people are looking for more meaning in their work and lives. Beyond the pithy descriptors, what does all of this really mean for you as a leader? Lots, actually.

Leadership is about influence. And influence is about having an effect . . . on thinking, on behavior, on effort, on aspirations. In spite of what command and control types in positions of leadership might think, you can’t “make” someone do something. People always have a choice. Your job as a leader is to influence individuals to choose the path you are proposing. After all, leaders without followers are simply lone nuts. This is easy to agree with in principle, but much harder to actually put into practice.

When leaders get to the point of trying to influence behavior among their people, they are usually well down the road in their thinking. While “the sizzle” may have prompted the idea in the first place, you have likely wrestled with various options, considered a range of scenarios, and charted out what you believe to be the best course of action. At this point, the sizzle seems self-evident to you. Your focus is on the steak. You have moved from aspirations to tactics. And there is a strong tendency to assume your people are where you are. They’re not.

You have to start with, and continually return to, the sizzle if you want to move people to action. Give them a reason to care. Why should they struggle through the ups and downs your well-laid plan will certainly bring? Why should they change their behavior — which they may see as successful/effective/reward-producing? Just because you said so? How’s that working for you?

Focusing on the sizzle isn’t just important for your people. It is energizing for you as well. When you are in the throes of the tedious parts of the job that just seem to slog on, focusing on why you are subjecting yourself to these challenges can be the one thing that sustains you. And yet too often, we get so focused on putting one foot in front of the other that we lose sight of why we raised our hand for this opportunity in the first place.

It’s a new year. A chance to refocus. Maybe the best place to start is to rediscover your sizzle.