Leadership Lessons Born in a Manger

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Originally Published December 23, 2014

How many leaders today could even fathom their impact being felt throughout the world for more than 2,000 years? Truly, from the most humble of earthly beginnings came the greatest leader that any person could strive to emulate. In this Christmas Season, as we celebrate Jesus’ birth, it seems most appropriate to reflect on a few leadership lessons born in a manger.

  • He was humble, yet would not be deterred from his mission. Twenty centuries later, Jim Collins would describe this as Level 5 Leadership — a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. Jesus set an unreachable bar in terms of knowing it was not about him, but it was up to him. Just because the bar is unreachable doesn’t mean you and I shouldn’t strive to follow his example and make sure the focus stays on the what, not the who.
  • He never lost sight of the big picture, or the importance of little things. Here was a man who clearly knew how things ultimately needed to unfold. In spite, or perhaps because, of that he took time for the little things — an individual conversation or blessing, a meal with friends — that would forever impact those he touched. How many of us either get consumed by the what-ifs, or distracted by the details, and ultimately diminish our impact?
  • He recognized, and built on, the gifts and graces of his team. With all due respect, it was a rather motley crew that he called to serve as his disciples. And then there was Saul (before his conversion to Paul). Seriously, who among us would bring someone who was persecuting us into the fold? And yet, Jesus saw the gifts and graces within each of these souls. Are we as leaders willing to look beyond the safe bet, the likely candidate, to build on the potential hidden in unlikely wrappers? How might we extend our mission reach if we took that risk?
  • He took time to renew his spirit. I know, I know, we don’t have time to step back . . . demands are coming from every direction . . . our staff are seeking guidance . . . a deadline is looming . . . Um, hello, Jesus had to deal with, among other things, 5000 hungry people, a panicked staff, and two loaves and fishes, and yet he still found time to be by himself. If the Son of God needs time for rest and renewal, do you think maybe, just maybe, we mere mortals could improve our performance by taking a deep breath every once in a while?

Clearly, I am no theologian . . . but I do consider myself a student, and one who has barely scratched the surface of the many leadership — and life — lessons born in a manger so many years ago. As you listen to the carols, and perhaps walk past a nativity set, I hope you’ll take a few moments to reflect . . . not only on the baby in the manger, but also on the rich lessons His life holds for all of us who are called to lead. May you and yours have a most blessed Christmas.

What Star Guides Your Organization?

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Yes, the holidays are fast approaching, another year is drawing to a close, and chances are your to-do list has gone rogue, seemingly multiplying of its own accord . . . Stop. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. (Go ahead, I’ll wait). Now, when your brain feels quiet enough to think, consider this question: If you asked every person you lead “What is the star, the singular destination, that guides our organization?” how many answers would you get?  Ten . . . twenty-seven . . . a slightly different one for each employee?

I’m not talking about whether your staff can recite your mission statement — although that is good, too. I am talking about a big, hairy, audacious goal that lights a fire under all your efforts. I am talking about something that is “put a man on the moon by the end of the decade” specific. . . a gleaming star of a destination that guides and permeates all of your actions. Yes, I realize that you have 14 programs, 8 funding sources, and a host of tedious external requirements that all seem to be pulling you in different directions. Besides, while it might sound good on paper, it feels too risky to lock yourself into a singular destination . . . better to hedge your bets, right?

How many staff members have you seen bring their A-game to hedging their bets? Trying to cover all the bases is what causes your to-do list to go rogue and suck you dry. It diffuses your energy and attention, and that of your people. By contrast, a powerful guiding star builds energy and excitement. Yes, you might still have 17 items on your to-do list, but when they are all moving you closer to a single gleaming destination, you gain momentum as you go, rather feeling like you are getting farther and farther behind.

Simplicity, clarity and focus are the three biggest challenges facing leaders today. Our world is complex, the options before us are endless, and attention spans are shorter than ever before. As a leader it is your job to chart a course through all the noise, to provide a beacon for those you lead that is clearer and brighter than all the shiny objects seeking to grab your attention and that of your people.

Don’t have a guiding star? The New Year is a great time to identify one. Yes, this may feel overwhelming and virtually impossible at first. There will be lots of people trying to get you to follow their star. There will be well-intended naysayers suggesting you should follow multiple stars at once (stop and think about how much progress you will really make by doing that . . .) But here’s the thing: it is totally worth the effort. Once you focus in on a clear destination, you actually have more options, not fewer. You (and your people) will have more excitement, more energy, and more bandwidth to accomplish amazing things.

Find your star.

One Step Beyond Logical

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I recently attended an international conference targeted toward researchers of nonprofits. I lead a nonprofit organization. One might assume that researchers who study nonprofits would have similar perspectives as practitioners who work in one. For the most part — at least based on this experience — that assumption would be wrong. And just as some of the viewpoints I heard differed from my own experiences, I’m guessing some of my questions felt a bit unexpected to the presenters . . . and that’s a good thing!

Looking beyond logical points of connection to intentionally spend time with people who are addressing a similar challenge from a different perspective can stretch your thinking in powerful ways. As a leader who is deeply immersed in your field, it is easy to get siloed in your thinking without even knowing it . . . simply by surrounding yourself with people or attending meetings and conferences that look at a challenge from the same “lane” that you arein . . . i.e. only going to conferences with other nonprofit execs. After all, you’re the experts, the ones who really understand the issues, right?

Maybe it’s time you stepped outside of your usual lane. Simply taking a half-step in either direction from your current viewpoint can result in surprising new insights. It’s not as hard as you might think:

  • Look at how different industries have taken on a similar challenge. For example, if you are in a nonprofit organization, how have manufacturers handled situations that at first glance may not seem the same, but at their core really are?
  • Attend a conference that piques your interest, even if it is not an obvious fit. Learning about less familiar topics can yield, perhaps surprisingly, more “light bulb” moments than continuing to chip away at an issue with similar-minded people.
  • Read a magazine or follow a blog that is different from what you usually read. If you are a Harvard Business Review kind of person, read a few issues of Fast Company or Inc. magazine or ask a young professional for a recommendation of a podcast they think you would like.
  • Talk to people working in different aspects of your industry — or people who have little to no knowledge of your industry — and ask their perspective on the challenges you are trying to tackle.

I know, I know . . . you don’t have time or resources to keep up with everything inside your field, much less investing time and energy into something that on the surface seems unlikely to help you address the challenges before you.

But what if it does?

I’m not suggesting that you give up on gaining wisdom and direction from within your industry, only that you also take advantage of the fresh insight waiting for you  . . . one step beyond the logical.

Making Pie

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Originally Published December 2, 2015

There is an old, rather ragged-looking, but very prolific pear tree in our yard.  No matter how wet or dry the year, this old tree cranks out buckets and buckets of pears. Until recently, we just sort of accepted the tree as part of the yard. The dogs liked the pears, it was a bit of a pain to mow around, but all in all we didn’t really think much about it . . . until this year, when my husband gave an acquaintance a bucket of pears and to show her thanks, she gave us a pie . . . pear pie. Amazing!

Pear pie??? That’s the reaction of nearly everyone I mention it to. Virtually no one has heard of pear pie. But believe me, just because you haven’t heard of it doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea! Yes, I now have started making pear pies, and exposing others to the joy of this unique dessert . . . and more importantly, I have now recognized, and am starting to capitalize on, the unique resource I’ve had right under my nose for more than 16 years.

How often do we do that in our own organizations . . . ignore the the unique resources that are right under our noses? Maybe it’s land or buildings that could be used differently, or people with special skills, or a way of viewing the world that allows you to see pie when others only see a ratty old tree. Sure people will tell you that you’re crazy, that they’ve never heard of such a thing . . . that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea!

Every organization has it’s pear trees. They are usually not flashy. They won’t jump up and down to get your attention, they’ll just faithfully hang in there waiting to be discovered. As the leader of such an organization, it is your responsibility to either discover your hidden (or at least not noticed) fruit-producers, or at the very least, listen to your own explorers/dreamers/crazy-thinkers when they share ideas about the potential they see in a resource that is already in your midst.

Is every idea a winner? Of course not. (My attempts to make bread from the fruit of the paw paw tree in our yard being a prime example.) But that doesn’t mean you stop exploring new possibilities! That doesn’t make it okay to get stuck in the rut of seeing things the same way as every other organization. It simply means that idea didn’t work. And there are pleny more out there . . . ideas, I mean. You just have to be willing to see what’s before you with new eyes.

Maybe, just maybe, it is time for you to start making pie.

Being Before Doing

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Ever feel like you are on a leadership hamster wheel, simply trying to keep up with all the items on your to-do list . . . doing, doing, doing . . . and yet for each task you take off the top of the list, three things get added to the bottom? Sure, you know you need to prioritize, balance the urgent with the important, maybe even develop a stop doing list . . . and yet you remain stuck on the wheel . . . doing, doing, doing.

How can you step off the wheel? Focus on being before doing. Seriously. That one conscious shift — that momentary pause to frame your thinking — can make a huge difference in how you approach your day/project/strategic priorities. “Being” looks around . . . it surveys the landscape and identifies opportunities that help move you toward your goals. “Doing” looks down . . . nose to the grindstone, finish the task at hand as efficiently and effectively as possible.

That might sound good in theory, but what exactly does being before doing look like?

Being grateful. Intentionally choosing to be grateful is like putting on night-vision glasses that bring those things for which you are thankful into sharper focus. No the challenges of your work don’t go away, but you are better able to keep them in context. It means you focus on the amazing people you have around you to help move your organization through the tough stuff. It means you appreciate the opportunities you’ve had to learn in the past so you are better prepared to blaze a new trail that others can follow, even knowing it will likely be a difficult path. What you focus on grows in your mind. You can focus on the problem or, by choosing to be grateful, you can focus on the tools you have to solve it.

Being strategic. Deciding to be strategic shifts your perspective from what to why and how. It puts you in the drivers seat to make decisions that move you toward your long-term goals, rather than simply responding to someone else’s priorities. It allow you to identify how a particular task — regardless of how important it may seem to others — advances the vision for your organization, which makes it easier to prioritize accordingly. Being strategic allows you to have confidence in the path you choose because you know that decisions that may not make sense to others in the short term (and thus result in pushback) may be exactly what is needed to accomplish your goals in the long term.

Being you. Claiming your own unique gifts and graces — which got you to your position of leadership in the first place — keeps the “shoulds” offered by well-intentioned people in context. Granted, every strength has a shadow side when taken to extremes, however knowing how you are wired — what energizes you, what special skills do you have, where your Achilles heals lie — allows you to lead most effectively. You will lead differently from others, and prioritize different things. Not only is that okay, it is a requirement of bringing your best self to the role.

Want to step off the hamster wheel? Focus on being before doing.

Are You a Map Maker?

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Cartography . . . the craft of map-making . . . one of those lost arts, gone the way of the horse and buggy, right? Actually, no. Modern-day cartography, a profession that is alive and well, is described as being a mixture of art, science and technology. While map-making may be carried out a bit differently in today’s high-tech, fast paced world, the need for individuals who can clearly chart a path is on the increase

Does your organization have a map-maker?

What if you started to look at your leadership responsibilities through the lens of cartography — that mixture of art, science and technology that allows one to chart a clear path to a specific destination? What might that look like?

  • A map-maker leader, first and foremost, identifies the destination. Is everyone in your organization looking at the same map, and are they clear on where you are trying to go? (I know you’re clear, but is your entire team?) If not, what do you need to do to get everyone headed in a unified direction.
  • A map-maker leader keeps the team informed in real time. This is where today’s technology can make the job so much easier. I can zoom with a remote employee, or email, or text regarding unexpected barriers encountered along the way, or get updates from the “front line” that can allow us to adapt our route based on new information.
  • A map-maker leader has a clear touch-point to keep people grounded. When things don’t go according to plan, refer back to the map. When people have questions, the map becomes the reference point. When someone wants to take a side road or follow a rabbit trail the first response should be to look at the map.

Trying to steer a complex organization without a map is similar to looking a convergence of multiple interstates and cloverleaf interchanges without any idea which route to take. It becomes an Alice in Wonderland situation where if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. This route looks scenic . . . everyone seems to be taking that road, perhaps we should go there . . . an “expert” told me this is the best way forward . . .

Without a map, the road you take at any particular moment becomes a test of wills — where members of your team may be pulling in different directions, expending their energy on efforts that do nothing to move you toward the ultimate destination. How do you keep that from happening? Simple . . .

Be a map maker.

One-Page Leadership

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Our organization’s strategic framework fits on one page. In any given three-year cycle, the framework will include 3 – 4 core areas of focus, and 3 – 4 goals under each of these key areas. That’s it. Our vision, values and operating principles also fit on a single page, as do the impact reports for each of our major programs.

It’s not that we don’t have a lot of data, or details, or documentation. Trust me we do . . . reams of it! And it takes LOTS of distilling down the information, ideas and intricacies to get these documents to a single piece of paper — to reach the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Why go to all of this effort? Because it clarifies, for you and for those you would hope to lead, the ultimate destination.

When you give someone a 47-page document that includes every data point and detail about a project, it is way too easy to get lost in the weeds and allow the pre-ordained plan to guide your actions rather than the intended goal. Also, someone from accounting might think page 12 is the most important, while the program folks are sure you intended page 34 to be the top priority . . . and in the midst of the tug-of-war, the leader’s real intent falls by the way-side. Very few people are going to get passionate about — or even remember what is in — a 47-page document.

When John F. Kennedy said we were going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, there was no mistaking the priority. People got excited about it and made it happen. That’s one page leadership. Did lots of people have to figure out lots of details to make it happen? Of course they did, and they made it work because everyone was clear on where they were going.

In the military, there is a concept called Commander’s Intent. It is a clear description of the desired end state. Commander’s Intent is important because when things don’t go as intended (not if . . . when) people who know the end goal can adapt their actions in ways that offer the best opportunity for reaching the destination. If all they know is the next step that applies directly to them, you lose the opportunity to benefit from their front-line knowledge or creative ideas.

If it takes more than one page to explain the core priorities, you aren’t being clear enough. If your people can’t remember — and consistently repeat — the big picture goal, they are not going to have the passion or unified focus needed to accomplish really big things. Is that a lot harder than it sounds? Sure it is. If it was easy, anyone could lead.

One page.