Stepping Into the Darkness

Originally Published February 25, 2015

“When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”                                                                                                             Edward Teller

For those of you who think this quote is one of those “whoo whoo” notions that may look nice hanging on a wall, but isn’t practical in the rough and tumble real world . . . you might be interested to know that the author, Edward Teller, was a theoretical physicist who made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, and is known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb.” Yep, that’s right, a hard core by the book science guy acknowledging that sometimes you have to step forward without knowing how things will work out.

Sounds a lot like leadership to me.

Notice, he is not suggesting we should blindly leap toward a half-baked idea. First you have to get to the end of all the light you know . . . you consider the data, you run the numbers, you look at unique variables and possible scenarios and use that information to illuminate the situation as much as possible.  Unfortunately, in today’s volatile environment, in many cases what we know for sure does not exactly create a well-lit path.

From there, it takes faith. I don’t know if Teller was specifically referencing religious faith or gut instinct, intuition or innate knowledge . . . but for me those things are so intertwined the distinction is irrelevant. I believe my religious faith, and prayerful requests for guidance, seed my gut instincts and intuition. It illuminates my path enough to find a firm place to stand, or a launching pad for flight.

It was leadership born of faith that prompted my organization to identify in our strategic framework that we would have a global reach. We didn’t know exactly how that would happen, but we believed it was an important next step. In fairly short order after setting that goal, we extended our reach not only to one additional country but actually provided training and consultation to professionals from five continents.

The same concept is currently playing out on another stretch project we are implementing. Once you make the leadership decision to move forward, to step out in faith, it is amazing how opportunities start to present themselves — opportunities you could not have known about prior to making the decision.

Nope, there are no guarantees. Yes, it does involve risk. But once your eyes adjust to the darkness, you’d be surprised how many paths forward you might find.

Come on, have faith . . . take that step.

Pragmatic Optimism

Originally Published January 5, 2016

“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”                                               — F Scott Fitzgerald

Powerful quote for leaders today, especially given the ever-growing requirements, expectations, and complicating factors that impact one’s ability to reach a desired outcome. It is so easy, and there are plenty of voices pushing us, to slide into either/or thinking. Pick a side . . . stake out a position . . . then resist any attempts to view things differently. Yet to be most effective — to be of first rate intelligence —a leader has to be able to contend with multiple, often seemingly conflicting realities.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins refers to this as the Stockdale Paradox — accepting the brutal facts of the current reality while maintaining an unwavering faith in the ability to prevail. In The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin has a similar concept he calls Integrative Thinking — facing the tension of opposing ideas and, rather than choosing one over the other, creating a new solution that has elements of the two original ideas but is superior to both.

Me, I simply call it pragmatic optimism. As leaders, we have a responsibility to deal with the reality before us, and, I think we have an equal responsibility to remain optimistic about our future. I’ll let you in on a little secret (which is really no secret at all to those who work with me) . . . I have very little patience for “oh poor me.” Sooner or later, we are all faced with situations that really stink/aren’t fair/aren’t our fault.  Sure, it’s okay to have a quick little pity party, but then it’s time to move on.  It baffles me why a leader would hang out in “ain’t it awful land” and wallow in the pain and suffering.  Find a way to make things better and focus on that — not to ignore the current reality, but as a deliberate choice to move beyond it.

Or maybe you aren’t dealing with an “unfair” situation. Maybe you have two trusted advisors who have opposing proposals about the best way to respond to an opportunity. Are you an “all or nothing” leader who locks in on one option, or can you acknowledge the realistic strengths and weakness of each position while also having the confidence that those collective insights can result in a totally new, previously unconsidered, framework for success?

Pragmatic optimism.  The willingness to look reality in the eye, and remain certain here is a path to get from here to your intended destination. Easy? No. Worth the effort? Well . . . let’s just say it sounds like first rate intelligence to me!

Enough Said


As a general rule, leaders need to use fewer words.

Too many of us have a tendency to pontificate . . . to explain in great detail the rationale and nuances behind our thought processes . . . to generously impart our deep expertise and multiple considerations on the topic at hand . . . And yet, when we use too many words, leaders risk two important things:

  • Burying our core message; and/or
  • People tuning us out all together.

If you hope to influence others with your leadership, it may be helpful to consider the following:

Using fewer words is harder. It requires a more disciplined thought process, a distilling down and prioritization of where to focus one’s time and energy.

Using fewer words provides clarity. Without an abundance of adjectives, qualifiers, or supporting verbiage, the strength of your ideas can stand out.

Using fewer words is more impactful. When people are clear on the destination, they are better able to help you get there.

Using fewer words increases the likelihood that people will listen. And remember. And share your message with others. Which just might be the key to accomplishing your goals.

Enough said.

What If You’re Wrong?


We are called upon every day to make decisions, both big and small. Some of those choices hardly seem like a decision at all — based on routine, our own experience or preference, or an abundance of data — while others are complex with no clear best direction. Some decisions may seem insignificant, while others weigh on us because of their long-term implications. You’re the leader. The decision is yours to make . . . but what if you’re wrong?

Interestingly, simply asking yourself that question will reduce the likelihood that you will be.

In this day and age of (apparent) overconfidence . . . where decisions are often presented as black and white, absolute, a clear right answer . . . too many of us seem to have lost sight of the fact that it is hard to slice an issue so thin that it only has one side. We barrel forward, certain that our perspective is “right”, discounting out of hand someone with a different view or experience. Except people do have different experiences. When you understand that, it increases the likelihood that you will make good decisions.

I’m not suggesting that you can please all of the people all of the time, or that “analysis paralysis” is an option. Decisions have to be made. I am suggesting, however, that before making your most critical decisions, especially those with far-reaching implications, you ask the following questions:

  • Why might a respected, well-intentioned colleague have a different perspective on this issue? (i.e. you don’t get to justify your decision by demonizing or belittling someone else.)
  • What would such a person want me to be aware of that perhaps I haven’t fully considered?
  • How can such variables be taken into account in my ultimate decision?

If you can’t answer those questions, ask someone who can. Not to check a box, but to listen to what they have to say. As a leader it is easy to surround yourself, intentionally or unintentionally, with people who see the world as you do. People who will cheer you on and support your perspective. And yet . . . if your decision is the right one for your organization, it should be able to withstand a thoughtful challenge. And if it can’t, wouldn’t you rather know before you made the decision so you can consider other options?

Leadership is about guiding your organization toward its stated goal, not about being “right.” Thus, it is not a lack of confidence, but an abundance of commitment to the larger goal, that prompts a leader to consider, “What if I’m wrong?”

Identifying the Real Problem

Data Analysis For Business And Finance Concept.

As a leader, part of your responsibility is to monitor whether your organization is on track to meet its identified goals and if not, to take steps make sure barriers are addressed. Unfortunately, far too often we misdiagnose our people as the problem because they are the most visible variable. We tell them to try harder, we remind them of the target metrics, and expect them to figure it out. Except, more often than not, our people aren’t the problem. Our systems are.

According to quality guru W. Edwards Deming, 94% of our problems in organizations are systems problems not people problems. Read that sentence again. If you want to be an effective leader, you have to pay attention to your systems.

Systems have a way of fading into the background and functioning unnoticed, so it is easy to overlook their influence on a situation. What exactly do I mean by systems? It is not the individual policies, procedures or functions within your organization, although these play a role. Systems are the formal and informal inter-relationships that influence behavior over time. Think of it like a mobile. When you touch one part of the mobile, it impacts every other part. It is not about the parts per se — an individual part may seem to be working just fine — the key is how those parts interact.

Tell tale signs that you are dealing with a “systems issue” include:

  • You have chronic, seemingly unexplainable behaviors or problems that multiple people have tried to address and yet to date have been “unsolvable”.
  • When people who work in the same function, regardless of how different they may be, tend to produce similar results, it’s likely a systems issue more than a people issue.
  • If you take steps to “fix” an issue in one part of the organization, and suddenly you begin to have new problems in another part of the organization, you have bumped up against a system.

Systems are rarely linear cause and effect chains (which would be much easier to see!). With systems, cause and effect are often separated by time and space, and the best way to address an issue may be three steps back from the “problem”.  To test this, when someone is describing a problem, respond by asking “why” as many as 5 times — the root issue is probably somewhere close to the fifth question.

Systems aren’t bad in and of themselves as long as you recognize that they are designed to maintain the status quo — which is a good thing in some situations. It is also important to recognize that using a “bigger hammer” is rarely effective in changing a system . . . and really ineffective in changing the behavior of staff who are functioning within the system.

Have a situation that seems resistant to all of your efforts to solve it? Maybe you need to start by making sure you have identified the real problem.



What Game Are You Playing?


When it comes to playing chess, you need to understand the game if you are going to be successful. You are not going to win at chess if you follow the rules for checkers — even though they are both played on a board with alternating colored squares, both have pieces you strategically move around, and in both games you can “take” someone else’s pieces if you are smart enough to make the right moves. Sounds pretty similar, right? . . .

Except, the games are really quite different.

So it is with nonprofit organizations. In some regards, nonprofits may look like a for-profit organization or possibly even a public organization — there are certainly some similar components and concepts — and yet the games are really quite different. The only way to be consistently successful is to understand the intent and specific rules of the game before you. So how is the nonprofit “game” different?

1) Nonprofit leaders are actually playing two games at once.

Because the beneficiaries of a nonprofit organization rarely cover the full cost of the program or service provided, nonprofits have to simultaneously play a second (and sometimes a third or fourth) game to fill the gap between what it costs to provide a service and the reimbursement received. The second game not only requires very different skills and activities than the first game, but also . . .

2) The players in the second game often want a say in the rules of the first.

A “players” in the second game — let’s call it “Fill the Gap” — may choose to negotiate. “I’ll give you four pieces to fill the gap, however you can only use them in the spot I identify.” Now as grateful as the nonprofit leader is that someone is willing to play Fill the Gap, the identified spot may or may not be the area of greatest need.

3) The intent of the game is different.

The financial bottom line is not the goal in the nonprofit game. It is a condition for sustainability, but not the ultimate measure of success. Success at a for-profit exercise equipment company is based on the number of machines sold — the bottom line — not on whether the people who buy the machines go on to change their behavior and become healthy. In nonprofits, the “transaction” is part of the process but not the ultimate mission.

I could go on, but you get the picture. So why should you care? If you are a leader, chances are you are or will serve on a nonprofit board, you financially support one or more nonprofits, you or someone you know has benefited from the work of a nonprofit, and/or your community is impacted by the nonprofits in your midst. As a leader, your opinions matter — people are looking to you for guidance, and if you are going to provide guidance, it is helpful to understand the game. Nonprofits should undoubtedly be held to a high standard . . . just not the rules of a different game.

The Power of AND


Originally Published February 4, 2015

Take a moment and consider how your leadership perspective might change if the words “but” and “or” were banned from your vocabulary . . .

That would mean you could never again say things like:

“What our client really needs is “X”, but we could never get “Y” to pay for it.”

“Do you want me to look at the big picture, or deal with the details?”

“Sure that sounds like a great idea, but let’s be practical.”

“But” and “or” limit your potential. They are creativity killers. They require trade-offs. They feed into a scarcity mentality. “And”, on the other hand, is about abundance. It is about stretching your thinking in new ways, and considering multiple possibilities.  It’s about not stopping when you run into the first closed door . . . or even the second.

Make no mistake, infusing “and” in an organization can be challenging . . . some might even say not realistic . . . and yet it’s worth the effort to stick with it.  When you reach a tipping point, when “and” becomes part of your culture, a new energy is released and exciting things start to happen. “And” attracts the kind of people who reach for more, who aren’t willing to settle, who have an inner drive to live your mission. Don’t believe me? Consider two organizational approaches to the same situation . . .

“This family really needs X, but our contract won’t pay for it.” (Depressing dead end, right?)

“This family really needs X, and our contract won’t pay for it, so how else can we help them get their needs met?” (Feel the energy, and the permission to be creative?)

Same situation. Change three letters — but to and — and suddenly staff are at least thinking about different options, peering outside the box to look for new possibilities. No one broke any rules, or ignored reality, they simply didn’t view the current situation as an end of the discussion. Which organization do you think is going to attract the most passionate, motivated staff — the game-changers who can ultimately help your organization succeed?

If you want “and” people in your organization, it is up to you to role model “and” behavior. Try it for a week. Stop yourself every time you respond to a challenge with “but” or “or”, and consider what new possibilities might present themselves if your approach was “and.” At the end of the week, reflect on your outlook, your energy, and your accomplishments.

Good week? Things seem to fall into place? Enthused about pursuing a new idea?

That, my friends, is the power of “and.”