Somebody Leadership

Dense Of Yard Signs For Primary, Midterm Election In America

As the dust settles on the contentious midterm elections, with a myriad of people feeling excited/vindicated/emboldened/sad/discouraged/disillusioned and a whole host of emotions in between, I am left to wonder… How did we get here?

What prompted civility to be tossed aside as a naïve aspiration? When did a willingness to listen to a diversity of ideas — demonstrated time and again as a leadership strength — somehow get cast as weak or waffling? How did we allow our perception of “truth” to get so distorted that fact checking has become a cottage industry? And perhaps the most important question of all, what are we — who aspire to be leaders —doing about it?

A long-time community leader in the town I’m from was known for saying, “I wondered why somebody didn’t do something. And then I realized that I was somebody.” So what can we as leaders — as somebodies — do about the contentious culture that has taken hold in our country? Sure, you can point a finger at individuals or groups you believe “started it” (why does that sound like a 10-year-old response to a parent asking what happened?). Regardless of how we got here, the question remains… what should a leader do about it?

In the book Crediblity: How Leaders Gain and Lose it, Why People Demand It, authors Kouzes and Posner have drawn on 30 years of research to determine that the four top traits of admired leaders — which are consistent over time and across geography — are: honest, forward-looking, inspiring and competent. These mirror the key sources of credibility: trustworthiness, expertise and dynamism. If, as Kouzes and Posner contend, credibility is the foundation of effective leadership, then those of us who would hope to influence the actions of others need to focus daily on being honest, competent and inspiring. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Being the change means engaging in “somebody leadership”… not just complaining about “the way things are” but taking steps to make them different. It means being honest, competent and inspiring at the highest levels, even when others are using a lower bar. It means modeling the behavior you expect from others… no excuses, no exceptions. It takes a strong leader — a somebody leader — to be kind, curious and respectful, not because someone else “deserves” it, but because it is a reflection on you and the change you seek.

It is easy to point a finger “out there” for the toxic environment we are experiencing. If we want to effect change, however, the place to start is “in here”.

Want somebody to do something? You are somebody.


Leading in Life


Good leaders take their jobs very seriously. They work hard, and even when they’re not at work, their mind is often on work. And yet, the best leaders also recognize that their life is not defined by a professional role. They are someone’s child, perhaps they are a spouse and/or parent, a friend, a neighbor… These relationships often came before, and with luck will last long after, any particular leadership position. These are the relationships, and the memories, that will sustain a soul during challenging times, and warm a heart on the most ordinary of days. These are the relationships that add richness, not only to your life, but also your ability to lead whole people… who also have lives outside of work.

Work-life balance. While the term itself might be a bit of misnomer… life always seems to be tilting one direction or another… the idea of integrating the multiple parts of life is critical for you and those you lead. Kids have ball games and doctor appointments, appliance repair people want to come during the day, and family crises rarely confine themselves to evenings and weekends. As the saying goes, life happens… to you and your staff. Embrace it. Make room for it. Of course it doesn’t happen at convenient times… bummer. Carve out the time for it anyway – and make sure your staff know it’s okay for them to do the same.

While I have always been vocal in communicating my commitment to being a family-friendly organization, a senior leader in our organization once pointed out that it didn’t matter what I said: If staff didn’t see me modeling the behavior, they wouldn’t really think it was okay. Point well taken. There will always be meetings, deadlines, and things you should be doing at work. Your son won’t always be playing t-ball. There will likely be times your parents could use an extra measure of support. Spouses have special events that you want to be a part of. You can’t get those times back. Take them.

And find a way for your staff to live a whole life as well. Yes, there will be times when you may be thinking, “So-and-so” is gone AGAIN!?! (Have you ever noticed that flu tends to travel through the entire family one person at a time… and sport seasons have a lot of games in a short amount of time?) Trust me, you can tell the difference between a slacker and someone who is working really hard to fit in a very full life. Even if it is at times inconvenient, those are the people I want in my organization. And the way to keep them is to support them as they try to juggle it all.

You see, being a great leader requires more than meeting a deadline, completing a project, or meeting strategic goals. Sometimes it requires offering a measure of understanding and grace for well-rounded staff (including yourself) who provide the foundation for your organization’s long-term success.

Frying/draining/demoralizing your people by expecting 110% at all times, regardless of the situation, is a sure-fire way to limit your organization’s ultimate impact. On the flip side, being supportive of, and role modeling, creative ways to integrate both work and a full life outside the office walls is a key step in the journey from “just” being a leader at work, to being a leader in life.

Note: This post was originally published October 21, 2015. 

The Leader’s Search for Meaning


No, the title of this week’s blog is not some thinly veiled reference to Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning (although it is a powerful book that I would highly recommend). Rather, it is a nod to a basic tenet my organization uses in its work with children and their families — that all behavior has meaning. And I’ll let you in on a little secret. That concept doesn’t just apply to kids and families. It applies to every individual you are attempting to lead.

All behavior has meaning. That is not to say the meaning is always obvious, only that it is always there. Given that, what should you as a leader do if you are trying to influence someone whose behavior makes no sense to you? For starters, and perhaps counter-intuitively, don’t focus on the behavior itself. You have to search for the meaning. Look for what is going on underneath the behavior. A few likely places to explore:

• Is there a system that is rewarding the behavior or penalizing the individual if they do not act in a particular way? Systems quickly become invisible in organizations but still have a powerful influence and may cause people to act in ways that, on the surface, seem illogical. The best way to identify a (formal or informal) system is to look around and see if multiple people are responding in a similar manner. If so, it is probably a systems issue and the leader needs to address the cause rather than trying to repeatedly redirect the symptoms.

• Point out to the individual what you are seeing/experiencing, and ask if that is their intent. This pulls the focus away from the behavior itself (and any corresponding defensiveness) and opens the door to a conversation of what is prompting a particular action — be it frustration, anxiety, misperceptions, or totally unrelated stressors. This approach helps raise the individual’s awareness of the impact of their actions and gives them a chance to self-correct their behaviors.

• Try being curious. “I wonder if…” is not making a judgment about a specific behavior. You are simply suggesting possible scenarios to explain why someone is taking a particular action, which allows the individual to correct your perception if it is inaccurate, and helps you better understand what is going on underneath of behavior.

Don’t think a leader should have to go to all of this effort? Look at it this way — meaning fuels action. That fuel can be used, intentionally or unintentionally, pushing against the leader or helping propel the leader’s vision forward. Rather than wasted energy, a leader’s search for meaning may provide just the boost needed to launch the entire organization toward success.

Search on.

What You See Is What You Get


If you are a leader, how you view the world — consciously or unconsciously — not only impacts your own reality, but that of everyone in your organization. As noted by Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” In effect, what you see is what you get.

That concept sounds rather simplistic, but it quickly becomes a bit more complicated as you start to drill into it a bit.

Do you see similarities or differences?

Most people see both to some degree — you try to differentiate your organization from others, at the same time you look for common ground with those with whom you hope to collaborate — however most people also have a natural tendency. What is yours, and in what ways does that impact the actions of your organization?

Do you see possibilities or pitfalls?

Are you a promoter or a protector? Heidi Grants identifies promoters as those who work to make good things happen, and preventers are those who try to keep bad things from happening. Again, most people have a bit of both — and organizations need both — but as a general rule, do you see opportunities or barriers? What does that mean for your organization?

Do you see yourself as firm or flexible?

Are you fixed in your view, your position on issues, or are you willing to hear other perspectives? Yes, it depends — both on the specific situation (are we talking core values, or approach) and where you sit on the continuum. For example, “firm” can be seen as strong, or rigid, or arrogant, or brave. An equal number of positive and negative adjectives can be attached to “flexible”. What is your natural inclination, and how does that influence those you lead?

None of these approaches is, on the surface, “more right or wrong” than the other, and yes, most people are influenced by the specifics of a given situation. At the same time, I’m guessing when you read each of the questions noted above, you could identify your predispositions fairly easily. That is important because 1) you need to decide if you will surround yourself with people who see the world as you do, or if you want those who will push back, and 2) what you focus on grows (intentionally or unintentionally!) Where is your focus, and that of your organization?

How you view a situation makes all the difference because it determines your next steps. What you see is what you get.

Fueling Success


Relationships are primary. I teach this, I preach this, and it is a core value within our organization. And yet, I still benefit from daily reminders that it is the power of human connection that fuels organizational success. It is not the policies, procedures or systems — although these provide a necessary structure within which relationships are guided. It is not the latest technology — although technology can make it easier to stay connected. It’s not even the strategic direction — although such guidance can maximize the impact of relationships.

For all the value these tools can bring, systems, technology and strategy can also serve as a distraction from an organization’s real competitive advantage — the people, inside and outside the organization, who are committed to making amazing things happen. “Engagement” is the current buzzword in the popular press, and experts have all kinds of suggestions for large-scale initiatives to build this sense of connection within and for your organization. But here’s the thing… relationships don’t happen on a large scale. They happen one-on-one, and are built over time. Sure, some develop more quickly — sometimes you just “click” with someone — however they still take regular tending, refueling, to deepen and have maximum impact.

So how, in the midst of your overflowing to-do list, do you find the time for another on-going task? Well first, I would suggest that it is an opportunity not a task, and the short answer is that it is about prioritization. The second answer is, in the time you spend explaining why you don’t have time to build relationships, you could be doing it. This week, I received hand-written notes from two individuals after a meeting I had with them the previous week. How long do you think it took them to write and mail those notes? What kind of impact you do you think it had on strengthening our relationship?

There are several individuals from whom I periodically receive an email simply to touch base — they aren’t pitching an idea or asking for anything. Maybe they ran across an article they thought might be of interest to me, or simply wanted to say they hoped all was well with me.  Again, these touchpoints only take a few moments, yet reap great rewards from a relationship standpoint. How many times have you thought, “I should call/drop a note/send an email to Sue and let her know I was thinking about her/what a great job she did/she would be the perfect person for this project.” How often do you actually follow through and make the call/send the note or email? How about today? What small thing can you do before the end of the day to foster a relationship with someone inside, or outside, your organization?

Relationships are what move organizations forward. What are you doing to fuel yours for success?

The Foundation for What’s Next


You are not indispensable. Whether by choice (yours or someone else’s), ages or fate, there will be a point in time when you are no longer leading your organization. Given that reality, and assuming you are truly committed to your agency’s long-term success, I would like to suggest that it is a stewardship responsibility for you to build a foundation for what’s next — starting now.

How? By building other leaders within your organization, giving them opportunities to stretch and grow beyond their comfort zones while you are still there to provide guidance and support. Yes, they will stub their toes in ways you wouldn’t  — at least not today. I would guess however, if your memory is good enough, you can recall many times you stubbed your toe on the way to your current state of wisdom. Give your people that same opportunity.

Yes, I know that sounds good in theory… but… you’re ultimately accountable for the outcome (yep), you are already overwhelmed by the number of things on your to-do list (true), your staff is too, (probably) and besides, if they start taking on additional leadership responsibilities, what will you do? (Hmmm…) Okay, let’s start at the top:

• Yes, you are ultimately responsible for the outcomes of your organization. That does not mean that you alone have to lead those efforts. In fact, if everything has to run through you, you limit the potential of what your organization can accomplish. Give your staff some room to bring their best thinking to the challenge at hand. They might approach it differently than you would, but different isn’t wrong. Different opens the door to new possibilities.

• Manage your to-do list – don’t let it manage you. Look at the mix of long-term vs. short-term tasks on your list. If most of them relate to the crisis du jour, you are managing, not leading. Leaders focus on the important rather than falling victim to the urgent.

• Your people are no doubt busy, but have you talked to them about whether they feel the tasks that consume their time provide the organization the biggest bang for the buck? You might be surprised at 1) how enthused they might be to take on new challenges and 2) what tasks they could delegate or dispense with to do that.

• As for any concerns of what you might do once you have unleashed the other leaders within your organization, instead why not think of the new opportunities you will be able to pursue. Once you make yourself “dispensable” with what you are doing now, you open the door to pursuing exciting new opportunities — for you and your organization.


What will you do today to build the foundation for what’s next?

Leadership Sabotage


Leadership is hard enough without doing things to sabotage your own credibility, and yet I see people in positions of leadership doing just that everyday. How? Incivility. Rude, snarky, passive-aggressive, condescending, or just plain mean behavior. We don’t accept that behavior from our children, and yet a growing number of people in positions of leadership seem to think it is okay for them. It’s not.

When incivility goes unchecked, it spreads like a virus, especially when the “carrier” is someone in a position of leadership. Those of us who strive to be leaders bear a special responsibility to model the type of behavior we expect from our people. Let me be clear: Incivility has nothing to do with making difficult decisions, being firm in your convictions, having high standards, or whether or not you agree with someone. You can do all of those things and still conduct yourself in a manner that would make your mother proud.

Civility (or lack thereof) is far more a reflection on you than it is on the person with whom you are interacting. Your behavior is one of the primary ways others determine if you are someone they want to follow, someone they can trust to help them meet their goals and those of your organization. Your top performers are also the ones who have the highest bar for who they are willing to follow. People don’t leave organizations – they leave supervisors – and your best people will be the first to go if the leader fosters or allows a culture of incivility. That, my friends, is self-induced leadership sabotage.

Civility keeps the focus where it should be — on the work at hand. Incivility is personal and pulls attention away from the issue that needs to be addressed. It takes a confident leader to be kinder than necessary while also moving the organization forward. It also takes a smart one. Supportive work environments increase staff engagement, productivity, and ultimately organizational success.

Sure we all have bad days and make the occasional comment we wish we had kept to ourselves. Leaders people want to follow apologize when that happens and make sure such behavior is the exception, not the rule. Incivility isn’t about “them.” It is about “us.” Be the example you would like to follow.