Making Room

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As Christmas approaches, regardless of your faith tradition, there are many leadership lessons to be learned from the birth of the Christ child. One that stands out to me at this particular moment in time is the concept of making room.

Jesus was an illegitimate child born to lowly foreigners who were seemingly ill-equipped to care for their child. To say they would be considered an “at risk” family was probably an understatement. And yet, from such humble beginnings came one of the greatest leaders of all time. Can you make room in your concept of who is “leadership material” to open the door to an unlikely candidate who brings something totally new to the table?

Much of the buzz about the Christ child was coming from people who really didn’t grasp the big picture, you know, uneducated shepherds. Granted, there were those wise men, but they were from another country and really didn’t understand King Herod’s strategic goals. Surely if he reasoned with them, they would understand the need to get things back on course . . . Easy to see the flaws in Herod’s approach in hindsight, but can you make room amid your well-laid plans to pivot when an unexpected distraction (um, opportunity) presents itself?

Logical, rational thinking would not have supported the conclusion that people throughout the world would still be talking about this seemingly random, inconsequential (well except for the star thing, but certainly that could be explained away) occurrence more than 2000 years later . . . and yet they are. Can you make room in your performance-based, metric-centric, fact-driven lens to pay attention to passion and potential, to look past probability to see possibility?

It is much easier to say no to making room. Truly, the Inn Keeper had no more space available — at least not what one would typically think of as space that could be used for lodging. Making room often requires a leader to look at things a bit differently than most people would see as typical or reasonable or necessary. Making room requires getting people to change their ways, at times having uncomfortable conversations, and not being certain of exactly how things will turn out.

At its core, making room is a decision of the heart . . . based on values, and mission, and an aspirational vision of the kind of place you want your organization to be. Making room takes courage, and faith in what could be, regardless of how unlikely something might appear at the outset. Making room is really what leadership is all about.

My hope for you this holiday season, and into the New Year, is that you take a moment to pause, look around, and consider where you should be challenging yourself and your organization . . . by making room.

Big Yellow Hats


When my (now 31-year-old) nephew was young, he loved Curious George. If you know the story, through the many circumstances in which “George was curious,” the man with the big yellow hat encouraged him to explore, but was always there to keep him from going too far afield. George learned a great deal because the man with the big yellow hat allowed him the freedom to try new things.

Are you a “big yellow hat” leader? Do you encourage your staff to ask why, experiment, test theories and take risks, even when you know that sometimes they will stub their toes? According to a new report from The Bridgespan Group two of the core components in building a capacity for innovation within your organization are a curious culture, and catalytic leadership.

George was allowed to live in a curious culture. He took risks, and when he “failed” it became a lesson-filled learning opportunity. For the skeptics out there who are thinking your organization isn’t a cartoon and you can’t afford to have your staff play around, I would respond that, yes, there are risks that come with innovating. There are also costs associated with always coloring within the lines drawn by others. Just recognize that if you want your staff to identify creative approaches to the challenges before them, you have to let them explore a bit and ask “what if.” You have to let them be curious.

And what, exactly, is catalytic leadership? Merriam-Webster defines a catalyst as “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. Catalytic leadership provides the push needed to get the ball rolling in a specific, focused direction. The man in the big yellow hat always identified where they were going or what they were going to do, he simply allowed George the freedom to be curious along the way. Catalytic leadership isn’t about letting staff focus their energies in twelve different directions. It is about articulating a vision and priorities, and then letting your people grapple and experiment with the best way to get there. It is about mentoring and encouraging collaboration and hands-on learning. It is about allowing your staff to find a path forward.

Being a big yellow hat leader takes patience and the ability to embrace ambiguity. It requires a recognition that progress rarely happens in straight lines or amid a tangle of rules, and that one rarely knows the route to the end of the journey when standing at the beginning of it. It requires a clear vision of the destination and the ability to inspire others and serve as a role-model for embracing possibilities.

How exactly does one become a big yellow hat leader? The first step . . . is to be curious.

Stop, Drop and Roll


I don’t know if they still teach kids this, but when I was in grade school we were taught if you are ever on fire, don’t run . . . stop, drop and roll.

Hmmm. That advice might be just as applicable in a Leadership 101 course. You don’t have to be in a leadership position all that long to realize that sooner or later (or maybe both) it’s going to feel like your world is on fire . . . your contracts have been slashed, there’s a crisis in your agency, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place . . . and everyone is looking to you to find the soft place to land.

While it might seem like a natural reaction to scurry from point to point looking for something to douse the flames, in most cases your frantic actions will only serve to feed the blaze. When you hyperventilate, so will everyone else in your agency, right?!? What to do? The same thing they told you when you were 10 . . . stop, drop and roll.

When you are faced with a situation that (at least feels like) could lead to your organization’s demise, Stop. Breathe. Think. Don’t just blindly run from here to yonder looking for solutions. You need to keep your wits about you . . . so stop. And then drop.

Drop down and focus on the ground level, the foundation, of your organization — your vision, mission, values and operating principles. This is the solid place where you can take a deep breath and draw strength. The air may have been thin and your legs shaky when you were trying to dash around through the smoke and flames of the crisis. When you drop down to the solid ground that has supported your organization through thick and thin, you can better see the big picture view and keep the crisis du jour in context. And once you have that perspective, it is time to roll.

As the leader, you have to look past the fire before you and roll in the direction that provides the best opportunity to extend your mission reach. Do you sometimes have to roll through the flames to get there? Yep. Will there be those who will tell you that you are headed in the wrong direction? Most likely. Keep your eyes on the prize, and roll!

If you want to be a leader, you will have fires to deal with on a fairly regular basis; and even the best leaders get scorched from time to time. The difference between getting a slight scorch and an irreparable burn? You’ve heard it for years . . . Stop, Drop and Roll.