Humble and Kind

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Tim McGraw has a new song out titled Humble and Kind. If you haven’t heard it, I encourage you to do so. Simple lyrics, powerful message.

The message isn’t new. Gandhi challenged us to “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Jim Collins writes about Level 5 Leaders who demonstrate personal humility and professional will. The Golden Rule drawn from scripture tells us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Kids get it. The rest of us … somehow we seem to convince ourselves that it can’t be that easy, that there are extenuating circumstances, that the world is complicated. All true. And yet …

Pick any news headline. How might the story have read differently if the players had decided to be humble and kind? Differences of opinion would not go away, but we just might be able to build on common ground and consider another perspective. Covey challenges us to make a habit of “seek first to understand.” Do we? Do we really want to hear the back story, or the rest of the story? Changing headlines seems overwhelming, and we’re already a bit overwhelmed. It’s hard to imagine how to even start.

Maybe you can start in your own organization. Are there ways and places to be a bit more humble and kind? It all starts with the tone set by the leader. I’m not suggesting that you lower your standards or don’t hold people accountable, in fact having clear expectations makes the path forward easier. Humble and kind is more about the how than the what. How do you hold people accountable? Do you support them or set them up to fail? Do you offer a measure of grace or are you judgmental and sarcastic? Do you build on people’s strengths or focus on their weaknesses. Do you shine a light on your team’s accomplishments, or claim the credit and pat yourself on the back?

Or maybe we need to bring it in a bit closer and ask if you as a leader, as a person, are humble and kind to yourself. That just might be the easiest, and hardest, place to start. Can you be humble enough to recognize that you are not a superhero, and probably the only one who expects you to be one is you? Can you ask for help and support when you need it? Can you be kind enough to yourself to take a break, catch your breath, and find joy in the moment . . . laugh with a friend . . . savor an ice cream cone . . . be amazed by the world around you? Do you think maybe, just maybe, something so small could cause a ripple that would reach all the way to the headlines?

You’ll never know until you try. Come on, give it a shot. Always be humble and kind.

Cannon Fire

Down the BarrelI was texting a colleague today who was on her second day back from vacation and already felt like she was being shot out of a cannon. So much for the afterglow of a sunny respite. Sure, we all have seasons that launch us with such speed and/or force that we can’t do much more than hang on for dear life. For those of us who want to lead for the long-term, however, we need to take pro-active steps to make sure such chaotic times are indeed a season, and don’t expand to become our life.

Leaders have a special responsibility to limit the casualties from cannon fire, because we set the expectation — as much by our actions as by our words. Regardless of how much we talk about balance, if we are running around like our hair is on fire all the time, staff who want to succeed are likely to emulate that behavior . . . our words to the contrary drifting away like the smoke from a cannon.

Yes, I know, easier said that done. And there will be those days . . . The goal here isn’t to totally eliminate such days (although I’m open to suggestions!), the goal is simply to reduce the frequency and duration of the cannon fire. How?

Priorities and the ability to say no . . . or at least not now. Because here’s the deal . . . your best people (and I’m including you, dear reader, in that category) will have lots of opportunities to do really cool things that could forward your mission. And those same people will want to pursue a number of them, because who knows which opportunity could be the one to launch you closer to achieving your mission. True enough. You as the leader also have to realize that some of those opportunities/cannons may fail to launch and lead your best and brightest to burn out.

So before you ignite the fuse on another new project, ask yourself where it ranks on your organization’s list of priorities. If it doesn’t hit the top two or three, what do you lose by saying no, or not now? Maybe the more important question is, what is the cost of saying yes? When everything is a priority, nothing is. Line up the cannons.

Can you name your organization’s top two our three priorities? Can your staff? Even two or three priorities can lead to periods of chaos. Thankfully, at the end of such seasons most people are willing to take a deep breath, dust of their singed edges and carry on.

Just remember, the same energy that can spark a launch can also cause people to flame out. Cannon fire is most effective when selectively, and sparingly, used.

Planning for Gray

I was recently asked by an up-and-coming 20-something professional how I juggled motherhood with a high-stress professional career. It was clear that this individual was a high achiever intent on laying out a detailed plan for her future. I applaud her (and at one time resembled her) efforts to chart a well-thought-out course to reach explicit goals. That’s what we all want to do as leaders, right . . . chart a definitive course to reach clear goals? Except it never really happens in the neat sequential way that we think it will.

Fairy tales might be written in black and white, but for the rest of us, life tends to happen in shades of gray. We know this, right? Why, then, do we have a tendency to develop such specific plans and timelines that assume things will fall into place exactly as outlined in goal number three, objective four, tactic number forty-seven? Worse yet, we get thrown off course trying to figure out how to respond to an unanticipated variable that was not even considered as part of our 52-page plan.

Please don’t hear me say that I think plans aren’t important. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a diehard planner. I just happen to think you get farther faster by identifying the end goal, charting a general direction to get there, and then leaving the rest, well, a little gray.

Planning this way allows you to be more nimble. You aren’t “changing the plan” . . . you have built into the plan the ability to zig or zag as variables change, allowing you to proactively take advantages of new opportunities rather than having to go back to the drawing board to adapt and recalibrate your roadmap. As I’ve shared before, my organization’s strategic framework goals fit on one page. One. And we have experienced significant growth — both in terms of individuals served and bottom line fiscal health — since taking this strategic approach that actually plans for a good measure of gray.

In the military they call this commander’s intent. As planful as the military is, they recognize that unexpected situations arise. If everyone knows the end goal — the commander’s intent — they can respond to new variables in such a way that the end goal can still be met. That seems so simple, and yet so few organizations seem to function this way. Why? Lack of trust in your staff members’ instincts, loss of control, fear of taking a misstep . . . the list of reasons is long, but the result is the same. Black and white thinking limits your possibilities for success.

So what did I tell my 20-something friend about career and motherhood? Basically that there would be a lot of people telling how she “needed” to do things (stay-at-home, work part-time, structure her hours, etc.), but she had to decide what was the best fit for her family (her end goals) and make her choices accordingly. That might mean adjusting her career plans, or having multiple back-ups to balance everything, or even occasionally having her kids play under her desk in the midst of a busy office environment . . .

In short, I told her to plan for gray . . . and enjoy the ride!

Leading with a Full Head of Hair

Have you ever had one of those weeks (or months) that made you want to pull your hair out? You know, those times when the aggravation of wrestling with a critical issue weighs you down like a wet blanket . . . when you think you’re doing all the right things and yet the solution remains just beyond your grasp. Yep, me too. It’s one of the shadow sides of leadership that rarely gets discussed, but — and here’s the good part — I think is actually an indication of a strong leader rather than an inept one.

For those of you wondering what exactly would lead me to make such a claim, let me offer a few examples.

  • The best leaders not only cast a clear vision, they are also committed to helping their people get there. Aligning a diverse mix of people to move collectively toward a common goal can at times feel a bit like herding cats. It’s never as quick or easy as it looks on paper. You might have to repeat the same thing fourteen times. You respond to what people heard, which is could be quite different from what you said. People may, consciously or not, behave in ways that undermine your efforts. And so you ask, you listen, you respond, you take a deep breath and repeat. The fact that there will be days your hair is at risk does not change the long-term positive impact of taking this approach.
  • The best leaders value diverse perspectives, and are open to looking at challenges from multiple angles. Vigorous, respectful discussion is often critical to arriving at the best decision. If a leader feels strongly about a direction/solution/project, it can be difficult to hear skepticism, or outright opposition, to that path (enter urge for hair-pulling). The willingness to hear such concerns, however, almost always results in greater buy-in from the team, and better results for the organization.
  • The best leaders understand the need to balance urgency and patience. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. Spending more time on the front end will often allow you to move more quickly on the back end. Understanding and respecting this concept, however, does not mean there won’t still be days where the scale tilts toward urgency and the leader finds her hand drifting toward her scalp.

No one ever said that leadership would be easy. And somehow, knowing that frustration is part of the process — rather than some failure or character flaw on the part of the leader — makes it easier to move through the tough parts to get to the solution on the other side, full head of hair still intact.

The Stewardship Tightrope

Slack line in the nature.Merriam-Webster defines stewardship as “the activity or job of protecting and being responsible for something.” As a leader in a nonprofit organization, I believe I am charged with being a good steward for my agency — a caretaker whose job it is to leave my organization better than I found it.

As easy as it is to buy in to that conceptually, things get a little murky once you get past the concept stage. For example, what is the relationship between stewardship and risk? While the concept of “protecting” seems to pull you toward a conservative approach, “leaving an organization better than you found it” may involve stretching and growing in new, untried, directions. In the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) the servant who buried his money to keep it safe was punished, and the one who traded his talents and doubled their worth was rewarded. Hmmm . . . this stewardship thing appears to be a bit of a tightrope.

Is a leader who takes a risk on a new program, investing scarce agency resources in something he or she believes (but can’t guarantee) will give the organization the best chance of long-term success, a better steward than someone who waits until the path is more certain, even knowing that doing such will likely lessen the gains?

It’s much easier to identify a good steward in hindsight — when we can tell whose strategy was more successful in a given situation. Unfortunately, we don’t get to make our decisions in hindsight. We have to choose where we are going to place our foot each step along the thin wavering wire if we hope to make it to the other side. Some of us are lucky enough to have a safety net (endowment anyone?), others may use a balancing bar, and some rely solely on their experience and ability to shift their weight to traverse the expanse.

As if trying to balance stewardship and risk weren’t enough, for me, faith is also inextricably woven along and throughout the tightrope. There are times when forging a path where you feel you are being led involves a good deal of risk, and there may be few guarantees beyond the insistent nudging to move in a particular direction. How do you sell that inner conviction of God’s guidance to a Board, or staff, or community members, when logic might move them in another direction? Does that make you a good steward, strategic, or foolhardy?

Nope, you’re not going to find this one tied up with a nice little bow at the end. I think we have to be satisfied with the notion that stewardship is not supposed to be easy, and it’s not supposed to be about us as leaders. It’s about the organization, and our willingness to cut through the fog and uncertainty and twists and turns of the journey. Will we stub our toe, and occasionally slip and fall? It seems highly likely.

While I’ve never walked a tightrope, I have heard that the key is to keep your focus on where you’re going . . . the solid place to stand on the other side of the ravine. Maybe stewardship is the same way. Maybe it’s about keeping your eyes set on the solid spot on the other side of the current challenge and stepping out with confidence that your organization has what it takes to succeed in the journey.

The Balancing Bird of Importance

Balancing Bird

When my boys were younger, we used to have a bright green “balancing bird.” Perhaps you’ve seen one — a bird with it’s wings extended so that, if you place its’ beak on your finger, it will balance perfectly even though it looks impossible because most of the bird’s body appears to be on one side of the balance point.

For me the balancing bird is a good visual reminder of something that virtually every leader I know struggles with — finding the balance between the urgent and the important. Keeping with the bird analogy, the urgent is like an annoying blue jay, always making a racket and usually dive-bombing anything that moves within it’s path, making you feel like you always have to be on the defensive. It is hard to ignore, and neutralizing the noise it makes can consume huge amounts of our time. If we’re not careful, the day will be done and we realize we have totally ignored the song of the blue bird — that still small chorus of what is really important in our work and life, because we were distracted by the urgent squawk of the jay.

I’m not suggesting that the solution is just to ignore the urgent. For most of us, that simply isn’t realistic. It is the balance between the urgent and the important that is key. And even it if appears that there is more weight on the side of the urgent, if we have stretched our wings toward the important, we will likely be able to maintain a good balance.

All analogies aside, sometimes life, either personally or professionally, provides a painful wake-up call to take a good hard look at whether you are making the most of your days. Have you really spent enough time on those things that you would clearly deem as important? Not all your time, but enough? Sure enough is a moving target, which means you have to intentionally ask yourself, “Where is the balance point today?”

And when you’re a leader, you not only have to do that for your own sanity, you also have to set an example for others in your organization of how to manage the urgent/important balance. It’s amazing how even a little bit of time devoted to the important can make the day seem so much more productive, and bring a sense of calm to the chaos outside your door.

So put your finger out and ask yourself, right now, would your urgent/important bird hold steady? If you’re not sure, take a moment and stretch your wings toward something important . . . you’ll feel it when you’ve found your balance.

A Roadmap for How . . .

Vintage compass


Today as I was going through a file related to our organizational strategy, I ran across a document from more than seven years ago related to my expectations for senior staff. I think this document is as relevant today as it was when it was written because it focuses more on the “how” than the “what.” Unfortunately, in our fast-paced world, the “what” changes not only from day to day, but often from hour to hour. For that very reason, the clearer you can be on your “how”, the more your staff will have a roadmap to guide their actions and allow them to respond to situations quickly and with confidence. I share these expectations not because I think they will be a fit for every individual or organization — they won’t be — but to challenge you to consider what you would include in a “roadmap for how” for your organization. In my experience, you can get to your destination much faster when you have a map.


DDR Expectations of Senior Leadership Staff

The quick and dirty . . .

  • Treat others as you would like to be treated
  • Always take the high road
  • No surprises
  • We have to be the grown-ups

Probably more what you had in mind . . .

  • I expect they are fully committed to the mission and vision of the organization and that they exemplify agency values in their interactions with individuals, both internal and external to the organization.
  • I expect they have the baseline knowledge necessary to fully carry out their job, or have developed a plan for acquiring baseline knowledge.
  • I expect the driving factor in decision-making is what is in the best interest of the agency as a whole, not personal or departmental priorities.
  • I expect the work within their area is consistent with, and supports the fulfillment of, Chaddock’s strategic and operational plans.
  • I expect when they come to me with a challenge, they will also come with potential solutions for consideration. My job is to offer guidance and feedback, not “solve their problems”.
  • I expect them to balance short-term urgency with long-term importance.
  • I expect them to be accountable to their team, including me, in carrying out their job responsibilities, and recognize that the decisions of one team member impacts the rest of the team.
  • I expect communication among the team, and with me, to be proactive rather than reactive, identifying upcoming decisions/activities before they occur rather than reporting afterwards.
  • I expect them to make the hard decisions in a thoughtful, caring and timely manner. I also expect them to understand that I’ll do the same, and although they may not always agree with my decisions I expect them to support them.
  • I expect them to look out for their team members, and raise concerns or observations in a supportive manner when appropriate. I also expect that they are receptive to the feedback from their team.
  • I expect them to model transparency in their actions, and foster two-way communications throughout the organization. Hierarchy is not a hideout.

Steering The Bike

Conference Bike

Our Chaplain at Chaddock shared a picture with me that he had taken while visiting his son in Los Angeles. The picture showed a group of individuals gathered around a bike like the one above. The “conference bike” accommodates seven individuals, six of whom are positioned at slightly different angles around a central core, all with their own set of pedals, and the seventh seat is positioned facing forward and manages the steering wheel. While the bike itself grabs your attention, the best part was what our Chaplain said as he showed me the picture . . . he said, “When I saw this bike, it reminded me of our Leadership Team. Each of the Directors has their own direction they are pedaling, but their efforts all work to move the whole organization forward in a single direction with you steering their efforts.” How cool is that!

While I would not have guessed that this octopus-like contraption would make him think of work (after all, he was on vacation!), I love the symbolism of his comments. It is true, all of our Leadership Team members do focus their energies in a very specific direction . . . be it finance, specific programs, quality assurance, etc . . . yet all of their efforts are built around and contribute to our core organizational goals. And although my primary responsibility may be to keep my eyes on the horizon and steer the organization, I still like to position myself in the thick of things.

That balance between keeping your eye on the horizon while still staying in the thick of things can be tricky for leaders. If you just keep your eye on the horizon without knowing what is happening day-to-day, you are likely to set off for destinations that are so disconnected from reality that it’s likely everyone on the bike is pedaling in opposite directions and the bike (or organization) can’t move forward. On the other hand, if the leader is too involved in the details it is as if he or she doesn’t trust the team to carry out their job and so feels the need to climb into their seat and “help pedal’, which just wears everyone out more quickly, and results in no one steering the bike.

So how do you achieve that balance? Trial and error . . . team members with enough confidence and tact to gently point out when you need to get out of their seat . . . a compelling view on the horizon . . . and just like when you were a kid trying to find your balance on a bike, practice . . . lots and lots of practice!