Gold Medal Leadership

bigstock--Gold MedalLike so many throughout the world, I have been watching the Winter Olympics and having discussions with my family about the kind of dedication it takes to spend your life working toward a goal that is dependent on a single performance. If you come up short, you have to wait four years for another shot at the prize. Upset stomach, headache, annoyance over some situation, nerves out of control … doesn’t matter … one shot … one chance to bring your very best (well okay, maybe you get three runs in some sports, but still only one day to make your mark.) If your leadership was judged based on your performance on a single day, would you approach the effort differently?

If the leadership gold medal was on the line, would you …

  • Bring your full focus to the task at hand, ignoring the ping of emails, thoughts of looming deadlines, conversations going on around you, or other random distractions?
  • Take extra care in monitoring the external conditions and making adjustments as necessary?
  • Replay the ultimate goal in your head so specifically that you know exactly what success looks and feels like?
  • Step forward boldly, confident in your abilities and your preparation for this moment?

Of course, the only way to make sure that you could do all of those things under pressure — at the moment of truth — is to practice them . . . day in and day out . . . until they become second nature. Sure, there will be days when you fall flat on your face, when you misjudge the environment around you, and when you get distracted from your goal. So you practice some more, improve your skills, and stretch for the next goal. Even gold medalists who continue to compete practice on a daily basis. They don’t get to sit on their laurels just because they had great success on a particular day — the gold medal performance from the last Olympics may not be enough to come out on top today because the bar is continually being raised.

Leadership is not a static skill that you either have or don’t have. It is a continual, competitive journey, and you never know which day is the day that you will be called to go for the gold on behalf of your organization. Of course practice, commitment, and hard work are no guarantee that you will achieve every goal, but without them, it is a pretty safe bet that you and your organization will come up short when you have the opportunity to go for the gold.

Embrace The Cold

Woman with big mug of hot drink during cold day.

I was recently talking to a friend about the fact that one of my sons will be working in Rochester, MN for a second summer and how much he likes the community, and then I added, “of course he hasn’t been there in the winter.” My friend replied that the difference is, in Rochester, they embrace the cold. It’s true . . . in looking at promotional materials for the city, it is almost as if they eagerly anticipate winter for all activities that are unique to that time of year. Huh . . . interesting concept . . . instead of bemoaning their circumstances, which they really can’t change anyway, they embrace the opportunities available to them as a result.

A lot of us could learn a lesson to two from our friends in Rochester, and I’m sure many other northern cities. If you can’t change it, sometimes your best option is to embrace the cold. Think about it, does all the bemoaning of your unfortunate circumstances, the fanaticizing about a preferred situation, really make you feel any better? In my experience, if anything, this type of wallowing only makes you feel worse. And if you’re a leader, aren’t you charged with finding a path out of difficult situations? You may have a lot of company if you choose to burrow in and bellyache, but your job isn’t to rally the troops with another chorus of “ain’t it awful,” your job is to lead.

When you make a choice to embrace the cold, to look for the opportunities in the current circumstances, it’s a bit like putting on sunglasses to cut the blinding glare of the snow. Suddenly, you are able to see things you otherwise would have missed. Maybe you have the opportunity to collaborate in ways that would not happen in different circumstances. Or perhaps there is now an openness to totally reimagine a program or service, which wouldn’t have been pursued in warmer times. You know, the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters, one means danger and the other means opportunity. Pull in, or reach out — the “crisis” of a winter chill offers both options.

Cold weather is when we need leaders the most. Our followers are more easily motivated on warm sunny days, but when the temperature drops, it is our job to help them see the possibilities in skiing and sledding, the beauty in snow-covered vistas . . . and of course hot chocolate! Would anyone even have invented hot chocolate without a bit of a chill in the air? Your team is looking to you to see if they should hunker down or put on their parka and venture out.

My advice? Bundle up, grab a thermos of hot chocolate, and embrace the cold!

–This post was originally published in February of 2016.

The Squeaks and Squawks of Success

Boy playing trumpet with classmates covering earsThe world is constantly changing. Logically, as leaders, we know we need to ensure our organizations are always changing too. Practically, however, once we find a successful path, there are also a host of reasons to stay on course. Efficiency, effectiveness, solid results . . . it’s working . . . right up until it isn’t. The irony is, the more successful an organization is on one path, the harder it can be to change to another . . . unless squeaks and squawks have been built into the system.

If you have ever had a child learn to play an instrument, you know that squeaks and squawks are part of the process. Young musicians are enthusiastic, they know where they want to get to . . . but their technique needs a bit of practice, trial and error, and refinement. They have to start with “Hot Crossed Buns” before they can master the concerto. You can’t hold them to the same precise standards of performance you have for someone who has been playing for years or you will squash their spirit and undermine their potential.

As a leader, you have to continually refine the concerto of your current success, while also encouraging the squeaks and squawks of the next big thing. Squeaks and squawks aren’t efficient. They don’t follow a well-laid path. At times they sound a bit hopeless. They take patience and practice . . . and they are the path to your future. The challenge is, in our lean, metric-driven, instant results world, we expect a level of performance — right now — that would judge our budding musician as a failure.

We cannot apply the same expectations we have for the professional musician — our fully developed, successful product or service line — to the work in progress that may be our next big thing. And we can’t be so afraid of hitting a wrong note, that we that we discourage even trying. Developing something new is all about hitting a few wrong notes on the way to learning the right tune.

Successful leaders have to work from two different scores — apply two different strategies — at the same time. Refine, improve, align and expect a high level of achievement from your skilled performers — your current core programs and services — and play that song as long as you can. Just don’t neglect to nurture the notes of your future success . . . squawks and all.

New Eyes for a New Year — Part Three

2683_5078_largeIn the past two weeks, we have looked at the “what” and “where” of your leadership vision. In this final installment of “New Eyes for a New Year” it’s time to do a quick screening of the “how” of your vision. Consider it your depth-perception test . . . you know, that part of your eye exam where you look through 3-D glasses and identify which part of the picture stands out the most . . .

 

Your “depth perception” as a leader determines how you see what lies before you. Our biases, experiences and predispositions can make some aspects of the landscape stand out more than others. That is why two people can look at the same situation/challenge/opportunity and see very different things. Do you focus on definitive black and white observations, or shades of gray? Are you looking for similarities to build on or differences to distinguish? Do you expect to see a specific outcome, or are you open to being surprised?

Perhaps most importantly, do you believe/consider valid/judge as reasonable only what you “see” through your own unique perspective, or are you open to considering someone else’s point of view . . . to see the landscape before you with new eyes? Yes, as the leader, it is ultimately your responsibility to cast the vision and set the direction. The question is, do you want to make that decision based only on your own depth perception, or would your organization be better served by you viewing the situation based on the input from a range of people who might see things a bit differently? People who see the big picture and those who focus on the small details. People who strive to make good things happen and those committed to keeping bad things from happening. And yes, even that “disrupter” who can always be counted on see the world a bit differently than everyone else on your staff. In effect . . . would you rather make a decision based on a single piece of information (your own personal depth perception), or on a full range of data that a variety of perspectives can provide?

What you see as “real” in any particular situation may be based, at least in part, on your own depth perception. If you want to see the opportunities before you with new eyes in the New Year, how you go about doing that can make all the difference. Maybe it’s time to take out the 3-D glasses and check your focus.

 

Photo credit: Bernell Corporation

A Year of Growth

2018 calendar altered copyAs 2018 approaches, there is the typical talk of new opportunities, exciting plans, fresh starts . . . and yet, if you are a leader, in the coming year you will also encounter disappointments, efforts that didn’t go as planned, and projects with outcomes that fall short of the intended goal. And how you approach those situations, far more than the easy wins, will determine the impact of your leadership, in 2018 and beyond.

Do you see setbacks as “failures” or as part of the journey toward success? When things don’t go as planned, do you retreat to safer ground or ask “what can we learn from this?” Is hard work and growth rewarded in your organization, or does it take a clear win to be recognized?

Carol Dweck identifies these different perspectives as a fixed mindset (simply the way things are . . . he is smart, talented, a slacker etc.) or a growth mindset (skills/knowledge can be cultivated with passion, training, and perseverance). “Wins” are the source of validation for those with a fixed mindset. The bar is success or failure. If you are a fixed mindset leader you are more likely to go for the sure thing, the guaranteed success, the immediate win to “prove” your skill as a leader. Your team will follow suit, recognizing that experimenting or challenging what “is” is risky, and only sure things are rewarded.

Compare that perspective to a growth mindset leader, who sees setbacks as a motivator to work harder, believing that “failure” isn’t final but rather a chance to learn and develop on the way to a long-term goal. Growth mindset leaders need an innate sense of confidence because there is an impatient pressure in our instant-everything world for immediate success, guaranteed results, and continuous wins. If you always have to succeed, the chances of trying something new — something important, but where you don’t yet have all the answers — decrease dramatically.

Everyone has a mix of both growth and fixed mindsets, and one may appear more prominent in certain areas of our lives — i.e. I am terrible at sports (fixed mindset) but I can develop my strategic abilities (growth mindset). As a leader, however, if you want to develop your people and achieve stretch goals, cultivating and rewarding learning and development — a growth mindset — offers the best chance of long-term success.

As you look toward a new year I wish you leadership success, yes, but also enough bumps in the road to keep you striving, and stretching toward the very best for your organization. Here’s hoping 2018 will be a year of growth.

Putting Logic in a Box

Wooden box on the dark stone tableSometimes, you have to put logic in a box.

Those I work with have heard me say this on many an occasion. Whether it is an externally imposed bureaucratic rule that makes no sense from a practical standpoint or a crazy-sounding idea about how an organization can dramatically increase its impact, there are times when relying on a logical assessment only leads to frustration and/or limits forward progress.

If it is an illogical externally imposed rule, trying to use logic to explain it to others is akin to one of those wind-up toys that continue to run into the wall again and again and again. Is that really the best use of your energy? As long as the rule is simply illogical and frustrating, (i.e. not irreparably harmful) then the best course of action may be to simply to acknowledge to your staff, “You’re right. It makes no sense from where we are sitting. And it is a step we have to take to accomplish our ultimate goal.” And then move on. Sure, you can try to change the external regulation if you are compelled to do so. You simply need to ask if that is the best use of your time or that of one of your staff members. Sometimes the answer will be yes. But if the answer is no, then quit banging into the wall. Put logic in a box, pivot right or left and move on.

Then there are those crazy-sounding ideas. Love those. The problem with logic in these situations is that imposing it too early and too rigidly in the process is like throwing a bucket of cold water on kindling that is just starting to take off. You can logically plan your way to incremental improvements. Breakthrough ideas are the result of aspirational (one might even say illogical) goals and the messy process of trial and error, the what-ifs and what-abouts, the rabbit trails and side roads. Please don’t hear me say that logic does not have a role to play in such efforts. It is critical that any aspirational strategy ultimately pass the logic test . . . but crazy ideas will never have the chance to if you don’t put logic in a box at the outset.

Managing that creative tension — the paradox between experimentation and performance, improvisation, and structure, between possibility and logic — is the job of the leader. Because most leaders are wired, and rewarded, for results, sometimes the best way to make sure we don’t settle for less than we could achieve is to, at least for a bit, put logic in a box.

Pieces of Perfection

Christmas Tree

I have a collection of porcelain Christmas ornaments that I have had for a number of years. They were all gifts that highlighted important moments in my life. Each year, I would carefully place them on our tree, making sure they were secure on the branch. And then one year, one of them fell, bouncing from branch to branch in a seemingly slow motion journey to the floor. After the initial pain of seeing something I held dear in pieces on the floor, I had a decision to make. Throw away the broken ornament and maybe look for a replacement, or try to glue the figurine back together as best I could, knowing it would never be the same?

As I pulled the scarred ornament out of its box this year, and positioned it on the tree so the unrepairable hole in the back was less obvious, I recognized that while it was less perfect than the other ornaments in the collection, it never fails to make me smile. As leaders, in our quest to have everything run perfectly, we can lose sight of the fact that sometimes the most imperfect part of our work can actually have the most meaning. That is where our effort can have the biggest impact.

Maybe your challenge isn’t gluing together broken pieces. It could be deciding whether to replace a fading ornament with something new, or taking a big risk to totally turn the tree upside down without knowing for sure how it will turn out. Too often, we unnecessarily set ourselves up to fail by making perfection the goal . . . in all things . . . at all times. Perhaps the best way to find fulfillment as a leader is to instead look for pieces of perfection . . . which may, in fact, be quite different than what you originally envisioned. It could be

. . . Improvising with Plan B when Plan A fell apart, and having it surpass all expectations

. . .Thinking you could never replace a key player who walked away, only to have an even better fit step to the table.

. . . Falling short on the original goals of a project, but making a connection that led to even bigger opportunities.

Pieces of perfection come into view when we let go of some preordained picture of what success is supposed to look like. Not to lower the bar on the impact you are trying to have, simply to recognize that there may be any number of ways to get there.

My Christmas tree is filled with mismatched ornaments, tarnished ones, and aging grade school creations that make my sons cringe . . . all hanging along side shiny new additions, and of course my porcelain figurines. I’m certain a designer would not call it a perfect tree. I’m equally sure that it is filled with meaning . . . and pieces of perfection.

 

Pockets of Joy

Winter young woman portrait. Beauty Joyful Model Girl raising ha

It may seem a bit surprising to talk about joy in a leadership blog. After all, leadership is hard work (true), it is serious business (yes), and not something that should be taken lightly (agreed). Neither is joy . . . and here’s why. Joy fuels us. It gives us more energy. And heaven knows leadership takes a lot of energy!

It is ideal when we can find joy in our work. No matter how passionate we are about our organizations, however, there will be times where joy is not the first adjective that comes to mind when thinking about our to-do lists. Here is the great part . . . joy gives us energy for the task at hand whether it is derived from that task or from something totally unrelated.

Leaders (or anyone!) can intentionally incorporate any number of “pockets of joy” to energize their days. For example:

• Driving to work earlier this week, I played a song that makes me happy. Simple as that. It took no extra time but was a much better way to start my morning than spending my drive time thinking about all the challenges the day would present. I was able to walk in the door with a spring in my step ready to hit the ground running.

• I have an electronic photo frame that is full of pictures of family vacations and my boys when they were little. I don’t have it on all the time, but occasionally taking a few minutes to scroll through the pictures lifts my spirit and provides just the burst of energy I need.

• Smile. Even if you have to “fake it until you make it.” Seriously, try it. Just the physical act of smiling somehow lightens the load. If you can smile at someone, even better because smiling is contagious and offers a shot in the arm to the recipient as well.

• Anticipate joy. Thinking about the happiness that will come from completing an important project can energize you through the tedious aspects of the journey. I’m not talking about daydreaming here, but rather the quick vicarious shot in the arm you can get from visualizing successfully reaching the end goal.

Yes, it sounds simple, and if you take a few moments I’m sure you could come up with dozens of other examples of how you could build bursts of happy energy into your day. But will you? When you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, stressed out or annoyed, will you stop and take a few moments to recharge your perspective? No, you are not too busy. You owe it to those you lead to bring your best to your role, and sometimes the best way to do that is to take a few minutes and soak in a pocket of joy.

 

The Leadership Tightrope

A confident businessman with briefcase walking ahead on a tightrLeadership is a balancing act, and like even the most experienced tightrope walkers, leaders must always be aware of maintaining their center of gravity between confidence and being convinced.

What exactly do I mean by that?

Confidence is recognizing that one is responding in the best way possible given the information available at the time. Some people just naturally have confidence in their actions. For many others, it develops over time, with experience. Confidence is about trusting one’s instincts, believing that you have the ability to weigh out the options and make a decision that serves your organization well.

Being convinced, on the other hand, means that you are sure you have the answers. That may seem like splitting hairs, but in reality, there is a major distinction between these two characteristics. People who are convinced quit seeking new information. After all, if you have the answers, why waste your time listening to additional input. Confident people, on the other hand, continuously seek out new information. They see it as critical to making the best decision in the moment.

The tricky part is, people who are convinced actually may have had the answer . . . at one point in time, for one specific situation. It worked. They figured it out. They built the model, identified the missing link, accurately predicted the situation. The flaw in this way of thinking is that variables are changing all the time. However, when people are lauded for identifying the right answer one time . . . well . . . when you are recognized for selling hammers, it is easy for every situation to start looking like a nail.

This balancing is a part of what Collins refers to as Level 5 Leadership – someone who displays both fierce resolve and personal humility. Put another way, the increase in ego that comes from being convinced that you have THE answer may blind you to the new information that could yield the best result. So how does one successfully walk the tightrope between confidence and being convinced?

  1. Recognize that most solutions are situational. Sure, there are some universal truths…but unless you are dealing with gravity or chemical reactions, let’s just assume you haven’t stumbled on to one.
  2. Develop a framework for thinking rather than automatic responses. It can be very helpful to run your consideration through a set of values, a vision for the outcome, that helps guide your thinking without dictating specific actions.
  3. Always look for the unique variables that could impact your decision. Consciously looking for differences keeps you from relying on a solution that was ideally suited to an entirely different situation.

Hoping for more specific answers on how to traverse this tightrope? Sorry, that would require me being convinced I have the answers. Rather, I will remain confident you can figure it out…one step at a time.

 

The Hard Truth

Hard Truth GrSome days, leadership is just plain hard. And as much as we might like it to be different in those moments when we have to make a decision with no clear path forward, I think it is supposed to be hard. Struggling through the hard stuff is how we learn and grow and gain greater clarity . . . and yes, at times stumble, but ultimately chart a better course. It is shouldering the pushback, the skepticism, the lack of understanding of well-intended people, (including yourself!) while you strive toward the larger vision.

True, this is not the picture of leadership that you typically see highlighted in feature stories that talk about the confident, charismatic stuff of which great leaders are made. The piece that gets left out of the story is that the confidence comes on the other side, once you have worked your way through the tough stuff. So what is a leader to do when firmly wedged between what feels like a rock and a hard place?

  • Walk all the way around the issue. If you think there is only one option, one choice, you just aren’t looking closely enough. Gather input from a cross-section of people. The more clearly you can identify what is going on “underneath” different perspectives, the better you can put things in context.
  • Make the case yourself, out loud, for both perspectives. Things sometimes sound different when you say them out loud than they do in your head, and making both arguments yourself helps minimize the impact of personalities on your consideration.
  • Recognize that “grappling” is part of the process. This is the hard part . . . the lonely inner wrestling about the best decision. It does not make you indecisive or weak or somehow deficit in your capabilities. It means you care enough to put yourself through the wringer as you search for the right choice.
  • Sleep on it. Once you have found a place to land, let it sit. Sleep on it. Yes, I know that you are down to the wire and it feels like you have to come up with an answer right now. Sleep on it. The extra measure of clarity that can come with the light of a new day is well worth a short delay in the final call.

Does knowing these steps make the process of leadership easier? Not really. There will still be plenty of situations where your heart and your head, your trusted advisors, and your short and long-term perspectives will be in conflict. It will be draining and frustrating, and just plain hard. But . . . somehow it helps to know that it is part of the process. That this is how it works. And the potential gain is worth the pain that a leader will endure getting there.

That, my friends, is the hard truth of leadership.