Structured Flexibility

Structure and flexibility may seem to be at opposite ends of a continuum, and yet for organizations to thrive leaders have to foster both approaches. One provides stability, the other fosters growth, and you want both of those things, right? So how exactly does one go about building both structure and flexibility into your organization? 

For starters, it is good to think about how you are wired as a leader. Do you lean toward structure or flexibility? Not sure? Ask your people. They know. And before you start second-guessing yourself, being pre-disposed to either structure or flexibility is not a bad thing. Both are needed, in different quantities at different times. Knowing your tendencies, however, can help you make sure there is a counterbalance of perspectives on your team.

So if structure and flexibility are at opposite ends of a spectrum, can they both exist in an organization at the same time? Absolutely. Organizations have found lots of ways to do this — through R&D, pilot projects, or departments/divisions focused on innovation while the rest of the organization follows more tightly structured ways of operating. With today’s increasingly volatile environment, however, it has become more and more important to incorporate both approaches into your daily operations. One way of doing this is by implementing a “guard rails” approach.

Guard rails provide boundaries of functioning. Think of it like bowling bumpers you might put in place for small children. There are lots of ways the child can get the ball down the lane, but the bumpers keep the ball from going too far in either direction and ending up in the gutter. In your organization, guard rails may take the form of budgetary constraints, timelines, and/or outcome expectations. Beyond those structural guard rails, however, you can provide maximum flexibility for how the ball gets down the lane. The structure is in the what, the flexibility is in the how. This is where things can get uncomfortable for the structure people . . . just because we have done things a certain way, with successful outcomes, for many years (the how), that doesn’t mean continuing in that vein will help us achieve our goals in the future. The pain point for the flexibility people can be the “width” of the guard rails, which may feel constraining when they are pursuing a totally new approach that may not fit with “old” ways of thinking. 

Based on a leader’s style, he or she may have a natural tendency to sympathize with one end of the continuum or the other. Don’t settle for an either/or. It is possible to find a productive balance. All it takes is a bit of structured flexibility.

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.


Avoiding the Vortex

vortexPerhaps one of the greatest risks for leaders is being sucked into the vortex of the overwhelmed. All of the details, ideas, requirements, expectations, and possibilities that spin around a leader on a daily basis can have a pretty strong gravitational pull. How do you keep this force from dragging you under, or at the very least pulling energy away from your supposed strategic priorities? In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the key is to keep your focus on “the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

That has a nice ring to it, but how exactly do you do that? It’s a little like trying to stand on one leg. When you keep your focus locked on a fixed spot it is much easier to maintain your balance than if you are looking at everything going on around you. So what is the fixed spot? You guessed it . . . the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Make no mistake, simple is not the same as easy. It takes a lot of discipline to sort through all the stuff of leadership to identify the one, two or three overriding goals on which to remain focused. And identifying those goals doesn’t mean you won’t still have to deal with a myriad of questions, opportunities and challenges on a daily basis. It simply means making decisions about those things becomes much easier. You no longer feel the pull of every rabbit trail. You know your path forward and have identified which tasks belong to you alone and which you can delegate. And with each step toward “the other side”, the pull from the vortex of the overwhelmed lessens.

It is also important to recognize that passing through the vortex is a daily journey. Just because you were able to focus on your simple goals last week doesn’t mean some unexpected variable won’t pull you off course this week. The antidote? Start each week, each day, by casting your eyes on your point of focus — your simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Can’t narrow your priorities down to no more than three? Way too much on your plate to even consider that? If you can’t prioritize, then the vortex of the overwhelmed has already won. End of discussion.

But for those of you willing to focus on the simple path through the complexity of leadership . . . I’ll see you on the other side.

Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart


On this day before Thanksgiving, it is of course a time to reflect on what we are grateful for — and for many of us, family and friends top the list. But do we, and individuals and leaders, truly recognize, deep down inside, how blessed we are?

I’ll never forget a Thanksgiving celebration with a gym full of hungry souls listening to a youth choir when a young girl, probably about 10 years old, stepped up to the mic and, her lone voice strong and clear, sang “Give Thanks With a Grateful Heart.” This child had experienced more pain and suffering in her young life than many of us will ever know and yet, on that day, her sincere expression of thanks humbled everyone in the room. I want to be that kind of grateful.

The challenges of being a leader today cannot be denied. Ever-changing regulations, economic and financial volatility, business models that are no longer sustainable, never mind personnel challenges … feel free to add your own crisis du jour. Serious? Quite possibly. Something you have to deal with? Absolutely. Overwhelming? That depends. If you spend all your time staring at the challenges before you, it may feel that way. If you compare them to the many blessings you enjoy, maybe not so much.

How you think about things — the context in which you view them — determines their impact on your life. And the things you focus on most, grow in your minds eye. I don’t know about you, but from where I’m sitting that’s a pretty good argument for focusing on the things for which you are grateful. As a leader, you have a special responsibility in this area because your focus also becomes your people’s focus. Think back to a time when you were especially stressed … I’m guessing your people soon started mirroring your anxiety. Likewise, when you’re cruising on all cylinders it’s amazing how much your organization can accomplish.

I’m not suggesting you become a Pollyanna leader or ignore the difficult things before you. I am suggesting that in the midst of those things you also recognize the many gifts and graces you have been given to tackle such issues head on … creativity, a can-do spirit, a strong and diverse team, individuals outside your organization who are willing to lend a hand (feel free to add to the list.) When viewed through the lens of a grateful heart, “oh poor me” melts away and is replaced by a spirit of “we’ll figure it out.” That is the quiet confidence that comes with a grateful heart. Think of where our world would be if more of us approached our roles with that perspective.

So that is my wish for you this Thanksgiving. Look around at the things cluttering your desk and your mind. Take a deep breath and say out loud, “we’ll figure it out.” Then give thanks, with a grateful heart.

Talk to Me

Surprised adult asking you mean me?

I recently ran across something that really struck a chord with me. “There would be a lot fewer problems in the world if we talked to people rather than about them.”

It is easy to agree with that sentiment in the abstract. You may even have one or two specific examples pop into your mind when you read those words. But before you get too comfortable up on that pedestal of high ideals, let’s take a moment to move that thought out of the abstract, and away from sweeping examples like stereotypes, politics or religion. Let’s take a look at the concept in your everyday life as a leader.

One of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “Seek First to Understand . . .” The only way to do that is to talk to someone . . . to listen, to inquire, to explore questions and possibilities with them. One of the challenges for leaders is that people look to you for answers, for guidance on how they should act and what they should believe. After a while, it is easy to start speaking rather than seeking, to start telling others about how you see things rather than asking others to share their perspective.

Be honest, how many times have you talked about your frustration with a situation, another organization, or a government agency with someone other than the one who was causing you to cringe? Yep, guilty. Sure, sometimes you have to process and it is helpful to get someone else’s take on a situation to see if they see or are experiencing what you are. Just don’t get stuck there. If you really want to solve the dilemma before you, you have to move from continuing to rehash a situation (i.e. bellyaching) to taking steps to resolve the issue — which in most cases requires talking to someone. Not at, not about, to.

I’m not suggesting that you not be decisive as a leader, only that you have as much information as possible — from all perspectives — before making a decision. Do you know the intent of the person/organization who is causing “the problem?” Not what you assume their intent was, but honestly inquiring about what they were trying to accomplish? (Hint: usually it is not simply to annoy you.) Then and only then can you begin to take steps to solve the dilemma before you.

Being an effective leader isn’t about how “strong” you are. It is about how many roadblocks you can remove, how many problems you can solve, to help your organization, and those with whom you work, succeed. It’s not as hard as we sometimes make it. In fact, the first step is really pretty simple. Talk to me.

Taking Care

YellowstoneLast week marked the 100th anniversary of our country’s National Park Service. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation to conserve our natural treasures for the enjoyment of countless generations to come, and named the National Park Service as caretakers of this important mission. Caretakers . . . taking care . . . isn’t that what all of us who are leaders should be doing for our organizations?

Sure, maybe you aren’t charged with protecting the majestic beauty of Glacier National Park, or maintaining the wildlife in Yellowstone, or honoring the fallen at Little Big Horn, but I’m guessing your organization has a fairly lofty mission all the same. And like the National Park Service, if you are truly serving as a caretaker for your organization, you shouldn’t make decisions for this quarter, or even this fiscal year. You should be making decisions that will keep your organization on solid footing for generations to come.

How? By taking care. Of your people, your resources, the legacy of those who came before you. Taking care often isn’t expedient. It doesn’t always respond to the latest fads. It keeps its feet firmly planted on your organizational mission, while also looking around two corners to prepare for the future. Taking care is about the long view, and in our instant everything culture, that can be very hard.

The other thing to note about care-taking is that it’s not about you. It is about something much bigger. Your organization’s mission, its legacy. Too many people today have a romanticized view of leadership as meaning you are in the spotlight or the center of attention. When a leader serves as a caretaker, however, the focus is on taking care, which means standing back and letting the mission take center stage.

Taking care is quiet leadership. Which should not be confused with weak or uncertain leadership. It is about studying the chessboard of your organization, and setting up the pieces today so they will be where they need to be three moves into the future. It is making the hard decisions because that’s what is in the best long term interests of the organization — even when it causes you or others pain in the short term.

In my experience, caretaker leaders are driven from the inside, rather than motivated by external rewards. Sure, external validation is nice, but it is the inside stuff that keeps them up at night, and gives them the most satisfaction at the end of the day. Caretakers are the ones who want their organizations to be around for the next 100 years and beyond.

And it all starts with taking care.

Letting Go

Keep Calm and Let Go

Tis the season of kids heading back to school, starting college and embarking on new beginnings. My heart goes out to friends who are sending a child off to live on their own for the first time. Even though it is an exciting time, and you want this experience for them, the fear of the unknown and the sadness of closing a chapter can lead to quite an emotional stew in the hearts of parents.

Letting go is hard. And not just with our children. It is no less difficult for organizations to let go of their “babies” . . . programs and services for which they have such fond memories. The difference is, those programs and the people in them usually aren’t clamoring to move on to the next phase like our children are. No, in organizations it’s the leader’s responsibility to decide it is time to embark on a new chapter. And that emotional stew I mentioned parents experiencing . . . yep, leaders get it in spades. Unfortunately, in some cases, leaders never take that step toward new possibilities because of how painful it is to move beyond what they have known, and their organizations suffer as a result.

Maybe it’s time to reframe this whole letting go thing. Maybe rather than mourn the loss of what has been, we need to celebrate the journey that has brought us to the point that we are ready to take the next step. Closing the door on a chapter doesn’t mean it wasn’t important or valuable in shaping the organization and moving it forward. It simply means the organization has grown to the point that it is ready to take the next step, and that’s a good thing.

I serve an organization that has been around since 1853. Rest assured, we look quite different today than we did 163 years ago, but the values this organization was built on are still alive and well in our work today. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and honor what they accomplished, not by never changing but by taking advantage of the amazing opportunities that have resulted from their efforts.

As a parent, we’re a bit sad when our kids spread their wings and fly, but that’s what kids are supposed to do. That’s what organizations are supposed to do too. Even amid the challenges and chaos and uncertainty of the world today, opportunities abound for your organization. You can’t reach for the future when you are clutching to the past . . . maybe it’s time to take a deep breath and let go.

Silly Putty and Super Glue

Blog Quote

Each year Fast Company magazine puts out a “100 Most Creative People in Business” issue. I love reading through the descriptions of these individuals’ innovations and approaches to their creative endeavors because they stretch my thinking, and cause me to consider the challenges before me in new and different ways. The experience always brings to mind a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that says, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

So what has your mind been looking like of late? Are the dimensions of your perspective the same today as they were three months, six months, or even a year ago? If you had to describe the parameters of your thinking, which term is a more accurate representation — silly putty or super glue? (Hang with me here . . .)

Does your thinking stretch beyond the egg-like shell that originally contained it? Do you have the ability to expand your understanding, your horizons, your sense of possibility to lengths far beyond what one might imagine when first viewing the malleable little ball that is your mind? Do you pick up ideas, impressions, from others and adapt them to create a new picture, and bounce back when you run into walls? Silly Putty.

On the other hand, do you stick with things, unwavering in your commitment? Can you be counted on to hold tight to that which you have been called to do? Regardless of the stress or pressure being placed upon you, are you the one that people rely on to remain strong, to stand tall, and to serve as a yardstick against which to measure their own actions? Super Glue.

Which is better? Wrong question. The answer is an “and” not an “or.” As leaders, I believe we are charged with demonstrating Super Glue tenacity when it comes to our values, our mission, our passion, and Silly Putty adaptability in finding new ways to reach those goals.

Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People are a perfect example of that. These are people who have held fast to an idea in the midst of some pretty significant obstacles/push-back/box-like thinking. And yet, regardless of the pressures they faced they did not waiver from the passion that fueled them. Super Glue. In virtually every case however, they also had to expand their thinking in new and different directions. They had to stretch to find new ways over, under or around some impediment that had deterred others from considering that path to success. Silly Putty.

The best leaders have to be willing to stretch if they want to stick tight to what drives them. Don’t believe me? Pick the best, most accomplished leader you know . . . look closely . . . I’d be willing to bet you’ll find a healthy balance of both silly putty and super glue.

Telling Stories

Old vintage typewriter with blank paper

If you are a leader, whether you realize it or not, you are also a storyteller. And the cool thing is, you get to decide what kind of story you are going to tell. Yes, the facts are the facts, but they are rarely the most powerful part of the story.

 Say you’ve had a challenging week, or several challenging weeks, for reasons that are totally outside your control. Those are the facts. What story are you going to tell? Is it a story about the unfairness of the situation, your sense of aggravation with the people or factors that have resulted in this predicament, your sense of helplessness in the face of the challenges before you? Wow, that’s a depressing story. One that is likely to suck the energy, the sense of power and possibility, right out of you and those you lead. Looks like this story went from bad to worse, looming larger with each telling.

 Or … You could tell a story that acknowledges the challenging facts of the situation, and expresses gratitude that your team has the skills, creativity and can-do spirit to figure out a solution. It could be a story that outlines the hard truth, and also highlights the gifts and graces of your team to uniquely and effectively respond to that truth. I’m not suggesting you tell your people the path will be quick or easy if that’s not the case — your team deserves more than fairy tales from their leader. I am suggesting that you plot out the character(istic)s that will allow the story to have a satisfactory/positive/mission-fulfilling end. Maybe one of your team members has the deep sense of empathy and compassion to support others as they walk through a difficult situation. Maybe another has the ability to see possible solutions when others only see road blocks. A third might have relationships that can connect the dots to move you forward. You see, the facts are merely the backdrop. Your team, and your confidence in them, is the storyline!

 So which storyline is playing in your head? The facts may be presented to you, but you are the author of your team’s story. You get to decide. Is it going to be a soap opera, a tragedy, or a story of triumph even in the midst of steep odds? If you don’t believe the storyline, your “listeners” won’t either. The situation, those things you can’t control, isn’t the story. How you and your team respond is. Sure there will be times when the sky looks dark and you’re not sure what the next chapter will bring. As a colleague pointed out to me earlier this week, sometimes you just have to walk through it … very true. Do you believe that the good guys will prevail? Then take heart.

 You’re the leader, the author … You get to tell the story.

Pulling Back the Curtain

iStock Business Curtain.jpgI am a big fan of counter-intuitive thinkers and writers . . . people like Chris Guillebeau in The Art of Non-Conformity, Daniel Pink in The Flip Manifesto, or Dan Ward in The Radical Elements of Radical Success (hard to find, but worth the effort) . . . because they make us pause and reconsider how we look at the challenges before us. Such authors, in effect, encourage us to pull back the curtain on the expectations, the logic, the “have-to’s” that box in our thoughts and actions, and limit our sense of possibility.

Maybe it’s time to pull back the curtain on business as usual for your organization. How? Passionate focus, and strong-willed dedication.

While passionate focus may sound like something we all aspire to, far too often it gets watered down by the pressure to be “realistic”, by “extenuating circumstances”, or by the rules/expectations/money of those who ultimately want to keep us in a box of their making. Passionate focus really is much harder than it sounds. Dan Ward refers to such people — those with a single-minded devotion to a big goal — as “monomaniacs”, and he notes that because of the energy they devote to that goal, they often discover “the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” I love that! Most of us stop in the midst of the complexity because, well, it’s really complex. What might happen if we didn’t dilute our big, hairy audacious goal . . . if we continued to fuel our passion through the complexity to get to the simplicity on the other side?

Of course, that would take a healthy measure of strong-willed determination. Because I can pretty well guarantee that along the path to achieving your ultimate goal, you are going to run into a whole host of “no’s”, and rabbit trails, and a brick walls . . . things that cause many logical people, with a less clearly defined focus, to turn back. Strong-willed determination doesn’t mean you don’t stumble, just that you will get up, every time, on the way to your goal. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to refine the plan along the way, it simply means that you don’t stop short of the goal.

Yes, there will be those who pat you on the head and call you an idealist. My advice when you run into them . . . just smile sweetly, pull back the curtain on “conventional wisdom”, and press on.