Moving the Dial

Yes or No Switch

Have you ever noticed that it is often when you are consciously trying not to think about work that inspiration strikes? I was recently reading a general interest (i.e. non-work related) magazine article on a public figure, who was commenting on her takeaway from a conversation with another public figure, which was “negativity doesn’t move the dial.” Cue the light bulb moment.

Negativity doesn’t move the dial.

In this day and age of finger pointing and grousing about what “they” are doing to “us,” it is an important reminder. That is not to say that things aren’t tough, and as a leader you don’t have to make difficult decisions for the best interest of your organization. Unless you are living in utopia, that is pretty much the job description for a leader today. What separates those who merely have the title, from those who are successfully leading — moving the dial — is that they acknowledge the difficult reality before them, and then they take steps to change it.

You may not be able to impact a negative situation overnight, in fact it may take years, but taking definitive action to move the dial is empowering for both the leader, and the organization he or she serves. Sure taking negative swipes or hurtling empty threats at a situation may provide a momentary rush . . . but it also tends to leave a bad taste in your mouth, and ultimately does little to propel things forward.

You see, being a leader isn’t so much about what “they” do. It’s about what you do. How are you going to continue to forge ahead toward your end goal, in spite of the road blocks before you? I guarantee that putting one foot in front of the other will get you there faster than camping out in front of the road block and telling everyone who will listen how terrible it is.

Maybe the key is to find common ground. More than one barrier has faded away when someone quit pushing so hard against it. Maybe you are the one who needs to adjust the lens through which you are viewing the situation. There could be any number of ways to move forward, but digging in your heels and waiting for someone else to clear the path for you, taunting them all the while, is probably not your best option.

You’re the leader. You set the tone. How are you going to move the dial?

Walls and Bridges

It seems the political season starts earlier with each election cycle. As wearing as that may be for some people, and all partisan issues aside, it does provide interesting case studies in leadership styles and effectiveness. One observation that gets reinforced for me time and again . . . walls stir emotion and bridges get things done. Let me explain.

Walls (I’m talking figuratively here . . . absolutes, lines in the sand, “I will never” . . .) are great for fanning the flames of passion. They get the party faithful fired up and ready for battle. That is why you see so many walls being thrown up during primary season. Regardless of party, primary candidates tend to lean toward absolutes. The thing is, at the same time they are fanning the flames of passion for those who agree with their position, they are also fanning the flames of those opposed to the position. While that may make great political theater, in many cases it also creates additional barriers to achieving the very thing the candidate purports wanting to accomplish, because they start by focusing on points of opposition (walls) rather than points of agreement (bridges). Once the election is over, to make significant strides forward, people usually need to find a way to focus on common ground, and build bridges to connect differing perspectives. For bridge-builders, getting to the final destination is more important than taking one specific path to get there, even if that means taking down a few walls along the way.

So transfer those same concepts to your organization. I’m not necessarily saying walls are always bad — sometimes there truly is a non-negotiable — but there should be a lot more bridges than walls. Most of a leader’s energy should be focused on getting to the final destination, the mission. And if taking a slightly different route to get there allows more people to get on board and support your efforts, the mission probably benefits in the end. Yes it will take longer, and if your ego is invested in a particular route it may smart a bit, but focusing your energy on finding common ground and building bridges not only benefits the issue at hand, it also bolsters people’s confidence that they can trust you to listen to their voice moving forward. And with that type of synergy, leaders can build momentum over time to accomplish even more.

One caveat . . . this sounds easy enough when you read it in black and white, but it can be much harder when you are directly impacted by a specific situation. For example, when yet another unfunded mandate gets added to your contract expectations, it is much easier to focus on the negative impact to your organization and dig your heels in (a wall that says the funder is the bad guy/doesn’t care about the mission) than it is to stop and ask about the funder’s intended goal and see if there is another way to get there that you can live with. Will the diehard “walls” think you are weak or waffling? Maybe at first. But over time, it is hard to argue with how far you can get when you’re willing to build a few bridges.

Acquiring a Taste for Sausage

Sausage On A ForkWhile I’m not a picky eater, I have never been fond of sausage. I attribute that to the fact that I’m a farm girl . . . and probably know just a little too much about what goes into sausage. Apparently, I’m not the only one.

I’ve often heard the legislative process compared to sausage-making, and I would put state-wide or national “systems change” in the same category. In each case, there are lots of different parts involved, and it’s not a pretty process, so it seems an apt comparison. Given that, why would a leader — who presumably has more than enough balls in the air inside their organization — go looking for other messy, time-consuming processes to insert themselves into outside their organization? No, insanity is not the word I was looking for here. Mission impact is.

Large-scale systemic change has the potential to impact far more lives than individual organizational actions, but it is not a task for the faint of heart. It takes the conviction to stand strong on principles, but be flexible on details . . .The patience to listen to divergent points of view and find common ground on which to build . . . The perseverance to invest the time and energy to wade through the sludge to get to a palatable product on the other side. And that can be a high price to pay when leaders are more often measured on their short-term outcomes than their long-term impact. (Okay, so maybe insanity is the right word.)

And yet, as I write this blog on an election day, the sentiment of “if you don’t participate in the system, you don’t have the right to criticize it” comes to mind. Is someone really a leader if he or she continuously points out the flaws in a system, and yet does nothing to try to impact change within that system? Don’t those who turn to us for care deserve to have us dream big dreams on their behalf, even if it means we have to put up with a bit of pain and suffering in the process? Think about it. If we aren’t around the table, how do we know that someone else will protect our mission on our behalf?

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I think sometimes leadership comes down to doing what your gut keeps telling you to do, even when you really don’t want to do it. Because the bottom line is, it’s not about you. It’s about the mission.

So for those leaders who like to move at a fast pace, who perhaps lack patience, and like to be in control . . . maybe the best way to make a lasting difference is to take a deep breath, and acquire a taste for sausage.