Know Your Batting Order

Have you ever been stressed out by trying to keep too many balls in the air, and all at once you run across something so simple and so profound that it stops you in your tracks? Yep, me too. In fact, I was recently reading a blog post by Anne Lamott when three little words jumped off the page . . .

“Grace bats last.”

I love that! First and foremost because I count on receiving a measure of grace in my own life, but also because those three words provide so much guidance to us as leaders.

If you are in a position of leadership, sooner or later (or both) you will be called on to make a difficult decision — one that is not popular, and maybe even has a negative impact on someone else. That’s part of the job, but how you carry out such decisions can make a huge difference in how you are perceived as a leader.

I think far too often, we get the batting order mixed up. We start out by being overly flexible, willing to negotiate expectations, trying to be patient and accommodating at all costs . . . until we reach the end of our rope, we’re done, we draw the line, and we’re the bad guy. What if, instead, we set clear guidelines/boundaries/expectations at the beginning, and consistently held people accountable to those. When that happens, you separate out those situations that are never going to work from those that really could. And if a situation that looks promising needs a bit of a concession, a measure of grace, you will still have the energy and ability to accommodate a special circumstance.

Even when you have to make a decision that will be hard to some to accept, I believe the best leaders find a way to offer a measure of grace in the process. Make the difficult decision, yes, and then carry it out with great kindness. Be more generous than you have to be in the process. Sure, some will think you’re soft, but most will see you as fair, and someone they want to work with . . . You know, the whole Golden rule thing . . .

Lastly, we may occasionally need to remind ourselves that grace bats last for us as leaders, too. Our impact is more than the sum of a single decision or action. Too often, I’ve seen leaders afraid to swing at an opportunity because they fear they may strike out based on a single action. While I suppose there are circumstances where that could happen, in most cases, we will be judged by the long view, by the total sum of our actions.

So take that swing, do what you know you need to do, and then let grace bat last.

Note: Originally posted on July 15, 2015

The Choice is Yours

Concept of choice with crossroads spliting in two waysI have a tendency to get frustrated with people in positions of leadership who, when faced with a difficult situation, default to telling their team that, “We don’t have a choice.” You always have a choice. You may not like the choices before you. There may be a high cost for a choice, financial or otherwise. You may wish you weren’t the one who had to make the choice. But, you always have one.

You are the leader. People are looking to you to see how they should respond. Even when you have to choose between the lesser of two evils, make the choice. Don’t default and let “them” make the decision for you. (You know, them . . . those people who are telling you that you “have to” do whatever it is you would rather not do.) There is a confidence, a sense of control, that comes when you consider all the options, good or bad, and pick one. No one is doing it “to you”. You are not a helpless bystander in someone else’s plan. The choice is yours.

Even when you find yourself in the midst of a situation, not of your making, you can still choose how you respond. You can wallow in the midst of it all, proclaiming that it is not your fault (which it very well may not be), or you can put one foot in front of the other and walk your way out of the situation. You’ll likely have a lot of company in “ain’t it awful land”, but people want their leaders to chart a course to a better place. And the best way forward is usually to decide to take a step . . . and then another. You can always course correct along the way if you need to, but momentum favors the person who is moving. Sometimes, the best solution comes three steps in, and you never would have seen it if you didn’t choose to move forward.

I am a big believer in plans, and yet sometimes perfecting the plan can become a way to avoid making a choice. “Oh, we will (fill in the blank) as soon as soon as we work out all the details.” So work them out. Make a decision, even a small one, that moves your effort forward. Leaders need to lead. That means choosing a destination, making the hard decisions if you need to, and then helping your people find a way forward. You are a leader. That’s what leaders do.

The choice is yours.

The Challenge of Leadership

Top View of Business Shoes on the floor with the text: Life BegiDo you want to grow as a leader, or are you satisfied with maintaining the status quo in terms of your leadership impact? Before you respond, consider this . . . leadership growth requires that you move outside your comfort zone.

When leaders achieve a level of success, there is a tendency to want to keep doing what has gotten you to this point. You know how to do it. It obviously worked. You have “arrived” as a leader. Why would you want to switch up your strategy now? Well, for starters, circumstances change and using an old approach to respond to new variables rarely produces the desired results. To quote Marshall Goldsmith, “what got you here won’t get you there.”

Leadership growth happens at the far side, the outer edge, of what you know. That doesn’t mean your experience and past success isn’t real and valid. It simply means that to increase your impact tomorrow, you have to be willing to challenge and adapt and stretch into the discomfort of not knowing for sure how you are going to accomplish your next goal — only that you will. In Learning Leadership Kouzes and Posner note that challenge is the defining context for leadership. If we didn’t have challenges, we wouldn’t need leaders.

So if challenge is the defining context for leadership, then real leadership cannot be about “getting there” or reaching a comfort zone. It is about finding a way through gnarly problems on the path toward incredible opportunities. It’s about growing and stretching and striving for more. It is about stepping into uncharted waters because reaching the destination is worth the risk.

Does every leader occasionally have fantasies about changing the world from the cozy confines of their comfort zone? Probably. And it’s fine — smart even — to hang out in that space every once in a while, to catch your breath and recharge your engines. Ultimately, however, to increase your leadership impact, you have to stand on the edge of uncertainty and decide move forward. Because when you step outside of your comfort zone, when you commit to taking on the leadership challenge before you, you chart a course that allows your team to also move forward . . . providing the opportunity for them to stretch and grow on the path toward organizational success.

The choice to stretch into the uncertainty is yours to make. That is both the comfort and the challenge of leadership growth.

It’s not about the Roar

Lion roaring, sitting, Panthera Leo, 10 years old, isolated on white
Originally published December 3, 2014

I have a plaque hanging over my desk that reads, “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow’. “

 I have lost count of the number of times that sentiment has given me comfort at the end of a particularly challenging day. Sometimes, leadership is about two steps forward and one step back. It’s about continuing to push on the flywheel, even when you don’t see any progress, because you know it is cumulative efforts that get things rolling. It’s about persisting in putting one foot in front of the other, even when the path is covered in fog. Courageous is not usually the word we think of to describe ourselves in such situations, but maybe it should be…

How many opportunities are lost because we don’t have the perseverance, the courage, to push on through the difficulties, setbacks, and disappointments? Or the courage to step out into the unknown, even though such a move could advance your mission? How many times is it dogged (courageous) determination, rather than singular pronouncements, that make the difference in achieving the win?

In some respects, roaring courage is “easier”. That courage we call on at a moment of crisis, or when we draw a line in the sand. Those moments when we have to act — when people look to us to roar — do take courage, but in many cases, the situation is forcing our hand. Not so with quiet courage. Quiet courage is about making the hard decisions even when it is likely that no one will notice. Quiet courage is about continuing through the challenges in your pursuit of a goal because it is too important to stop short. Quiet courage comes from that small, still, voice inside that won’t settle for less.

Most leaders will have to display roaring courage from time to time, but it is episodic. You make a roaringly courageous decision, and then do your best to get back to business as usual as soon as possible. Quiet courage is more of a characteristic, it’s how you approach your leadership responsibilities — or at least try to — day in and day out.

Quiet courage may be overlooked or mislabeled, but make no mistake, it is courage …

… After all, it’s not about the roar.

Days Like This

CalenderThere will be days like this.

Your schedule was booked to the brim with meetings . . . on top of the project that had to be completed by the end of the day . . . and that was before three other things popped up that required your attention. It feels like distractions are undermining your ability to do your job. Except, if you’re a leader, the distractions are your job. What is being undermined is your well- laid plan that tied all of your leadership goals into a nice neat package.

More often than not, leadership doesn’t happen in a predictable, orderly fashion. It happens in the mess of drive-by comments, unexpected challenges and surprising opportunities. Sure, the planned things still have to happen, but if your goal is to eliminate distractions from your schedule you are going to be one frustrated leader. Embrace the unpredictability. Allow yourself to find the joy and potential in the unexpected. If you are too busy stressing over the fact that your plans have been derailed, you might totally miss the chance to have a significant impact on an individual or situation.

On days like this, your attitude can make all the difference. Will you focus on what didn’t get done or the people you were able to help? Will you let the interruptions ruin your day or find a way for them to add to it? You have the choice. You’re the leader. What kind of example will you set for those who look to you for how to handle life’s unexpected twists and turns?

What if, on days like this, you made a conscious decision to look on each distraction as an opportunity . . . to view the unexpected occurrence through the lens of possibility? At the very least, it will make the day less frustrating, and at best it can lead to a path far beyond what you might have achieved had you stuck with your original plan.

You may not always get to choose how your day unfolds, but do you do get to choose your perspective. Sometimes the greatest leadership opportunities start out as days like this.

It’s Not About the Plan

Business Corporate Management Planning Team ConceptAt the risk of causing shudders among many a leader and consultant, I am not a big believer in strategic plans. In our organization, we use a strategic framework. That might sound like semantics to some, but I don’t see it that way and here is why: One dictates step-by-step actions (how), the other guides decision-making in a specific direction (where). And in today’s fluid, fast-changing environments, pre-ordained actions (how) may be rendered outdated, inappropriate or impossible before the ink is even dry on the plan — regardless of how long one spent creating it in the first place.

Dwight Eisenhower once noted that, “In preparing for battle, I have always found plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” I couldn’t agree more. I am a huge proponent of the strategic planning process, just not the definitive plans that often result. Why? Because over-reliance on a specific process can leave those charged with carrying it out unclear on how to proceed when things don’t go according to the plan . . . and things rarely go exactly according to the plan. (What is that saying . . . Man plans and God laughs?)

Is it critical to know the end goal? Absolutely. Is it helpful to have considered a range of possible scenarios? Yep. Is it important to understand the organization’s priorities? Most definitely. In my experience, however, organizations act their way forward rather than plan their way forward. Individuals within the organization make moment-by-moment decisions regarding the path, the actions, that have the greatest likelihood of moving the organization toward the clearly identified end goal. How can one know two years out, or sometimes even two months out, the best decision given a myriad of ever-changing external variables? And yet, if a specific set of expected actions is outlined in an approved multi-year strategic plan (presumably to which staff are being held accountable), how many people will follow the plan rather than exercising their good judgment?

It is not about the plan. It is about understanding what the organization is trying to accomplish, the assets it brings to the table, the barriers it is likely to encounter, and staff members who have both the context and competencies to make decisions that move the organization closer to its ultimate goal. Smart, well-informed leaders monitoring the situation and making adjustments in the moment will do far more to help an organization succeed than the best thinking from a year ago.

Strategic success is about preparation and priorities. It is not about the plan.

Architects and Builders

Architect and builder discussing at construction site.If you have ever built a house, you may have noticed that the architect and the builder are usually not the same person. While it is true that occasionally these two roles are carried out by a single individual, in most cases people specialize in . . . naturally gravitate toward . . . one set of skills or the other. The same is true of leaders. Steve Graves calls these two types of leaders entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders.

Entrepreneurial leaders are your innovators, your start-up specialists, your architects. These leaders are always asking “what if” and “what about”. They are passionate, have a sense of urgency, are continually searching for new opportunities and challenging the status quo. According to Graves, “Entrepreneurial leaders disrupt, motivate, pivot, run fast, and break things.” Every organization needs entrepreneurial leaders.

Enterprise leaders, your builders, figure out how to make the idea on paper actually happen. They focus their energy on coordinating systems, processes, and people for maximum impact. They plan for and respond to the complex realities of a project and determine how to construct something that is sustainable over time. They tend to be more measured and methodical, sticking with something until every detail is addressed. Every organization needs enterprise leaders.

Although architects and builders may not always see eye to eye, if you are going to construct something that has a lasting impact, you need both sets of skills — in varying amounts at different stages of the building process. The creative tension between the two perspectives provides the opportunity for better results than either could achieve alone. Like so much of leadership, it is all about the balance — leaning a bit more in one direction at a particular point in time, and then shifting back toward the other end of the continuum as circumstances change.

The trick is to make sure you have individuals with both sets of skills on your “construction team.” If you naturally skew toward one end of the continuum (and as a result tend to place more value on that set of skills), it is easy to surround yourself with like-minded people. That might make for a smoother process, but not likely a better result. It is the range of perspectives that come from both entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders that yield the greatest impact.

Whether you are trying to build a house or a solid future for your organization, you need both architects and builders on the team.

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.