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.

Paint Swatches

Paint ChipsI can view a paint swatch and have a pretty good idea of what it will look like in a room. My husband is somewhat baffled by how I can look at a 2 inch square of color and know if it will work in a 12 x 14-foot space. Practice . . . lots of practice. Oh, maybe not always with paint, but isn’t that what we leaders do every time we consider a new opportunity?

Most opportunities don’t come to us fully formed. Rather we notice possibilities, like little squares of color, and it is up to a leader to extrapolate what the opportunities could look like if they were to be expanded to a larger scale. Unfortunately, some people in positions of leadership struggle to know what that spark of color can look like when it is infused throughout the organization, so they simply spin their wheels and expend their energy going back and forth between several options but never actually making a decision. Others will dip their toes in and buy a little bit of several colors to try on the wall. This is helpful for some leaders, but for others dabbling in multiple possibilities, it only confuses the matter more.

The only way to maximize an opportunity is to get it on the wall . . . to make a choice and start painting. For those who still struggle to decide which color will give the best overall result, I have a few pointers.

  • Know what you’re going for. Why are you looking at paint swatches in the first place? Is your current space too monotone and you’re looking for a bit diversification, are things getting a bit dated and you want to respond to emerging trends, do you need to perk up or calm down the environment? Maybe you just like to be on the leading edge of the next big thing. Always know the intent of the effort.
  • Consider the furnishings in the room. If you view an opportunity in isolation, the “color” may look good by itself but may clash with everything else in the room. A great idea that detracts from all the things that are currently working in your organization really isn’t such a great idea, no matter how cool the color chip may look by itself.
  • Make a decision. Thinking about a new color, considering the nuances of one shade over another is all well and good . . . but if you want something to change, ultimately you have to make a decision and start painting. It is only paint. You can change the color down the road if you need to, but in all my years, I have never seen a wall spontaneously paint itself. The leader has to decide and then act.

There are a rainbow of opportunities before every organization. Pick a swatch and start painting.

The Other 93%

Unhappy Discontent Woman And Man Look With Disgusting ExpressionWhether or not you believe Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s oft-quoted research that 55% of communication happens through nonverbals, 38% through vocal elements, and only 7% through the words we use, most people will concede that nonverbals play a major role in communications. So why is it that so many leaders seem to focus only on words and ignore the other 93%?

For starters, open two-way communication gets harder when people are placed in positions of leadership. Most people who report to you will be good students. Good students give the teacher the answer he or she wants to hear, whether or not they actually believe it’s true. After all, giving the “right” answer is the way you get good grades, right? So most people’s words tend to reinforce what the leader is already thinking . . . thus giving a 7% confirmation that everyone is on the same page regarding the best course of action.

But aren’t words more “concrete” than all subjective, nonverbal stuff? In a word, no. When words and nonverbals are in conflict trust the nonverbals, which are often unconscious and reflect true feelings or intentions. (Anyone who has raised a teenager can vouch for the truth of this concept.) People may say what they think they are supposed to, but for the leader who takes the time to “listen” to the nonverbals, there can be a whole host of information being communicated that isn’t being “said.” Whether it is a lack of eye contact, gestures or physical movement (such as someone tapping their foot, drumming their fingers or crossing their arms), how a person positions themselves in the room, or “the look on their face”, your people can say a lot without saying a word.

What can a leader do to make sure you are hearing the full message? Focus on the complete “conversation” taking place, not just the words being shared — by you or someone else. If you are thinking about what you are going to say next, you can miss subtle nonverbal cues that are communicating loud and clear if only you are attentive enough to notice. If a person’s words and nonverbals are inconsistent, ask for clarification — not in an accusing way, but in a spirit of seeking to understand . . . “Joe, you seem uncomfortable/unconvinced/skeptical . . . do you see the matter differently?” And then give Joe the opportunity to share his perspective.

When you consistently loop back with your people in this way, a) they will start to believe that you really do want to know what they are thinking, b) they will feel seen and valued because you noticed something that they may not have even been aware of conveying, and c) you will gain the value of the full message your people are communicating — through words they share . . . and the other 93%.

Shades of Gray

White Painted Textured Background With Brush StrokesIt seems far too common these days to find headlines that reflect an apparent lack of ethics in leadership. How does this happen? What has led to what some might consider to be an ethics crisis among leaders? Is it power? . . . ego? . . . a lack of morals? Undoubtedly in some cases, it is one or all of these things. In other cases, however, the issue is not so black and white.

Choices between right and wrong are fairly easy. It’s making choices between two “right” answers that gets a bit trickier . . . where each possible choice reflects a core value of the organization, and a decision has to be made regarding which value should take precedence in a given situation. Suddenly, a leader may be faced with a whole lot of gray.

Should decisions be made in the best interest of . . .

. . . the individual or the organization?

. . . short-term or long-term impact?

. . . responsibility or loyalty?

. . . duty, rights, virtue or relationships?

It all depends on where you are standing, the perspective you choose, as you weigh the options.

When external rules or expectations would direct an organization to take a course of action that would not be in the best interest of a specific individual, what is an organization to do? Look out for the individual and risk some degree of sanction for the organization? Perhaps . . . if you used an individual lens. What if such sanction would impact the organization’s ability to serve other individuals in the future, would that change the decision? Does the degree of harm — to the individual or the organization — factor into the decision? So many shades of gray.

Leaders have to deal, often on a daily basis, with the messy reality of competing demands, pressures, expectations and values. Courses of action that may seem clear in hindsight are often mired in a gray fog at the point a leader must choose a path forward. That is simply the reality of leadership. So how does one make the “best” ethical decision?

  • Clearly articulate organizational values and the predominant perspective the organization will use to guide decision-making. For example, “we will act in ways that sustain the organization for the long term.”
  • Engage in transparent dialog to gain a variety of perspectives. At times, a leader may not even recognize there could be other perspectives to consider. Voicing the dilemma, encouraging feedback, and discussing options can help clarify the path forward.
  • Step back from the issue at hand. When you look at any decision too narrowly it can keep you from considering the full implications of a decision. Ethics can be a slippery slope when you look at individual decisions in isolation.

Know your values and priorities, openly discuss the tough decisions, and look at the big picture. The answer still may not be black and white, but taking these steps can help a leader reduce the shades of gray.

Get Out of the Way

No More ConceptSometimes as a leader, we create barriers to our own progress, and if we — and our organizations — are to maximize our potential, we first need to get out of our own way. Yes, I’m sure that you can easily think of a leader whose confidence appears to outpace his or her ability. Let’s just work with the assumption that those individuals are not likely to invest time in reading this leadership blog . . . and so for those who are reading, it seems quite plausible that you may at times underestimate your unique capabilities. Still unconvinced? Ask yourself . . .

  • Have you ever gone to a conference session and thought I (or my people) know all that and more/have more hands-on experience/could do that in my/our sleep?

 

  • Have you ever become aware of an organization that implemented a program you had considered but never acted on, that is being lauded as “ground-breaking”?

 

  • Have you ever believed a course of action could be really impactful, but after a few “no’s” you convinced yourself it would never happen?

 

  • Have you ever read a book or article that articulates something you have known for years but thought it sounded too simplistic so you never shared it?

 

  • Have you ever ignored what your gut was telling you because some “expert” recommended you move in another direction?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then chances are that you are selling yourself and your organization short, and you might want to consider getting out of your own way.

I am not suggesting you should adopt a self-congratulatory style or take on undue risk. I am suggesting you strive for what Jim Collins refers to as Level Five Leadership — personal humility coupled with professional will. Many leaders have one or the other. If you are heavy on the humility side (in many ways an admirable trait), that may at times keep you from shining a light on your organization’s unique capabilities and expertise. In other cases, there may be a tendency to think that others know what you know (not true) or assume that because something seems basic/logical/self-evident to you that others recognize it as well (also not true). If any of these things have a ring of truth to you, maybe it’s time to get out of your own way.

How? Start small. Share what you are thinking. It doesn’t have to be complex or perfect or groundbreaking (although it might be). Don’t try to be all things to all people. Get clear on your vision and then go all in — as only you can. Don’t let the fear of standing out, or being criticized hold you back. Sometimes one of the biggest barriers to our organization reaching its full potential is closer than we realize.

Get out of the way.

Listen up!

bigstock--Listen upIt seems that listening is becoming a bit of a lost art, to everyone’s detriment. Without the ability to listen, we doom ourselves to never moving beyond the limits of our current thinking — and such thinking is limiting, regardless of how we might like to convince ourselves otherwise.

Listening is different than hearing. According to Merriam Webster, hearing is “the process, function, or power of perceiving sound.” This definition made me think of Charlie Brown’s teacher . . . waa wa waa wa wa. Yes, in today’s 24/7 environment, there is more sound out there to perceive than ever before. But are we listening, or do we simply see people’s mouths moving and filter what they are saying as good or bad . . . as supporting our position or challenging it?

Webster defines listening as “to pay attention to sound, to hear something with thoughtful attention, give consideration.” Giving consideration is a very different thing from perceiving sound. Which do you do most often?

Giving consideration isn’t about being “wishy washy,” or politically correct, or not having a strength of your convictions. To the contrary, the willingness to listen — really listen — requires a great deal of confidence. Are you confident enough to give thoughtful attention to a different perspective, and perhaps adjust your thinking a bit as a result? Are you confident enough to strive for the “best” in a situation rather than being “right”? (Best is about others, right is about you). Best comes from considering multiple perspectives . . . from listening . . . before you make a decision.

Leaders who don’t listen — who filter out input from anyone who doesn’t see the world as they do — often end up on an island of their own making, cut off from a large expanse of perspectives, insight, and potential. Islands can be cozy places, but they limit how far you can go. As a leader, if you find yourself on such an island (which happens more easily than you might think), what can you do? Listen.

Listening builds bridges. If all you are hearing is people who agree with you, then you need to ask for diverse perspectives. Seek to understand. Listening is not about waiting your turn to tell someone why he or she is wrong. It is about giving consideration, walking a mile in their shoes. Ultimately, you may not agree with the person or perspective, but by listening you start to build a bridge off that island. You expand your possibilities for future success. You lead.

Maybe it’s time to listen up.

Getting to the Other Side

Wooden footpath stairway in mystical deciduous forest disappeari

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The longer I have been on this leadership journey, the more profound this Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. quote becomes, largely because I have seen so many well-intentioned people just stop and hang out in the muck and confusion of the “complexity” rather than continue to push through to the simplicity on the other side. Maybe for some people, it is easier to remain mired down in the intricate details because that provides the cover for continued information gathering and considering of options rather than committing to a decision that might be the wrong one. For most leaders, however, I think they just don’t realize that simplicity is an option. It is.

Make no mistake, “getting to the other side” is not an easy task. You can’t just go there first. The simplicity on the other side is not the novice’s basic understanding, which is found on “this side” of complexity. It is recognizing the layers and complicated variables of the situation — most clearly understood by walking through the midst of it — and then distilling the multiple scenarios, contingencies, and possibilities down into a path to the other side. And there is a path, but it will only become obvious when you are intentional about looking for it.

Following are a few pointers for the journey:

  • It will feel like a “hot mess” when you are in the midst of it. This is where a bit of experience helps. Once you have made the journey a time or two, it is easier to trust the process (okay, maybe not easier, but I have learned to repeatedly remind myself . . . trust the process!). I have yet to get to the other side without first feeling like I would never get there. This is usually because I try to shortcut the journey and find the path forward without walking all the way through the complexity. Keep forging ahead.

 

  • Get all the layers and variables down — in writing — before you try to consolidate your thinking. There is something about getting everything in print, with input from multiple sources, that allows you to see patterns that elude you when simply talking or rolling things around in your mind. Don’t try to categorize as you go, just get it all down. Trying to fit everything into a box too soon can result in missing points of connection.

 

  • You can’t rush the process, and you need a deadline. Yes, I know this seems contradictory. In my experience, the deadline is necessary to push you through the process, but you also have to let things “percolate” for a while. Sleep on it. Leave it alone for a bit. Then come back to the information and trust that a path will emerge.

What needs simplifying in your organization? The journey may not be easy, but it is absolutely worth the effort. See you on the other side.