Making a List

Santa Claus holding a quill pen whilst checking the naughty or nice list.

This season of “making a list and checking it twice” is a good time for leaders to reflect on whether their actions in the past year would land them on the good stewards/successful/”nice” list or some other list that has less appeal. Of course no one aspires to tip the scales in the other direction, but in the dizzying pace of trying to keep up with everything on your plate, leaders can easily and unconsciously slide toward the slippery slope that leads to “that other list.”

A few suggestions for staying on the nice list:

Don’t play the victim. Yep, times are tough, money is tight, and external regulations/competition/unseen variables are impacting your work. That’s the price of admission to this leadership gig. You can take a deep breath, search out the opportunity imbedded in the challenge, and lead your team confidently in a clearly identified strategic direction; or you can oh-poor-me and wallow with like-minded people who find it easier to commiserate with their buddies while blindly moving four spaces toward the other list.

Don’t ask for others’ opinion if you have already made up your mind. Trying to create the illusion of input only damages your credibility and decreases the chance that people will speak their mind when you really want them to. You are the leader. Some situations may call for you to make a decision without input. Okay, say so. In other cases, you may be leaning in a particular direction but want to make sure you have heard all sides of the issue. Okay, say so. By being up front, you are more likely to get people’s best thinking when you really need it. Pretending to ask for input in an attempt to get support for a foregone conclusion . . . move 8 spaces toward the other list.

Make a decision already! Yes, the stakes are high, and especially in non-profit organizations we tend to be risk averse. We only want to make a decision when success is guaranteed. But if success is guaranteed, does your organization really need a leader? Be willing to fail early and often. That’s how you learn what will work and find new opportunities that you would never have seen if you hadn’t taken that first step. Or, wait for your ship to come in . . . it’s located 6 spaces father down the path to the other list.

Recognize it’s not about you . . . really! You may be charged with setting a course, making critical decisions, and getting the right people on the bus, but the real work at hand is completed by those who choose to follow you. It is only through the diligent efforts of those you lead that outcomes are achieved. For those who dare to think otherwise . . . well, when I was growing up, that was called “getting too big for your britches” and there was no quicker way to get to the head of the other list.

So there you have it. You can be sure your board, staff and other stakeholders are making a list and checking it twice. Which list are you going to be on this year?

Trying on Shoes

I believe one of the keys to wise leadership is the ability to try on a lot of shoes . . . not all of which will be comfortable. Some may pinch a bit, or have you tottering to maintain your balance. Some will be well-worn and rather tattered with little to no support. Others will be thick and rigid like a ton of bricks. And dozens of others will fall somewhere in between. But the time and effort it takes to walk a mile in someone’s shoes (not a block, a block is easy, we’re talking a mile here) can make all the difference in moving you from “reasonable” . . . “justifiable” decisions to truly impactful ones.

You may make one decision when all you see is a child’s disruptive behavior, and you want that behavior to stop. You may make an entirely different decision when you realize that no one was home to get the child up in the morning, he is basically raising his baby sister, he is scared and hungry, and putting on a tough exterior so no one will know. If you’re going for impact, simply addressing the behavior will do little to truly change the situation.

While it may be easier to empathize with a child, the same concept applies to staff, contractors, partner organizations — you know, those we call “grown-ups.” When one of these individuals acts in a seemingly illogical, from your perspective detrimental, or otherwise aggravating manner, do you insist that they fall in line (after all, you’re the leader, right?!?) or do you dig a bit deeper to see why they are responding as they are?

You’re right. You don’t have time to hold everyone’s hand, to nurse them along until they can get on board. And I’m sure you will have much more time down the line, when your project gets derailed and you have to invest the time to go back and try to re-group, or fill the void left by a partner who decided to walk away. I understand, your shoes are really comfortable. Why should you mess with trying on someone else’s shoes?

Because, hopefully, you’re in this leadership gig for the long haul. And making decisions without taking into consideration other perspectives is short-sighted. That doesn’t mean that everyone is going to like every decision you make, but it does mean when you seek first to understand you have a better chance of reaching your ultimate goals.

So how do you know when you need to test drive some new footwear? A good starting point is when you find yourself taking a hard line on something, and aren’t interested in someone else’s opinion. That is usually exactly when you need to take a walk the most. You ultimately may not change your position, and that’s fine. When people know you looked at a situation from their perspective, even if they aren’t thrilled with the ultimate decision, it becomes easier for them to come on board and take the journey with you.

Maybe it’s time you tried on some new shoes.

The Hardest Thing for a Leader To Do . . .

meeting roomNothing.

And by that, I don’t mean there is nothing that is hard for a leader to do. Rather, I have observed (okay, and experienced) that consciously stepping back and doing nothing in a specific situation can be incredibly hard for many leaders. We are wired to make things happen, to strategize, to fix problems . . . but sometimes sitting back and letting a situation play itself out a bit can be the best strategy.

Consciously doing nothing is not the same as not making a decision — it is a deliberate decision, presumably with a rationale and expected outcome. It takes patience, and often times is not all that popular with people who look to you to “do something” when a challenge arises. Taking action is easier. Even if it’s the wrong action, at least people can see you’re trying to impact the situation. Apparent lack of action on the part of a leader may prompt people to a) wonder if you really understand the magnitude of a situation; b) think you’re indecisive; c) think you are “weak”; or d) all of the above and probably several other letters to boot!

Making a choice to do nothing takes confidence, rather thick skin, and the willingness to take a long view. That said, there are several situations where doing nothing may be the best course of action. For example, there may be times where individuals, either internal or external to your organization, try to press you to address an issue that is actually not yours to solve. Tempting as it may be, especially if you have an opinion about the preferred course of action, this is a time to take a “not my circus, not my monkeys” perspective. I’m confident you have plenty of your own challenges to address. If someone tries to get you to take on theirs, be pleasant, be encouraging, but beyond that, do nothing.

There are also cases where there is an internal issue that presents a growth opportunity for one of your staff members. Perhaps you could solve the issue more quickly however, much like a parent choosing not to step in when their child experiences a conflict, doing nothing can lead to more self-reliant staff. Or maybe you choose to do nothing to, in effect, call someone’s bluff, or force action on the part of another party. Doing nothing should not be your most frequently used strategy (if it is, you might want to revisit whether you really are just indecisive!), but used sparingly it can be extremely impactful.

I also find that people confuse “apparent lack of action” with doing nothing. Often there is much a leader is doing behind the scenes to positively impact a situation without it being visible to others — much like a duck who appears to glide effortlessly across the water, but is actually paddling like crazy under the surface. This is more common, and from my perspective much easier, than actually not responding — because you know you’re doing something, even if others don’t.

Ironically, the simple fact that most of us aren’t wired to do nothing can actually increase the impact of this response. People take notice. They think about what they should do if you’re not going to do anything, which sometimes can lead to the best solution to a situation.

Tough call, but hey, no one said leadership would be easy!