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

Strong Backs

a determined strong businessman carrying an elephant on his back“Don’t ask for a lighter load, but for a stronger back.”

I’ve seen this quote, and variations thereof, credited to Phillips Brooks, a Jewish Proverb, and St. Augustine. The fact that so many want to lay claim to these words should be some indication of their truth. Leadership is at times a very heavy load. The weight of the responsibility . . . the impact of decisions . . . the lack of a clear path forward . . . can be overwhelming.

Oh what we would give for a lighter load. Sorry, not happening. Not if you are a leader. Far better, instead, to go for a stronger back. How does one build a stronger back? A few suggestions:

  • Rest. Everything is harder when you are tired — physically, mentally or emotionally. And the times you think you can least afford rest are when you need it the most. Have you ever stressed yourself into a knot, only to wake up the next morning with an entirely different perspective? That, my friend, is the curative, back-strengthening power of rest.

 

  • Talk it out. No one ever said leadership had to happen in isolation. Somehow, challenges seem to grow when they are confined to your head. Have you ever taken a bite of something you didn’t like, and it seemed to get bigger and bigger the more you chewed and you didn’t know how you were ever going to swallow it? Yeah, heavy loads can be like that when you roll them over and over in your mind and don’t share them with anyone. Don’t worry, the ultimate responsibility still lies with you, but sometimes talking it out can bring dilemmas down to size making their weight easier to bear.

 

  • Minimize distractions. Some people do this by getting outside and enjoying the beauty of the day. For others, prayer or meditation is key. Get away from your email, phone, and to-do list . . . if nothing else close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. The answer to the challenges before you will not out-shout all the other demands of your day. When you get quiet enough to hear that still small voice inside (your smartest and truest voice), you just might be surprised how often you find the peace to stand tall and move forward.

 

  • Keep at it. One doesn’t build a strong back overnight any more than you can lose weight by eating one healthy meal. It’s a start, yes, but the more you do it, the better the results. This leadership gig is a marathon, not a sprint, so if you want to be in it for the long haul you have to keep doing the things that lead to a stronger back.

The leadership load isn’t going to get any lighter. You can either continually stumble under its weight, or consciously decide to build a stronger back. The choice is yours.

Bad Leaders

bigstock--174355768No one intends to be a bad leader. And yet, it seems there is no shortage of individuals in positions of leadership who fall short of what we would call a “good leadership.” There are plenty of resources out there that outline the traits of a good leader, but far less focus on what happens to result in someone being considered a bad leader. Knowing what to avoid, however can be as instructive to a leader as knowing what to strive for.

Fundamentally, there are two kinds of bad leaders — those who are ineffective, and those who are unethical. Ineffective leaders may have noble ends in mind, but they fall short on the means they use to get there. Unethical leaders may be very effective (in that they accomplish their intended goal) but the ends they are working toward, or the means they use to get there, may be illegal or immoral.

Let’s start with the ineffective leader, because they are far more common. These individuals are working toward a noble cause, they just are not able to achieve the results needed to get there. Why? I’m sure we could fill pages with the ways that leaders are ineffective, but let’s start with the big “Cs.”

  • Communication. This is probably the number one reason why leaders don’t succeed. They fail to clearly communicate their vision. That doesn’t mean they don’t talk a lot, it just means they aren’t conveying a clear, concise, consistent message.
  • Culture. Ineffective leaders often don’t focus enough on “the way we do things around here.” Expectations, accountability and transparency can slip off course pretty easily if not tended to. If the leader doesn’t really listen, treat people with respect or live out the organizational values, the culture will follow suit.
  • Courage. It is hard to make the decisions that lead to success. There is risk, and pushback, and uncertainty, and sometimes it feels safer for a leader to stay in a comfort zone and not rock the boat quite so much. Such a leader might not accomplish the ultimate goal, but they’re still plugging away, right?!!

While many of us think we would never fall into the unethical category, it can be a bit of a slippery slope. To what degree to the ends justify the means? There are also several “C’s” on the path toward unethical behavior, and each step in this direction makes the next one easier to take.

  • Conceit. When leaders start to believe that they know better than anyone else, that they are smarter, and above the rules that apply to everyone else, they are starting down a dangerous path.
  • Callus. Unethical leaders have little concern for the impact of their actions on others. They see “collateral damage” as the cost of success, because their goal is more important than the impact they may be having on others.
  • Corrupt. By the time an unethical leader reaches this point, the other two C’s have often convinced them that there is a justifiable reason for their inappropriate, immoral or illegal activities. Few leaders start here, but sadly some end up here.

When you “C” it this way, perhaps the lines between good leaders and bad don’t seem quite so clear cut. Bad leaders provide a cautionary tale for those of us striving to be good leaders. We just have to be willing to “C” the difference.

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.

Simple Understanding

bigstock--focus lens.jpg“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” ― Malcolm GladwellBlink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

As we begin a new year, it can feel like our lives are spinning ever faster. With seemingly unending information outlets — 24-hour news cycles, social media, abundant prognosticators, never mind the numerous print outlets whose reported demise seems premature — it is easy to be overwhelmed by the scope of what we think we need to stay abreast of. And yet, as we begin a new year, we as leaders need to ask ourselves . . . are we doing a better job of accomplishing our missions as a result of acquiring more knowledge?

In far too many cases, I fear the answer is no. Why? I think Malcolm Gladwell nailed it on this one. Abundant knowledge simply makes us talking heads. It is understanding — knowing what is important, which details to focus on and which are simply noise — that allows us to advance our missions. I love Oliver Wendell Holmes’ concept of the “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That’s the sweet spot. That’s where understanding happens.

So how do you get to that kind of simple understanding? Focused flexibility. Let me explain. The focus part is pretty simple. Who are you (mission, vision, values) and where are you going (strategic goals)? That’s it. If you read the last few sentences and thought, “sure, that sounds nice, but she just doesn’t understand . . .” there’s a pretty good chance you are stuck on the hamster wheel of information/complexity. Trust me on this one. Step off the wheel and focus.

Once you are clear on your focus, flexibility comes into play. You see, you have to walk through the complexity on a daily basis, and some of the knowledge floating out there might provide a faster or easier path to the other side. Your focus is about the destination, the flexibility comes in the route. So be flexible enough to act on new information that directly impacts your ability to reach your destination, while also being focused enough to let the rest of it roll off your back — regardless of what “expert” says you are crazy to ignore the tidbit of information that he or she is peddling.

Still don’t believe me? Think about the most successful leaders you know. Are they bouncing around, reacting to every headline or do they have a calm focused presence — dare I even say a simple understanding of where it is their organization is headed?

That is my hope for you as a leader, and your organization, in the coming year. Simple understanding. See you on the other side!

Do Something!

Mature businessman presenting to colleagues at a meeting

There is one clear difference between effective leaders and people who merely hold positions of leadership. Effective leaders do things. Those who simply inhabit the positions intended for leaders talk about doing things. They plan, they call meetings, they ask questions and hire consultants. They tabulate the input on spreadsheets and write reports . . . which they have committees review and refine, and then send to other committees who table the discussion until some future meeting on an unspecified date. (Trust me, I am not exaggerating!)

Let me be clear. I am not saying planning, gathering input and refining the strategy are not very important tasks. I absolutely think they are. However, 1) that process does not have to be a complex, mind-numbing nine-month trudge, and 2) the critical final piece of the process is to do something! Think about it. When someone highlights a leader’s accomplishments, do you ever hear them talk about their amazing meetings, or how good they are at analyzing the pros and cons of complex variables? No, accomplishments require making a decision, choosing a path, committing resources, and then doing it, whatever it may be.

I understand that the stakes may be high, and the consequences for making the wrong decision can be significant. What some people in positions of leadership fail to realize is that there are also significant consequences to not making a decision — nothing happens! No opportunity seized, no progress made, no goals accomplished.

Granted, many times a leader does not have as much information as he or she might want to be completely confident that one path or the other is the right direction. However, if it was a sure bet, a grand slam, clearly the only way forward, then the organization wouldn’t need a leader to make the decision. Any reasonable person can identify a sure thing! Effective leaders make judgment calls. Are they right every time? Of course not. But I can guarantee you’ll never hit a home run unless you decide to swing at a few pitches.

Effective leaders focus on what their organization could gain by making a decision. Those who have been placed in positions intended for leaders focus more on what they could lose if they make the wrong decision, not recognizing that their waffling causes them to lose opportunities anyway. Effective leaders consider the risks in their decision-making, but in relation to the potential reward, not as a standalone dark cloud.

There is no magic bullet, no one thing that moves someone from simply inhabiting a position of leadership to being an effective leader, but one action that is a part of the puzzle every single time . . . you have to do something!

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?