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!

The Seventh Day

Woman Resting In Hammock

“ . . . on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” — Genesis, 2:2.

In case any of you over-achiever types need a reminder, God rested on the seventh day. And He’s God! We . . . are not. How many days has it been since you rested?

Leaving work only to start on your 47-item to-do list at home does not count. Laundry, grocery shopping, changing the oil in the car, running the kids . . . these things are not resting. They may be a necessary part of your life, but resting they are not. Granted, resting looks different for different people. For some, it is settling in with a good book. For others rest and renewal comes from a walk through the woods, an afternoon spent with family and friends, losing yourself in a hobby, time spent in reflection, or actually taking a nap!

In her book Thrive Arianna Huffington noted that what we highlight in someone’s eulogy is very different than what we as a society define as success. It’s no wonder that burnout is reaching epic proportions. Too many people are giving up those things that are most meaningful, restful and renewing to them, to reach higher and work harder on the road to some modern version of success. Maybe the best antidote to burnout is a seventh day.

In actuality, a “seventh day” doesn’t have to be a whole day . . . and you certainly don’t have to wait a week to benefit from it! A ten-minute walk outside can do wonders for your sense of energy and peace of mind. Close your eyes and savor a piece of dark chocolate. Stop to enjoy a sunset. Turn off the computer, the phone, the TV and take a few moments to connect . . . to rest.

Don’t think you have time? (After all, a leader’s work is never done, right?) Let’s take a moment to consider the return on investment for a seventh day. Better decisions, more creativity, increased patience, and the simple fact that you get to enjoy life more . . . hmmm . . . seems like a worthwhile investment to me! Yes, I know, when you are in the midst of the tempest it is sometimes difficult a) to recognize how much you need a seventh day, and b) to find a way to work it into the rush and whirl of your life. But hey, you’re a leader . . . you can figure this one out!

As Ms. Huffington notes, maybe a first step is to start each day by asking yourself not what you have to do that day, but rather what kind of life do you want to live. Sort of shakes up the priorities a bit, huh? And I’d be willing to bet, in the life you want to live, you’ll find the time for a seventh day.

Permission to Fidget

Hand Clicking Pen

For those of you who think this leadership stuff is all nose to the grindstone, laser focus, serious business, I’m here to burst your bubble . . . well sort of. Leadership certainly can be those things, but sometimes the best way to get there is to fidget. No, that is not a misprint, and I am not pulling your leg.

In spite of what your teacher, your mother, or other responsible person who was trying to corral you in your youth may have told you, sometimes the best way to focus is to fidget. Seriously, there have been studies on this stuff  Whether it is because sensory-motor activities allows us to fully engage our brain, or the fact that doing things with your hands increases creativity and memory, a little fidgeting may be just what you need to get the job done.

What exactly do I mean by fidgets? It could be stress balls, tangles, or silly putty. Some entrepreneurs have made classy looking fidgets for those who have an image to uphold — you know those metal mazes with a stylus, the mini sand gardens with rakes and rocks, Newton’s cradle balance balls. Fidgets. Those without specifically designed tools fidget too. Twirling paperclips, spinning your rings, clicking your pen, drumming your fingers or shaking your leg. Yes, you are fidgeting. And then there is chewing gum, walking around during meetings, doodling . . .

What would happen if you as a leader sanctioned fidgeting as a way to support your people in their work? (and gave yourself permission to do the same!) How? Maybe you have a basket of fidgets in the center of the table at meetings. For the skeptics out there, just try it and see what happens to the tone of your discussions. Could you have more stand-up or walking conversations? What about providing fidgets for people to have at their desk, or even having a “best fidget” contest?

I believe it is important to take your work seriously, but not yourself. If squeezing a bag of liquid-filled balls helps you focus enough to work through the daunting challenges before you, that’s a good thing! Sure some people will think it’s silly, but who cares? Part of your job as a leader is to create an environment that helps your people get their jobs done. And if it makes people smile along the way, all the better.

Leadership is hard work. The expectations are high, and the challenges are many. Luckily, you’ve intuitively known how to focus on the task at hand since you were a little kid. Maybe it’s time to give yourself, and your team, permission to fidget.

Talk to Me

Surprised adult asking you mean me?

I recently ran across something that really struck a chord with me. “There would be a lot fewer problems in the world if we talked to people rather than about them.”

It is easy to agree with that sentiment in the abstract. You may even have one or two specific examples pop into your mind when you read those words. But before you get too comfortable up on that pedestal of high ideals, let’s take a moment to move that thought out of the abstract, and away from sweeping examples like stereotypes, politics or religion. Let’s take a look at the concept in your everyday life as a leader.

One of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “Seek First to Understand . . .” The only way to do that is to talk to someone . . . to listen, to inquire, to explore questions and possibilities with them. One of the challenges for leaders is that people look to you for answers, for guidance on how they should act and what they should believe. After a while, it is easy to start speaking rather than seeking, to start telling others about how you see things rather than asking others to share their perspective.

Be honest, how many times have you talked about your frustration with a situation, another organization, or a government agency with someone other than the one who was causing you to cringe? Yep, guilty. Sure, sometimes you have to process and it is helpful to get someone else’s take on a situation to see if they see or are experiencing what you are. Just don’t get stuck there. If you really want to solve the dilemma before you, you have to move from continuing to rehash a situation (i.e. bellyaching) to taking steps to resolve the issue — which in most cases requires talking to someone. Not at, not about, to.

I’m not suggesting that you not be decisive as a leader, only that you have as much information as possible — from all perspectives — before making a decision. Do you know the intent of the person/organization who is causing “the problem?” Not what you assume their intent was, but honestly inquiring about what they were trying to accomplish? (Hint: usually it is not simply to annoy you.) Then and only then can you begin to take steps to solve the dilemma before you.

Being an effective leader isn’t about how “strong” you are. It is about how many roadblocks you can remove, how many problems you can solve, to help your organization, and those with whom you work, succeed. It’s not as hard as we sometimes make it. In fact, the first step is really pretty simple. Talk to me.

Taking Care

YellowstoneLast week marked the 100th anniversary of our country’s National Park Service. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation to conserve our natural treasures for the enjoyment of countless generations to come, and named the National Park Service as caretakers of this important mission. Caretakers . . . taking care . . . isn’t that what all of us who are leaders should be doing for our organizations?

Sure, maybe you aren’t charged with protecting the majestic beauty of Glacier National Park, or maintaining the wildlife in Yellowstone, or honoring the fallen at Little Big Horn, but I’m guessing your organization has a fairly lofty mission all the same. And like the National Park Service, if you are truly serving as a caretaker for your organization, you shouldn’t make decisions for this quarter, or even this fiscal year. You should be making decisions that will keep your organization on solid footing for generations to come.

How? By taking care. Of your people, your resources, the legacy of those who came before you. Taking care often isn’t expedient. It doesn’t always respond to the latest fads. It keeps its feet firmly planted on your organizational mission, while also looking around two corners to prepare for the future. Taking care is about the long view, and in our instant everything culture, that can be very hard.

The other thing to note about care-taking is that it’s not about you. It is about something much bigger. Your organization’s mission, its legacy. Too many people today have a romanticized view of leadership as meaning you are in the spotlight or the center of attention. When a leader serves as a caretaker, however, the focus is on taking care, which means standing back and letting the mission take center stage.

Taking care is quiet leadership. Which should not be confused with weak or uncertain leadership. It is about studying the chessboard of your organization, and setting up the pieces today so they will be where they need to be three moves into the future. It is making the hard decisions because that’s what is in the best long term interests of the organization — even when it causes you or others pain in the short term.

In my experience, caretaker leaders are driven from the inside, rather than motivated by external rewards. Sure, external validation is nice, but it is the inside stuff that keeps them up at night, and gives them the most satisfaction at the end of the day. Caretakers are the ones who want their organizations to be around for the next 100 years and beyond.

And it all starts with taking care.

Not Yet . . .

Not YetChanging external/bureaucratic/or even organizational systems is not a task for the faint of heart. It is a process that often happens in fits and starts, and rarely if ever follows a predictable path. As an encouragement to my team in the midst of such journeys, I have often reminded them, “No doesn’t mean no, it means not yet.” (Of course, I have warned them that no one is allowed to repeat that to my sons . . . but that is a topic for another day.)

No doesn’t mean no, it means not yet. That has long been my philosophy, the way I’m wired as a leader. So you can imagine how pleased I was to run across Carol Dweck’s Ted Talk highlighting her research on the power of “not yet.” She contends that “not yet” is part of a growth mindset that gives an individual confidence that there is a path forward, as opposed to someone having a fixed mindset that is more of a pass/fail perspective.

According to Dweck, not yet provides a source of encouragement that “we can do this!” as opposed to “we tried that and it didn’t work.” It is a reason to keep going rather than an excuse to stop. Very few of us hit a home run on our first at-bat, which is not the same as assuming we will never hit a home run. Unfortunately, today it seems far too many people want a guarantee of success before they will even step into the batter’s box.

Leadership doesn’t come with guarantees. It is about sticking with a worthy endeavor, even if it is hard, and frustrating, and isn’t working out the way you hoped. Leadership is about the long view. Sometimes today’s answer is not yet, and then tomorrow is a chance to pick up where you left off and try a different path. Sure we all get tired, and it is tempting to just walk away. Not yet. Rest if you need to. Recharge. And then reframe that no into a not yet.

Not yet is not a new idea. Thomas Edison, got it. When trying to create the light bulb he noted, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And oh aren’t we happy that he hung on for number 10,001. Sure, not every task is worth that kind of effort, but as a leader shouldn’t you be focusing your energies on those that are?

My challenge to you is to be the kind of leader who fosters a growth mindset in your organization. Sure, that means there will be good days and bad days. But at least you’ll know that no is not permanent. And when someone tosses a no your way, you can smile knowingly and correct them with a simple “not yet.”

Letting Go

Keep Calm and Let Go

Tis the season of kids heading back to school, starting college and embarking on new beginnings. My heart goes out to friends who are sending a child off to live on their own for the first time. Even though it is an exciting time, and you want this experience for them, the fear of the unknown and the sadness of closing a chapter can lead to quite an emotional stew in the hearts of parents.

Letting go is hard. And not just with our children. It is no less difficult for organizations to let go of their “babies” . . . programs and services for which they have such fond memories. The difference is, those programs and the people in them usually aren’t clamoring to move on to the next phase like our children are. No, in organizations it’s the leader’s responsibility to decide it is time to embark on a new chapter. And that emotional stew I mentioned parents experiencing . . . yep, leaders get it in spades. Unfortunately, in some cases, leaders never take that step toward new possibilities because of how painful it is to move beyond what they have known, and their organizations suffer as a result.

Maybe it’s time to reframe this whole letting go thing. Maybe rather than mourn the loss of what has been, we need to celebrate the journey that has brought us to the point that we are ready to take the next step. Closing the door on a chapter doesn’t mean it wasn’t important or valuable in shaping the organization and moving it forward. It simply means the organization has grown to the point that it is ready to take the next step, and that’s a good thing.

I serve an organization that has been around since 1853. Rest assured, we look quite different today than we did 163 years ago, but the values this organization was built on are still alive and well in our work today. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and honor what they accomplished, not by never changing but by taking advantage of the amazing opportunities that have resulted from their efforts.

As a parent, we’re a bit sad when our kids spread their wings and fly, but that’s what kids are supposed to do. That’s what organizations are supposed to do too. Even amid the challenges and chaos and uncertainty of the world today, opportunities abound for your organization. You can’t reach for the future when you are clutching to the past . . . maybe it’s time to take a deep breath and let go.