Making Room

Available Room Sign On Board

As Christmas approaches, regardless of your faith tradition, there are many leadership lessons to be learned from the birth of the Christ child. One that stands out to me at this particular moment in time is the concept of making room.

Jesus was an illegitimate child born to lowly foreigners who were seemingly ill-equipped to care for their child. To say they would be considered an “at risk” family was probably an understatement. And yet, from such humble beginnings came one of the greatest leaders of all time. Can you make room in your concept of who is “leadership material” to open the door to an unlikely candidate who brings something totally new to the table?

Much of the buzz about the Christ child was coming from people who really didn’t grasp the big picture, you know, uneducated shepherds. Granted, there were those wise men, but they were from another country and really didn’t understand King Herod’s strategic goals. Surely if he reasoned with them, they would understand the need to get things back on course . . . Easy to see the flaws in Herod’s approach in hindsight, but can you make room amid your well-laid plans to pivot when an unexpected distraction (um, opportunity) presents itself?

Logical, rational thinking would not have supported the conclusion that people throughout the world would still be talking about this seemingly random, inconsequential (well except for the star thing, but certainly that could be explained away) occurrence more than 2000 years later . . . and yet they are. Can you make room in your performance-based, metric-centric, fact-driven lens to pay attention to passion and potential, to look past probability to see possibility?

It is much easier to say no to making room. Truly, the Inn Keeper had no more space available — at least not what one would typically think of as space that could be used for lodging. Making room often requires a leader to look at things a bit differently than most people would see as typical or reasonable or necessary. Making room requires getting people to change their ways, at times having uncomfortable conversations, and not being certain of exactly how things will turn out.

At its core, making room is a decision of the heart . . . based on values, and mission, and an aspirational vision of the kind of place you want your organization to be. Making room takes courage, and faith in what could be, regardless of how unlikely something might appear at the outset. Making room is really what leadership is all about.

My hope for you this holiday season, and into the New Year, is that you take a moment to pause, look around, and consider where you should be challenging yourself and your organization . . . by making room.

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.

 

Big Yellow Hats

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When my (now 31-year-old) nephew was young, he loved Curious George. If you know the story, through the many circumstances in which “George was curious,” the man with the big yellow hat encouraged him to explore, but was always there to keep him from going too far afield. George learned a great deal because the man with the big yellow hat allowed him the freedom to try new things.

Are you a “big yellow hat” leader? Do you encourage your staff to ask why, experiment, test theories and take risks, even when you know that sometimes they will stub their toes? According to a new report from The Bridgespan Group two of the core components in building a capacity for innovation within your organization are a curious culture, and catalytic leadership.

George was allowed to live in a curious culture. He took risks, and when he “failed” it became a lesson-filled learning opportunity. For the skeptics out there who are thinking your organization isn’t a cartoon and you can’t afford to have your staff play around, I would respond that, yes, there are risks that come with innovating. There are also costs associated with always coloring within the lines drawn by others. Just recognize that if you want your staff to identify creative approaches to the challenges before them, you have to let them explore a bit and ask “what if.” You have to let them be curious.

And what, exactly, is catalytic leadership? Merriam-Webster defines a catalyst as “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. Catalytic leadership provides the push needed to get the ball rolling in a specific, focused direction. The man in the big yellow hat always identified where they were going or what they were going to do, he simply allowed George the freedom to be curious along the way. Catalytic leadership isn’t about letting staff focus their energies in twelve different directions. It is about articulating a vision and priorities, and then letting your people grapple and experiment with the best way to get there. It is about mentoring and encouraging collaboration and hands-on learning. It is about allowing your staff to find a path forward.

Being a big yellow hat leader takes patience and the ability to embrace ambiguity. It requires a recognition that progress rarely happens in straight lines or amid a tangle of rules, and that one rarely knows the route to the end of the journey when standing at the beginning of it. It requires a clear vision of the destination and the ability to inspire others and serve as a role-model for embracing possibilities.

How exactly does one become a big yellow hat leader? The first step . . . is to be curious.

Leadership Quicksand

Quicksand

There are many potential obstacles as you forge a path through the leadership jungle, but perhaps the one most likely to grab hold of you and suck you under — truly the quicksand of good leadership — is ego.

I’m not talking about confidence here. Confidence and ego, while often seen as one in the same, are really quite different. Confidence is inwardly focused . . . you have faith in your ability to come up with the best solution. Ego is externally focused . . . you want others to believe you have it all figured out. Confidence is calm, quiet even. Ego is brash and always trying to be in the limelight.

How do you know if you are approaching leadership quicksand, or if you’re already there, how do you keep from being swallowed alive? Here are a few tips for how to know if you are no longer standing on solid ground.

  • You are so sure you know the “best way” that you stop listening to the ideas and input of others.

 Pull your self out of the quagmire by asking others to contribute their best thinking to the issue. If you really have the best idea, it will stand up to different perspectives. And if others’ thinking makes your original ideal even better, then everyone is a winner!

  • You consistently take credit for the good work of your team.

If you’re stuck in quicksand, it is helpful to have someone there to help you out. If you’ve been pushing your team into the shadows . . . well, good luck. A confident leader knows his or her team will be there when things get tough, because they’ve been walking along side the leader the entire time.

  • You blame others when things don’t go the way you intended.

After all, as noted in #1 above, you knew the best way, right? So it must be someone else’s fault. Except while you are sputtering around, sinking deeper and pointing the finger at others, the confident leader is finding a path up and out of the current situation.

  • You think you are entitled to, or have earned, certain privileges.

It’s okay to ask for things to make your jungle journey easier. To expect them every time, or to get snarky when they don’t happen . . . feel yourself sinking? Sincere appreciation for the efforts of others will go a long way toward keeping you on solid ground.

You get the idea. It’s not about you. Which is not to say you aren’t a critical part of the equation. It’s when you start to think you’re the only part of the equation that really matters that you get sucked under.

It is a jungle out there. Don’t make the journey harder than it needs to be. Check your ego, and walk around the leadership quicksand.

Faith in the Right Timing

As a person of faith, and a leader in a faith-based organization, I am a big believer in God’s perfect timing. There have been so many examples in my career when I may have been thinking about a particular decision for a long time . . . so what prompted me to act at what turned out to be an opportune moment? I have no answer except to say that something inside me indicated it was the right time to move. Some would probably call that intutition. I like William Wordsworth’s perspective that “Faith is a passionate intuition.”

Please don’t hear me say that I think faith somehow absolves a leader from having to plan and strategize and stress, and at times agonize over decisions. Sorry gang, that’s part of the bargain. (I think God will provide, but I also think He expects us to do our part!) At the same time, I believe there is some degree of comfort in recognizing, as leaders, it’s not about us. Our job is to serve as caretakers of the organization entrusted to us, to leave it better than we found it . . . which means you can’t always go with the safe bet or the most popular option.

Recognizing the right timing requires a degree of wisdom that starts with knowledge, but also requires listening, observation, reflection, questioning, and ultimately, a willingness to go with your gut/intuition/inner-nudging and take the leap. Because here’s the deal, God’s perfect timing usually doesn’t come labeled as such. It take faith.

In our measuring, quantifying, metrics-based world, something as nebulous as “faith that you’ll know when the time is right” may seem like a hard sell. Except for the fact that, it is not an either/or proposition. Faith that you’ll know when the time is right to act does not mean you don’t do your homework, it does not mean that the data is irrevelant, and it doesn’t mean that you’re running off on some lark. You do your homework so you will be prepared when the time comes. Or maybe you are nudged to look at different data, or look at the data differently, than others might. You approach the situation with a different lens or perspective.

And then you are patient. Yes, I know patience a fruit of the Spirit . . . it’s a virtue . . . and frankly — at least for me — it is the toughest part of the whole equation. But I have learned the hard way that even the “perfect” solution, when implemented at the wrong time (which usually means my impatient timing) will fall flat. The solution? Take a deep breath and have faith. If you listen to your gut, you’ll know when the time is right.

Stepping Into the Darkness

Wooden Stairs In Old House“When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”                                                                                                             Edward Teller

For those of you who think this quote is one of those “whoo whoo” notions that may look nice hanging on a wall, but isn’t practical in the rough and tumble real world . . . you might be interested to know that the author, Edward Teller, was a theoretical physicist who made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, and is known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb.” Yep, that’s right, a hard core by the book science guy acknowledging that sometimes you have to step forward without knowing how things will work out.

Sounds a lot like leadership to me.

Notice, he is not suggesting we should blindly leap toward a half-baked idea. First you have to get to the end of all the light you know . . . you consider the data, you run the numbers, you look at unique variables and possible scenarios and use that information to illuminate the situation as much as possible. Unfortunately, in today’s volatile environment, in many cases what we know for sure does not exactly create a well-lit path.

From there, it takes faith. I don’t know if Teller was specifically referencing religious faith or gut instinct, intuition or innate knowledge . . . but for me those things are so intertwined the distinction is irrelevant. I believe my religious faith, and prayerful requests for guidance, seed my gut instincts and intuition. It illuminates my path enough to find a firm place to stand, or a launching pad for flight.

It was leadership born of faith that prompted my organization to identify in our strategic framework that we would have a global reach. We didn’t know exactly how that would happen, but we believed it was an important next step. In fairly short order after setting that goal, we extended our reach not only to one additional country but actually provided training and consultation to professionals from five continents.

The same concept is currently playing out on another stretch project we are implementing. Once you make the leadership decision to move forward, to step out in faith, it is amazing how opportunities start to present themselves — opportunities you could not have known about prior to making the decision.

Nope, there are no guarantees. Yes, it does involve risk. But once your eyes adjust to the darkness, you’d be surprised how many paths forward you might find.

Come on, have faith . . . take that step.

Stepping Out on Faith

steppingoutinfaith

“When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.” ― Edward Teller

As much as people like to think that leadership is about vision and strategy and building a solid culture and high-performing teams — which, of course are all part of it — there seems to be far less focus on the role that faith plays in effective leadership. While some use the term more generically, as in “I have faith (confidence) in my team to make the best decision”, I believe for many leaders faith from a spiritual sense is also a key driver in their success.

For me, these two types of faith are intertwined. Faith in my people comes from experiencing first-hand their commitment to our clearly articulated values and operating practices (SMAC me), which are built on a foundation of faith. While having confidence in my team is important, I don’t think that is the kind of faith that Edward Teller was referring to in the quote above. Rather I think he is talking about the nudges, the feeling in your gut (divine guidance), the tug on your conscience that compels you to make a decision, even when you don’t know exactly how that decision will play out.

In my experience, you often have to “step into the darkness” before a door will open, or a path will be made clear. For leaders who like to be in control of a situation (that’s not just me, right?!?) making a decision to take a leap into the unknown can cause more than a few sleepless nights. I absolutely believe that when I seek His guidance, God will provide. I also believe He expects us to do our part — which to me means planning, considering scenarios and financial implications, etc. Unfortunately, it’s a bit trickier to figure out when you have reached the threshold of “doing your part.” Because sometimes (okay many times) stepping out in faith involves a fairly healthy level of risk. It is one thing to take that type of risk for yourself, but leaders often have to take such risks on behalf of their board, their staff, and all who turn to them for care — which is an even heavier responsibility.

So how do you know if the tug on your conscience really means you are being called to step out in faith? While I make absolutely no claim of being an expert, in my experience when there is something that you really don’t want to do, and you have done everything you can to rationalize a different course of action, and your gut still won’t quiet down, it’s time to step out in faith. Some of my most “visionary” decisions really weren’t so much about MY vision as the confidence that there was a plan, which would become clear if I would just move forward along the path.

Is it time for you to take that step?

Divine Guidance by Way of the Gut

Sun rays

As the leader of a faith-based organization who feels called to do this work (which I do), I believe I have a responsibility, in the midst of the fast pace and increasing noise that has become our version of  “normal,” to pause long enough to listen for Divine guidance.

Actually, that sounds a bit loftier than it feels. You see, I believe God talks to me through my gut . . . and those pauses I take, they tend to be at 2:00 a.m. when I really should be sleeping, or in the shower at 5:30 a.m. when I am trying to wake up from not sleeping.  I realize that my gut may have been trying to talk to me during regular business hours, but that still small voice is not going to try to outshout the crisis du jour . . . it simply waits until I am quiet enough to listen.

And I can tell you from years of experience, trying to bargain with “your gut” is a wasted effort. It is embarrassing to admit how many times over the years my gut was telling me one thing, but logic and the popular opinion of people I respected pointed in a different (usually easier) direction. Every time I tried to rationalize away what my gut was telling me, I have regretted it. Every. Time.

On the flip side, there are those times when I implore God to give me guidance RIGHT NOW. That doesn’t usually work so well either. This will come as no surprise to those who know me, but patience really isn’t my strong suit. I like to plan the work and work the plan. I’m not sure who originally said, “We plan and God laughs”, but I’m fairly certain I have kept Him amused for some time now.

And yet, I find when we as an organization make decisions from the foundation of our faith-based values, striving to truly live out the Golden Rule in our daily work, we reach and often far exceed our goals. The path to get there may be filled with side roads and detours (which, by the way, have the best scenery!), and it may be in His time, not our time, but when you have the faith to stay the course amazing things happen.

I know this is true. You’d think that would make it easy. In my experience . . . not so much. But then maybe it’s not supposed to be easy. Maybe the struggle is part of the journey designed to test our resolve and remind us that we don’t have all the answers . . . but that they will be there if we simply ask, seek, knock . . . and then listen to our gut.

 

The Thing About Talents . . .

old Bible of 19 centuries. . . I’m not talking about skills here, I’m talking about the ancient monetary unit referenced in the Bible — that thing that various servants either multiplied or held on to tightly for fear of losing it. Now I will never profess to be a master theologian, however I take my responsibility as the steward of a faith-based human service organization very seriously, and do my best to ensure my organization honors the teachings of what I believe to be, hands down, the best leadership book ever written.

As I interpret the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14 – 30), we are expected to multiply that which we are given. Many people know the portion of the scripture that says “Well done, good and faithful servant,” however they tend to leave off the remainder of that verse which says “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master.” (Matthew 24:21)

Now, I absolutely believe God will provide if we’re following his will; however, as indicated in this scripture, I also believe he expects us to do our part. What, exactly does that mean? As far as I’m concerned, that means if we are holding ourselves out as a faith-based organization, we ought to be doing it better than anyone else. We need to be tracking outcomes. We need to have a quality improvement plan (that we actually implement, not just create to check a box!). We need a corporate compliance plan. We need financial metrics. Not because some external body says we have to, but because it’s a stewardship responsibility.

Yes, I know, budgets are tight, staffing is thin, and you’d rather focus your energies on serving more people and not on doing paper work. The problem is, I just don’t buy that argument.  How do you know if you’re having the greatest possible impact if you have no measures of success? (And numbers served isn’t enough. Serving a lot of people who don’t get better really doesn’t achieve your mission, does it?) Absolutely, the scale of your quality assurance efforts should match the size of your organization. The dashboard of a $200,000 organization is going to look much different that of a $20 million organization, but there is real truth in the adage “that which gets measured gets done.”

I thought we measured a lot of things (which in fact we do), however at our most recent EAGLE Accreditation visit, we were challenged to stretch our thinking. EAGLE is the only comprehensive accreditation program for faith-based human service organizations (http://umassociation.org/programs-services/eagle/), and the team leader for our review observed that while we have a comprehensive quality improvement program, which includes lots of measures, we weren’t measuring what difference it makes that we’re a faith-based organization.  That would seem like an obvious thing to measure, huh?!?

I absolutely believe that our kids get better faster and our staff retention is higher because we are a faith-based organization, but in fact I have nothing more than anecdotal stories to validate that belief. Now it is true that the impact of being faith-based is a harder thing to measure than, say, unit costs, but I’ve also never accepted “hard” as a reason not to do something.

As we (and by we, I mean our Director of Operations) began to search for a way to measure the impact of faith, we came across the Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale, (http://www.dsescale.org ) which is highly validated and we determined would be a good fit for our needs. We have done the baseline measure for our staff, and plan to roll it out for kids and families in the near future.  Given that our staff retention numbers far exceed the industry averages, as do our baseline staff scores on the DSES, I think my theory related to staff will prove to be correct, however truth be told it is really too early to know for sure.  And if the numbers don’t turn out the way I expect them to? Well then, we’ll have an opportunity to learn . . . and improve . . . and find new ways to multiply our talents to the honor of our mission and Him who calls us to be good and faithful servants.

What are you doing with your talents?