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.


One Big Happy Family

Middle Eastern / Western Business People Looking Up At Camera

I lead an organization that serves young people and their families. We strive daily to give struggling families tips and tools to function more effectively. I suppose it should come as no great surprise that many of those same concepts apply in the workplace. So what are some of the key “parenting tips” that may be helpful to a leader?

  • Look for what is going on “underneath” the behavior. We’ve all seen children have a melt down, dig their heels in, or act in other frustrating ways. With kids, it is easy for us to recognize that often times they are not responding to the specific situation at hand, but an underlying issue . . . they are tired, or hungry, or feel left out. With adults, we tend to simply respond to what we see as unacceptable behavior — their defensiveness, or lack of organization, or general snarkiness — rather than what is causing the behavior. Sure, we can do that (after all, they’re adults, right?!?) . . . but the result is likely to be a lot of unnecessary confrontations and not much long-term change in behavior. Sometimes, as the leader, we have to get off our high horse and take the time to figure out what is really going on with someone. Then we can respond to the real issue, rather than react to the behavior.
  • Sibling rivalry is a fact of life. “His piece is bigger than mine!” . . . “She always gets to do whatever she wants!” . . . “That’s not fair!” . . . Sure, adults may be a bit more subtle than kids, but many still have a competitive spirit and the innate need to succeed. These are not bad things in and of themselves. The best teams have a strong desire to get ahead. As a leader, however, you need to be aware that when there is a real or perceived shift in the “standing” of one team member (more time, attention, money or power), it is reasonable to expect a reaction from one or more members of the team. How you as the leader respond will likely determine if the rivalry is a momentary blip on the screen, or becomes a wedge within the team.
  • Sometimes, it stinks to be the grown-up. As a parent, sometimes you have to make decisions that your kids don’t understand or think are unfair . . . Or you have to make decisions that are hard at the time, but you know will be for the best in the long run. Sometimes, you don’t have the answers, but you still have to make a decision. You get the picture. Gathering input from a number of perspectives, weighing options and trying to gain consensus are important. And even when these things don’t result in a clear direction, you as the leader still have to choose a path. Will it be the right path 100% of the time? Nope. And if you have a history of being fair and understanding with your team, they will likely extend the same measure of grace to you.

Lest you think this leadership gig is nothing but challenge and aggravation, I draw on one more parenting tip. Parenting, like leading, is not supposed to be neat and tidy. It is hard and scary and amazing and wonderful, and for many of us what we are called to do. Sure there are days that make you want to pull your hair out . . . and those days make us appreciate the other days — the majority of days — when you know that you were made for this.

The Roots of Leadership

CornLast night, three generations of my family gathered to “work the sweet corn”. For the uninformed among you, that means picking, shucking, silking, cutting, cooking, and packaging ridiculous amounts of corn for freezing. As I was elbow deep in this family ritual, with my sister taking the annual picture of the crew at the shucking table, I couldn’t help but think about a Harvard Business Review article on Discovering Your Authentic Leadership. (Call me weird, it’s just the way my brain works, but if you stick with me there really is a connection!)

In the article ( Bill George and his co-authors noted that more than 1,000 studies have failed to produce a clear profile of the ideal leader. Rather, in their review of the studies, the authors identified the consistent thread among successful leaders was that “their leadership emerged from their life stories. Consciously and subconsciously, they were constantly testing themselves through real-world experiences and reframing their life stories to understand who they were at their core . . . the journey to authentic leadership begins with understanding the story of your life.”

Successful leaders can be shaped by positive and/or difficult situations, but the common theme is that they use their life experiences to give them meaning and discover their passion. So what does that mean for you and me? Well for one thing, it means that you can’t lead just like someone else. You might be able to model some aspects of your leadership on an individual you admire, but you can’t “wear” their exact style, and if you try, you will never reach your full potential as a leader.

I am the product of a close-knit rural family. Next week, you will find me at the county fair, where I will forever be one of the “Duncan Girls”, even though my last name has been Reed for nearly 30 years. Those things, along with a host of other experiences, have shaped who I am and how I lead. As noted previously in this post, in my first professional job after college I tried to be a Debra. I can’t pull it off. That level of formality is simply not authentic to who I am. I have great respect for people who are genuinely more formal, it’s just not me.

The good news is, according to the research there is no one “right way” to lead, so you might as well do it your way. Yes, you still need to learn and grow and stretch yourself, but the next time you read a leadership book, make note of the things that resonate with you, and give yourself permission to discard the pieces that don’t feel like a fit.

I make a conscious effort to stay connected to the people and values that helped shape me, and I believe I’m a better leader because of it. Not only that . . . I know how to make some killer freezer corn!