Big Yellow Hats


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.

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?

Catching the Wind

Power Generating Windmill

I’m at a conference this week, and my head is spinning … in a good way. Even on the plane on the way here, I dove into a book on strategy that had been on my reading list forever. As so often happens, it seems I was supposed to read it at this point in time, because the book is now littered with tabs highlighting ideas that are relevant for our organization right now. Between the book, networking with colleagues, and listening to compelling speakers, my mind is bursting with ideas that could help move my organization forward. It’s like a big gust of wind that turns the blades of a windmill.

As a leader, we really are a bit like a windmill for our organizations. The gale of a new idea can get our blades moving in such a way that energy can be generated throughout the entire organization. And the best way to catch the wind is stand tall and stretch in multiple directions. Unfortunately, far too often, when times get tough leaders hunker down and turn their focus inward. It’s almost like they’re rolling up their blades to conserve energy . . . Except what they are really doing is lessening the chance that they will be able to take advantage of a jet stream of inspiration that might be headed their way if they would only stretch out to grab it. How many times is a learning opportunity like a conference the first thing to go when times get tight . . . or you feel too overwhelmed by the crisis of the day to read an insightful book or article . . . or you convince yourself you don’t have time to pick up the phone and ask for the input of a respected colleague? A lonely pole standing on a hillside doesn’t generate much energy.

Sure, you have to use discretion. It’s interesting to me that “old time” windmills, like the one on my farm when I was growing up, had about 10 relatively short, closely placed blades. Today’s wind turbines usually have only three far-reaching arms, and yet they generate far more energy than the earlier versions. Likewise, today’s leaders have to focus in a few key areas to have the greatest impact. Trying to be all things to all people (i.e. sending short blades in all directions) may keep you spinning, but rather than generating more energy that tactic only serves to wear you out. If I tried to go to every conference or workshop for which I received an invitation, I would never be in the office. And the list of books I would like to read would probably take me years to get through. As a leader, you have to pick your few key areas of focus — absolutely — but once you have done that, don’t pull in your blades when times get tough, or because someone questions if that’s a good use of your time and resources. Reaching out may be the best way to find the ideas, and build the momentum, that will power your organization for years to come.

It’s a leader’s job to catch the wind and propel your organization forward. And to do that, you have to reach out.