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.

Abandon Ship

Boat Wreck

“Abandon all hope of a better past.”

I have not been able to identify who first uttered those words, but he or she was obviously a wise soul. Think about it . . . how much time and energy have you spent re-playing a decision/scenario/encounter in your mind, perfecting what you (or someone else) should have said or done? How many times have the “what ifs” changed the reality of the situation?

One of the tough things about leadership is that sometimes you need to know when to abandon ship. Especially when that ship is so firmly anchored that you will never be able to move forward by clinging to it. Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve are all in the past and don’t change anything — except the energy you have to devote to improving the present and future.

Yes, things happen that we wish hadn’t. Sometimes tragic, terrible, life-changing things. And no matter how much you hope it, focus on it, or re-play it, the past doesn’t change. So as a leader, you have to choose whether you are going to cling to that sinking ship or, in the words of a dear friend, ask yourself, “what did we learn from this?” and move forward.

In some ways, it’s easier to hang out in the past. We know the players and the story line. We can spend hours editing the script until we are happy with the result. But the question remains, to what end . . . what does the energy expended gain us? A happy ending that will never be written?

Far better to take a deep breath, and boldly abandon all hope of a better past. Rather than leaving you defeated, such a decision can actually provide a boost of confidence and energy to propel you into a better future. As cliché as it may sound, in most cases you really do end up stronger for having walked through the fire. While perhaps not a journey you would choose, when you consciously decide to put one foot in front of the other, you demonstrate to all of those watching (and believe me, your people are watching) that it’s okay to walk away from what was and move toward what can be.

Creating a better past . . . that’s a futile effort. Creating a better future . . . that’s the calling of a true leader. Maybe it’s time to abandon ship.

Maybe the Plan is the Problem


I have been doing a lot of thinking of late about strategy and innovation, and how to use these tools to extend our organizations’s mission reach. Both concepts have been widely explored, and yet in some experts’ attempts to create step by step guides for how “do” strategy and innovation, the intuitive/explorative part of the journey gets lost in the quest to quantify.

I am a big believer in detailed plans … at the right place and time. I just don’t happen to believe strategy or innovation are the right place or time. As I mentioned in a previous post , our strategic framework (not plan, framework) fits on one page, and our most innovative efforts have taken us down paths we didn’t expect at the outset. If we had over planned in either of these areas, we would have set targets far short of what we actually accomplished.

You don’t have to take my word for it. In “The Big Lie of Strategic Planning” (Harvard Business Review, Jan/Feb 2014) author Roger L. Martin outlines why over planning is terrible for strategy. He contends that plans are how organizations cope with fear, but fear and discomfort are an essential part of strategy (whew, that’s good to know!). If fact, he says, if you are totally comfortable with your strategy, it probably isn’t very good.

Likewise, in terms of innovation, the authors in the newly released book Collective Genius note that innovative groups act their way forward rather than plan their way forward. You can’t move systematically toward a new concept, it is a journey of trial and error, gut instincts and new discoveries. How can you definitively plan for that?

While detailed plans for strategy and innovation may be counterproductive, you still need goals and parameters to keep everyone moving in the same direction. For example at the time we identified a strategic goal of extending our mission reach internationally, the intent — the what — was clear. However, if we had made a specific plan for “how”, we probably would have identified a single country to target, and called the plan a success if we met that target. Rather, by leaving the goal open-ended, and intuitively pursuing a variety of paths that presented themselves, we have trained professionals from five continents.

Our philosophy around innovation is that the specifics are going to change along the way anyway, so we start with concepts and prototypes rather than a comprehensive plan, and tweak it all along the way as we learn what works and what doesn’t. Patient persistence, rather than a perfect plan, is what has led to our most impactful innovations.

Strategy and innovation are never sure bets, there is always risk involved. A detailed plan, in effect, means you are choosing a single path and ruling out other variables and options — in many regards actually increasing your risk of missing the mark. As Martin notes, the goal of strategy (and I would add, innovation) is not to eliminate risk, but to increase the odds of success.

Not getting the success you hoped for in your strategy or innovation efforts? Maybe the problem is in your plan.

Leadership Travel Guide

Blog Passport

Welcome to the first posting of my blog on leadership, specifically leadership in non-profit human service organizations, and — when I really get on my soap box — leadership in faith-based non-profit human service organizations.

I will be sharing my thoughts not because I see myself as an expert in the field, but rather I’ll be writing as a fellow traveler who believes this work requires us to constantly stretch ourselves and see our work with new eyes, while also remaining grounded in our mission, values and the reality of the bottom line.

A few topics that are sure to come up in the coming weeks, because they are absolutely foundational from my perspective . . .

• No money, no mission. Period. If you can’t keep the doors open, you can’t serve anyone.

•  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Even if that basket has kept you warm and cozy for a very long time.

•  To maximize YOUR mission, you can’t confine yourself to someone else’s box.

• If you are a faith-based organization, you ought to be holding yourself to a higher standard.

•  Gifts and graces. They trump a box on an org chart every single time.

• We owe it to those we serve to think bigger.

•  Listen to your gut. It’s usually smarter than your head.

•  Most of the time, we just make it too hard.

•  Talents, spiritual gifts, bushel baskets, and a really big fish . . . lessons learned from the #1 leadership book of all time.

•  Iron shorts. A critical part of your ensemble when you’re making tough decisions.

•  It’s not about you . . . really!

•  Strategic fortitude. Love that term and all it reflects.

•  And then there’s transparency, authenticity, “walking the talk”, stewardship . . .

A couple simple warnings before we get started:

1)   I have a Master’s in Leadership, so I never get tired of talking about this stuff! (Seriously, this really is my idea of fun.) You may not always agree with my observations, but I promise to do all I can to make it an enjoyable, thought-provoking ride;

2)   HOWEVER, if you take yourself too seriously, this blog may annoy you. We absolutely have a responsibility to take our role seriously, which is entirely different than taking yourself seriously. Refer back to the earlier bullet — it’s not about you . . . really.

So that’s it. I hope you’ll join me for the journey, share your thoughts, push back, and stretch my thinking.  It should be a fun ride!

–Debbie Reed