Tend the Forest

Forest scene; Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash
Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

You can’t see the forest for the trees.

It’s one of those phrases that we all have heard, and yet we fail to heed its warning time and again. We spend so much time addressing the crisis du jour, our ever-growing to-do list, today’s opportunity or our competitors most recent actions that we lose sight of the big picture . . . the forest . . . if we were ever really clear on the big picture in the first place. 

Here’s the thing. Individual trees can get struck by lightning. A bigger tree might block the sun and so the one in its shadow may never grow to its full potential. Or you plant a seed with great confidence, only to be disappointed that it doesn’t seem to take root like you expected. If your primary focus is on the tree, such set-backs can send you into a tailspin, scurrying around to respond to this crisis or that. 

When you step back and focus on the forest, however, you recognize that not every tree will be a majestic oak, and that’s okay. You don’t have to turn yourself inside out for every project as long as you are keeping your eye on the well-being of the whole. You can acknowledge that some seeds germinate at a slower pace — or maybe not at all, but it is still worth the effort to plant them.

Keeping your focus on the forest doesn’t eliminate the day-to-day challenges of leading, but it does help keep them in context so you can focus on the end game. From a big picture perspective, it is easier to recognize that some of your best laid plans may not work out the way you had hoped, but one particular “tree” is simply that . . . one tree in a whole forest of pathways and opportunities. 

The biggest challenge comes when you have not clearly defined the forest. What are the three or four big goals you are working toward? Not 57 . . . that’s tree counting. You have to push past seeing every project — every tree — as an end unto itself. Define the forest.  Arriving at that kind of focus is harder than you think. But when you get there, it is much easier to step back and find a different path to your destination when things don’t go as you had hoped. And they won’t. 

If you are having one of those weeks where you feel like you are simply running from tree to tree, stop. Take a deep breath. And tend the forest.

Architects and Builders

Architect and builder discussing at construction site.If you have ever built a house, you may have noticed that the architect and the builder are usually not the same person. While it is true that occasionally these two roles are carried out by a single individual, in most cases people specialize in . . . naturally gravitate toward . . . one set of skills or the other. The same is true of leaders. Steve Graves calls these two types of leaders entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders.

Entrepreneurial leaders are your innovators, your start-up specialists, your architects. These leaders are always asking “what if” and “what about”. They are passionate, have a sense of urgency, are continually searching for new opportunities and challenging the status quo. According to Graves, “Entrepreneurial leaders disrupt, motivate, pivot, run fast, and break things.” Every organization needs entrepreneurial leaders.

Enterprise leaders, your builders, figure out how to make the idea on paper actually happen. They focus their energy on coordinating systems, processes, and people for maximum impact. They plan for and respond to the complex realities of a project and determine how to construct something that is sustainable over time. They tend to be more measured and methodical, sticking with something until every detail is addressed. Every organization needs enterprise leaders.

Although architects and builders may not always see eye to eye, if you are going to construct something that has a lasting impact, you need both sets of skills — in varying amounts at different stages of the building process. The creative tension between the two perspectives provides the opportunity for better results than either could achieve alone. Like so much of leadership, it is all about the balance — leaning a bit more in one direction at a particular point in time, and then shifting back toward the other end of the continuum as circumstances change.

The trick is to make sure you have individuals with both sets of skills on your “construction team.” If you naturally skew toward one end of the continuum (and as a result tend to place more value on that set of skills), it is easy to surround yourself with like-minded people. That might make for a smoother process, but not likely a better result. It is the range of perspectives that come from both entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders that yield the greatest impact.

Whether you are trying to build a house or a solid future for your organization, you need both architects and builders on the team.

Gift Wrapping

Female hands in winter gloves with christmas gift box

As much as I’m a fan of nicely wrapped Christmas presents, I also recognize that the outer wrapping has little bearing on the real gift inside. As noted in the children’s sermon at church last Sunday, what I consider to be the greatest gift ever — the Christ child — came wrapped in what could be compared to tattered brown paper. No flashy ribbons or bows. No indication of status and majesty. No special privileges or expectations.

It is easy to get caught up in the trappings of leadership, and how others think the “package” should look. I’m guessing we’ve all been guilty from time to time of wrapping ourselves in a shiny coat of “fake it till you make it,” while feeling we were totally in over our heads. And while that might get you through in the short term, that is no way to lead for the long haul . . . a phony wrapper will only drag you down and minimize the gifts you bring to the table.

Being authentic, when that doesn’t match someone else’s idea of what a leadership package should look like, can be a hard thing to do. But guess what? Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, with a variety of dispositions and styles, and trying to wrap yourself up to look like a “should” (you know . . . you should be more reserved . . . you should be more decisive . . . or analytical . . . or outgoing . . .) discounts your unique perspectives and abilities. You weren’t chosen for a leadership role because your package looked just like everyone else’s (how boring would that be?!?) You may complement other packages, sure, or maybe your gifts coordinate with an overall strategy, but here’s the bottom line: You will never reach your leadership potential by trying to be something you are not, and putting a pretty bow on the box isn’t going to fool anyone.

When I hear industry experts talk about the impending “leadership crisis,” with predictions that there just won’t be enough people willing to take on leadership roles, it occurs to me that maybe we need to be willing to accept a package that looks a little different that the one we have come to associate with “leadership.”   Does it really matter if the gift comes wrapped in rumpled newspaper or covered with glitter and curly ribbon? It is the gifts and graces inside the package that will make all the difference.

As we approach a new year, my challenge to you is to look past the color-coordinated shiny paper and bows. Maybe, just maybe, the present you need can be found inside a brown paper wrapper.

Calling All Elephants

ElephantIn virtually any leadership team, no matter how high functioning, there will be times when the group is hesitant to bring up a question or concern. Perhaps it is because the topic is something about which the leader is passionate, or really committed to making happen. Maybe they feel like a decision has already been made, or the organization is “too far down the road” to change course, or that sharing a concern will undermine a relationship they have with someone else on the team. Regardless of the cause, an attuned leader may sense the caution in the room, but not be able to put a finger on the source of the unease. It is times like these that a team needs someone who is willing to “name the elephant in the room.”

I am blessed to have a member of my leadership team who willingly takes on this role. She is rarely the first one to speak up, but when she senses people are dancing around something that is weighing on them, she will either name the issue if she knows what it is, or point out that she senses some hesitancy and asks about it. She is able to do this in a supportive, non-confrontational way that makes it feel safe for people to speak their mind. (Not that speaking their mind is usually a problem with my team, but you catch my drift.) Her simple acknowledgement or inquiry has the effect of almost instantly making the conversation more “real”. You can almost feel the room take a deep breath because questions or concerns can now be openly discussed. At times, with additional information, the concerns are allayed. Other times, we tweak the direction or change course all together based on the conversation. In virtually every case though, we all leave the meeting feeling better about it. There is no need to have a “meeting after the meeting” because we addressed the concerns where they should be addressed — amongst the entire team.

If you don’t have someone on your team who naturally assumes this role, why not assign the task of naming the elephant in the room? If it has been assigned to someone, there won’t be the hesitancy of speaking out of turn … they are simply doing what you asked them to do. The effect is the same whether the elephant namer is a voluntary or assigned role. You as the leader have an added layer of protection against unnamed undercurrents that could ultimately undermine your efforts.

One note of caution … This strategy only works if the leader is willing to hear and respond to feedback, even when that feedback messes with well-laid plans. Elephants only come out to play when it feels safe to do so. And if an elephant gets shot down in an embarrassing or derogatory way, don’t expect other ones to show up at future meetings. They’ll instead decide to dance around amongst small groups after the meeting.

In today’s complex, fast-paced, circus of a world, it takes everyone’s best thinking to achieve the optimum outcome. And sometimes, you can only get to that best thinking by seeing, and naming, the elephant in the room.

E-I-E-I . . . oh.

Scales E I

For many years, I had a sweatshirt that said “Diplomacy: The art of letting someone else have your way.” I even wore it to a Leadership Team retreat one time, when I was working to build influence among people over whom I had no authority. About half the people in the room smiled at the open admission of how I worked. The other half likely didn’t even notice what the sweatshirt said — which is not meant as a criticism but a recognition that different people approach leadership differently. While people often think of leaders as being extroverted, there is a growing recognition, thanks in part to Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a world That Can’t Stop Talking” , that a sizeable portion of successful leaders are actually introverts.

I personally skew toward introversion . . . which is not to say I’m shy or uncomfortable speaking in public. I do, however, seek solitude to re-charge my batteries, or to grapple with an especially difficult challenge, as opposed to an extroverted person who is typically energized by their interactions with multiple friends and colleagues. Introverts tend to be “noticers”, empathizing with others. They are more likely to connect with Harry Truman’s sentiment that “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Extroverts, on the other hand, tend to be full of enthusiasm and energy, they are quick to make decisions and willing to shake things up a bit. They are the charismatic leaders who appear “larger than life” and are usually more than willing to lead the charge.

Of course, most people are not 100% introverted or extroverted, but rather fall somewhere on a continuum. There is even a term — ambivert — for people who are equal parts introvert and extrovert. From my perspective, the leanings of the individual leading an organization are less important than whether or not there is a balance of introversion and extroversion on the senior leadership team. Too many introverts, and you will have great in-depth analysis, but maybe not enough decision-making. Too many extroverts, and you’ll be moving fast, but maybe not in the right direction.

Have you considered the “E to I” balance on your team? Do you seek equal input from both personality types, or is one or the other given more weight in discussion? Do you allow enthusiasm or data to have more impact in decision-making? Do you expect immediate decisions in a team meeting or do you allow time for individual reflection? I realize these may not be either/or questions, but they can be helpful in shining a light on the leanings of your team.

As noted in a recent blog (Roots of Leadership), scores of research studies have failed to identify a profile of an ideal leader. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert is ultimately less important than ensuring both perspectives are represented on your team.

It’s Not What You Know . . .


Image from cartoonist Hugh MacLeod

. . . It’s what you do with what you know! I’m not sure who said this, but I think the graphic above by cartoonist Hugh MacLeod captures the concept perfectly. In my experience, leadership, innovation and ultimately, organizational success, is a result of seeing connections where others may not. That is why I encourage my staff to read widely outside our field, and to add the wisdom of their own unique experiences to the discussion of how to carry out our mission and ministry.

There have been a number of times where something I read in Fast Company, totally unrelated to human services, spurred an idea for how to extend our mission reach . . . or an article in Harvard Business Review caused me to look at a situation differently. I’ve had fiction books I was reading for pleasure spark an idea related to some work issue I had been grappling with, and walks through nature open my eyes to new connections. And if my entire leadership team is doing the same, we have exponentially expanded our ability to connect seemingly disparate ideas in new and powerful ways. Think about it, if the only place you are getting information is from within your industry, from people who basically have the same perspective and professional experience you do, how much harder is it going to be to see things with new eyes and find an innovative solution?

Consciously seeking ways to “connect the dots” is a skill we need to teach our staff as well. We provide thousands of employee training hours each year. In effect, we invest a lot into filling our people with dots . . . and yet if we stop there, we have wasted our investment. We also have to give them intentional experiences that encourage them to find the connection points between the informational nuggets they have gained. We need to give our staff the latitude to find that aha moment that can help them tackle a specific situation, or maybe inform the entire way we do something. Giving a staff member latitude is not the same as tossing them into the wind. There need to be parameters, but supervisors also need to have a tolerance level to allow staff to bring ideas together in a new way that, in our case, might help a child when nothing else has.

I know a number of people who are incredibly smart, and yet if they do nothing more than accumulate disparate facts … if they don’t make the leap to connect the dots … they’ll make a great team member in a trivia contest, but may not be the best person to give your organization an innovative edge. What you know is a start, but what you do with it makes all the difference.

It’s time to make a difference.

Knowing when to get into the weeds

Explorer in the weeds

Years ago, I was at an outdoor retreat with members our leadership team, and the individual leading our team-building activities asked that all 8 or 9 of us stand on a small plastic table cloth. The object of the activity was to flip the table cloth over without any of us stepping off the plastic. As you can imagine with that many leaders on a single small square, there were a variety of suggestions of how to accomplish the task. We squished. We wiggled. We debated. And finally, when it seemed we were making no progress, I decided it was time to get into the weeds. (Have I mentioned that patience is not my strong suit?!?)

I squatted down amongst everyone’s feet to get a better look at the options and then came up with a strategy. One-by-one, I would grab a foot, pick it up, flip a corner of the tablecloth, and put the foot back down. Although there were a few times I was pretty sure I was going to end up with someone landing on my head, we eventually managed to completely flip the table cloth without anyone’s feet moving off the plastic.

Some months later, one of my colleagues on the team commented that the activity was a good example of how I lead . . . when I couldn’t figure out a solution from where I was standing, I got down closer to the action. Yes, there was a risk that I would be stepped on, but I knew that was the best way to move the team forward. To this day, I consider that one of the best compliments I have ever received regarding my leadership style.

Sometimes, you simply have to get into the weeds to help your team find a solution, or so you can gain a dose of reality from the troops on the ground. How many times have you received an edict, or directive from “on high” (be that an external regulator, a state agency, fill in the blank) that probably made a lot of sense to the individual sitting in some distant office writing it, but was impossible to implement because of a variable that was not considered? Hitting a little closer to home, what is the likelihood that you have been the author of such an grand plan (written from the comfort of your office) and your staff were the ones shaking their heads because of something that was obvious to them, but you neglected to account for? Guilty as charged. But hopefully I’ve learned.

Seriously, how hard is it to take the time to look at a project from the perspective of those who will be impacted by it? They are likely to have insights that you will never have. We have tried to do this through Process Review Committees, where the staff closest to an issue make recommendations for a solution, with director level staff considering the recommendations, but not creating them. We’ve had “What in the World Were They Thinking” meetings, where staff could ask questions about a parts of a change initiative that didn’t make sense to them. We’ve held focus groups prior to making tough decisions that would affect staff, to get their input on things they would like us to consider when making the decisions.

Do we get it right every time? Of course not . . . but one thing I’ve learned . . . when staff recognize that you are trying to consider an issue from all angles, they are much more likely to give you a measure of grace when you miss something. They are much more likely to let you grab their foot and move it to a different place on the plastic square, if they are confident that you have their best interests in mind. And they don’t gain that confidence by what you say. They gain it when they occasionally see you hanging out in the weeds.

Steering The Bike

Conference Bike

Our Chaplain at Chaddock shared a picture with me that he had taken while visiting his son in Los Angeles. The picture showed a group of individuals gathered around a bike like the one above. The “conference bike” accommodates seven individuals, six of whom are positioned at slightly different angles around a central core, all with their own set of pedals, and the seventh seat is positioned facing forward and manages the steering wheel. While the bike itself grabs your attention, the best part was what our Chaplain said as he showed me the picture . . . he said, “When I saw this bike, it reminded me of our Leadership Team. Each of the Directors has their own direction they are pedaling, but their efforts all work to move the whole organization forward in a single direction with you steering their efforts.” How cool is that!

While I would not have guessed that this octopus-like contraption would make him think of work (after all, he was on vacation!), I love the symbolism of his comments. It is true, all of our Leadership Team members do focus their energies in a very specific direction . . . be it finance, specific programs, quality assurance, etc . . . yet all of their efforts are built around and contribute to our core organizational goals. And although my primary responsibility may be to keep my eyes on the horizon and steer the organization, I still like to position myself in the thick of things.

That balance between keeping your eye on the horizon while still staying in the thick of things can be tricky for leaders. If you just keep your eye on the horizon without knowing what is happening day-to-day, you are likely to set off for destinations that are so disconnected from reality that it’s likely everyone on the bike is pedaling in opposite directions and the bike (or organization) can’t move forward. On the other hand, if the leader is too involved in the details it is as if he or she doesn’t trust the team to carry out their job and so feels the need to climb into their seat and “help pedal’, which just wears everyone out more quickly, and results in no one steering the bike.

So how do you achieve that balance? Trial and error . . . team members with enough confidence and tact to gently point out when you need to get out of their seat . . . a compelling view on the horizon . . . and just like when you were a kid trying to find your balance on a bike, practice . . . lots and lots of practice!

Look Out for that Bus!


If you get hit by a bus tomorrow . . .

I have started so many discussions with my Leadership Team this way that it has become a standing joke in our organization.  And while it may have resulted in a bit of bus phobia among the team, they all also recognize that part of their job expectations include grooming their successor.

Succession planning and building the bench-strength of your organization is one of the most important responsibilities of a leader — regardless of whether you or your senior staff plans to retire any time soon. Of course, that means giving up a bit of control, which admittedly is something many of us have a hard time with (yes, this is the pot talking to the kettle!)

Giving up control of the details, however, is a far cry from giving up responsibility for establishing a leadership culture within your organization. That one’s all yours. Leadership philosophies are a dime a dozen, and so it is your responsibility to set the tone for the leadership style that will be rewarded in your organization.  And guess what? You can’t just pick up the latest best-selling leadership book and find a perfect fit. To be effective, you have to do some of soul-searching, and a bit of trial and error, to find the style that is the best fit for you and your organization.

Right out of college, I tried to be a Debra. I really tried. Couldn’t pull it off. The only time Debra is really a fit for me is if I’m talking to my insurance company, or if I’m in trouble with my mother. Otherwise, I’m a Debbie. I am not an overly formal, rule-laden leader. I encourage my Leadership Team to challenge my thinking, and I believe in being as transparent as possible with my staff (if I trust them with the kids, I ought to be able to trust them with the numbers!) If you try to “wear” a leadership style that isn’t a fit for your authentic self — trying to fulfill some picture of what you thing leadership “should” look like — your staff will smell it a mile away and your credibility will suffer.

But back to the bus . . .

In my experience, the key to good succession planning is to deliberately develop a leadership culture within your organization. Impacting culture is not a one-shot deal. It takes a consistent layering of efforts to make the concepts part of the vocabulary of the organization. We have done it through multiple versions of an internal  “Leadership Academy” that has ranged anywhere from 9 – 18 months, through all-staff meetings and focus groups and intentional discussions, and most importantly through our actions. People who have demonstrated the leadership style we espouse have advanced in the organization, and those who don’t have either remained stagnant or are no longer with the organization.

Jim Collins has had a significant impact on our leadership culture, as have John Kotter and Max DePree, along with less traditional thinkers such as Chris Guillebeau, Dan Ward and Daniel Pink. We held supervisor discussions on books such as The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey, which gave us a shared language with which to break down departmental silos.  And after a while, really cool things started to happen. People started talking more, and solving problems themselves, rather than “running them up the flag pole” for fear of what would happen if they made the wrong decision. Not every time, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.

Today, we are consciously making choices to prepare for staffing needs five years down the road. We actively work to align staff members’ “gifts and graces” with the needs of our organization. We encourage staff to take little risks  — that will either build their confidence or teach them that someone can stub their toe and survive. And we challenge our supervisors to find creative ways to maximize the unique skills of their staff, even if that means supporting them in moving to a different role in the organization.

And slowly but surely, we are overcoming our fear of buses. We have a clear plan, on paper, of who would step in if any of our directors were incapacitated. Would those “designees” have to stretch to fill the larger role? Of course they would, but they all also possess the core skills and experience necessary to keep us moving forward.

Sooner or later, there will be a bus coming your way. Are you prepared?