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.

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.

“Experts” Need Not Apply

ExpertHave you noticed how many “experts” there are out there today? No matter what the problem/challenge/opportunity before you, there is an expert who has an answer. That might seem like a great thing, and it can be in some cases. I’m just not at all sure that “experts” make the best leaders. Let me explain.

Experts know a lot about the thing they know about. In fact, I have run into many an expert who thinks they have THE answer about their area of focus. And that is exactly the problem. When you become an expert, when you have THE solution, you quit gathering new information, considering additional possibilities, or calculating the impact of changing variables. You have devoted years of effort to create an amazing hammer . . . and as a result, everything starts to look like a nail.

If an expert doesn’t make the best leader, who does? A life-long learner. It is fine to be a life-long learner with a lot of experience — in fact, that is highly desirable. So what is the difference between an expert and a life-long learner with a lot of experience? The former thinks they have found the answer, the latter is continually looking a better solution. The best leaders are seekers — not in terms of the “what” of their mission, but certainly in terms of the “how”.

Even when it appears they are at the top of their game, a leader committed to learning is always looking for ways to improve, to extend their reach, to have a greater impact. How?

  • They listen. To those who receive their services, those who provide their services, the “experts” who are happy to offer solutions, and others in the field . . . all of whom can contribute to a greater understanding of the issue at hand.

 

  • They challenge. Even when their organization enjoys great success, and it would be easy to sit on their laurels or pat themselves on the back, they are looking for a better way — either through small tweaks or bringing an entirely new approach to their efforts.

 

  • They don’t put limits on their thinking. It doesn’t matter if a concept comes from a different industry, from someone with no experience, or if it seems “impossible” given the current environment. “Why not?” and “What if” are regular parts of their conversations.

The best leaders continually expand their understanding. They can have a great deal of expertise, but always consider their efforts a work in progress. “Making it,” being an “expert” is a stopping point. Learners don’t stop. Who do you think is most likely to move your organization forward?

Squawk Your Way to Success

Red-haired Preschooler Boy With Violin, Music Concept

Think back to when you (or a child, or a sibling) were learning a new skill — say playing a musical instrument. While there are a few child prodigies out there, most of us had to squeak and squawk our way to something that sounded remotely like the tune we had in mind. Whether or not you believe Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours to become world class” rule, the fact remains that most of us aren’t proficient at a new skill the first time we try it.

We intuitively grasp that concept with kids, and encourage them through the skill development process. But somehow with adults, we have much less tolerance. You’ve been promoted to a new role . . . Great! . . . Now here are the 47 things we are backed up on so go out there and do amazing things . . . Really? And then we wonder why 1) people fall short of our expectations, and 2) staff, who are trying hard to succeed with the task at had, are hesitant to speak up to remind us they are still squeaking and squawking in their new role.

Or what about the innovation/transformation/new program development process? We can spend all the time we want perfecting the plan on paper, but rest assured there will be some “missed notes” along the way. Sure, we’ve all heard the “fail early/fail fast/fail forward” philosophies, but do we actually apply them to our endeavors or do we expect that we (and our people) will be the exception to the rule and get it right the first time? And what is our response when that doesn’t happen?

Any time we are learning a new skill, squawking is part of the process. The difference between those who succeed and those who fall short of the goal is that the first group wades through the discomfort of the learning process to the proficiency on the other side. Unfortunately in many cases the second group decides it’s too hard/they don’t have the time or patience/there is no tolerance for the errors that are bound to happen when learning something new and thus choose not to move forward. They may not squawk, but they don’t get to learn any new songs either.

Going through the squawking stage is usually not very fun. It can feel like things will never get better, like you’re never going to get it right. And then you do. All of a sudden things start to click, the path forward clears and the goal is within reach. Only then do you realize that the stumbling along the way is part of the process. So plan for it, expect it, then take a deep breath and squawk your way to success.