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.

Dreamer or Leader?

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What kind of person would look at a rugged mountain of red rocks and decide that was the perfect place to build a chapel . . . Or look to the heavens and decide we should put a man on the moon . . . What kind of person believes in a future that most wouldn’t dare to imagine?

That person is either a dreamer or a leader.

How can you tell the difference? A leader is a dreamer with a plan.

Sure, lots of people have big ideas, they talk a good game. Their eyes light up as they describe “someday” and how amazing it’s all going to be. But when pushed for details of how they’re going to get there, the “if onlys” start to seep into the storyline. The barriers, the set-backs, the roadblocks some external force — usually the all-powerful “they” — puts in place, all conspire to continually push the amazing possibility ever further out of reach . . . for the dreamer.

Can you even imagine the challenges Marguerite Brunswig Staude, the person responsible for the construction of the Chapel of the Holy Cross (shown above), faced in her quest to carry out her vision? For the leader, roadblocks are an expected part of the journey, not a reason to bring it to a halt. Rather than dissolve the dream, barriers build the resolve of the leader, and his or her team, to reach their bold goal.

Are you dreaming about a big idea, or planning to make it happen?

Please don’t hear me say that dreams are bad. Most great plans start with a dream … A big hairy audacious goal. But those dreams will never become a reality if you aren’t willing to take the setbacks in stride and keep pressing forward. If you’re shooting for something that hasn’t been done before, it’s going to be hard. Expect it, prepare for it, and don’t let it throw you off track when it happens. Of course you’ll have skeptics. Your dream isn’t their dream, so what you’re trying to accomplish doesn’t seem reasonable to them (most big dreams aren’t!) That’s okay. Make it happen anyway!

How? One step at a time. Sure you may have to take some side roads and detours, sometimes even doubling back and retracing the same path. That’s one more way you can tell a dreamer from a leader. Dreamers tend to be locked into a specific path. When that path doesn’t work out, well, they tend to think the dream just isn’t in the cards. Leaders, on the other hand keep their eye focused on the end goal. If one path doesn’t get them there, they’ll try another. Think about it … How many big breakthroughs happened on the first try, on the exact course laid out In the original plan? Exactly. Leaders keep at it until they reach their goal, and in so doing, they motivate their team to do the same.

Dreams are easy, anyone can have them. Making something amazing happen on a rugged hillside… That takes the dogged efforts of a leader.

Which would you rather be … A dreamer, or a leader?