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.

Trying on Shoes

I believe one of the keys to wise leadership is the ability to try on a lot of shoes . . . not all of which will be comfortable. Some may pinch a bit, or have you tottering to maintain your balance. Some will be well-worn and rather tattered with little to no support. Others will be thick and rigid like a ton of bricks. And dozens of others will fall somewhere in between. But the time and effort it takes to walk a mile in someone’s shoes (not a block, a block is easy, we’re talking a mile here) can make all the difference in moving you from “reasonable” . . . “justifiable” decisions to truly impactful ones.

You may make one decision when all you see is a child’s disruptive behavior, and you want that behavior to stop. You may make an entirely different decision when you realize that no one was home to get the child up in the morning, he is basically raising his baby sister, he is scared and hungry, and putting on a tough exterior so no one will know. If you’re going for impact, simply addressing the behavior will do little to truly change the situation.

While it may be easier to empathize with a child, the same concept applies to staff, contractors, partner organizations — you know, those we call “grown-ups.” When one of these individuals acts in a seemingly illogical, from your perspective detrimental, or otherwise aggravating manner, do you insist that they fall in line (after all, you’re the leader, right?!?) or do you dig a bit deeper to see why they are responding as they are?

You’re right. You don’t have time to hold everyone’s hand, to nurse them along until they can get on board. And I’m sure you will have much more time down the line, when your project gets derailed and you have to invest the time to go back and try to re-group, or fill the void left by a partner who decided to walk away. I understand, your shoes are really comfortable. Why should you mess with trying on someone else’s shoes?

Because, hopefully, you’re in this leadership gig for the long haul. And making decisions without taking into consideration other perspectives is short-sighted. That doesn’t mean that everyone is going to like every decision you make, but it does mean when you seek first to understand you have a better chance of reaching your ultimate goals.

So how do you know when you need to test drive some new footwear? A good starting point is when you find yourself taking a hard line on something, and aren’t interested in someone else’s opinion. That is usually exactly when you need to take a walk the most. You ultimately may not change your position, and that’s fine. When people know you looked at a situation from their perspective, even if they aren’t thrilled with the ultimate decision, it becomes easier for them to come on board and take the journey with you.

Maybe it’s time you tried on some new shoes.

Be a Noticer

This week I had the opportunity to drive cross numerous states, and landscapes . . . the rolling green Flint Hills of Kansas, the rocky barren beauty of rural New Mexico and the lush desert landscapes of Arizona (who knew there were purple cacti?) The ever-changing scenery stood out because it had been a number of years since I last traveled through this part of the country (and then it was with a young family in a mini van, so it is likely I missed a thing or two). As a result, I noticed details of the landscape that I imagine those who travel the same road every day probably don’t see any more. I also thought about how someone from Oklahoma might be taken aback by the sheer greenness, and peaceful river bluffs that I sometimes take for granted in the place I call home.

The same thing can happen in our own organizations. There are undoubtedly some pretty amazing things taking place right under your nose . . . a grounds keeper who takes personal pride in keeping the place looking its best . . . a caseworker who buys a pizza for a family and takes the time to really build a relationship with them . . . a teacher who continually finds creative ways to engage a struggling student. Do you notice them? Or have they simply become part of the background you pass on your way to the next meeting?

And what about those things that perhaps don’t cast your organization in the best light? Do you see the peeling paint, or hear the frustration in the voice of a supervisor who is trying to reason with a difficult client? Do you see the resignation on the face of a staff member who feels like, once again, no one is listening? You might not notice, but it’s a pretty safe bet that someone who is experiencing your organization for the first time will see those things, and so much more.

Part of a leader’s job is to be a noticer . . . to identify and recognize those positive details, and not so positive, with the eyes of a visitor or potential customer. A noticer doesn’t generically say “You did a great job,” but, “Thanks so much for your patience. Your approach really diffused what could have been a very difficult situation.” A noticer doesn’t say “You need to improve your attitude”, but rather, “You appear to see things differently. Help me understand the situation from your perspective.” It’s the little things that can make all the difference in how someone experiences you organization. Do you see them?

My challenge to you today is to be a noticer. Walk through the day with the eyes of a visitor. Identify at least three things that would likely stand out to a guest . . . Do staff greet others when they walk past, or seem to not even see them? Are people given individualized responses or a recitation from the rule book? Is your front entry way warm and inviting or cold and cluttered? Then ask yourself, are these the things you want someone else to notice about your organization?

The best part is, once you as the leader become more of a noticer, the rest of your staff will likely follow suit. If a staff member sees you noticing the candy wrapper on the ground and picking it up, the more likely they will be to notice and dispose of trash in the future. If others observe you asking the opinion of front line staff, they will be more apt to do the same in the next situation. When you recognize someone who has gone the extra mile, it encourages their colleagues to put in extra effort because they have noticed it is valued.

Lead with the eyes of a noticer . . . you just might be amazed at the view.