Pockets of Joy

Winter young woman portrait. Beauty Joyful Model Girl raising ha

It may seem a bit surprising to talk about joy in a leadership blog. After all, leadership is hard work (true), it is serious business (yes), and not something that should be taken lightly (agreed). Neither is joy . . . and here’s why. Joy fuels us. It gives us more energy. And heaven knows leadership takes a lot of energy!

It is ideal when we can find joy in our work. No matter how passionate we are about our organizations, however, there will be times where joy is not the first adjective that comes to mind when thinking about our to-do lists. Here is the great part . . . joy gives us energy for the task at hand whether it is derived from that task or from something totally unrelated.

Leaders (or anyone!) can intentionally incorporate any number of “pockets of joy” to energize their days. For example:

• Driving to work earlier this week, I played a song that makes me happy. Simple as that. It took no extra time but was a much better way to start my morning than spending my drive time thinking about all the challenges the day would present. I was able to walk in the door with a spring in my step ready to hit the ground running.

• I have an electronic photo frame that is full of pictures of family vacations and my boys when they were little. I don’t have it on all the time, but occasionally taking a few minutes to scroll through the pictures lifts my spirit and provides just the burst of energy I need.

• Smile. Even if you have to “fake it until you make it.” Seriously, try it. Just the physical act of smiling somehow lightens the load. If you can smile at someone, even better because smiling is contagious and offers a shot in the arm to the recipient as well.

• Anticipate joy. Thinking about the happiness that will come from completing an important project can energize you through the tedious aspects of the journey. I’m not talking about daydreaming here, but rather the quick vicarious shot in the arm you can get from visualizing successfully reaching the end goal.

Yes, it sounds simple, and if you take a few moments I’m sure you could come up with dozens of other examples of how you could build bursts of happy energy into your day. But will you? When you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, stressed out or annoyed, will you stop and take a few moments to recharge your perspective? No, you are not too busy. You owe it to those you lead to bring your best to your role, and sometimes the best way to do that is to take a few minutes and soak in a pocket of joy.

 

Sail Your Ship

Sailing To The Sunrise“A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” — John A. Shedd

Easy enough to say about a ship, but what about your organization? How long have you been anchored in the same spot? Sure you keep the deck swabbed, work hard to keep things shined up and even test the sails on a regular basis . . . but how long has it been since you really sailed?

Think about it . . . what was your organization built for? Probably not just hanging out in waters that feel safe. Oh, I understand the hesitation . . . and you’re right, you likely will encounter gusting winds, choppy waters and even a storm or two . . . you may end up drifting into uncharted waters and there is a chance you’ll end up somewhere entirely different from where you thought you were going when you set sail.

All true. But what was your organization built for? I’m guessing it was not to do what is easy, or safe, or free from stress (who needs a leader for that?). To accomplish important goals, you have to push off from the shore and follow the navigational beacons.

  • Use your mission, vision, and values as your compass. Early captains may have used the stars to keep them on course. Your mission, vision, and values are equally reliable in helping ensure you are heading in the right direction.
  • Focus on the destination, not a specific route. Things rarely go exactly as planned. If you are focused primarily on how you intend to get somewhere rather than where you are going, it will be much harder to adapt to changing currents.
  • Count on your crew. If you have built a well-rounded team, you will have a range of gifts and graces to aid you on the journey. Ask their opinion, listen to their insight, and let them help you steer the ship.
  • Know how to cut through the waves. When things get choppy, commit to a path and go. You may choose to head straight through at a good steady speed, or cut to one side or another . . . but rest assured, proceeding slowly or waffling midway through will result in a rough ride for everyone.
  • Go. Studying charts, looking at the forecasts, and getting advice from others are all well and good, but the only way you are going to get anywhere is to start. Even if you’re uncertain. The only guarantee is what will happen if you never cast off. You’ll be safe, but you won’t succeed.

So take a deep breath, and sail your ship.

 

Shades of Gray

White Painted Textured Background With Brush StrokesIt seems far too common these days to find headlines that reflect an apparent lack of ethics in leadership. How does this happen? What has led to what some might consider to be an ethics crisis among leaders? Is it power? . . . ego? . . . a lack of morals? Undoubtedly in some cases, it is one or all of these things. In other cases, however, the issue is not so black and white.

Choices between right and wrong are fairly easy. It’s making choices between two “right” answers that gets a bit trickier . . . where each possible choice reflects a core value of the organization, and a decision has to be made regarding which value should take precedence in a given situation. Suddenly, a leader may be faced with a whole lot of gray.

Should decisions be made in the best interest of . . .

. . . the individual or the organization?

. . . short-term or long-term impact?

. . . responsibility or loyalty?

. . . duty, rights, virtue or relationships?

It all depends on where you are standing, the perspective you choose, as you weigh the options.

When external rules or expectations would direct an organization to take a course of action that would not be in the best interest of a specific individual, what is an organization to do? Look out for the individual and risk some degree of sanction for the organization? Perhaps . . . if you used an individual lens. What if such sanction would impact the organization’s ability to serve other individuals in the future, would that change the decision? Does the degree of harm — to the individual or the organization — factor into the decision? So many shades of gray.

Leaders have to deal, often on a daily basis, with the messy reality of competing demands, pressures, expectations and values. Courses of action that may seem clear in hindsight are often mired in a gray fog at the point a leader must choose a path forward. That is simply the reality of leadership. So how does one make the “best” ethical decision?

  • Clearly articulate organizational values and the predominant perspective the organization will use to guide decision-making. For example, “we will act in ways that sustain the organization for the long term.”
  • Engage in transparent dialog to gain a variety of perspectives. At times, a leader may not even recognize there could be other perspectives to consider. Voicing the dilemma, encouraging feedback, and discussing options can help clarify the path forward.
  • Step back from the issue at hand. When you look at any decision too narrowly it can keep you from considering the full implications of a decision. Ethics can be a slippery slope when you look at individual decisions in isolation.

Know your values and priorities, openly discuss the tough decisions, and look at the big picture. The answer still may not be black and white, but taking these steps can help a leader reduce the shades of gray.

Get Out of the Way

No More ConceptSometimes as a leader, we create barriers to our own progress, and if we — and our organizations — are to maximize our potential, we first need to get out of our own way. Yes, I’m sure that you can easily think of a leader whose confidence appears to outpace his or her ability. Let’s just work with the assumption that those individuals are not likely to invest time in reading this leadership blog . . . and so for those who are reading, it seems quite plausible that you may at times underestimate your unique capabilities. Still unconvinced? Ask yourself . . .

  • Have you ever gone to a conference session and thought I (or my people) know all that and more/have more hands-on experience/could do that in my/our sleep?

 

  • Have you ever become aware of an organization that implemented a program you had considered but never acted on, that is being lauded as “ground-breaking”?

 

  • Have you ever believed a course of action could be really impactful, but after a few “no’s” you convinced yourself it would never happen?

 

  • Have you ever read a book or article that articulates something you have known for years but thought it sounded too simplistic so you never shared it?

 

  • Have you ever ignored what your gut was telling you because some “expert” recommended you move in another direction?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then chances are that you are selling yourself and your organization short, and you might want to consider getting out of your own way.

I am not suggesting you should adopt a self-congratulatory style or take on undue risk. I am suggesting you strive for what Jim Collins refers to as Level Five Leadership — personal humility coupled with professional will. Many leaders have one or the other. If you are heavy on the humility side (in many ways an admirable trait), that may at times keep you from shining a light on your organization’s unique capabilities and expertise. In other cases, there may be a tendency to think that others know what you know (not true) or assume that because something seems basic/logical/self-evident to you that others recognize it as well (also not true). If any of these things have a ring of truth to you, maybe it’s time to get out of your own way.

How? Start small. Share what you are thinking. It doesn’t have to be complex or perfect or groundbreaking (although it might be). Don’t try to be all things to all people. Get clear on your vision and then go all in — as only you can. Don’t let the fear of standing out, or being criticized hold you back. Sometimes one of the biggest barriers to our organization reaching its full potential is closer than we realize.

Get out of the way.

Easy as Cake

bigstock--cake 159887675Many leaders talk about the need for innovation in their organizations, however, in far too many cases, true innovation seems elusive. In most instances, it is not a lack of desire or effort that that impedes results, but rather a lack of the right blend of organizational ingredients.

Think of it like baking a cake. You can get all the best ingredients, measured out in the right amounts and set them side-by-side (you have top quality HR, and quality assurance, and product development), but if that’s all you do, you will never have a cake. It is the mixing of ingredients, in specific amounts, . . . it’s the dicing, the blending, the baking . . . that yields a prize-winning cake.

In their book Innovation to the Core: A Blueprint for Transforming the Way your Company Innovates, Skarzynski and Gibson talk about innovation as “combinational chemistry.” In effect, innovation isn’t about a “new” idea so much as it is taking a group of existing ideas/concepts — maybe from totally different fields or experiences — and putting them together in unique ways to create an entirely new solution.

So, when an organization challenges its “creatives” with innovation but does not include task or systems-oriented colleagues, it’s a bit like leaving the baking powder out of a cake — the flavor may be there, but it will never rise to its potential. Or maybe you always expect your senior, most experienced, staff to have all the good ideas. You know, there are only so many ways to combine the same ingredients, and after a while, everything you make with them starts to taste the same.

It takes a range of ingredients to make the best cakes, but how often do we have a diverse enough set of perspectives, ways of thinking and experience bases (or lack thereof!) as part of the ingredient list? Do we let it bake long enough? (How many “half-baked” concepts have you thrown out, lacking the patience for the idea to fully develop?) It may seem risky to add a spice you have never used before, leave out a “key” ingredient, or to use a new technique that feels a bit awkward at first (flourless cake . . . how can that be?!?). If there is a challenge to be solved, however, someone will come up with an innovative response. The question is, will it be you?

Sure, you will have some flops along the way. And some of the attempts will yield unexpected and delicious results. The simple fact is, the more cakes you bake, the more comfortable you become experimenting and trying unique combinations. First-time innovators will probably be most comfortable following a recipe. That’s fine, there are plenty out there. With practice, however, you will learn how to combine things in such a way to yield an entirely new creation. And that, my friend, is when you get to have your cake . . . and eat it too!

Rooted Against the Wind

Old branchy evergreen beech forest.It’s Spring in the Midwest, which means the winds have been howling. As I look at the trees in my back yard, I am glad they have roots that run deep to withstand the gusts, which seem to come from every direction. A lot of organizations could learn a thing or two from those thriving old maples. I see far too many organizations that only root their programs . . . their focus . . . their energy, about an inch deep — planting a little bit here, a little bit there, based on the way the wind is blowing today. The problem with that philosophy? The wind changes direction on a fairly regular basis and so these organizations are always scrambling to adapt.

Perhaps a better plan is to scout out a location . . . a philosophy . . . an approach that you believe in enough to stick with for the long haul, regardless of which way the wind blows, and then take the time to develop a root system that can weather the inevitable storms. Unfortunately many leaders, with the best of intentions, jump on board an “industry trend,” provide introductory level training to a wide cross-section of staff, and then wonder why they are not seeing dramatic change within 60 days. Oh, and they are also “planting” three other best practice approaches, just to hedge their bets.

It may feel like that is the “safer” approach, like you are responding to the changing winds. What you are really doing, however, is confusing and wearing out your people. As a leader, you need to look past next weeks’ weather forecast . . . past the next quarter, the next year . . . and ask yourself, who are you as an organization? What are you really about, specifically? Focus your energy and resources there. How?

When you are building for the long term, start small. Identify a core group of individuals and immerse them in your area of focus. Allow them to explore, to ask questions, adjust and start again. All the while, they will be developing a root system that grows stronger each day because of their targeted focus. Why do this rather than take everyone down the path at the same time? A small group can experiment, adapt and respond with a nimbleness that an entire organization cannot. Also, when everyone has questions and there is no clear answer, people get nervous and start to pull back, reverting to what they know. There’s a reason most trees spend the first year setting out roots before there is visible growth — that’s what allows them to thrive for the long term.

Your organization can thrive, too. Find your spot, support a small group of people as they build a deep network of supportive anchors, and then grow from there . . . with the confidence that your organization will be rooted against the wind.

Passing the Torch

Passing The TorchAs we draw to the end of one year, and begin to plan for the next, I have a leadership question for you. Are you actively working to pass the torch? I don’t necessarily mean yours (although you shouldn’t rule that out either) . . . I mean your organization’s torch. Let me explain.

We have a concept in our organization that we have dubbed “second generation leadership.” For starters, we shift people’s roles more frequently than many organizations, which offers a range of benefits. We work with a gifts and graces mindset. That is, when you recognize the unique skills and perspectives of your staff members, you can then identify people to take on a project or new initiative based on those things rather than by tenure or title. This kind of flexibility allows the organization to be nimble in the face of emerging opportunities. It also enables people to grow and develop in ways that would not happen in a more traditional hierarchical structure. We, in effect, have what Kotter  identifies as a dual-operating system.

And then we take the concept one step further. Once a program or concept is developed, we also look at opening up spots for others to sharpen their skills by again shifting leadership roles. This allows the original leaders to grow and expand in new areas and also encourages emerging leaders to stretch themselves, and yes occasionally stub their toes, as they further build their capacity. A side benefit of this is that the focus stays on the program, the mission, rather than on one particular person’s way of doing things. It becomes “our program” rather than “their program,” not to downplay anyone’s contribution (of which there are many) but to shine a light on the larger mission. We pass the torch, and in so doing keep the organization’s flame burning bright.

I give this example not to say that the way we go about passing the torch is the right way, or the only way, but merely as an example that this isn’t some theoretical whoo-whoo. Passing the torch allows people to continually stretch and grow, it invigorates your organization, and keeps your programs from getting stagnant because new ideas get infused on a regular basis. Yes, you have to watch for mission drift, and yes, it can be hard for people to let go of “their baby” that they have worked so hard to build. But they aren’t really letting go. They become more like grandparents who can take great pride in the “parenting” of the next generation.

Passing the torch is not always easy, but it is important if you want your organization to be a place of new ideas that continually strives to extend its mission reach. As you look toward a new year, what steps will you take to expand the flame of engagement and excitement throughout your organization? Maybe it’s time to pass the torch.

Side Roads

Winter road into forestAhhh, best laid plans. They really are amazing, aren’t they? Such a shame that they rarely work out the way we intend. And when that happens (because it will happen . . . maybe not every time, but it will happen), the leader’s response reverberates throughout the entire organization. Do you slam on the brakes and wring your hands over the roadblocks before you, or do you merely take your foot off the accelerator long enough to find the nearest side road to get you where you’re going?

It all depends on whether your focus is on the route or on the destination. Theoretically, it is easy to say we need to focus on the destination, but oh how we love our routes. The plans that we spend months creating, convincing ourselves that we have considered every option and have selected the best course. We have developed the metrics, the timelines, the budget, and even a few scenic overlooks along the way. With so much investment in the route, it seems foolhardy to abandon all that effort, even if you encounter a few red flags or flashing signs along the way . . . right?

I have two words for you. Side roads. I’m not saying you shouldn’t identify a route up front. Fast and easy is always lovely if you can make it work. I am saying that you also have to remain nimble enough to shift gears and take some gravel roads if that’s what it takes to reach your destination. Sure you may have to take a few deep breaths, you can even have a momentary pity party for the demise of your beautiful pre-planned route, but then you need to scan the horizon, consider alternate paths to reach the end goal and then pick one and go.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Side roads can be filled with hidden gems and opportunities. They may even turn out to be a shorter and faster than the well-paved road you originally identified. Side roads are easy to miss you unless you’re looking for them, but if you listen to your people, it is likely one of them has an idea of where they are located. However, they are only going to speak up if they know that the route truly is secondary to the destination . . . when they know that changing course isn’t seen as “failure” but rather doing what it takes to get the job done. Do your people know that?

I like a good plan as much as (and at times maybe even more than) the average leader, but I’ve also driven enough miles to know that sometimes the side road is the best path of all. So the next time your best laid plan is going up in smoke, take a deep breath and a hard look at where you’re trying to get to . . . and then I’ll see you on the side road.

How Will They Know?

Christmas Tree and Gifts. Over black background

Have you ever noticed that moments of insight, or reminders, often come in the most unexpected of ways?

Last weekend my boys were home from college, so they had the opportunity to help out a bit as I started decorating for Christmas. I am, perhaps, a bit enthusiastic about this task. As my oldest son finished setting up the third tree he commented, “That’s the last one, right?” “Almost, there is one more little one for the porch.” To which my son replied, “Mom (insert eye roll here) . . . they will know we are Christians by our love, not by the number of Christmas trees we have . . .”

We both chuckled at his comment, but it echoed in my head all weekend. How often, as leaders, do we get so caught up in what we are doing . . . the meetings, the projects, the initiatives, the never-ending to-do lists . . . that it seems to overshadow the why? Sure we often need all those things to accomplish the why, but if we are not careful, over time, we can focus so much on the details of the new endeavor, overcoming the identified foe, reaching projections, that we forget why we were doing all of that in the first place. Is it to grow by X%, to capture more market share, to bolster our own ego?

I hope not. I hope that you started on the leadership odyssey because you believed in something . . . something that tugged on you in such a way that you could not sit on the sidelines . . .that you saw important work and knew you had the gifts and graces to move it forward. And I hope that mission still drives you, because that is what will keep you going among all the minutia that is required along the way. Sure, we all occasionally get consumed by the “stuff” of leadership, but when that happens I challenge you to ask yourself, “How will they know?”

How will your people know your “why”, the mission that compels you, and hopefully your entire organization, forward? Will they know it through your words and actions, or are they left to draw their own conclusions? Do you talk frequently and openly about the underlying purpose of why you are doing what you are doing? When your people see you keeping the “why” front and center, they will be encouraged to do the same. Not only that, but leading off discussions with the why also opens up possibilities that might not be considered if people are only focused on a task, rather than a larger mission.

Meeting performance indicators doesn’t tell people your “why” any more than a fourth tree does. If you are going to accomplish great things you, and your people, have to be clear on the why. So the question remains . . . how will they know?

Do Something!

Mature businessman presenting to colleagues at a meeting

There is one clear difference between effective leaders and people who merely hold positions of leadership. Effective leaders do things. Those who simply inhabit the positions intended for leaders talk about doing things. They plan, they call meetings, they ask questions and hire consultants. They tabulate the input on spreadsheets and write reports . . . which they have committees review and refine, and then send to other committees who table the discussion until some future meeting on an unspecified date. (Trust me, I am not exaggerating!)

Let me be clear. I am not saying planning, gathering input and refining the strategy are not very important tasks. I absolutely think they are. However, 1) that process does not have to be a complex, mind-numbing nine-month trudge, and 2) the critical final piece of the process is to do something! Think about it. When someone highlights a leader’s accomplishments, do you ever hear them talk about their amazing meetings, or how good they are at analyzing the pros and cons of complex variables? No, accomplishments require making a decision, choosing a path, committing resources, and then doing it, whatever it may be.

I understand that the stakes may be high, and the consequences for making the wrong decision can be significant. What some people in positions of leadership fail to realize is that there are also significant consequences to not making a decision — nothing happens! No opportunity seized, no progress made, no goals accomplished.

Granted, many times a leader does not have as much information as he or she might want to be completely confident that one path or the other is the right direction. However, if it was a sure bet, a grand slam, clearly the only way forward, then the organization wouldn’t need a leader to make the decision. Any reasonable person can identify a sure thing! Effective leaders make judgment calls. Are they right every time? Of course not. But I can guarantee you’ll never hit a home run unless you decide to swing at a few pitches.

Effective leaders focus on what their organization could gain by making a decision. Those who have been placed in positions intended for leaders focus more on what they could lose if they make the wrong decision, not recognizing that their waffling causes them to lose opportunities anyway. Effective leaders consider the risks in their decision-making, but in relation to the potential reward, not as a standalone dark cloud.

There is no magic bullet, no one thing that moves someone from simply inhabiting a position of leadership to being an effective leader, but one action that is a part of the puzzle every single time . . . you have to do something!