Potholes and Roses

PotholeAt the risk to totally dating myself, Lynn Anderson once had a hit song with the lyric, “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.” That could be the anthem for many a leader. We come into organizations thinking that, once we get everything “in place”, there will be far more roses and sunshine that anything else. And then, reality sets in. Leaders are less important when the roses are in bloom. It’s when your organization hits the potholes that a leader’s skills really shine. Really!

Potholes — those unexpected jolts that are at times impossible to avoid — are a shock to the system. Your staff members look to the person whose hand is on the wheel (that would be you, the leader) to keep them on course and moving forward. How you deal with the potholes determines whether you and your staff will have the time and energy to plant roses, or if you will merely bounce from one jolting experience to another. The potholes are where leadership happens.

Max DePree says that a place of realized potential (that would be the roses) offers the gift of challenging work (Yep, potholes). It is the process — the at times painful, messy and uncertain tasks — of working through the tough stuff that makes you a better leader. I think we often have it backwards . . . assuming that one first has to be a great leader to get out of tough spots. Instead, it is the act of finding your way out of the potholes that allows you, in Max DePree’s words, to realize your potential. And that is where the roses are.

So what does that mean for you? Well, for starters, if you find yourself in the midst of a pothole, take heart. As long as you keep striving toward your mission, you are on the way to realizing your potential. (I know it doesn’t feel like it in the midst of the guck, but trust me on this one.) Also, quit expecting leadership to be easy, or to think you should “have all the answers.” Yes, over time, some things will become easier, but then the questions just get harder.

It is when you celebrate the leadership journey, working hard for a mission in which you truly believe, that the roses start to appear. And those roses are all the more beautiful because of the struggle you went through to find them. Down the road, there will be more potholes . . . which simply means you are continuing to move forward.

Lynn Anderson had it right. Leaders are not promised a rose garden. But the roses they do find, just on the other side of the potholes, are the sweetest roses of all.

Avoiding the Collaboration Camel

Bichon maltais blanc assis & coquin sur fond blanc

Collaboration is currently a major push among non-profit and governmental funders, and I believe working collectively with complementary organizations can be a powerful force for positive change. If that sounds like a bit of a qualified statement, it is. Notice I said “can be” not “is”, and that positive change comes in partnering with complementary organizations, not just any organization.

Collaboration is a means to an end. It is something you do to reach a clearly stated goal. It is not (or at least in my opinion should not be) the goal in and of itself. Collaboration does not mean any organization in the community that offers a certain type of service has to be included in the discussion, nor does it mean every party has an equal part to play in the effort. Lastly, collaboration does not mean that the “big fish” takes all the risk, but all parties share equally in the rewards.

Let me reiterate, I think collaboration, when done well, can be extremely effective in addressing complex, multi-layered challenges. Unfortunately, all too often, it is not done well. I have seen far too many instances when the pressure to collaborate has led organizations to spend untold hours on efforts that merely spin in circles, rather than gaining traction in moving toward the goal. And then there are the committees where participants give lip service to collaborating while also trying to grab maximum gain for their own organization rather than working for the common good, contorting the original goals in strange directions. As the saying goes, a camel is a horse designed by committee . . . and I’ve seen a lot of camels lately.

So how do you avoid wasting your resources on a collaboration camel? First of all, pick your partners carefully. Shared values are ideal, or at the very least a shared understanding of the goal, the risks and the rewards are critical for a successful collaboration. As much as possible, it should be an “effort among equals” where each participant is aware of what they bring to the table, and how their contribution complements the other participating organizations in meeting the stated goal.

Secondly, you have to be willing to lay your cards on the table with all the collaborative partners. Resist requests for a meeting before the meeting/meeting after the meeting/side meeting. These are usually made by those looking to contort things for the benefit of their own organization (read camel makers). Open, transparent communication is critical for effective collaborations. Yes, that sometimes means having hard discussions within the committee, which builds far more trust than side conversations going on around the meeting.

Third, no matter how committed you may be to the collaborative goal, you also have to keep your organizational limits in mind. Sometimes, the answer simply has to be no . . . to continuing the collaborative effort if everyone isn’t playing by the same rule book . . . to walking down a path that may look good on paper but isn’t sustainable in practice . . . to agreeing to an effort that will divert you from more important strategic goals, just so you can look like a “team player.”

The impact that can come from a strong collaborative effort is too important for you to settle for anything else. Besides, there are enough camels out there.