New Eyes for a New Year — Part Three

2683_5078_largeIn the past two weeks, we have looked at the “what” and “where” of your leadership vision. In this final installment of “New Eyes for a New Year” it’s time to do a quick screening of the “how” of your vision. Consider it your depth-perception test . . . you know, that part of your eye exam where you look through 3-D glasses and identify which part of the picture stands out the most . . .

 

Your “depth perception” as a leader determines how you see what lies before you. Our biases, experiences and predispositions can make some aspects of the landscape stand out more than others. That is why two people can look at the same situation/challenge/opportunity and see very different things. Do you focus on definitive black and white observations, or shades of gray? Are you looking for similarities to build on or differences to distinguish? Do you expect to see a specific outcome, or are you open to being surprised?

Perhaps most importantly, do you believe/consider valid/judge as reasonable only what you “see” through your own unique perspective, or are you open to considering someone else’s point of view . . . to see the landscape before you with new eyes? Yes, as the leader, it is ultimately your responsibility to cast the vision and set the direction. The question is, do you want to make that decision based only on your own depth perception, or would your organization be better served by you viewing the situation based on the input from a range of people who might see things a bit differently? People who see the big picture and those who focus on the small details. People who strive to make good things happen and those committed to keeping bad things from happening. And yes, even that “disrupter” who can always be counted on see the world a bit differently than everyone else on your staff. In effect . . . would you rather make a decision based on a single piece of information (your own personal depth perception), or on a full range of data that a variety of perspectives can provide?

What you see as “real” in any particular situation may be based, at least in part, on your own depth perception. If you want to see the opportunities before you with new eyes in the New Year, how you go about doing that can make all the difference. Maybe it’s time to take out the 3-D glasses and check your focus.

 

Photo credit: Bernell Corporation

The Other 93%

Unhappy Discontent Woman And Man Look With Disgusting ExpressionWhether or not you believe Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s oft-quoted research that 55% of communication happens through nonverbals, 38% through vocal elements, and only 7% through the words we use, most people will concede that nonverbals play a major role in communications. So why is it that so many leaders seem to focus only on words and ignore the other 93%?

For starters, open two-way communication gets harder when people are placed in positions of leadership. Most people who report to you will be good students. Good students give the teacher the answer he or she wants to hear, whether or not they actually believe it’s true. After all, giving the “right” answer is the way you get good grades, right? So most people’s words tend to reinforce what the leader is already thinking . . . thus giving a 7% confirmation that everyone is on the same page regarding the best course of action.

But aren’t words more “concrete” than all subjective, nonverbal stuff? In a word, no. When words and nonverbals are in conflict trust the nonverbals, which are often unconscious and reflect true feelings or intentions. (Anyone who has raised a teenager can vouch for the truth of this concept.) People may say what they think they are supposed to, but for the leader who takes the time to “listen” to the nonverbals, there can be a whole host of information being communicated that isn’t being “said.” Whether it is a lack of eye contact, gestures or physical movement (such as someone tapping their foot, drumming their fingers or crossing their arms), how a person positions themselves in the room, or “the look on their face”, your people can say a lot without saying a word.

What can a leader do to make sure you are hearing the full message? Focus on the complete “conversation” taking place, not just the words being shared — by you or someone else. If you are thinking about what you are going to say next, you can miss subtle nonverbal cues that are communicating loud and clear if only you are attentive enough to notice. If a person’s words and nonverbals are inconsistent, ask for clarification — not in an accusing way, but in a spirit of seeking to understand . . . “Joe, you seem uncomfortable/unconvinced/skeptical . . . do you see the matter differently?” And then give Joe the opportunity to share his perspective.

When you consistently loop back with your people in this way, a) they will start to believe that you really do want to know what they are thinking, b) they will feel seen and valued because you noticed something that they may not have even been aware of conveying, and c) you will gain the value of the full message your people are communicating — through words they share . . . and the other 93%.

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.

Listen up!

bigstock--Listen upIt seems that listening is becoming a bit of a lost art, to everyone’s detriment. Without the ability to listen, we doom ourselves to never moving beyond the limits of our current thinking — and such thinking is limiting, regardless of how we might like to convince ourselves otherwise.

Listening is different than hearing. According to Merriam Webster, hearing is “the process, function, or power of perceiving sound.” This definition made me think of Charlie Brown’s teacher . . . waa wa waa wa wa. Yes, in today’s 24/7 environment, there is more sound out there to perceive than ever before. But are we listening, or do we simply see people’s mouths moving and filter what they are saying as good or bad . . . as supporting our position or challenging it?

Webster defines listening as “to pay attention to sound, to hear something with thoughtful attention, give consideration.” Giving consideration is a very different thing from perceiving sound. Which do you do most often?

Giving consideration isn’t about being “wishy washy,” or politically correct, or not having a strength of your convictions. To the contrary, the willingness to listen — really listen — requires a great deal of confidence. Are you confident enough to give thoughtful attention to a different perspective, and perhaps adjust your thinking a bit as a result? Are you confident enough to strive for the “best” in a situation rather than being “right”? (Best is about others, right is about you). Best comes from considering multiple perspectives . . . from listening . . . before you make a decision.

Leaders who don’t listen — who filter out input from anyone who doesn’t see the world as they do — often end up on an island of their own making, cut off from a large expanse of perspectives, insight, and potential. Islands can be cozy places, but they limit how far you can go. As a leader, if you find yourself on such an island (which happens more easily than you might think), what can you do? Listen.

Listening builds bridges. If all you are hearing is people who agree with you, then you need to ask for diverse perspectives. Seek to understand. Listening is not about waiting your turn to tell someone why he or she is wrong. It is about giving consideration, walking a mile in their shoes. Ultimately, you may not agree with the person or perspective, but by listening you start to build a bridge off that island. You expand your possibilities for future success. You lead.

Maybe it’s time to listen up.

Your County Fair

The Clark County Fair And RodeoThis coming week is fair week in my county. That may not mean anything to you, but for me, the fair has helped shape who I am as a person and a leader. My experiences with 4-H (my own, with my children and from serving as a 4-H leader), volunteering for various fair activities and events, cheering on and building memories with family and friends . . . The fair helps remind me “where I came from” in the best of ways. Many of the people I interact with at the fair couldn’t care less what my title is, or even what I do for a living . . . it’s enough for them to know that I am “one of the Duncan girls,” and they would have no problem calling me out if they thought I was “getting too big for my britches.” Every leader needs a county fair.

Your “county fair” may be a special family tradition, an annual outing or event, or a regularly scheduled gathering of long-time friends. It’s a place where people know your story, where your ideas or input don’t carry any more weight than anyone else’s, and where people have no problem calling you a dork if you are being a dork (usually with a smile on their face and a twinkle in their eye). Other people may not understand the appeal, but “county fairs” tend to bring a sense of peace and renewal in the midst of a leader’s overflowing schedule. Ironically, it is those tightly booked schedules and ever-growing to-do lists that may prompt a leader to consider skipping their county fair. Don’t do it.

All of us as leaders need to find ways to stay grounded, authentic and humble. Far too many leaders spend so much time trying to be who they think they are supposed to be, or who someone says they should be, that they forget who they really are. “Who you are” brought you to this point. Don’t lose that. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t grow, expand your skills, and at times change your perspective — you should do all those things. I’m talking about who you are at your core . . . your values, your experiences, your innate wisdom. Those are the things that bring depth to your leadership, and those are the things that get nourished at your county fair.

As rewarding as your leadership role may be, it is still hard work. If we are to bring our best efforts to those we serve, we also have to carve out time to make sure we stay grounded. One way to do that is by connecting regularly with those who know us outside the titles or positions we currently hold.

See you at the fair.

Strong Backs

a determined strong businessman carrying an elephant on his back“Don’t ask for a lighter load, but for a stronger back.”

I’ve seen this quote, and variations thereof, credited to Phillips Brooks, a Jewish Proverb, and St. Augustine. The fact that so many want to lay claim to these words should be some indication of their truth. Leadership is at times a very heavy load. The weight of the responsibility . . . the impact of decisions . . . the lack of a clear path forward . . . can be overwhelming.

Oh what we would give for a lighter load. Sorry, not happening. Not if you are a leader. Far better, instead, to go for a stronger back. How does one build a stronger back? A few suggestions:

  • Rest. Everything is harder when you are tired — physically, mentally or emotionally. And the times you think you can least afford rest are when you need it the most. Have you ever stressed yourself into a knot, only to wake up the next morning with an entirely different perspective? That, my friend, is the curative, back-strengthening power of rest.

 

  • Talk it out. No one ever said leadership had to happen in isolation. Somehow, challenges seem to grow when they are confined to your head. Have you ever taken a bite of something you didn’t like, and it seemed to get bigger and bigger the more you chewed and you didn’t know how you were ever going to swallow it? Yeah, heavy loads can be like that when you roll them over and over in your mind and don’t share them with anyone. Don’t worry, the ultimate responsibility still lies with you, but sometimes talking it out can bring dilemmas down to size making their weight easier to bear.

 

  • Minimize distractions. Some people do this by getting outside and enjoying the beauty of the day. For others, prayer or meditation is key. Get away from your email, phone, and to-do list . . . if nothing else close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. The answer to the challenges before you will not out-shout all the other demands of your day. When you get quiet enough to hear that still small voice inside (your smartest and truest voice), you just might be surprised how often you find the peace to stand tall and move forward.

 

  • Keep at it. One doesn’t build a strong back overnight any more than you can lose weight by eating one healthy meal. It’s a start, yes, but the more you do it, the better the results. This leadership gig is a marathon, not a sprint, so if you want to be in it for the long haul you have to keep doing the things that lead to a stronger back.

The leadership load isn’t going to get any lighter. You can either continually stumble under its weight, or consciously decide to build a stronger back. The choice is yours.

No Ceilings

Inside the castle of Cesky KrumlovAs leaders, our perspective has a significant influence not only on our approach, but also the efforts of those around us. When we run into a daunting challenge, do we look for ways to minimize our risk or maximize our gain? A power point I ran across this week put it this way: “There’s a floor to cost reduction but no ceiling to value creation.”

No ceiling to value creation . . . what a great lens through which to view the challenges and opportunities before us! How often do we respond to the roadblocks we encounter by immediately slamming on the brakes? Cut, reduce, minimize our losses and avoid future risk. Yes, as leaders we have to be good stewards and fiscally responsible, but do we stop to consider that there may be multiple ways to manage the bottom line while also expanding the top line?

What if our first question when we collide with a roadblock was to ask how to raise the ceiling on our value proposition? Isn’t that what Lean Principles are all about? Creating more value and, yes, eliminating waste . . . but maximizing value for your efforts is at the heart of Lean. How many leaders never even consider a path to value creation because they have a scarcity mentality? They instinctively reduce and withdraw, and in so doing eliminate the very path that could have led to greater value and financial sustainability.

How does a leader eliminate the ceiling on value creation? Certainly it is important to explore opportunities for efficiencies and economies of scale. However, just as there are limits to cost reduction, there are limits on how efficient you can become at a specific task. The question then becomes, is there a better task on which to focus your efforts? And the answer to that question is . . . Yes! Focus your efforts on innovation!

If a leader truly wants no ceiling on value creation you have to not only allow but encourage sky-is-the-limit, “in a perfect world” thinking (no ceilings, right). So often, right out of the gate, we frame our thinking with barriers . . . “They would never” . . . “It’s not practical, but” . . . “It would be cost prohibitive, however . . .” Feel that floor looming?

What if, instead of focusing on what we can’t do, we identify the most amazing, creative way to add value and then focus on figuring out a way to do that? I’m not suggesting you disregard your budget, or that you will automatically get there overnight. I am saying that when people are passionate about value creation . . . when innovative thinking is encouraged . . . they find a way.

Where do you start? No ceilings.

Seeing the Curve Ball

Baseball Pitcher Throwing focus on BallLast night, I went to my nephew’s baseball game. From where I was sitting, in an elevated position on the third base side of the field, it looked like some of the batters were taking rather poor swings at the pitches. Of course, had I bothered to move to a position behind the plate and level with the batter, I would have noticed that the pitcher had a pretty impressive curve ball. I couldn’t see that from my vantage point however, all I could see were the swings. As a leader, are you aware of how many curve balls your team is being pitched on a daily basis, or do you only notice that they aren’t getting as many hits as you expected?

In all likelihood, your team is dealing with a fair number of curve balls, change-ups, and drop pitches. They know how to hit the fastball. They know how to adapt to fluxuations in the strike zone. But sometimes, that curve ball is going to get them. When that happens, do you as the leader/coach yell at them to keep their eye on the ball and try harder? Do you shout the standard words of encouragement from your perch on the hillside? Or, do you investigate what is really going on so you can help your team member respond more effectively in the next at bat.

It’s easy to say “of course” you would want to see first-hand what is going on, but do we really? After all, leaders have their own curve balls they are trying to deal with, they are working on the line-up for the next inning/big project, they are talking to players about how to adjust their position in the field, never mind all the chatter and advice from the crowd that is going on in the background. Can’t your players just figure it out and hit the stinking ball?

Sometimes, really seeing what your people are dealing with is hard. You have to put the four other things you are thinking about on hold to focus on helping your players identify the adjustments they can make to predict, and effectively respond to, the inevitable curve ball. That may mean you need to change your perspective so you can see the situation more clearly, or ask them about their experience rather than assume that you know what happened. There could be any number of variables affecting their performance that you could be totally unaware of unless you ask.

It is hard to see a curve ball from afar. So get in there, support your team, let them learn from your experience. Helping your players hit the tough pitches out of the park not only adds to the team’s score . . . it’s a leadership homerun as well.

Questioning Leadership

Question MarkOne of the great myths of leadership is that a leader has to have all the answers. In reality, if people in positions of leadership were required to provide all the answers, a lot less would get accomplished in this world. The real trick of leadership is asking the right questions.

Then why are so many leaders more prone to answering rather than asking?

  • It is quicker just to provide the answers. It seems everyone is running faster and the to-do lists just keep getting longer. Given that, if the leader already knows of a good solution, why not just provide it and save everyone time and energy, right?
  • Sharing their opinion has served them well. Most leaders didn’t move up through the ranks by keeping their thoughts to themselves. If voicing their perspective — giving an answer — has been rewarded up to this point, why would leaders want to change their approach?
  • Leaders are supposed to have things figured out. At least that is what everyone is telling them, and they have invested a large amount of time and energy into trying to do just that, so why would they not want to share what they have learned?

True? Maybe technically . . . however . . . to quote Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here won’t get you there.” It is a myth to think that the behaviors that enabled you to a position of leadership are the same skills that will make you a successful leader.

  • That whole teach a man to fish thing . . . it really is true. We’ve all been in those meetings where someone is continually pulled out to answer a question or take a call simply because their people haven’t been asked, or allowed, to come up with an answer on their own. Sure, it may take longer at first to ask rather than tell, but in the long run you’ll get farther faster.
  • Why hire smart people if you aren’t going to listen to them? The best leaders seek out the slices of genius just waiting to be tapped throughout their organization. When you genuinely seek input before forming your opinion, your people feel valued for their expertise and you get to make better decisions.
  • Asking questions is how you . . . and your people . . . gain new insight! Think about the wisest leaders you know. Do they spend their time telling you how much they know, or do they ask probing questions that result in you identifying new solutions? In my experience, the most effective leaders use a few well-placed questions to steer you in the right direction and then encourage you to find the path forward.

Maybe, just maybe, the key to effective leadership is not imparting immediate answers but in asking the right questions. What do you think?

Golden Leadership

golden-leadershipWhat does one write in a leadership blog the day after one of the most contentious, divisive national elections in recent history? We need more leaders. I’m not talking about individuals who covet positions of leadership for the perceived power and prestige such roles might bring. I’m talking about people who feel compelled to step up to the plate, right where they are, to change a circumstance.

True leadership is not about a position. It is about having a purpose, and how you treat others on the way to fulfilling that purpose.

Which should be a source of encouragement, regardless of whether you are excited, anxious or in a bit of a stupor about the results of yesterday’s election. You can step up and take a leadership role, right now, right where you are, to work toward an improved circumstance. How?

For starters, listen. When was the last time you truly listened to someone who had a perspective different from your own — not with the goal of telling them why and how they are wrong, but to try to understand where they were coming from? You aren’t going to change someone’s perspective simply by shouting louder or questioning their intelligence, and you won’t make the best decisions by only listening to those who already agree with you. Granted, part of leadership is making decisions that won’t please everyone, however if you can allow those with a different perspective to feel heard, and treat them with respect, it is likely you will gain followers even if they don’t agree with every decision you make.

Secondly, be willing to question your thinking. No one is “right” all the time. And just because a decision might have been the best solution with one set of circumstances, when variables change sometimes the most appropriate response changes too. I’m not suggesting that you don’t hold true to your values and purpose. You absolutely should. However rigidity and an unwillingness to consider new information or to look for a “third way” doesn’t expand your influence or strengthen your position, it only makes it harder to accomplish your goal.

Finally, take the plank from your own eye before you go after the speck in someone else’s. Pointing fingers, being judgmental or condescending or patronizing lessens your own credibility more than that of those you are calling out. Again, that does not mean you should condone inappropriate actions or downplay your values, but somewhere along the way it seems we checked respect at the door. You can disagree with someone, or make the hard decisions, while still being respectful.

 Bottom line, the golden rule really is still golden. Treat others the way you want to be treated. If you are less than enthusiastic about those seeking positions of leadership, be a role model of the kind of leader you want. On this “day after” my challenge to each of you is simply this . . .

Be a golden example.