The Path Forward

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Have you ever noticed that you can’t move forward by digging your heels in?

It seems that conflict, gamesmanship, and demonizing those who see the world differently is on the rise in a host of environments. Maybe, instead of shouting louder or throwing more “facts” at our most challenging situations, those of us who would call ourselves leaders need to instead take the time to listen — with the intention of hearing, not just as a way to look for cracks in the armor where we can reinforce our point.

There is a host of research indicating that diverse teams strengthen an organization’s performance. Both inherent diversity (something you are born with) and acquired diversity (which comes from experience) can impact how one views a particular situation and issue. Do you as a leader not want as much information — as many different perspectives — as possible before making a decision? For example . . . imagine you are in charge of a building project. Do you not want to hear the opinion of the electrician, the plumber, the roofer, the person who will be coordinating the process, and perhaps even someone who has built a similar type of building? They may all give you a different perspective, with lots of legitimate rationale about why their opinion should take precedence. Those perspectives are all valuable as you work toward the best possible end goal.

There is no doubt that incorporating a diversity of perspectives in decision-making takes longer, can be uncomfortable and emotion-laden, and at times it may feel like there is no mutually agreeable path forward. That’s why the role of leaders is more important today than ever before. It takes a strong leader to push for the “and” rather than settling for the “or.” Roger Martin refers to such people as integrative thinkers — people who can hold two seemingly conflicting ideas in a constructive tension while working toward a new solution. It’s not settling for trade-offs, it’s leveraging our different perspectives to achieve a better outcome.

None of this is to say that you as a leader can’t have some non-negotiables. It simply means that no one person or perspective has a corner on all the good ideas, and it is a leader’s job to push through the hard stuff to find new insight/solutions/models on the other side of the complexity . . . to seek common ground, fill in gaps of understanding and commit to finding a new, better response.

There will always be plenty of people who will dig their heels in and tell you why they are right. It is a leader’s job to recognize that a diversity of perspectives offers rich opportunities for learning, insight, and the best chance at finding a path forward.

The Hard Truth

Hard Truth GrSome days, leadership is just plain hard. And as much as we might like it to be different in those moments when we have to make a decision with no clear path forward, I think it is supposed to be hard. Struggling through the hard stuff is how we learn and grow and gain greater clarity . . . and yes, at times stumble, but ultimately chart a better course. It is shouldering the pushback, the skepticism, the lack of understanding of well-intended people, (including yourself!) while you strive toward the larger vision.

True, this is not the picture of leadership that you typically see highlighted in feature stories that talk about the confident, charismatic stuff of which great leaders are made. The piece that gets left out of the story is that the confidence comes on the other side, once you have worked your way through the tough stuff. So what is a leader to do when firmly wedged between what feels like a rock and a hard place?

  • Walk all the way around the issue. If you think there is only one option, one choice, you just aren’t looking closely enough. Gather input from a cross-section of people. The more clearly you can identify what is going on “underneath” different perspectives, the better you can put things in context.
  • Make the case yourself, out loud, for both perspectives. Things sometimes sound different when you say them out loud than they do in your head, and making both arguments yourself helps minimize the impact of personalities on your consideration.
  • Recognize that “grappling” is part of the process. This is the hard part . . . the lonely inner wrestling about the best decision. It does not make you indecisive or weak or somehow deficit in your capabilities. It means you care enough to put yourself through the wringer as you search for the right choice.
  • Sleep on it. Once you have found a place to land, let it sit. Sleep on it. Yes, I know that you are down to the wire and it feels like you have to come up with an answer right now. Sleep on it. The extra measure of clarity that can come with the light of a new day is well worth a short delay in the final call.

Does knowing these steps make the process of leadership easier? Not really. There will still be plenty of situations where your heart and your head, your trusted advisors, and your short and long-term perspectives will be in conflict. It will be draining and frustrating, and just plain hard. But . . . somehow it helps to know that it is part of the process. That this is how it works. And the potential gain is worth the pain that a leader will endure getting there.

That, my friends, is the hard truth of leadership.

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!

Leadership Quicksand

Quicksand

There are many potential obstacles as you forge a path through the leadership jungle, but perhaps the one most likely to grab hold of you and suck you under — truly the quicksand of good leadership — is ego.

I’m not talking about confidence here. Confidence and ego, while often seen as one in the same, are really quite different. Confidence is inwardly focused . . . you have faith in your ability to come up with the best solution. Ego is externally focused . . . you want others to believe you have it all figured out. Confidence is calm, quiet even. Ego is brash and always trying to be in the limelight.

How do you know if you are approaching leadership quicksand, or if you’re already there, how do you keep from being swallowed alive? Here are a few tips for how to know if you are no longer standing on solid ground.

  • You are so sure you know the “best way” that you stop listening to the ideas and input of others.

 Pull your self out of the quagmire by asking others to contribute their best thinking to the issue. If you really have the best idea, it will stand up to different perspectives. And if others’ thinking makes your original ideal even better, then everyone is a winner!

  • You consistently take credit for the good work of your team.

If you’re stuck in quicksand, it is helpful to have someone there to help you out. If you’ve been pushing your team into the shadows . . . well, good luck. A confident leader knows his or her team will be there when things get tough, because they’ve been walking along side the leader the entire time.

  • You blame others when things don’t go the way you intended.

After all, as noted in #1 above, you knew the best way, right? So it must be someone else’s fault. Except while you are sputtering around, sinking deeper and pointing the finger at others, the confident leader is finding a path up and out of the current situation.

  • You think you are entitled to, or have earned, certain privileges.

It’s okay to ask for things to make your jungle journey easier. To expect them every time, or to get snarky when they don’t happen . . . feel yourself sinking? Sincere appreciation for the efforts of others will go a long way toward keeping you on solid ground.

You get the idea. It’s not about you. Which is not to say you aren’t a critical part of the equation. It’s when you start to think you’re the only part of the equation that really matters that you get sucked under.

It is a jungle out there. Don’t make the journey harder than it needs to be. Check your ego, and walk around the leadership quicksand.

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.

Leadership Plaid

A number of years ago I read a book where a political advisor, in speaking about a particular politician, commented that “His favorite color is plaid.” It was not meant as a compliment.

I chuckled when I first read that line, as was the author’s intent, but it also stuck in my mind (unlike much of the rest of the book . . .), and over the years I have come to believe that some of the most impactful leadership efforts succeed because they are able to incorporate a range of perspectives, like a finely-woven plaid. Let me use my paternal family tartan as an example of what I am talking about.

The ancient Duncan tartan is primarily composed of shades of blue and green, cool colors that overlap and blend easily. They are in close proximity on the color wheel, much like weaving together the input of team members who are all heading in the same direction, shooting for the same goal, but starting from slightly different perspectives (say, green for an operational viewpoint and blue using a product/program lens).

In addition to the blue and green background, woven throughout the design are thin but obvious lines of black and white. Those are the non-negotiables for which we won’t blend or bend . . . the values or mission from which we will not deviate. These are not the dominant colors of the pattern (we don’t feel the need to beat you over the head with them), but are clearly visible and a critical element in the overall design. And then there is the red. The firey spark from the other side of the color wheel that is none-the-less acknowledged and accommodated throughout the design. In fact, the plaid stands out more for having incorporated this “opposing” color, just as our own efforts become both more striking and appealing to a broader audience for the willingness to incorporate what is, ultimately, a very different but complementary color.

As leaders, we are so often encouraged to carve out a single position and stand strong. Pick one color, black or white or purple, and stick with that. Unfortunately, the situations which with we are faced today can rarely be best answered with a black or white response — at least not if we want to have a lasting impact on the ultimate goal. It takes a blending of perspectives and experiences, layers of color, and an acknowledgement of what each brings to the table, to weave together the design of a lasting solution.

Tartans have survived for centuries and are still going strong. Maybe to solve today’s toughest problems we should all consider weaving together a bit of leadership plaid.