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.

Pieces of Perfection

Christmas Tree

I have a collection of porcelain Christmas ornaments that I have had for a number of years. They were all gifts that highlighted important moments in my life. Each year, I would carefully place them on our tree, making sure they were secure on the branch. And then one year, one of them fell, bouncing from branch to branch in a seemingly slow motion journey to the floor. After the initial pain of seeing something I held dear in pieces on the floor, I had a decision to make. Throw away the broken ornament and maybe look for a replacement, or try to glue the figurine back together as best I could, knowing it would never be the same?

As I pulled the scarred ornament out of its box this year, and positioned it on the tree so the unrepairable hole in the back was less obvious, I recognized that while it was less perfect than the other ornaments in the collection, it never fails to make me smile. As leaders, in our quest to have everything run perfectly, we can lose sight of the fact that sometimes the most imperfect part of our work can actually have the most meaning. That is where our effort can have the biggest impact.

Maybe your challenge isn’t gluing together broken pieces. It could be deciding whether to replace a fading ornament with something new, or taking a big risk to totally turn the tree upside down without knowing for sure how it will turn out. Too often, we unnecessarily set ourselves up to fail by making perfection the goal . . . in all things . . . at all times. Perhaps the best way to find fulfillment as a leader is to instead look for pieces of perfection . . . which may, in fact, be quite different than what you originally envisioned. It could be

. . . Improvising with Plan B when Plan A fell apart, and having it surpass all expectations

. . .Thinking you could never replace a key player who walked away, only to have an even better fit step to the table.

. . . Falling short on the original goals of a project, but making a connection that led to even bigger opportunities.

Pieces of perfection come into view when we let go of some preordained picture of what success is supposed to look like. Not to lower the bar on the impact you are trying to have, simply to recognize that there may be any number of ways to get there.

My Christmas tree is filled with mismatched ornaments, tarnished ones, and aging grade school creations that make my sons cringe . . . all hanging along side shiny new additions, and of course my porcelain figurines. I’m certain a designer would not call it a perfect tree. I’m equally sure that it is filled with meaning . . . and pieces of perfection.

 

Big Yellow Hats

bigstock-Yellow-Rain-Hat-815670.jpg

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.

Willing Followers

Business Team Discussion Team Customer Service ConceptAs a leader, do you want your people to follow you because they have to, or because they want to? For those of you who just rolled their eyes as you read that first sentence, let me point out that cultivating willing followers — those who consciously choose to help the organization carry out its strategic goals — is harder, at times exasperating, and definitely takes longer than ruling by fiat. So if that is the case, why go to all the effort? Quite simply, because willing followers produce better outcomes.

What, exactly do I mean by willing followers? I am not talking about yes-people (in my book, such people fall into the “have to category” — as in they “have to” agree with you). I am talking about people who follow because they believe in the goals of the organization and how you as a leader are carrying them out. You can have people who believe in the goals of the organization, but if they think you are doing a lousy job of carrying them out, they won’t be willing followers. I’m not suggesting that every follower has to agree with every decision you make (nice fantasy, but not terribly realistic). I am suggesting that, on the whole, they trust you enough of give you the benefit of the doubt, and will help accomplish the goals you set because they believe you are working toward the organization’s, and in turn their, best interests.

How do you build that kind of trust? In a word, relationships. Without some kind of connection — depending on the size of your staff it may be direct or indirect — your relationship with your people, and thus their willingness to follow, becomes much more tenuous. Yes, I know you are in your position to get things done, not to sing Kumbya, but the simple fact is that you can’t get things done without your people. Talk to them, ask their opinion, listen to their ideas. They might not have the big picture experience that you do, but you also don’t have the “boots on the ground” perspective that they do. Make it okay for them to raise concerns. Learn from them, and then loop back to connect the dots for them. Here’s where we are . . . here’s where we’re going . . . here’s how we plan to get there . . . and here’s why . . . any questions?

Sure, you can command-and-control your way out of situations in the short term, but if you want your team to have your back for the long term — to make you aware of opportunities and/or roadblocks that you didn’t anticipate — it is going to take more than obedient staff. If you are looking for the best possible outcome for your organization, the only way to get there is with a team of willing followers.

Hydrate

water in glass

It has been well established that one important factor in maintaining overall health is to stay well hydrated. Just as water keeps a plant from withering away, our bodies need water to function at their peak. Have you ever noticed, however, that sometimes we don’t notice how thirsty we really are until we drink a bit of water and then realize we are absolutely parched? That’s why you need to hydrate at regular intervals rather than waiting until you feel thirsty. The same need for regular hydration applies to “leadership health.”

Leaders need to hydrate their mind. Taking in new ideas, new knowledge, keeps your mind vital and functioning at its peak. Books, articles, Ted talks, conferences, conversations with people who see the world differently than you do … there are so many ways to keep your mind from becoming dry and brittle. Just like neglecting to drink enough water, it is easy to convince ourselves that our mind isn’t thirsty. We have enough ideas, what we are doing is working just fine, and besides we have no time for all that stuff. Really? Drink in some new knowledge. You just might be amazed at how thirsty you really are.

Leaders also need to hydrate their relationships. I’m not talking about interacting with people at agenda-laden meetings. Those might build respect, but they don’t build relationships. Relationships come from unstructured time spent with people. You need to drink in the opportunities to interact informally, both with work colleagues and personal friends. You need the time and space to ask questions and have spontaneous conversations that allow you to “be real” with people, in both deep and light-hearted ways. Ignoring this thirst is perhaps the quickest route to becoming a dry, crispy, lonely, leader.

Leaders need to hydrate their heart and soul. In the midst of the, at times, scorching responsibilities of leading, it is critical that leaders don’t try to just sweat it out. When you feel like you can least afford it is when it is most important to carve out time to replenish your “why,” to make sure it doesn’t quietly wilt away. What grounds you? What drives you? Why are you doing what you’re doing? Prayer, soaking in the wonder of nature, reflection, time spent with family and friends, interacting with a child … there are as many ways to quench this thirst, to nourish your heart and soul, as there are individuals. Just make sure you do it, whatever “it” is for you.

So you want to remain in this leadership gig for the long haul? Hydrate your body, yes, but also make sure you replenish your mind, your relationships, and your heart and soul. Starting today, take the time and drink it in!