The Fourth Quarter

Basketball JumpI spent last evening cheering on my former high school, and my nephew’s current, basketball team in a post-season tournament. They led throughout the first half of the game, but unfortunately the momentum changed a bit in the third quarter, and they just couldn’t quite pull it out at the end of the game. As is often the case, it all came down to the fourth quarter. They played hard, they never gave up, and when the buzzer sounded they ended up just short of their goal.

Those are the hard loses for a coach, or a leader . . . when early in the contest it looks like the win is within your grasp . . . and then something happens. Maybe someone else caught a lucky break or used a strategy you weren’t expecting. Maybe your team struggled or was just a bit off their game. Maybe the officials/oversight bodies suddenly started calling things differently . . .

Regardless of the unexpected variables that may come your way, it all comes down to the fourth quarter . . . when you’re tired and probably a bit out of breath . . . when you are trying to make adjustments and communicate with your team while running at full tilt . . . when you feel the pressure bearing down on you, and the roar of advice/encouragement/criticism “they” are shouting at you. It can be exhausting and exhilarating, and how you handle the pressure can determine the results of the game.

So how do you prepare for the fourth quarter?

It starts with the fundamentals. Can your team move the ball down the court? Have they practiced enough to anticipate what needs to happen and where they need to be at any given moment? Does the team support each other when one of them is being double-teamed?

You have to know the game plan. It is the job of the leader/coach to set the strategy based on a whole host of variables. What “starting line-up” is the best match for the task at hand? What should the pacing look like? How will you re-group if things aren’t going as planned?

It takes endurance to finish strong. How many times have you witnessed an effort that just simply ran out of steam? Things started strong and appeared to be going well, but over time became sluggish? Unexpected distractions took extra energy or a turn of events just took the wind out of your sails? Does your team have the reserves to dig deep to bring it home?

Of course, you can do all these things and sometimes the fourth quarter still doesn’t go your way, but in the words of famed basketball coach John Wooden, “A man who is afraid to risk failure seldom has to face success.” Start with the fundamentals, know the game plan, finish strong. . . then learn from the risks, and enjoy the rewards, of the fourth quarter.

Be An Original

Every once in a while you run across a book that may defy popular perceptions, but absolutely resonates as true deep in your gut. (you know, those books that have you saying yesssss, and breaking out your highlighter.) Only a small handful of books have had that kind of impact on me, and Adam Grant’s new book is one of them. Originals, How Non-Conformists Move the World debunks some of the myths, with a host of examples and data, regarding how innovation really works. (If you don’t want to take the time to read an entire book based solely on my recommendation, at least take 15 minutes to watch his Ted Talk . . . then you’ll want to read the book!)

I think one of the myths that prevent people from innovating is the idea of risk. Especially in these financially challenging times (so the thinking goes), fiscally responsible organizations need to minimize their risk. The parable of the talents comes to mind when I hear such comments, but that’s another blog . . . Grant counters such thinking with the idea of the balanced risk portfolio. The most effective innovators are not the “burn the ships” zealots who place all their bets on a single idea. The individuals Grant highlights balance risk in one area with more conservative strategies in other areas. They have Plan Bs in place while they pursue their big ideas, much like you have a balanced stock portfolio.

The law of averages also comes into play. Babe Ruth was the strikeout king, but few remember that over his record-breaking number of home runs. Most successful ideas evolve over time, so innovators need to take a lot of swings — test a lot of ideas. Some will fail, some will be okay, but the law of averages would indicate others will be great innovations. Those who think, or have bosses who think, that they will only get one shot at innovation success rarely move their idea (which might actually be great) from concept to reality. Innovation is a mindset, not a task.

One final concept that resonated with me was that the road to innovation is often a meandering path that doesn’t happen on a tight timeline, and what some people see as procrastination may actually be processing! Sometimes even the best ingredients need to simmer for a while before they are ready. The insights we discover and connections we make while subconsciously working through an idea are often things we would have totally missed if the idea wasn’t already percolating in the back of our mind. Sure, we can’t process forever . . . but I’ve often found that you have to allow the time to connect the dots if an innovation is to be successful.

The larger lesson in all of this . . . conformity is over-rated. Want to move the world in 2017? Be an original.

Tortoises and Hares

Bunny And TurtleWhile a Greek fabelist who lived more than 2500 years ago might not be the first place you turn for leadership advice, ole’ Aesop got it right . . . sort of . . .

 It appears Aesop may himself have been a closet tortoise, given the somewhat negative light in which he casts the hare, so I’ll excuse him for missing the part of the story that says to be most effective, an organization needs both tortoises and hares. And . . . rather than racing against each other . . . they area actually part of the same relay team. The hare runs lead off, getting the team out of the gates in a burst of energy, and the tortoise runs the anchor leg, responsible for bringing it across the finish line. If that’s the case, why does it sometimes feel like they are running against each other? Well, they are different animals, and so may not automatically recognize their complementary natures.

 Hares move around with lots of energy, checking out this opportunity and that one. They are always keeping their eyes open for the new possibility that others might miss. They bounce along a path that makes great sense to them, even if is sometimes difficult for a “non-hare” to understand how they jumped from point A to point H. Hares are your entrepreneurs, your “what if” and “how about” people. They usually have a higher tolerance for risk than their more tortoise-like colleagues, and their eyes tend to glaze over a bit amid the details of taking their great idea to scale.

 This is when you want to pass the baton and allow the tortoise to shine. Tortoises understand the details of how to take something to scale. They know the regulations, how changes will impact staff and (to many hares surprise) can be quite creative in finding a way around the obstacles in front of them. Give them a task, and they will get down into the weeds and figure it out. They tend to be less distractible because they are firmly locked on the goal, as opposed to the hare, who is constantly scanning the landscape. Give a tortoise a task, and they will make it happen.

 An organization full of hares will have lots of great ideas, but may fall short on large-scale implementation. All tortoises will do a fabulous job at the task they are given, but may not venture to far outside the safety of their shell. Yes, these are over-generalizations . . . and many of us are a blend of tortoise and hare. The moral of the story, however, is that even though they may not always understand each other, an organization needs both tortoises and hares if they are going to win the race.

Stepping Into the Darkness

Wooden Stairs In Old House“When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”                                                                                                             Edward Teller

For those of you who think this quote is one of those “whoo whoo” notions that may look nice hanging on a wall, but isn’t practical in the rough and tumble real world . . . you might be interested to know that the author, Edward Teller, was a theoretical physicist who made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, and is known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb.” Yep, that’s right, a hard core by the book science guy acknowledging that sometimes you have to step forward without knowing how things will work out.

Sounds a lot like leadership to me.

Notice, he is not suggesting we should blindly leap toward a half-baked idea. First you have to get to the end of all the light you know . . . you consider the data, you run the numbers, you look at unique variables and possible scenarios and use that information to illuminate the situation as much as possible. Unfortunately, in today’s volatile environment, in many cases what we know for sure does not exactly create a well-lit path.

From there, it takes faith. I don’t know if Teller was specifically referencing religious faith or gut instinct, intuition or innate knowledge . . . but for me those things are so intertwined the distinction is irrelevant. I believe my religious faith, and prayerful requests for guidance, seed my gut instincts and intuition. It illuminates my path enough to find a firm place to stand, or a launching pad for flight.

It was leadership born of faith that prompted my organization to identify in our strategic framework that we would have a global reach. We didn’t know exactly how that would happen, but we believed it was an important next step. In fairly short order after setting that goal, we extended our reach not only to one additional country but actually provided training and consultation to professionals from five continents.

The same concept is currently playing out on another stretch project we are implementing. Once you make the leadership decision to move forward, to step out in faith, it is amazing how opportunities start to present themselves — opportunities you could not have known about prior to making the decision.

Nope, there are no guarantees. Yes, it does involve risk. But once your eyes adjust to the darkness, you’d be surprised how many paths forward you might find.

Come on, have faith . . . take that step.

The Stewardship Tightrope

Slack line in the nature.Merriam-Webster defines stewardship as “the activity or job of protecting and being responsible for something.” As a leader in a nonprofit organization, I believe I am charged with being a good steward for my agency — a caretaker whose job it is to leave my organization better than I found it.

As easy as it is to buy in to that conceptually, things get a little murky once you get past the concept stage. For example, what is the relationship between stewardship and risk? While the concept of “protecting” seems to pull you toward a conservative approach, “leaving an organization better than you found it” may involve stretching and growing in new, untried, directions. In the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) the servant who buried his money to keep it safe was punished, and the one who traded his talents and doubled their worth was rewarded. Hmmm . . . this stewardship thing appears to be a bit of a tightrope.

Is a leader who takes a risk on a new program, investing scarce agency resources in something he or she believes (but can’t guarantee) will give the organization the best chance of long-term success, a better steward than someone who waits until the path is more certain, even knowing that doing such will likely lessen the gains?

It’s much easier to identify a good steward in hindsight — when we can tell whose strategy was more successful in a given situation. Unfortunately, we don’t get to make our decisions in hindsight. We have to choose where we are going to place our foot each step along the thin wavering wire if we hope to make it to the other side. Some of us are lucky enough to have a safety net (endowment anyone?), others may use a balancing bar, and some rely solely on their experience and ability to shift their weight to traverse the expanse.

As if trying to balance stewardship and risk weren’t enough, for me, faith is also inextricably woven along and throughout the tightrope. There are times when forging a path where you feel you are being led involves a good deal of risk, and there may be few guarantees beyond the insistent nudging to move in a particular direction. How do you sell that inner conviction of God’s guidance to a Board, or staff, or community members, when logic might move them in another direction? Does that make you a good steward, strategic, or foolhardy?

Nope, you’re not going to find this one tied up with a nice little bow at the end. I think we have to be satisfied with the notion that stewardship is not supposed to be easy, and it’s not supposed to be about us as leaders. It’s about the organization, and our willingness to cut through the fog and uncertainty and twists and turns of the journey. Will we stub our toe, and occasionally slip and fall? It seems highly likely.

While I’ve never walked a tightrope, I have heard that the key is to keep your focus on where you’re going . . . the solid place to stand on the other side of the ravine. Maybe stewardship is the same way. Maybe it’s about keeping your eyes set on the solid spot on the other side of the current challenge and stepping out with confidence that your organization has what it takes to succeed in the journey.