Back to School

Back to school background with books pencils and apple over chalkboard

We are officially in “back to school” season, where young people are returning to the classroom to, hopefully, expand their horizons. What about you as a leader? Is there a season to your learning? Do you actively seek out new information, or do you know all that you need to know to lead effectively? Even if you think learning is important, where does it fall on your priority list . . . really?

One of my takeaways from Andy Stanley when he spoke at the recent Global Leadership Summit 2017 was to be a student, not a critic. He spelled it out quite simply. “The moment you start criticizing, you stop learning. When you stop learning, you quit leading. When you quit leading, all the other leaders under you will go somewhere else.”

Pretty compelling case for being a student.

The question then becomes how best to do that. Stephen Covey highlighted how in #5 of the 7 Habits — Seek first to understand. Be curious. Ask questions . . . not to grill people who have a different perspective, or to prove them wrong. Ask with a sincere desire to understand. In fact, better than simply asking “Why?” (which at times can come off sounding like a dare or some kind of test), what if you instead stated, “Help me understand why you think that.” That change in phrasing shifts the onus from them proving that they are right, to you making the effort to grasp their perspective. It moves the conversation from one of defense to one of offense.

It makes you a student, not a critic.

And ultimately, students win. They win the best ideas, the best people, and the best long-term results. As Andy Stanley pointed out, “closed minds close minds.” If you as the leader are not open to new ideas, new ways of thinking, your people won’t be either. And even if you have the perfect solution for today’s challenges, guess what? The challenges of tomorrow are going to be different and will require different solutions.

Interestingly, the more successful we are, the harder it becomes to remain a student. Everyone is patting you on the back for all you have accomplished, you see the good that has resulted from your efforts, and it becomes pretty easy to feel like you have graduated. You’ve got the “straight A’s” to prove that you know what you’re talking about. Yep, sure enough, you aced yesterday’s test. Just don’t forget . . . there will be another, different, test tomorrow.

Maybe it’s time to head back to school.

Talk to Me

Surprised adult asking you mean me?

I recently ran across something that really struck a chord with me. “There would be a lot fewer problems in the world if we talked to people rather than about them.”

It is easy to agree with that sentiment in the abstract. You may even have one or two specific examples pop into your mind when you read those words. But before you get too comfortable up on that pedestal of high ideals, let’s take a moment to move that thought out of the abstract, and away from sweeping examples like stereotypes, politics or religion. Let’s take a look at the concept in your everyday life as a leader.

One of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “Seek First to Understand . . .” The only way to do that is to talk to someone . . . to listen, to inquire, to explore questions and possibilities with them. One of the challenges for leaders is that people look to you for answers, for guidance on how they should act and what they should believe. After a while, it is easy to start speaking rather than seeking, to start telling others about how you see things rather than asking others to share their perspective.

Be honest, how many times have you talked about your frustration with a situation, another organization, or a government agency with someone other than the one who was causing you to cringe? Yep, guilty. Sure, sometimes you have to process and it is helpful to get someone else’s take on a situation to see if they see or are experiencing what you are. Just don’t get stuck there. If you really want to solve the dilemma before you, you have to move from continuing to rehash a situation (i.e. bellyaching) to taking steps to resolve the issue — which in most cases requires talking to someone. Not at, not about, to.

I’m not suggesting that you not be decisive as a leader, only that you have as much information as possible — from all perspectives — before making a decision. Do you know the intent of the person/organization who is causing “the problem?” Not what you assume their intent was, but honestly inquiring about what they were trying to accomplish? (Hint: usually it is not simply to annoy you.) Then and only then can you begin to take steps to solve the dilemma before you.

Being an effective leader isn’t about how “strong” you are. It is about how many roadblocks you can remove, how many problems you can solve, to help your organization, and those with whom you work, succeed. It’s not as hard as we sometimes make it. In fact, the first step is really pretty simple. Talk to me.

Humble and Kind

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Tim McGraw has a new song out titled Humble and Kind. If you haven’t heard it, I encourage you to do so. Simple lyrics, powerful message.

The message isn’t new. Gandhi challenged us to “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Jim Collins writes about Level 5 Leaders who demonstrate personal humility and professional will. The Golden Rule drawn from scripture tells us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Kids get it. The rest of us … somehow we seem to convince ourselves that it can’t be that easy, that there are extenuating circumstances, that the world is complicated. All true. And yet …

Pick any news headline. How might the story have read differently if the players had decided to be humble and kind? Differences of opinion would not go away, but we just might be able to build on common ground and consider another perspective. Covey challenges us to make a habit of “seek first to understand.” Do we? Do we really want to hear the back story, or the rest of the story? Changing headlines seems overwhelming, and we’re already a bit overwhelmed. It’s hard to imagine how to even start.

Maybe you can start in your own organization. Are there ways and places to be a bit more humble and kind? It all starts with the tone set by the leader. I’m not suggesting that you lower your standards or don’t hold people accountable, in fact having clear expectations makes the path forward easier. Humble and kind is more about the how than the what. How do you hold people accountable? Do you support them or set them up to fail? Do you offer a measure of grace or are you judgmental and sarcastic? Do you build on people’s strengths or focus on their weaknesses. Do you shine a light on your team’s accomplishments, or claim the credit and pat yourself on the back?

Or maybe we need to bring it in a bit closer and ask if you as a leader, as a person, are humble and kind to yourself. That just might be the easiest, and hardest, place to start. Can you be humble enough to recognize that you are not a superhero, and probably the only one who expects you to be one is you? Can you ask for help and support when you need it? Can you be kind enough to yourself to take a break, catch your breath, and find joy in the moment . . . laugh with a friend . . . savor an ice cream cone . . . be amazed by the world around you? Do you think maybe, just maybe, something so small could cause a ripple that would reach all the way to the headlines?

You’ll never know until you try. Come on, give it a shot. Always be humble and kind.

Habit-Forming Leadership

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When a book has sold more than 25 million copies, been translated into 40 languages, and been named one of the top management books of all time, something about it is resonating with people. One would think that most leaders would aspire to incorporate the key concepts of such an influential work into their everyday interactions and strategic efforts . . . yes, one would think.

It’s not that the steps are difficult. We teach them to grade school children in my community, and kindergarteners can demonstrate an understanding of the concepts. Indeed, the most profound truths are usually quite simple. And yet somehow, when people achieve a certain level of leadership responsibility, there is a tendency to think there must be some complicated mix of secret sauce, doled out only to a few select individuals, that is responsible for their success. I hate to burst that bubble, but there are about 25 million people who have been given the same secret sauce.

The secret sauce? “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. All seven habits can be described in less than 30 words. Their simplicity is powerful, undoubtedly, but simple does not necessarily mean easy. In fact, in many cases, simple is much harder to do. (No one promised you this gig would be easy, right?!?)

Indulge me for a minute here, and think about your most pressing organizational (or political, or community) leadership challenge, and honestly ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you been proactive in your approach, or are you reacting to the loudest voices, or fear, or those who would seek to undermine your efforts?


  • Do you and everyone on your team know your succinctly stated end goal, or are you merely moving in the general direction some external source is pushing you to go?


  • Do you prioritize your efforts on the most urgent, important things that only you can do, or do you get drawn into the daily drama that sucks the energy out of even the best intentions?


  • Are you really looking for a solution where everyone wins, even if it means you might have to give a little in the process?


  • Have you listened long enough and understand another’s position well enough to either find a middle ground or to explain your position starting from their frame of reference?


  • Are you open enough to the input of others to consider that together you might come up with a much better solution that you could alone?


  • Are you willing to really put in the time it takes to renew and stretch yourself in new ways . . . which will require saying no to some of the things that “everyone” thinks you should be doing?

Pretty simple questions, really. And the answers will separate the true leaders from the wanna-be’s.

Maybe it’s time for some new habits.