Unpluggable Leadership

Hand Unplug Or PluggedCan you unplug as a leader? I’m not talking about being away from the office, but still tethered to your phone and computer. I’m talking about unplugging . . . not thinking about work for an extended period of time. It seems somewhere along the way, it became a status symbol for work to be like another appendage — always connected to your ear, your fingers, or at the very least your brain. And yet, you’ll be a healthier, more productive leader if you unplug on a regular basis.

Granted, being able to truly unplug does take some advance work. For example, does your organization have a culture of autonomy or dependency? Are your people allowed to make decisions and implement solutions, or do you expect them to come to you for every decision? News flash, if you’ve hired well and have a clearly communicated vision, in most instances your people will find solutions to the challenges before them. No, they won’t always handle things exactly the way you would, and you can process through their thinking and yours either before or after the decision is made. The point is . . . what are you doing to build your confidence, and that of your staff, that they are fully capable of making important decisions? A few suggestions:

  1. Have a clear expectation that for every challenge brought to you, one or more possible solutions are also suggested. This builds solution-focused thinking within your team. In most cases, they are closer to and have more information regarding the situation than you do, and thus are able to consider, or rule out, a wider range of possible responses. Solution- focused thinking is like a muscle . . . it expands through regular use.
  2. Listen and ask questions rather then provide answers. This is a tough one for some leaders. When a member of your team is discussing what they see as a possible solution, keep your ears open and your mouth shut. If you feel they may be missing an important factor, ask them if they considered it rather than telling them what you think they overlooked. Help them to tap into their own wisdom and problem-solving skills.
  3.  Let them run with it. Once you and your people gain confidence in their ability to handle complex decisions, you need to let them make them! Some leaders can feel a bit “left out” when their team starts making more decisions. Resist the urge to re-insert yourself where your people don’t need you. Stay informed as opposed to involved. The whole purpose of building a top-notch team is so you can focus your energies on more strategic, big-picture endeavors.

Which brings me back to my original point . . . one of the best ways to expand strategic, big picture thinking is to unplug on a regular basis. And ultimately, that’s the job of a leader, right — strategic, big-picture thinking? So what’s stopping you? Build the culture, grow your team, take a deep breath . . . and unplug.

Leadership Bifocals

EyeglassesIn my interactions with participants in the Chaddock Leadership Academy, I often talk about the need for leaders to wear bifocals. And, just as you have to be careful not to trip when you first start wearing actual bifocals (yes, this is the voice of experience!) you also have to get used to the changes in perspective as a leader when you move from looking through the up close to the distance portions of your leadership lens.

Most seasoned leaders will spend the majority of their day looking through the distance (or strategic) portion of their lens, scanning the horizon and staying attuned to new variables that may come into their peripheral view. They can take note of changing scenery, how others around them are responding to the surroundings, and whether they need to change course to avoid a collision. It is no accident that the distance portion of the lens is the largest part of the viewing area, both in actual and in leadership bifocals.

The smaller portion of the lens is for up close work, for the details that need a different type of magnification. It is important that this component is there — you really do have to be able to read the fine print — but as a leader if you spend all your time looking down at the details, sooner or later you (and your organization) are likely to walk face-first into a tree.

One challenge for leaders, especially new leaders, is that it is often easier to feel like you are accomplishing things when your focus is on the smaller “reader” portion of your lens. When you use this focus, you get to check things off a list, there are more concrete tasks and black and white responsibilities, and frankly you may feel more productive. There are many days where leaders, taking the broader perspective, don’t really “finish” much. It may take months, and in some cases years, to see the results of an effort. And sometimes, the biggest accomplishment of all is the crisis averted, where something not happening is actually the indicator of success.

I find that when there are big picture challenges with no easy answers, when you feel like you are simply spinning your wheels with no clear path forward, it is natural to want to look down, to switch to a different part of the lens where answers come more easily. In most cases, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. To find answers to the hardest and most critical dilemmas, it is important to stick with the long view, to push through the gray to the clarity on the other side of complexity.

No one said it would be easy, but even the haziest view can become clearer with a good set of bifocals.

Playing Chess

Chess Players

I believe one of the responsibilities of a good leader is the ability to play chess . . . not the kind with pawns and rooks, but the strategic kind where you assess the gifts and graces of those on your team, consider your organization’s long-term strategic goals, and place your key “chess pieces” into pivotal positions several moves in advance of when they need to be there. To be most effective, you have to place them where the “other player” (be that a service recipient, a funder, a referring agency, a competitor, or any combination thereof) is likely to be two turns down the road, not where they are now. In addition, you have to keep your long-term strategy clearly in mind and understand the capabilities of each “piece” so you can respond to, but not be swallowed up by, the moves of the other player(s).

In my experience, there are a few guiding principles you have keep in mind if you want to master organizational chess:

1) You have to be clear on your long-term strategic goals. And please note, responding to a change required by a funder is not “your” long-term strategic goal – it’s your funder’s. You want to play offense in chess, not defense, because once the other player has you in checkmate, you’re sunk.

2) You have to understand the gifts and graces of your current and emerging leaders. I don’t just mean what they do well in their current role. Step back and look at what makes their eyes light up. What are they uniquely passionate about? What type of projects do they “run with” and consistently exceed your expectations? It is important to note that someone can be very capable at a task and not be passionate about it. (That’s the difference between skills and gifts and graces).

3) You have to be willing for your moves to baffle others, and occasionally that even includes the people being moved. But if you’re clear on your goals, you understand the unique capabilities and insights your staff bring to the table — which we refer to as gifts and graces — and you listen to your gut, you really can give Bobby Fischer a run for his money.

The other thing to keep in mind is that chess is a game of long-term strategy. If you need an immediate win, chess is not your game. But as you look down the horizon at who will be taking leadership roles and guiding your organization into the future, you have a unique responsibility to work the board, and move your ”pieces” into positions where they can have the greatest impact — whether it takes one move or four. Mastering chess requires the quiet confidence borne of experience and the insight to anticipate a move before it is made. No doubt a tall order . . . if it was easy, everyone would be playing chess.