Sail Your Ship

Sailing To The Sunrise“A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” — John A. Shedd

Easy enough to say about a ship, but what about your organization? How long have you been anchored in the same spot? Sure you keep the deck swabbed, work hard to keep things shined up and even test the sails on a regular basis . . . but how long has it been since you really sailed?

Think about it . . . what was your organization built for? Probably not just hanging out in waters that feel safe. Oh, I understand the hesitation . . . and you’re right, you likely will encounter gusting winds, choppy waters and even a storm or two . . . you may end up drifting into uncharted waters and there is a chance you’ll end up somewhere entirely different from where you thought you were going when you set sail.

All true. But what was your organization built for? I’m guessing it was not to do what is easy, or safe, or free from stress (who needs a leader for that?). To accomplish important goals, you have to push off from the shore and follow the navigational beacons.

  • Use your mission, vision, and values as your compass. Early captains may have used the stars to keep them on course. Your mission, vision, and values are equally reliable in helping ensure you are heading in the right direction.
  • Focus on the destination, not a specific route. Things rarely go exactly as planned. If you are focused primarily on how you intend to get somewhere rather than where you are going, it will be much harder to adapt to changing currents.
  • Count on your crew. If you have built a well-rounded team, you will have a range of gifts and graces to aid you on the journey. Ask their opinion, listen to their insight, and let them help you steer the ship.
  • Know how to cut through the waves. When things get choppy, commit to a path and go. You may choose to head straight through at a good steady speed, or cut to one side or another . . . but rest assured, proceeding slowly or waffling midway through will result in a rough ride for everyone.
  • Go. Studying charts, looking at the forecasts, and getting advice from others are all well and good, but the only way you are going to get anywhere is to start. Even if you’re uncertain. The only guarantee is what will happen if you never cast off. You’ll be safe, but you won’t succeed.

So take a deep breath, and sail your ship.


Your County Fair

The Clark County Fair And RodeoThis coming week is fair week in my county. That may not mean anything to you, but for me, the fair has helped shape who I am as a person and a leader. My experiences with 4-H (my own, with my children and from serving as a 4-H leader), volunteering for various fair activities and events, cheering on and building memories with family and friends . . . The fair helps remind me “where I came from” in the best of ways. Many of the people I interact with at the fair couldn’t care less what my title is, or even what I do for a living . . . it’s enough for them to know that I am “one of the Duncan girls,” and they would have no problem calling me out if they thought I was “getting too big for my britches.” Every leader needs a county fair.

Your “county fair” may be a special family tradition, an annual outing or event, or a regularly scheduled gathering of long-time friends. It’s a place where people know your story, where your ideas or input don’t carry any more weight than anyone else’s, and where people have no problem calling you a dork if you are being a dork (usually with a smile on their face and a twinkle in their eye). Other people may not understand the appeal, but “county fairs” tend to bring a sense of peace and renewal in the midst of a leader’s overflowing schedule. Ironically, it is those tightly booked schedules and ever-growing to-do lists that may prompt a leader to consider skipping their county fair. Don’t do it.

All of us as leaders need to find ways to stay grounded, authentic and humble. Far too many leaders spend so much time trying to be who they think they are supposed to be, or who someone says they should be, that they forget who they really are. “Who you are” brought you to this point. Don’t lose that. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t grow, expand your skills, and at times change your perspective — you should do all those things. I’m talking about who you are at your core . . . your values, your experiences, your innate wisdom. Those are the things that bring depth to your leadership, and those are the things that get nourished at your county fair.

As rewarding as your leadership role may be, it is still hard work. If we are to bring our best efforts to those we serve, we also have to carve out time to make sure we stay grounded. One way to do that is by connecting regularly with those who know us outside the titles or positions we currently hold.

See you at the fair.

Simple Understanding

bigstock--focus lens.jpg“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” ― Malcolm GladwellBlink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

As we begin a new year, it can feel like our lives are spinning ever faster. With seemingly unending information outlets — 24-hour news cycles, social media, abundant prognosticators, never mind the numerous print outlets whose reported demise seems premature — it is easy to be overwhelmed by the scope of what we think we need to stay abreast of. And yet, as we begin a new year, we as leaders need to ask ourselves . . . are we doing a better job of accomplishing our missions as a result of acquiring more knowledge?

In far too many cases, I fear the answer is no. Why? I think Malcolm Gladwell nailed it on this one. Abundant knowledge simply makes us talking heads. It is understanding — knowing what is important, which details to focus on and which are simply noise — that allows us to advance our missions. I love Oliver Wendell Holmes’ concept of the “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That’s the sweet spot. That’s where understanding happens.

So how do you get to that kind of simple understanding? Focused flexibility. Let me explain. The focus part is pretty simple. Who are you (mission, vision, values) and where are you going (strategic goals)? That’s it. If you read the last few sentences and thought, “sure, that sounds nice, but she just doesn’t understand . . .” there’s a pretty good chance you are stuck on the hamster wheel of information/complexity. Trust me on this one. Step off the wheel and focus.

Once you are clear on your focus, flexibility comes into play. You see, you have to walk through the complexity on a daily basis, and some of the knowledge floating out there might provide a faster or easier path to the other side. Your focus is about the destination, the flexibility comes in the route. So be flexible enough to act on new information that directly impacts your ability to reach your destination, while also being focused enough to let the rest of it roll off your back — regardless of what “expert” says you are crazy to ignore the tidbit of information that he or she is peddling.

Still don’t believe me? Think about the most successful leaders you know. Are they bouncing around, reacting to every headline or do they have a calm focused presence — dare I even say a simple understanding of where it is their organization is headed?

That is my hope for you as a leader, and your organization, in the coming year. Simple understanding. See you on the other side!

Golden Leadership

golden-leadershipWhat does one write in a leadership blog the day after one of the most contentious, divisive national elections in recent history? We need more leaders. I’m not talking about individuals who covet positions of leadership for the perceived power and prestige such roles might bring. I’m talking about people who feel compelled to step up to the plate, right where they are, to change a circumstance.

True leadership is not about a position. It is about having a purpose, and how you treat others on the way to fulfilling that purpose.

Which should be a source of encouragement, regardless of whether you are excited, anxious or in a bit of a stupor about the results of yesterday’s election. You can step up and take a leadership role, right now, right where you are, to work toward an improved circumstance. How?

For starters, listen. When was the last time you truly listened to someone who had a perspective different from your own — not with the goal of telling them why and how they are wrong, but to try to understand where they were coming from? You aren’t going to change someone’s perspective simply by shouting louder or questioning their intelligence, and you won’t make the best decisions by only listening to those who already agree with you. Granted, part of leadership is making decisions that won’t please everyone, however if you can allow those with a different perspective to feel heard, and treat them with respect, it is likely you will gain followers even if they don’t agree with every decision you make.

Secondly, be willing to question your thinking. No one is “right” all the time. And just because a decision might have been the best solution with one set of circumstances, when variables change sometimes the most appropriate response changes too. I’m not suggesting that you don’t hold true to your values and purpose. You absolutely should. However rigidity and an unwillingness to consider new information or to look for a “third way” doesn’t expand your influence or strengthen your position, it only makes it harder to accomplish your goal.

Finally, take the plank from your own eye before you go after the speck in someone else’s. Pointing fingers, being judgmental or condescending or patronizing lessens your own credibility more than that of those you are calling out. Again, that does not mean you should condone inappropriate actions or downplay your values, but somewhere along the way it seems we checked respect at the door. You can disagree with someone, or make the hard decisions, while still being respectful.

 Bottom line, the golden rule really is still golden. Treat others the way you want to be treated. If you are less than enthusiastic about those seeking positions of leadership, be a role model of the kind of leader you want. On this “day after” my challenge to each of you is simply this . . .

Be a golden example.

Know When to Hold’em

Cowboy With Poker Face

There’s an old Kenny Rogers song (yes, I know I’m dating myself) that says, “You’ve got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run . . .” All in all, pretty good leadership advice. The only problem is, the song neglects to identify the how. How do you know when it’s time to hold and when it’s time to fold? As you assess the hand that you’ve been dealt, and try to strategize your way to ultimate success, here are a few tips for your consideration.

When to hold’em?

When it is a matter of values, integrity or primary strategic intent, hold fast. If you lose your integrity, you’re sunk as a leader. If you’re flexible on your values when times get tough, your integrity takes a hit. Integrity and values take a long time to establish and a short time to lose. Regardless of the challenges/opportunities presented by others sitting around the table, always hold on to these two. By primary strategic intent I mean the what, not the how. Stay true to your mission, your vision, your ultimate goals. There may be 101 ways to fulfill that mission, but if you lose sight of where you’re going, you’ll probably be disappointed in where you end up.

When to run?

If you’re clear on when to hold’em, then knowing when to run is pretty easy . . . in theory. If it diminishes your integrity, your values, or your strategic intent, it’s time to run. The challenge comes in the fact that some people are pretty good at dressing up a pig. They’ll have all kinds of excuses and “yes, buts.” They’ll tell you to be realistic, to consider the circumstances, that the potential gain is worth it. Your gut will often be telling you to run long before your head does. Listen to it.

When to fold’em or walk away?

Decisions to fold’em tend to be about the how. This path is not going to pan out, so you stop investing in it and find another way forward. It’s not giving up on your goal, it’s just recognizing when you need to find an alternate route. Walking away, on the other hand, signifies that any ultimate gain is not worth the investment it would take. Both are reasonable actions that allow you to have the resources and energy to stand strong on your “hold’em” projects.

Which brings me to one final point . . . based on this “Gambler” approach to leadership, three-quarters of the time you’re not going to pursue the hand you’re dealt. There will be lots of “opportunities” that others will encourage you to take that you should probably pass on, not necessarily because they are bad, they just aren’t the winning hand for you or your organization.

It’s all a matter of knowing when to hold’em.

Standing on Their Shoulders

Old And Young Hands

My staff may get tired of hearing me say, “We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” but I absolutely believe it. Our organization would not be where it is today without the values, the passion, and the can-do spirit that have fueled our 160-year heritage.

And, I also recognize that no organization survives for more than 160 years without being willing to change. It is important to point out that I put an “and” between those two statements, not a “but.” Far too often I have seen staff feel like a major organizational change means we are saying there was something “wrong” with the way they were doing things before. In fact, the old way may have been exactly the right response for the circumstances at the time, but we live in a fluid environment . . . variables change, opportunities present themselves, new information becomes available and we have to respond accordingly if we are going to continue to extend our mission reach.

In such times of change, when you are asking staff to stop doing something they believe had a valuable impact, and start doing something that often (at least at first) feels risky/frustrating/bureaucratic/misguided/or a myriad of other things, the right kind of communication is critical. So what is the right kind? I believe a leader needs to not only clearly communicate where the organization is going, but also how the decisions made in the past uniquely prepared them to take this next step. With credit to my predecessor and mentor, in our organization we often refer to this as “God’s arithmetic.”

Undoubtedly, there have been decisions made, people hired, experience gained that, while perhaps seemingly unrelated at the time, work together to guide your decision making in this moment. Connect those dots for your staff. Help them see it is because of what has been done in the past that you are now able to take this step forward. Honor and value the hard work and commitment of those whose actions brought you to the place where you can respond to the opportunities before you. Creating a narrative that demonstrates how the foundation laid in the past will give you solid footing going forward helps staff see change as a continuation of your good work rather than a course correction for something that wasn’t done right in the past.

Does such a narrative make change painless? Of course not. But I do believe this perspective helps staff see change as a part of who we are, and how we do things, rather than a criticism of what has been done in the past. It helps them see that the organization is about more than a single decision or situation (or leader). It is about building on our past and continually reaching for greater heights on behalf of those we serve.

Climb on up. The view from here is pretty incredible.

Standing Up in the Boat

StandingBoatIf you’ve ever been in a boat on choppy water, you know that the path from Point A to Point B is rarely a straight one. It’s a matter of cutting right or left, hitting the crest of the wave just right, and adjusting your speed based on the conditions. Likewise, if you’re trying to stand up in that boat, your best chance for staying upright is to have your eyes forward, your feet firmly planted and your knees bent so you can easily shift position without losing your balance.

 You see where I’m going here, right? If we know our organizations are like the boat, then why do we get so mired in charting a specific detailed path (disregarding that there may be a thousand variables that can impact that path) while remaining fuzzy on the final destination? And if we, as leaders in our organization, are the one trying to stand up in this boat, why do so many of us get distracted by the scenery, have our feet cock-eyed and our knees locked — and then are surprised when we lose our balance?

The solution is really quite simple . . . which is entirely different from saying it is easy.

1) Plant your feet on your mission, vision and values. No matter which way the boat rocks, if your actions are rooted in these you should be able to maintain your footing. Of course, how is your staff going to know if you’re living out the organizational values if they don’t know what they are? It is your job as the leader of the organization to make sure they do. Be a broken record. People get absorbed in the day to day and forget. I have found chocolate to be a good motivator (as in, I have chocolate for the first person who can tell me our five agency values) as are gift cards. You know, $5 is a pretty good investment to reinforce the foundation on which your organization should be functioning. You can make it fun, but when you talk about it, repeatedly, it also makes it important.

2) Keep your eyes on your strategic goals. There is more noise to distract us today than ever before (oh wow, look at that big boat . . . I wonder what they’re building over there on the shoreline . . . this looks like a nice quiet cove . . . you get the picture). And when that noise comes with grant or contract funds attached, it can be awfully tempting take your eyes off the destination and drift on over for a look. The risk is, you drift so far off course that you forget what you were navigating toward in the first place.  Be aware of your surroundings, yes; make proactive course corrections, absolutely; being distracted by that shiny thing in the water . . . if you’re easily distracted, your staff will be too.

3) Bend your knees! There’s a reason so many athletes have had this drilled into them. You are more nimble when your knees are bent. You can shift your weight and move in whatever offensive or defensive direction you need to accommodate changing variables. Back on our boat we refer to this a having your sea legs. Sea legs for the leader of an organization means being clear on the “what” but flexible on the “how” — as in here is the goal we need to reach at the end of this set time period, now, find the most efficient, effective way to get there (which may be an entirely different way than the leader was thinking . . . but heaven help us if we have all the good ideas!).   This funding source dried up, or the demands related to the funding are becoming unmanageable . . . okay . . . we still need to reach our destination, now how else can we get there. If your knees are locked on one particular way of doing things, you just got knocked over. If your knees are bent, necessity may force you to find an even better way of doing things.  Bend your knees!

That’s it. If you’re looking for smooth sailing, you’re in the wrong business. And in today’s environment, organizations are desperate for leaders to stand up, even (and especially) in the choppiest of water, and keep the focus on the destination.

Happy boating!