Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Danger of a Single Story

It seems to me that many of our biases stem from a single story -  or maybe the opposite is true. When we limit ourselves and our understanding to one narrative, we limit the depths to which we can be fully known and can fully know someone else. All of us live a life of multiple stories, layers of complex experiences and opportunities that define who we are, what we think and how we live our lives. To limit the telling of these stories is to remove a part of ourselves – to underestimate the person to whom we are relating.

When we allow ourselves to be defined by a single story, we hold ourselves back. But single stories are also a way to limit the opportunity of others and to hold them back from being all they can be – whether intentional or not. By limiting others to a single narrative, a single, simple understanding of who they are and of the richness of their life experiences, is to effectively reduce them to something less, something inferior, to turn them into something they are not and to allow our power to tower over them.

Novelist Chimamanda Adichie describes the Danger of a Single Story in a talk that is both inspiring and challenging. The challenge for all of us to take a moment and look beyond the surface and to consider why we limit our understanding of others – why we see only a single story. By asking ourselves “why,” we can begin to recognize the implicit (and maybe explicit) biases that drive these narratives. Bias is ubiquitous and not inherently bad, it only becomes so when we allow it to drive our thinking in a manner that is detrimental to others and ourselves. Consider being a little more empathetic, a little more observant and a lot more reflective on how you perceive the person in front of you… if you are limiting them to a single story, ask yourself why.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Interesting Thing About Strengths

Strengths are an interesting thing… for many of us, they are the traits, characteristics and skills that we are sure we do well. Strengths are what we boast about, where we have pride and feel accomplishment. In reality, we occasionally fool ourselves into a false sense of our strengths. The strengths we see in ourselves in some situations suddenly become a weakness in other circumstances – or at best a hindrance. Those things about ourselves that we can always rely on become vulnerabilities and challenges; when we are forced to rely on others, our strengths sometimes get in the way.

Strengths, at best, are only good in a moment – that precise instance when everything perfectly aligns, and we get to be the hero allowing our strengths to shine through. However, at most times in our lives and leadership journey, we need to rely less on our strengths and instead rely on the strengths of others. Success depends more on our relationships than on our internal need to show our strength. There is a Nguni word that speaks to oneness among others and our common humanity: Ubuntu. Literally translated, it means “I am, because you are.” Leadership is recognizing that strength is in our common humanity and in how we exist through others.

George Bernard Shaw stated it this way, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” Our leadership journey should be about seeking balance with each other and with the world. We discover our strengths through our relationships with others. I recently had a wilderness leadership experience that made me think about my strengths and my need to rely on others. At the top of a ropes course exercise, I was tested. Not from a fear of heights or from a fear of falling, but from something far deeper. Maybe it was trust, maybe it was courage or maybe some implicit bias, but something caused me to freeze. But in an instant, my partner took control, looked me in the eyes and calmed my fears. Telling me to hold her tight, we completed the exercise through her calming voice and strong determination.

At that precise moment, my partner’s strengths shined, and she was the hero. Our challenge is to always be looking for the hero’s in our life.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Finding the WOW Factor in your Leadership

One of my guilty pleasures is America’s Got Talent, a reality television show. In this show, one former judge regularly talked about looking for the WOW factor in the acts that are performing – he was looking to be completely blown away. The WOW factor is simply a distinct appeal that an individual or an object has on others. For the leader, this translates into an impressive display of leadership acumen and skill. But how do you find the WOW factor in your leadership? It’s easy… simply consider three things to make you appeal to others: practice makes perfect, knowledge is power, and just do it.

Practice Makes Perfect
I love sports and particularly college football. The excitement of Saturday afternoon in the fall is something I look forward to. But, according to the NFL, only 3.4% of all college football players make it to the pro ranks. To be sure, one reason why these elite few reach the pinnacle of their sport is through practice. According to Martha Graham, “Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.” While this sounds like the life of a professional athlete, it is also the life of an everyday leader. Perfection is hard to accomplish but worthy of our effort. As leaders, we influence others to accomplish things greater than any of us could achieve individually… we strive toward a common vision. Practicing leadership may not make us perfect leaders, but it will make us perfectly prepared for leading.

Knowledge is Power
Knowledge is historically gained through intentional study or by experience. We have often attributed knowledge to those who have been around the longest or to those we consider the smartest. But knowledge is no longer the domain of a privileged few. We recognize that everyone around us brings knowledge and that all of this knowledge is valuable in making decisions. But Indian philosopher Krishnamurti thought of knowledge this way, “To know is to be ignorant. Not to know is the beginning of wisdom.” As leaders, we too often confuse knowledge with wisdom. While it is important to consider the thoughts and ideas of our team – their knowledge – it is more important to be aware of what we don’t know. Leadership is about balancing emotions with reason to make good decisions. When we focus only on the information in front of us, we may not be acting as wisely as we can.

Just Do It
Nike made this phrase a standard part of our vocabulary and I venture to say that as a leader, you have uttered this phrase at least once when trying to get others to follow along. However, we too often get caught up in the act of getting others to “just do it” and often forget to follow our own advice. Philip J. Eby suggests we put too much thought trying to find the “why” in what are doing. We should instead stop trying and start doing. In other words, don’t over-think the problem, allow motivation to occur naturally and see what happens. Leadership expert John Maxwell puts it this way, “The whole idea of motivation is a trap. Forget motivation. Just do it. Exercise, lose weight, test your blood sugar, or whatever. Do it without motivation. And then, guess what? After you start doing the thing, that's when the motivation comes and makes it easy for you to keep on doing it.” When you are self-motivated, you become the leader that others want to follow.

Even though the relationship between leadership appeal and performance has been challenged, I contend when we have a distinct influence on others we are more effective as leaders. When we are more practiced as leaders, wiser leaders and more motivated leaders, we have more influence. Imagine there was a reality television show for leaders and the judges were looking for the WOW factor in your leadership… how would you rate?

Monday, December 28, 2015

Is your Leadership a Well-Kept Secret?

Shhh… yes, you. The one in the corner (office). If you are the leader, you are doing a great job of hiding it. While we sometimes accuse others of failing to exhibit the qualities and traits we expect of leaders, often we are the ones hiding our leadership. Sometimes, our leadership is a well-kept secret.

When I am not feeling particularly leader-worthy, I find myself avoiding others and evading my responsibilities. Then it hits me… I am not acting like the leader I want to be. Maybe it’s time to face the reality that you are not always the leader that you think you are. Sometimes you retreat into hiding and your leadership is nowhere to be seen. Maybe this is temporary… or maybe not!

As I speak to and work with leaders, I have discovered three common issues that tend to mask leadership. Your leadership may be a well-kept secret if you are selfish, closed-minded or disengaged. The following three questions serve to test the transparency of our leadership. I wonder which of these issues most affects your leadership?

Are you a selfish leader? Leadership is influence and we achieve this through relationships. When we put our needs before those of the team we abandon the relationship. Our focus is inward and we are no longer generous with our time and talents, we become desensitized to others and their needs. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed it this way, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” When we are selfish, our actions no longer align with the expectations of our role and our leadership becomes destructive.

Are you a closed-minded leader? Leadership is inclusive and we achieve this by listening to and respecting the ideas others bring to the table. When we find ourselves becoming intolerant and unreceptive to new ideas we put the team at risk. We lose our humility, begin to make poor decisions and ultimately our confidence can be impacted. We become less approachable and others begin to write us off. Businessman Bo Bennett suggested “The only place opportunity cannot be found is in a closed-minded person.” When we stop considering new ideas and listening to others, we close the door on new opportunities and growth.

Are you a disengaged leader? Leadership is connection and we achieve this by engaging with others. When we find ourselves reacting to problems and being unprepared to lead we may sever the bond between leader and team. Our communication suffers, we lose vision and clarity and we start blaming others for the problems. We begin to appear insincere and less authentic. Steve Jobs said it best, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” If we are disengaged from our team, none of us are doing great work.

It has been said that the hallmark of a great leader is the questions she asks. I have proposed three questions that we need to ask ourselves to ensure our leadership is fully available to those we serve. When we lead from a place of selfishness, closed-mindedness and disengagement, we hide the best part of who we are and lose the ability to lead effectively. When we are selfless, we lead with influence, we are inclusive and we engage others. What did you discover when you asked yourself these three questions?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Forget Time Management... Focus on Time Leadership

Being busy is a problem. Not necessarily because we can’t seem to get everything done but more because we use it as an excuse. Bob Talbert states it this way, “Have you noticed that even the busiest people are never too busy to take time to tell you how busy they are?” In fact, I think we wear busy as a badge of honor to show others just how important we are.

But this is a dilemma that we have long struggled with in management and leadership circles. How do we best organize our time to reduce our busy schedules into manageable chunks? This is the wrong question to ask. It reinforces the old notion that time controls us… when in fact, we control time. Instead of thinking that you only have 24 hours in a day, realize this is more than enough time to do everything you need to do.

Most of us have developed a successful way of managing our calendars and the associated tasks that accompany it. We plan the details of our day following age-old principles of time management. But as actor Bruce Lee states, “I am learning to understand… I cannot blindly follow the crowd and accept their approach.” Similarly, I suggest we are in an era of leadership versus management; an era that requires us to separate from the crowd and change our approach. It is time to stop thinking about time management and instead focus on three aspects of time leadership: energy, attitude, and reason.

In leadership, we often think of energy as sustained strength and vitality. It is the ability to get things done even when our to-do list is overflowing. But it is more than simply physical power; it is the mental power necessary for self-motivation. Oprah Winfrey suggests, “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.” Management implies control and time management is our effort to exercise power over time. This is the wrong approach. Instead, release your management tendencies, give up control and find the leader within. Discover your passion and let this drive how you accomplish your daily tasks.

Our attitude often defines our approach. It is an established way of thinking about us and our roles. But as Lou Holtz once said, “Ability is what you're capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.” In management, we assume that ability is in the details and our motivation is in accomplishing the task. In time management, this translates into planning and the assessment of how well we do this. But when we focus on time leadership, we exchange details for direction. We look beyond the moment and the task at hand to see the big picture of our vision and we concentrate our efforts on the future.

We are constantly justifying our actions, especially when things don’t go our way. After all, it is human nature to try and explain our way out of trouble. However, C. S. Lewis states, “An explanation of cause is not a justification by reason.” If we let the events of our lives dictate our daily agenda, we succumb to the management instinct of reaction. It is in our character to focus on the moment. However, leadership is about grace under stress. It is the ability to proactively consider issues and alternatives and plan ahead to avoid managing problems. It is not about avoiding issues, it’s about planning for them.

Time management is coping with the complexities of our lives and falling into the trap that we must get everything done in some arbitrary timeframe. Time leadership, by contrast, is resisting the temptation to follow the crowd and instead seek a new understanding of time – one that affords us ample opportunity to get things done. It is a change in our basic philosophy from one of being too busy to one of seeking opportunity. If you practice time leadership by finding your passion, setting your own direction, and being proactive, you will find that 24 hours is more than enough time to do all you want to do.

What can you get done if you put your mind to it?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Purpose-Driven Leadership

I have been meeting with a friend over the last several weeks to discuss leadership. What started as an opportunity to catch up has evolved to a deep dive into leadership. We have been exploring the role of servant leadership in a corporate environment and this has me thinking about purpose… why do we do what we do?

Leadership is influence. As leaders, if we are not willing to assume an influential role, then we have no business being in the leadership position to begin with. Influence simply suggests that we have some effect on others. This change can either be positive or not; it can be accomplished intentionally or by chance. If our leadership is going to have a bearing on those around us, don’t we have the responsibility to ensure that the affect we create is constructive?

This is the heart of servant leadership. Too often we think of this as always stepping up and doing… but it’s more about being than doing. It starts first with knowing ourselves and evolves to a point where our purpose, the reason we do what we do, is always for the betterment of those around us. Let’s explore this in my three principles of servant leadership.

Understanding Others
Before we can begin to understand others, we first must slow down and listen. Listen to what others are saying, listen to what other are asking, and most importantly, listen to the needs of those we serve. Effective leadership is developing a keen sense of awareness of the needs of others and then acting on those needs to advance both the individual and the organization. In deference to Albert Einstein, “Any fool can know others; the point is to understand others.” With this understanding evolves a level of empathy that allows leaders to share in the experiences and emotions of others.

Nurturing Others
Once understanding begins to take shape and our conceptualization of others becomes more defined, our role as leaders shifts to one of encouragement and support. Tom Peters said it best, “Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.” It is not enough simply to tell others they are valued and doing a good job, leaders must demonstrate this through engagement. Our presence indicates commitment and value, both of the task at hand and of the individual performing the task. Our involvement cultivates a deeper relationship that provides a foundation for leadership development... both in others as well as in us.

Growing Others
As a leader, I have always found it satisfying when someone I have mentored or supported receives an opportunity to advance in their career. The leadership role is one of stewardship – the careful responsibility of resources - whereby the greatest resource is that of the human kind. Like the parable of the talents in the New Testament, we are to grow the talents of those entrusted to our leadership. Warren Bennis states it this way, “Growing other leaders from the ranks isn’t just the duty of the leader, it’s an obligation.” Our obligation to others is to give them our best and to, in turn, expect the best from them. We do this not by burying the talents we collectively have, but by intentionally developing these talents together in a partnership of possibility and potential.

While some may argue that servant leadership can be considered a redundant term, the label serves as a reminder to us of the importance of these concepts in the leadership relationships we enjoy. These principles are progressive and build on one another as we evolve our servant leadership roles. It is the ultimate purpose of leadership to serve others. But, Friedrich Nietzsche warns, “To forget one’s purpose is the commonest form of stupidity.” What is your purpose? Why do you do what you do?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Leadership Tendencies

I have written several blogs over the last few months exploring fresh new ideas in leadership. My intention has not been to abandon what we know to be effective as leaders, but to update our language and thinking about leadership. I continue this dialogue in this post with five new leadership tendencies that I find emerging in the conversation.

When I think of a tendency, I think of a preference for a particular way that one behaves. This is true in how we respond, almost by instinct, to the environment around us. It is also the core behaviors associated with leadership… those actions that are almost instinctual and driven more by style than by thought. What follows is a look into some of the leadership tendencies that appear to be most relevant.

We become a part of something by agreeing to the terms of membership. This is no different when we become leaders. By accepting our place in the academy of leadership, we accept certain responsibilities. First, we accept the idea that we are not in it alone. Collaboration with others is not only important but imperative. Second, we understand that we no longer have the luxury of thinking only for ourselves. Instead, we have a higher purpose, a greater role to those with whom we share membership. Finally, we feel compelled to ensure that we seek opportunities for worthwhile work, not only for ourselves but for others as well.

Loyalty in the vernacular of leadership is best described as devotion. Not only in the way we are attached to the organization through our work, but in the way we commit ourselves to others in the organization. Such commitment manifests in dependability and enthusiasm. As Samuel Goldwyn once stated, “I’ll take fifty percent efficiency to get one hundred percent loyalty.” As leaders, this loyalty serves a model for others to follow.

As leaders, it is an obligation we have to serve in a mentoring capacity. Leadership is about development, both our own as well as our influence on others. We cannot be content in simply serving in a leadership capacity we must be willing to share our wisdom and know-how in support of the professional growth and development of an emerging leader. “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn,” stated Benjamin Franklin. Mentoring is about engagement.

There is nothing new about the idea of servant leadership… it is a well-explored topic. However, from my perspective it is not a typical behavior of leaders. In fact, we too often focus on ourselves, even when we don’t necessarily mean to do so. John Maxwell has stated that “True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers, not to enrich the leader.” Measures of our servant nature can be found in how well we cultivate trust and encourage others in their leadership journey.

Learning is a skill that never goes out of style. It implies goal-directed behavior whereby one expands existing knowledge, behaviors, or values to deepen understanding and awareness. How can one claim to be a leader if he or she is not actively seeking to grow and develop themselves in a learning environment? Albert Einstein stated it best, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” When we become a leader in whatever form that takes, it is not a ticket to sit back and relax. Just the opposite; it is the time for deeper understanding.

Our tendencies as leaders should drive us to seek ways to be more responsible, devoted, engaged, encouraging, and understanding. It is a matter of plugging in to ourselves and those around us. If we avoid these tendencies, we are being untrue to ourselves as leaders and unfair to those we lead. I would love to hear how you are letting your leadership tendencies thrive.