Monday, December 31, 2012

Will you be predictable in 2013?

The absence of predictability makes everyone more cautious.  People tend to prioritize safety over speed.  ~Dov Seidman

I had a bit of an epiphany this past week.  Over the past few years more and more people have been suggesting and arguing that strategic planning is no longer relevant or helpful.  Many times the argument is predicated on the belief that because we live in a period of ridiculously rapid change, that trying to "plan" or develop a "plan" is of little use.

Given that a good chunk of my work is in strategic planning, I've been contemplating this entire idea and approach to organizations.  Is it time for a change?  Maybe, but I certainly wouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Here's why. 

One thing that nearly all authors, theorists, researchers and consultants agree upon is that trust is more critical now than it has ever been.  That's because the higher the degree of trust, the more quickly an organization can respond to change.  As Dov Seidman so appropriately states, "people tend to prioritize safety over speed."  If people don't feel safe, or don't fully trust their leader, they are going to be more cautious and therefore adapt to change more slowly. 

Trust is beyond critical.  It's vital to survival if our organizations are going to keep pace with the rate of change in the breakneck race in which we are all participating, by choice or by default.  Again, read a number of authors who claim to be an authority on creating trust and one of the commonly repeated key attributes of trust: predictability.  Are you predictable?  Without it, you are going to struggle to generate trust.

Here's where the epiphany comes in…focused, clearly articulated strategic plans demonstrate predictability.  A strategic plan is a tool that can generate predictability, therefore trust, which in turn will enable organizations to turn on a dime.  A good strategic plan isn't irrelevant; in fact, it could accelerate your ability to adapt to change.

Maybe our strategic plans need to change.  Maybe they've been too complicated, too detailed and too static.  Maybe they need to focus more on establishing unquestionable clarity of the mission, vision and values.  Maybe they need to emphasize priorities more than quantifiable goals so in the midst of change we don't lose sight of the direction by getting lost in the muck and mire of formulas and decimal points.  And maybe strategic plans need to communicate how we will make decisions as opposed to what specific decisions we will make so we will be trusted when uncertainty sneaks around the corner.

For the sake of full disclosure, I'm somewhat of closet statistician and numbers geek myself.  I'm frequently quoting Drucker, "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it."  So not holding quite as tightly to the "measurement" piece of a strategic plan is a paradigm shift for me, personally.  But, using a strategic plan to establish predictability, and therefore, trust, makes a whole lot of sense to me.  Maybe it shouldn't be a strategic plan but a strategic direction.  

How will we be predictable in 2013 so we can create the trust we'll need to maneuver through the unpredictable changes certain to occur in the next year?  Is our strategic direction irrefutably clear?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Leaders think twice.

Our situation influences our decisions enormously.  One of the mistakes leaders make is the belief that our decisions are independent of our experiences.  ~Michael J.Mauboussin from Think Twice

While glancing through Michael J. Mauboussin’s book, Think Twice, I came across a study that I found fascinating.  The purpose of the study was to determine to what extent the situation and our experience influences our decisions. 

In a store that sold wine they had a display of French and German wine, the two wines were displayed next to each other.  For two weeks, they alternated what music was being played in this section of the store.  On some days the music was clearly French and on others it was distinctly German.  The result: when French music was being played 77% of the sales were French wine, when German music was being played 73% of the sales were German wine.  When questioned following their purchase, 86% of the customers denied that the music had anything to do with their decision.

This same phenomenon has been proven time and again in a variety of studies.  Yet, we still try to deny the conclusion that our experience (or lack of) really does have a significant influence on our decisions.  What if we just accepted this truth?

Reading this study caused me to think about the coming New Year.  What experiences should I intentionally pursue? What situation would enable me to make better decisions?  By better, I mean decisions that encompass a broad range of perspectives and align with my values.

One example that immediately came to mind was the number of clients I've worked with who say that diversity is important.  It may even be one of their espoused values.  However, when you look at their executive team it reflects a very homogenous group of individuals.  Because their experience does not include a great deal of diversity, they continue to make decisions that don’t really reflect diversity as a high priority.  If we want to make decisions differently in the future, then maybe we need to change our situation and expand our experiences.

A number of authors make the case that some of the most effective leaders are always learning something new, moving into a completely different industry, engaging in something others would consider adventurous.  They are constantly broadening their experience and, in a sense, expanding their situation.  Could this rich assortment of experience allow them to approach decisions differently than someone who is living more routine and habitual with a fairly narrow worldview?

If that's the case, then in 2013 what should we be doing to modify our situation or expand our experience?  Who are our primary mentors and confidants, do they need to change to include different perspectives?  What books are we reading?  Or maybe, are we reading?  What authors are we inviting in to our thinking?  When was the last time we learned something completely new and different? 

My intent was not to make 2013 sound daunting; but instead, to think about 2013 intentionally.  To embrace the fact that whatever experiences we choose and situations we create, they will have a significant influence on the decisions we make in the coming year.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Life itself is grace.

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.  ~Frederick Buechner from Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

I had selected this quote before the tragedy of December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut.  But of course now it feels even more poignant.  I chose this quote this week because I live within a community that has experienced an unusual amount of death and tragedy over the course of the past month or so.  A friend posted on Facebook the quote, “Life itself is grace,” commenting about some of the recent and sudden tragedies and how this emphasizes the fact that, “Life itself is grace.”  Then only days later, this same individual found himself also swept up in the tragedy of sudden and unexplained death of a close family member.

And now as a nation, we've all been swept up in the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut.  It's not hard to find individuals at Sandy Hook Elementary who were not only leaders but heroes.  The principal and the school psychologist were shot as they tried to tackle the gunman in order to protect the students.  A 27-year-old teacher shooed her first graders into closets and cabinets when she heard the first shots, and then, by some accounts, told the gunman the youngsters were in the gym.  She had put herself between the gunman and the kids.  She lost her life protecting the children.

These individuals knew, and lived, as if "Life itself is grace."

Does it really take tragedy of this magnitude for the rest of us to live as if "Life itself is grace"?

There are many definitions of grace and I certainly don’t want to spark a theological or intellectual debate.  But given the events of the past week, I like the definition that grace is generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved.  Life is free and totally unexpected and undeserved.  What if we were leading, every day, from the vantage point of grace?

We'd be more grateful.  We'd be more generous.  We'd be more forgiving.  We'd be more appreciative.

Chuck Swindoll says "Grace isn't picky. Grace doesn't look for things that have been done that deserve [recognition].  Grace operates apart from the response or the ability of the individual.  Grace is one-sided."

The children who walked away from Sandy Hook Elementary and into the arms of their parents were recipients of one-sided grace.  They received something free, totally unexpected and undeserved, while their teachers sacrificed their lives.

As we've all witnessed in the past week, "in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace."   Swindoll says, "Believing in grace is one thing, living it is another."  As leaders, are we living grace?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Leaders are possessed.

The most effective leaders don’t possess specific traits, characteristics or behaviors.  They are possessed by those traits, characteristics or behaviors.  ~Kathryn Scanland

I'm not intending to create a music theme, but we can learn a thing or two about leadership from musicians.  I attended a concert last night; the specific genre would be difficult to pinpoint, they call it folk/gypsy/swing.  The group included four musicians but it was the clear leader of the group who got my attention.  I've attended hundreds of concerts and many musicians are superb performers, but now and then you come across someone who appears to be possessed by the music.  Last night was one of those occasions. 

He was truly possessed by the music.  It was as if the music was flowing through every inch of his being.  His energy didn't waver for even a second throughout the duration of the nearly two-hour set.  There wasn't a moment that his intensity or passion lingered.  It didn't seem as if he was performing as much as he was just "being" a vessel for the music to flow through.

So of course I started to think about what a leader would look like if they didn't just possess specific traits but instead, they were possessed by those traits.  Imagine a leader possessed by passion, optimism, authenticity, and clarity of purpose.  They don't possess passion, optimism, authentic and clarity of purpose and then use those traits in their leader performance; they are possessed by those traits.

There are some leaders who fall into this category.  One who immediately comes to mind is Craig Kielburger of Free the Children.  He was caught by passion, optimism, authenticity and clarity of purpose at the young age of 12.  Yes, that's right; he started a nonprofit at age 12 sixteen years ago.  Free the Children is the largest nonprofit of children serving children in more than 40 countries around the world to free children from slavery.

So why aren't more of us possessed by leadership as opposed to performing as leaders?  Just like there are many wonderful performers in the music world there are also many wonderful performers in the leadership world so this is not intended to discount those individuals.  But how does someone move from performing to being possessed? 

I can only speculate, but when I think of specific leaders who are "possessed" and not just performing, they have something in common.  They all very intentionally open themselves to being impacted, inspired, and moved by others.  And they do this with a degree of vulnerability that few are willing to risk.

The musician I saw last night could have held back, he could have been concerned that some of his antics may have been viewed as odd or even foolish.  He could have given a "performance."  But he didn't, he allowed the music to possess him and instead his passion and authenticity were contagious.  The group was new to most of us in the audience.  But we all stayed and demanded an encore; we couldn't get enough of what possessed him. 

Imagine a leader, so possessed by passion, optimism, authenticity, and clarity of purpose that we just can't get enough, and we demand an encore.     

Monday, December 3, 2012

Leaders manage meaning.

When we connect with others through our framing, we shape reality.  What’s more, if we “manage meaning” when others are unable, we emerge as leaders.  ~Gail T. Fairhurst

This past week I experienced one of the many perks of living in downtown Chicago – a night at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO).  The musicians casually filed in, warmed up their instruments, carefully tuned following the first violin’s lead, and then quietly and reverently waited for the conductor to enter.  He enters and is welcomed with applause.  The conductor could have turned his back to the audience, raised his arms, and began the first piece.  But he didn't.

Instead, the conductor turned to the audience and described the first piece in great detail.  He told us about the composer, Dvorak, and how the piece was written toward the end of his life.  He went on to describe the visual images throughout the piece, what we would sense, how it would flow, and what was being communicated throughout the music.

All of this reminded me of the very important and artful skill of leadership that we many times rush past – framing.  As Fairhurst states, we shape reality when we take the time to connect through framing.  Framing might be accomplished through a story, a metaphor, visual images, or group exercise.  As an example, it's taking the time at the beginning of a meeting to set the stage.  On several occasions when I've known that those in the meeting have varied opinions and the discussion could create tension, I tell the fable of Three Blind Men and an Elephant.  It acts as a reminder that even though we may see the situation from different perspectives given our individual experiences, that doesn't mean any one of us is right and all others are wrong. 

Framing can better prepare individuals for an effective meeting and framing can also communicate vision and priorities.  I recall a meeting with a college strategic planning committee that was struggling to articulate their collective vision.  At one point, the president (finally!) stated his vision through framing and it seemed to connect with the committee members.  Then the president, somewhat stunned at their surprise, said, “That's what I said in my inaugural speech three years ago.”   Somehow, he thought he could frame his entire tenure as president in one speech at his inauguration.  Framing vision and priorities is something that leaders must do constantly, not once a year at an annual meeting, or once in a career.

One of the most effective examples of framing might be Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech.  The vast majority of the speech was framing.  He was "managing meaning" when others were unable.  I'll admit few of us are orators even close to the likes of Dr. King.  But we can each find our individual art of framing.  My church has a periodic guest speaker who uses visual aids in the form of props to an extreme.  But he uses those props to "manage meaning" and frame his message.  I recently heard a speaker who artfully used fables to frame complex ideas.  I frequently facilitate meetings with leadership teams and I try to come up with a participative exercise that sets the tone and direction for the meeting.

Back to my evening with the CSO.  Because the conductor took the time to "frame" each piece, I have no doubt I that my concert experience was much richer had he not taken the time to shape reality for the audience.  Bravo, CSO, bravo!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Leaders are expert kissers!

KISS for leaders: Keep, Increase, Start and Stop.  ~Nick Obolensky

I don't know about anyone else, but for me, it always feels like the weekend after Thanksgiving life turns into a sprint to Christmas.  Even though I no longer buy gifts, there are still cards to send, events to attend and projects I desperately want to complete before the end of the year.  Given that backdrop, it was a great reminder this week to read the words of UK-based leadership development consultant, Nick Obolensky

Most of us have heard the acronym for KISS as either "keep it simple stupid," or "keep it short and simple."  Nick's version was created specifically for leaders – Keep, Increase, Start, and Stop.  He says that the "Stops" are hardest for leaders to identify because we all like to think that everything we do is important.  Nick has found that it's actually the "Stops" that end up achieving the most significant positive results for the executives he counsels.

Nick shares a wonderful example.  A marketing executive was instructed by his CEO to join a team that would be meeting one day per week and that demand made him angry.  The executive worked with his assistant to eliminate some of the work he did and meetings that he typically attended in order to free up one day each week.  Some time later, Nick saw this executive and asked him why this had made him so angry.  His reply:  "Nobody noticed."

We all like to think that everything we do makes a difference, but the reality is everything doesn't.  So how do we find those tasks, meetings, projects, etc. that really matter?  I think we experiment and hold ourselves accountable to what we observe.  "Time" fascinates me.  It's something that we all have the exact same amount of.  It doesn't matter if you’re male/female, black/white, rich/poor, we all have 24 hours each day – no more, no less.  That means the only way to increase time or start something new is to stop doing something else.  We can't run to Target and buy more time.  We can only get more time by stopping something. So we have to stop some things and then see what happens.  Did anybody notice?

This week I had an interesting conversation with my financial advisor.  He manages many millions of dollars of assets for hundreds of clients.  He's always been very successful and is one of the hardest working people I know.  He told me that several years ago he released over $23 million in assets he managed to another financial advisor and he's preparing to nearly double that number and release another $40+ million.  He's going to "stop" trying to serve clients who aren't a good fit for him (many times that "fit" is more about personality than it is dollars).  He'll then be able to devote more time to serving the clients he enjoys by giving them better service.  He said that last time he did this he expected his income to decrease.  But the opposite happened, his income actually increased.

I'll be the first to admit that this sounds counterintuitive.  If I "stop" doing some things I’ll actually become more productive.  I'll become more productive because I will have made room for new things and more important things that really do matter. 

The mad rush of the holidays is a great reminder for leaders to work on their KISSing skills.  What should you Keep, Increase, Start, and Stop?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Who's got the hot potato?

Ownership is a personal commitment beyond dedication and completing a task with excellence.  Ownership means avoiding excuses, accepting absolute responsibility, and owning the results.  It is not for personal gain.  When a person owns the outcome, they are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause.  It is the relentless pursuit of success. ~Donald Todrin

The hot potato is that "thing" in your organization that no one seems to "own."  Sure, it's included in someone's job description, maybe even several job descriptions.  You might even be able to say that they are completing the task with excellence.  But, at the end of the day, they aren't accepting absolute responsibility and owning the results.  It's a hot potato that is tossed to someone else to "own."

I've come across this challenge of ownership in a number of organizations and I've been asking myself, "why"?  Is it that sometimes we just don't see that we need to be owners, or is there something else that's keeping us from going full-throttle into ownership? 

I stumbled upon a theory in an HBR blog comment.  This blogger said that the Prospect Theory suggests that our willingness to take action depends upon the reference point -- whether or not the person "owns" the decision.  So I searched for several definitions of the Prospect Theory.  Here's what I learned. 

It's a behavioral economic theory.  Prospect Theory says that people make decisions based on the potential value of losses and gains rather than the final outcome.  We base decisions on perceived gains rather than perceived losses.  Thus, if a person were given two equal choices, one expressed in terms of possible gains and the other in possible losses, people would choose the former.  This is also known as the "loss-aversion theory."  The HBR blogger says that if someone "owns" a decision they would consider the pain of giving up.  If someone doesn't "own" it, he considers the pleasure of getting it.

This makes sense to me. You can include any task in someone's job description, but whether or not they "own" it is a decision they have to make themselves.  This is a behavioral theory; we’re really asking someone to behave as an owner.

Todrin also says:
Creativity, decisiveness, leadership, and sensitivity (if required) are all factors that are involved in this ownership quality. Not only this, but the person must also be able to accept responsibility without question and make decisions in the face of changing circumstances. A person who takes ownership will do whatever it takes, and will be whatever is needed to succeed.
Although it is true that many individuals do their jobs, the downfall is that they still wait to be told what to do.  These workers wait to be reviewed and assessed and take few chances.  However, this is not the definition of ownership.  Perhaps these people can make great employees.  But, they are not the employees who will find great resolutions and forge ahead despite the barriers.
Conclusion: Leaders are owners and owners are leaders.  Anything less isn't leadership.    

Monday, November 12, 2012

Restrictions will set you free!

We're paralyzed by infinite possibilities.  Give yourself some intentional restrictions in life and you’ll finally get inspired to act.  Restrictions will set you free.  ~Derek Sivers

We tend to think that a blank canvass will spark creativity.  That if we remove enough barriers employees will suddenly become inspired and innovation will flourish in every corner of our organizations.  Could it be that the exact opposite might be true?

Derek Sivers is a musician and the creator of, which became the largest online seller of independent music.  Derek provides this example:

I say to you "Write me a piece of music.  Anything at all.  Go."  "Umm…anything?” you say.  "What kind of mood are you looking for?  What genre?"
There are too many possibilities.  The blank page problem.  How do you begin with infinity?
Now imagine I say, "Write me a piece of music, using only a xylophone, a flute, and a shoe box.  You can only use four notes: B, C, E, F, and only two notes at a time.  It has to be in ¾ time, start quiet, get loud, then get quiet by the end.  Make it sound like a ladybug dancing with an acorn.  Go."
Ah…your imagination has already begun writing the music as soon as it hears the limitations.  This is easy!
Those of us in developed countries have a blank page.  We can do anything.  Anything we want.   And that's the problem.  We're paralyzed by the infinite possibilities.
I've seen this thinking within organizations frequently and I've done it myself.  Give people lots of freedom and they'll be creative.  Instead, they become paralyzed.  They return to their offices and keep doing what they've been doing; nothing innovative or even new or different materializes.      

Testing has shown that restrictions actually aid creative thought.  An art guild in Colorado took that finding literally and created an entire show based on restrictions.  Each artist was limited to a 1' x 1' canvass.  They believed that if they put certain limits on things, it would force artists to see things in different ways and stretch their abilities.

Disney believes that when you have unlimited resources, you can afford to be sloppy with your designs. Restrictions introduce a set of rules that you cannot change so you are forced to be creative in order to come up with a solution.

Think about something you have wanted to accomplish but it's stalled; it's not moving forward.  Identify specific restrictions, work within those restrictions, and then watch your creativity and innovation soar.  Your restrictions will set you free!

Monday, November 5, 2012

The subhuman morass of non-engagement...

We need to learn how to reason with one another.  When you don’t have reason, you just collapse into a subhuman morass of non-engagement.  ~N.T. Wright

Here we are, Election Day 2012.  I heard a lecture recently by theologian N.T. Wright, and I couldn't help but think of many applications for the concept he presented—differentiated unity—including the politically polarized nation we have become.

Over the past several months, whenever I've logged onto Facebook I've been taken aback by the certainty in which many of my Facebook friends have expressed their political views.  The word "certainty" can be defined as either perfect knowledge that has total security from error, or the mental state of being without doubt.  Either way, we're stating our views in a way that indicates there is no room for reason because we are "certain."

N.T. Wright would say that we've allowed our diversity to become destructive because of the collapse of discourse.  In discourse, "you use reason to argue from premises [or assumptions] to conclusions so you can see why you disagree with people" says Wright.  The last phrase of that sentence is worth repeating…so you can see why you disagree with people.  He didn't say, so that you can prove why you are right and others are wrong.  Dr. Wright would say that we are not engaged in discourse but in bits and pieces of a shouting match.

Wright also suggests that the 21st century is not a story of progress but a story of grace.  It's a story of grace because of our rich diversity.  That diversity extends well beyond our political views.  Even as I write this, I can think of several of my social media contacts who are in India and Africa.  These contacts aren't U.S. citizens who've moved to these countries.  These are people I've come in contact with because we really do live in a global society.  That means we can't escape diversity.  We can't go back.  It's here to stay. 

The alternative to these shouting matches is differentiated unity.  This is not a new term, but the concept is probably new to many of us.  The simplest definition is "a community of people who are united in their diversity."  It means we will maintain unity even when faced with cultural differences.  We will still have boundaries, but we will identify the differences that do make a difference and the differences that don't make a difference.

This doesn't stop with our political views, by a long shot.  Destructive diversity has worked its way into our organizations.  Destructive diversity manifests itself in conflict and many times we prefer to avoid conflict and instead we allow destructiveness to fester.  We don't want to "see why we disagree with people."  We want to argue our position and show everyone else why we are right.  Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors, said "You can either practice being right or practice being kind."

Wright's vivid image of the subhuman morass of non-engagement is one I'd prefer not to emulate.  As leaders, we are challenged to model differentiated unity.  Imagine for a moment what it would look like if within your organization you were able to make the simple (yet difficult) shift from debating to prove who's right, to engaging in reason to see why you disagree with people

Monday, October 29, 2012

The death drive and leadership.

Some men fish all their lives without knowing it is not really the fish they are after.  ~Henry David Thoreau

I heard two different speakers recently who I believe were getting at the same point but approached it from two different perspectives. 

One speaker (Peter Rollins) focused on what's referred to in psychoanalysis as our "death drive."  My own paraphrase of this concept goes something like this.  We become fixated on something (many times our personal visualization of success).  But there's a glass wall between us and what we see as success.  We are so fixated that we keep banging ourselves against that glass wall trying to reach "success" even to the extent that we inflict harm on ourselves.

The other speaker (Shawn Achor) approached the same concept from the perspective of positive psychology and our desire for happiness.  The basic premise is this.  If I work harder, I’ll be more successful, and if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier.  However, every time we have a success we move the goalpost as to what success looks like a little farther down the field.  So, you got good grades, now you have to get better grades.  You got a good job, now you have to get a better job.  But, if happiness is on the opposite side of success, we never get there.  As a society, we've pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon.  We think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier, but our brains work in the opposite order.

If we can learn to become positive in the present, then our brains actually work more successfully.  Research supports this idea.  It's been proven that if we can get the order right and become positive in the present and stop banging ourselves against that glass wall, we will experience significantly better productivity, creativity and energy.  In fact, they've measured it.  We could be 31% more productive and 37% better at sales.  Doctors who've learned to become positive in the present are 19% faster and more accurate in determining a diagnosis.

Shawn Achor states, "It's not reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes reality.  Ninety percent (90%!) of long-term happiness is predicated by how your brain processes the world."

Eugene Peterson says that the book of Philippians is Apostle Paul's "happiest letter."  He also says that Paul doesn't tell us how to be happy.  He simply and unmistakably is happy.  None of his circumstances contribute to his joy.  It's the lens through which Paul views the world that has shaped his reality.   Paul says, "I've learned to be content in whatever situation I'm in.  I know how to live in poverty or prosperity.  No matter what the situation, I've learned the secret of how to live when I'm full or when I'm hungry, when I have too much or when I have too little." (GW Translation)

As leaders, let's not spend all our lives fishing without knowing it's not really fish we're after.  If we let go of our "death drive" and become positive in the present we could transform our organizations into something far beyond what we could even imagine.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Followership is leadership.

It was the first follower that transformed a lone nut into a leader.  ~Derek Sivers

Throughout the study of leadership there’s a topic that’s not readily addressed:  followership.  And much of what has been written about followership tends to position it, or to at least imply that it’s secondary or even inferior to leadership.  I recently discovered someone who makes the argument that the opposite is true.

Derek Sivers, in a TED Talk, uses an amateur video to illustrate his theory that leadership is overrated and we should all be spending more time thinking about followership.  I’ll do my best to describe the events in the video. 

The “leader” is a young, shirtless man attending an outdoor concert.  He’s completely uninhibited and gleefully dancing on the grassy hill overlooking the stage.  He continues his very animated and free-flowing routine.  In comes the first follower.  He’s another young man who joins in the unrestrained physical movement that intimately connects them to the rhythm of the music.  This first follower is welcomed and embraced by the leader and now it becomes all about “them.”  Shortly after, a second follower joins the duo and a tipping point occurs.  Now people from the entire crowd are running to join and become a part of what is no longer perceived to be risky or even foolish.  As Sivers points out, these new followers aren’t following the leader.  They may not even know who the leader is.  They are following the other followers.  And a movement is born.

According to Sivers, “it was the first follower who transformed a lone nut into a leader.  There is no movement without the first follower.  The best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow.”

I was recently challenged by someone who proposed an organizational vision to be a follower.  I’ll admit, my first reaction was something like, “What!?  How can being a follower be a vision?!  A vision should state in what way you’re going to be a leader.”  Fortunately, that reaction stayed in my head and was never stated out loud.  After a second or two to process the idea, I changed my reaction to “Why not?!” 

Think about it for a moment.  If we really feel passionate about something, as Sivers says, if you want to create a movement, then be the follower who shows others how to follow.  It’s not about winning and losing; and we’ve probably made “leadership” a little bit too much about being the “best,” and being the “leader.”  If leadership is really about creating followers, then wouldn’t being a first follower exemplify effective leadership?

We could even make this argument biblical.  Jesus, the leader, had 12 disciples.  That’s it, just 12. So in a sense he had 12 first followers.  I certainly don’t claim to be a theologian, but I’ll suggest that without those 12 first followers, a movement would have never been born.  The disciples’ leadership role, as first followers, was critical.

So we have a choice.  We can be a lone nut (which is necessary).  Or, we can be a first follower.  But without both, leadership never happens.

Monday, October 15, 2012

What's toothpaste got to do with leadership?

The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.  ~Tony Blair

One of my personal pet peeves is the time it takes to stand in the toothpaste aisle and simply stare at the shelves until I finally find the specific brand and option that I want to buy.  Now I understand why it takes so long.  In an article I just discovered from February 2011, I learned that 352 distinct types or sizes of toothpaste were sold at retail, down from 412 in March 2008!  I’m also grateful to read that Procter & Gamble has significantly reduced the number of oral-care products because they've come to realize that fewer is actually better!

We've become a society of options—options for everything—health care products, TV channels to watch, satellite radio stations to listen to, music to download, etc., etc.  The name of one of the most successful companies to not only survive the recession but actually thrive right through it says it all— Amazon!

As individuals we've come to expect an abundance of options and organizations are no different.  There’s an “opportunity” or “need” around every corner.

In the not so distant past, it could have been argued that one of the requirements of leadership was to know what to say "Yes" to.  But when abundance [think toothpaste] far outweighs scarcity, the table has turned.  Now it’s critical that leaders develop the art of saying "No."

Gary Burnison writes in The 12 Absolutes of Leadership that "strategy requires tough decisions: what the organization will and will not do in order to preserve its brand, honor its history, and realize a future that is of its own making."  In a recent article on Forbes online, Steve Denning writes "Leadership is all about focusing energy on achieving an important goal.  In achieving focus, leadership is implicitly saying 'no' to all the other less-important things that might be attempted at this time.  In a sense, ‘saying no’ to trivia and distractions is the essence of leadership."  

So how do we do it?  How do we actually practice the Art of NoDana Theus provides three great suggestions.

 If you don’t say "No," you won’t leave room for the "Yes's" that matter.
If you run around saying "Yes" to things you mean "No" to, or worse, pepper people with "maybes" (which tends to lead to paralysis after a bit), then your "Yes's" come to mean very little.

"No's" help you manage energy.
It's all about focus. No organization or person has the energy, time or resources for everything that has to get done. As the leader, it's your responsibility to maintain focus and you must always be looking for ways to get rid of things that detract from it.

Artful "No's" help employees become better stewards of the goals and build a more focused culture.
If you just say "No" and walk away, you're leaving all that unsaid baggage dumped in their lap. Don't do that. Take the time to explain your decision and empower them to say "No" earlier on the next time.

To quote the legendary war on drugs commercial of the 1980's: Leaders need to "Just say no"!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Let's memorize him!

Effective leaders have a subtle impact—a force so gentle and steady, it is barely perceptible…yet its effect can be felt for years, perhaps a lifetime.  ~Unknown

This week I attended a memorial service for a long-time member of my church who lost a year-long battle with cancer.  He was kind, gentle and courageously quiet.  He had developed a number of relationships over his lifetime where his persistent encouragement had a significant impact on individual lives. 

A young man who attended our church for a brief time now lives in his home country of China.  English is not his first language, but sometimes a slight misuse of language can become an insightful statement.  This young man emailed our pastor in response to the news of this man’s death.  After he went on and on in his email complimenting his kind nature, his caring demeanor, etc. he closed his comments with an emphatic declaration: “Let’s memorize him”!

I discovered this week’s quote on a personal trainer’s website.  I’m not quite sure where the quote came from but it described the life of the individual’s memorial service I attended precisely.  He had a subtle impact on people.  He was a force so gentle and steady that it was barely perceptible…yet its effect was felt for years, and for some, a lifetime.  His life was so inspiring that we all wanted to “memorize him.”

For me, this was a poignant reminder that our behaviors and actions, both good and bad, have a subtle impact.  This subtlety can be barely perceptible in the moment, but over an extended period of time can be felt for years, or a lifetime.

Harvard Business School professor Joseph Badaracco wrote a book on this topic entitled, Leading Quietly.  Badaracco says, “When we think of great leaders, it’s usually the charismatic, globally influential Churchill, Patton, Jack Welch who spring to mind.  But everyday leadership is not so dramatic, and daily leadership decisions are rarely carried out at the top of an organization.  What usually matters are careful, thoughtful, small, practical efforts by people working far from the limelight.  In short, quiet leadership is what moves and changes the world.”

In a post on Forbes online, writer Erika Anderson notes, “…when you look at what makes leaders ‘followable’ – what makes people fully commit to and rely on someone’s leadership – a big personality is nowhere in the list. The traits people look for, as I note in Leading So People Will Follow, are far-sighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous and trustworthy.  And passionate, the attribute that people most associate with extroversion, is actually about depth of commitment:  you can be quietly, deeply passionate.”

When we think of a force we tend to think of power, strength and energy.  What if we shifted our mental model of a force to something that is gentle and steady, maybe even barely perceptible?  Would that force leave an impact so lasting, that others would want to “memorize” our leadership?  At the conclusion of a long life, I can’t think of a greater compliment than for others to say, “Let’s memorize him”!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Leaders make the 20-Mile March, every day.

I may say that this is the greatest factor: the way in which the expedition is equipped, the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it.  Victory awaits him who has everything in order.  ~Roald Amundsen (led the Antarctic expedition (1910-1912) to discover the South Pole in December 1911)

Amundsen’s strategy to achieve the feat of leading the first successful expedition to discover the South Pole became known as the 20-Mile March and has been restated in numerous blogs over the past year.  What has brought renewed attention to this strategy is Jim Collins’ use of Amundsen’s experience as an analogy in his most recent book, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. 

As the story goes, in 1910 Amunsden set off with his team of explorers for the South Pole.  Also making the trek at the same time was Robert Scott and his team.  Amunsden’s team not only made it to the South Pole but also returned with each member alive.  The entire team of Scott and company lost their lives on the journey. 

Scott’s team used the strategy of allowing the weather to dictate their travel.  When the weather was favorable they would travel as far as they could; when it was inclement they may not travel at all.  In contrast, Amunsden’s team traveled 20 miles every day, regardless of weather or other circumstances.  On some days this meant they battled against incredible odds to achieve their 20-mile distance.  On other days they could have traveled much farther, but did not, they maintained their consistent discipline of 20 miles, every day.

Collins’ point is that organizations that are relentlessly disciplined, and stick to their plan, are those that don’t let the circumstances around them affect their ability to achieve their goals.  But, they are not only disciplined when times are tough; they are also disciplined when circumstances could allow them to far surpass their goal.  And that’s what allows them to develop the stamina to thrive, regardless of the circumstances, whether it be chaos, uncertainty or organizational bliss, they stick to their plan.

Let’s take this to a personal level.  I have a friend who decided that for her family, their 20-Mile March was going to be increasing the percent of their income that went to charitable giving by 1% every year.  This was not going to be dependent upon whether or not their income went up or down, but simply increasing it 1% every year, regardless.  In some years their income may suddenly jump due to an unexpected pay raise or bonus and they could afford more than a 1% increase.  In similar fashion, they could also take an unexpected hit due to layoffs or unforeseen expenses.  But they would stay disciplined and stick to their plan, 1% every year. 

Roald Amundsen also said “Adventure is just bad planning.”  Whatever your 20-Mile March—income, profits, outcomes, maybe even exercise or weight loss, etc.—do you have the discipline to stick with your plan?  In both good times and bad times?  Will you be a leader who is great by choice?  

Monday, September 24, 2012

Leaders get naked.

By getting naked before anyone else, by taking the risk of making himself vulnerable with no guarantee that other members of the team will respond in kind, a leader demonstrates an extraordinary level of selflessness and dedication to the team.  ~Patrick Lencioni

The idea of getting naked puts the concept of vulnerability in a different context or perspective.  I’ll provide a personal example.  I’m a member of a money group, not an investment group, a money group.  The purpose of the group is to openly share and ask one another questions about money.   We talk about the role it plays in our lives, how it might control us from time to time, how to make both small and significant financial decisions, etc.  The first time we met, we got financially naked in front of each other.  We each stood up in front of a large white board and divulged all of our finances – our income, savings, investments, debt, etc.  Money (even more so than sex) is our most private topic; something in our culture we do not openly share.  So to say that we each felt a little vulnerable that day is probably an understatement.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about my money group experience.  Because we went to an extraordinary level of vulnerability with one another, I trust this group of people immensely.  I’ve gone to them with decisions and challenges that span well beyond money because I trust them.  After all, we got financially naked together.

Earlier this month I was facilitating a leadership development class with a group of young leaders and we were talking about the idea of vulnerability, especially as it relates to asking for feedback.  They were okay with asking their supervisor and peers for feedback, but struggled with asking those whom they supervise.  For many of them, that level of vulnerability felt too much like weakness.    

Henry Cloud said that to be an effective leader, a leader of integrity, “you must be strong enough to depend upon, but vulnerable enough to identify with.”  Patrick Lencioni refers to this as vulnerability-based trust.  This is precisely what I feel with my money group.  Had there been just one member of our group who either refused to “get naked” or didn’t get fully naked along with the rest of us, the level of trust within the group would have been dramatically affected.

In a recent article in Psychology Today, A New Slant on Vulnerability: Strength Not Weakness, Dr. Robert Firestone says this about vulnerability.

“…when we talk about being vulnerable, we're talking about living without defense, or with minimal defense, that is, taking a chance, going after everything we believe in, everything we desire.  When we're vulnerable, it simply means that we're capable of pursuing our goals, wants, and intentions, and we're able to deal with the consequence on a feeling level.”  Certainly sounds more like a strength than a weakness to me, and also sounds a lot like effective leadership.

Patrick says that “the only way for the leader of a team to create a safe environment for his team members to be vulnerable is by stepping up and doing something that feels unsafe and uncomfortable first.”  As leaders, are we willing to be the first to take a step that feels unsafe and uncomfortable?  Are we willing to get naked?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Leaders, express yourself!

Leadership is first being, then doing.  Everything the leader does reflects what he or she is.  Therefore, leadership is about expressing yourself, not proving yourself.  ~Warren Bennis

I recently attended a concert—and I’ve attended hundreds over the course of my adult life—but this time one of the musicians said something I don’t think I’ve ever heard uttered from the stage.  She said, “thank you for letting us serve you with our music.”  When she made that statement I realized one of the reasons I had enjoyed the concert so much was that all three of the musicians in this group were on stage to simply reveal and disclose who they were.  It was very much an expression of their lives and they let us (the audience) sit in and listen for the evening.

As Bennis suggests, expressing yourself could be contrasted with proving yourself.  We’ve all known people dead set on proving who they are and we’ve all slipped into this chasm at one time or another.  Our efforts become a means to justify, validate and convince others of our worth to the project, the department or the organization.  It’s very hard to be drawn to someone trying to prove themselves; on the contrary, we tend to be repulsed by what feels like a very self-centered existence. 

Entrepreneur Larry Wilson said that “the difference between desire and drive is the like the difference between expressing yourself and proving yourself.”  It might sound like a fine line, but the outcome of drive without desire can be devastating.  Warren Bennis said, “We must understand that drive is healthy only when married to desire.  Drive divorced from desire is often hazardous, sometimes lethal, while drive in the service of desire is often both productive and rewarding.”

It really comes down to what others see first.  Do they see your drive (proving yourself) or do they see your desire (expressing yourself)?  Do they see your obsession with hitting a sales goal or target, or do they see a genuine yearning to make your clients’ lives better?  Bennis used the analogy of drive having to be married to desire.  I’d take that a bit farther and suggest the analogy that desire plays the leading role in your theatrical production and drive plays the supporting role.  There is a distinct position and purpose for each but one must always be viewed as primary and the other as secondary.  In this case, the chicken really does come before the egg.

In a Google search for “a leader with something to prove,” the first page or so of results were all sports-related.   That leads me to think that when the primary focus is proving something, it means there are going to be winners and losers.  When I changed the search to “a leader with something to express,” I got results about principled, exceptional and focused leadership.

Getting back to my recent concert, these three musicians have not recorded a gold record but they have been together for 20 years.  They are clearly driven given their ability to write songs, rehearse, tour, do their own booking and maintain other jobs/sources of income on the side.  But during the concert, I didn’t see any of that.  I saw three very talented, gifted artists who wanted to enable their audience to laugh a lot, cry a little, and be caught up in their artistic expression. 

As leaders, are others being drawn into our artistic expression or are they being distracted by our drive to prove our own worth?