Monday, June 25, 2012

Leaders are committed to the future.

Commitment is never an act of moderation. (~Kenneth G. Mills)  The future is not something we enter.  The future is something we create. (~Leonard I. Sweet)  Leaders are committed to creating the future.  (~Kathryn Scanland)

When I came across these two quotes, they seemed to complement one another.  I liked the idea of contrasting commitment with moderation.  It’s clear in some areas of my own life that I’m not really committed because reality most certainly reflects moderation.  Let’s take my “commitment” to exercise as an example.  I’ll confess, I exercise, but in moderation.  So am I really committed?  I’ll be honest, I get by, but not a lot more.  And I’ve often referenced the future as something we create as opposed to predict when doing strategic planning exercises.  So then, what would it look like if we were really committed to creating the future?

Not long ago I was sitting in a board meeting and we were discussing the purpose of the board.  I commented that I believe one of the purposes of a board is to keep the organization accountable to the future.  A more accurate description may have been to say the board should keep the organization committed to the future.  As we move forward, creating the future, are we committed or are we acting in moderation?  Synonyms of moderation include words like restraint, self-control and temperance.  The most referenced antonym of moderation is excess.  It’s hard to make excess sound like a positive attribute; however, this may be an exception.

Recently, I had a conversation with someone who was describing their commitment to the organization.  It was the same commitment a relative had advised him to have in his marriage.  The advice was to give at least 60% and expect 40% in return.  In other words, commitment should be in excess, not in moderation.  How many of us would want to be in a “committed relationship” that was an act of moderation? 

We could create a lengthy list of people who were committed to creating a future that was anything but, an act of moderation: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, and so on.  Maybe these leaders weren’t more talented, gifted, or smarter than any of the rest of us.  Maybe they were just a whole lot more committed. 

Committed to creating the future; admittedly, a daunting task!  We’re distracted by the issues that come across our desk day-in and day-out.  We end each day with a to-do list that feels like we hardly made a dent in all that needs to be accomplished.  It’s uncertain who made the following statement, but it’s sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln.
Commitment is what transforms a promise into reality.  It is the words that speak boldly of your intentions.  And the actions which speak louder than the words.  It is making the time when there is none.  Coming through time after time after time, year after year after year.  Commitment is the stuff character is made of; the power to change the face of things.  It is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism.
How committed are you to creating the future?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Leaders enter the danger.

Leaders don’t shy away from uncomfortable situations; they step right into the middle of them.  They enter the danger with courage to fearlessly deal with an issue that everyone else is afraid to address.  ~Patrick Lencioni

I should first clarify that when Patrick Lencioni made this statement he was actually referring to consultants as opposed to leaders.  I agree, this is great advice for consultants, but I also think it applies equally to leaders.

As I write this, I can think of numerous situations where clients are avoiding the elephant in the room.  In some cases it’s admittedly really difficult stuff, like a staff member who’s gravely ill but no one wants to talk about the implications of the work not getting done or even more importantly, the emotional impact it’s having on everyone, including the person who is ill.  In other cases it’s become a way of being or the modus operandi.  The issues are obvious, ranging from tension due to one or two team members who aren’t willing to be vulnerable and consequently it stifles any sense of trust among the team; or when there’s a blow-up between colleagues and they don’t apologize or talk it through, instead it’s handled very passively, essentially pretending like it never happened and we all just move on – or do we?

In some instances, I’ve seen these scenarios continue on for not only years, but decades.  Why do we put ourselves through this?  Why do we avoid this discomfort with such determination hoping that in time it will either resolve itself or simply go away?

There are probably a number of reasons.  One, and the most obvious, we just don’t like feeling uncomfortable.  We don’t like it so much that we’ll tolerate a lot of irritating discomfort until the situation turns into a crisis.  A physician friend once told me that he can tell patients what they need to do to improve their health but most don’t change their current M.O. until the pain of staying the same exceeds the pain of getting better.  The same is true in organizations.  We’ll avoid addressing an issue or confronting a situation until the pain of avoiding it is greater than the pain of dealing with it.  Unfortunately, many times waiting until it reaches that point means someone may be asked to leave the organization.

Another reason we avoid these situations could be that we might have to face the reality that we, ourselves, contributed in some way to the uncomfortable situation.  The authors of Difficult Conversations distinguish between blame and contribution.  They say that blame is about judging, and looks backward, while contribution is about understanding, and looks forward.  The first question you should ask might be, “What did we each do or not do to get ourselves into this mess?”  The second question then might be “Having identified the contribution system, how can we change it?  What can we do about it as we go forward?”  Too often we deal in blame when our real goals are understanding and change.

As leaders, are we ready to enter the danger and fearlessly deal with an issue that everyone is afraid to address?  That elephant is going to stay with us until we gracefully and courageously coax it out of the room.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Leaders pay attention.

There is power in paying attention.  And a power is released in someone who knows he or she is being paid attention to.  ~Nancy Ortberg

I had a conversation with a woman last week that has stuck in my mind.  She told me to use a specific email address when contacting her because she checks that email about every six minutes.  That’s right, every six minutes.  I can attest to her accuracy because I sat next to her during her organization’s staff retreat.  Her smartphone never left her hands and she did check it about every six minutes and was responding to emails.  Now, in her defense, she recently spent a number of years working for Bill Gates and had clearly assumed the habits that were required, or really demanded, of the job.  She had to be “on” 24/7.  But old habits are clearly hard to break.  Did it feel like she was paying attention?  No.  Maybe she really could multi-task but you certainly didn’t feel as if you were being paid attention to.

I recently did a little experiment of my own to see how intently someone was focused on their phone as opposed to paying attention to the environment around them.  I was walking my dog on a Saturday morning.  We had stopped along the sidewalk so my dog could explore all the many things to smell in the grass.  I saw a young woman walking towards us, about half a block away.  She was extremely engrossed in whatever she was emailing or texting and coming straight at me.  No one else was around.  I decided to just stay right where I was on the edge of the sidewalk, not say anything, and see if she would lift her head to notice I was standing directly in her path.  Nope, she didn’t, and slammed right into me.  Did I receive an apology or an “excuse me”?   No.  Instead I got a glare of frustration that I was in her way and she continued on.

So what’s this got to do with leadership? 

Sometimes I wonder if organizations look a little like my Saturday morning dog walk.  We’ve not only lost the ability to really pay attention to one another, we’ve lost sight of the power of paying attention to one another as Nancy Ortberg so aptly pointed out.  How many times have you sat in a meeting only to see everyone attempting to discretely check their email under the table?  Or my favorite, apparently it’s now acceptable to suddenly leave the room and take a phone call.  The convenience of technology has robbed us of our ability to pay attention to those in the same room sitting next to us.  And we’ve forgotten the power of paying attention.

I haven’t done this, yet, but with each meeting I attend I become more and more tempted to start carrying a large bowl with me and then require everyone to deposit their iphone, smartphone, blackberry or whatever their preferred device in the bowl.  Everyone can retrieve their device at the close of the meeting.  But for the duration of our time sitting together, in the same room, we’re going to release some power and pay attention to one another.

Going back to Nancy Ortberg, the complete quote from her reads:

There is power in paying attention.  And a power is released to someone who knows he or she is being paid attention to.  Someone did it for you once.  Now it’s your turn.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Leaders get fresh.

To get fresh, you have to break habits and do things differently.  This will keep your brain stimulated and will help you find flexible perspectives.  ~Chris Barez-Brown

While our habits bring a sense of security and predictability, they can also stifle creativity and lead to tunnel vision.  The final two words of the quote from Chris Barez-Brown – flexible perspectives – seemed especially descriptive of effective leaders.  Leaders certainly need to have a clear vision and focus in order to enable others to follow them to their destination.  But at the same time, they need to remain open to new and flexible perspectives so they can alter their course.  It’s very rare that the journey from where you are to where you want to be is a straight line, so having flexible perspectives to generate creativity and new ideas is critical to effective leadership.

Chris conducted an experiment.  He, somehow, persuaded 30,000 people to break their habits for five days, starting with simple things like sleeping on the other side of the bed or swapping their iPod with a friend’s.  More habits were added as the week progressed.

By the end of the experiment, he had received mountains of positive feedback about the way people felt – freer, with better ideas and more energy.
Chris provided an example of staying fresh from one of our century’s greatest idea generators, Steve Jobs.  We all know that Steve dropped out of college.  But he still took classes, just the ones he was really interested in.  One of those classes was calligraphy.  He was interested in it but had no reason to believe that it would be of any particular benefit to his life.  Years later when he was designing the Mac, it all came back to him.  That’s why the Mac had such unique typography and a new way of laying out symbols.  This became the benchmark for every computer in the world.
Several years ago I purchased a book that had to do with managing money written by Keith Cameron Smith.  I was interested in the topic, but I really bought it for the example the author provided that classified people into three different groups based upon what they talk about.  He used the example to categorize people by how much money they made, but as I read it and reread it again recently, I use the same categories to differentiate leaders from followers. 

Keith says there are three categories: a) those who spend most of their time talking about ideas, b) those who talk mostly about things (their stuff), and c) those who spend most of their time talking about other people.  It’s probably not surprising to learn that it’s the wealthy group who spend their time talking about ideas.  It wasn’t hard for me to immediately translate that same thinking to people in organizations.  There are the leaders – those who are focused on ideas and that’s what you hear them talking about.  Then there’s the mid-level or middle management staff, you’ll hear them talking about things – their to-do list, this project or that project, what needs to be fixed or repaired, etc.  Then the frontline or support staff you’ll hear talking about people – who did what, who took credit for something they did, and who is currently getting under their skin, etc.  

Get fresh.  Spend time talking about ideas.  Stimulate your brain with flexible perspectives.