Monday, August 27, 2012

Leaders live by the law of physics.

Leaders live by Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  ~Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)

I’m certainly not a science buff and in fact it was my least favorite subject while in school.  However, Newton’s law is one of the scientific nuggets that may have stuck in nearly everyone’s mind.  I’ve been thinking about Newton’s law a lot this past week.  One of the advantages (or maybe it’s a consequence) of consulting for 16 years and having worked with well over 100 organizations and more than a thousand individuals, is that I’ve seen scenarios repeated and have observed some patterns.

One of the patterns I’ve seen is that when things aren’t going well (either for an individual or an organization) we sometimes start to believe, and act, as if these “things” are being done to us and we have no control over them.  We can only react to what’s coming at us. 

Here are a couple of examples.  A leader in an organization complains that no one seems to respect her.  Her perception of the situation is focused solely on the reaction of her subordinates, which she believes is not respectful.  She views the situation as something that’s being done to her.  She clearly hasn’t applied Newton’s Law to the situation.  She hasn’t considered that maybe her subordinates are actually reacting to her behavior, and therefore, are not appearing to be respectful.

I’ve seen a similar scenario when an organization or a department head can’t seem to stay on budget.  They respond with a litany of rationalizations that are beyond their control.  It’s the economy, everyone is losing money, someone else is responsible, etc.  It’s as if they aren’t actually making financial decisions (which they are); and therefore, believe they have no control over the outcome.  Again, they believe it’s all happening to them.  In reality, each and every financial decision they make will have a “reaction.”

Brendon Burchard, in his book, The Charge, says “Most of the events and experiences that happen to you in life are often random, unexpected, and coincidental; they just happen and are outside of your anticipation.  Our response—the meaning you give to these occurrences—is 100 percent within your control.”

So what would it look like if we wanted to give different meaning to these occurrences?  I believe we would start asking questions.  Here are a few possibilities.
1. How is my action or behavior contributing to the negative outcome?
2. What is the reaction (or outcome) I’d like to see?
3. What action (or behavior) do I need to exhibit in order to get that reaction (or outcome)?
4. What’s keeping me from exhibiting that action or behavior?
5. Do I want the outcome bad enough to change my own behavior?

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Am I happy with the reactions that are coming at me?  If not, am I willing to change my actions?  It sounds obvious, in writing it may even sound simple, but somehow in real life it’s something leaders struggle with and even battle against nearly every day.  As leaders, are we willing to lead by Newton’s third law?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Leaders go to the balcony.

One of the greatest powers we have in a negotiation is the power not to react.  Instead, leaders go to the balcony, a place of perspective, calm and clarity.  ~William Ury (co-author of Getting to Yes)

Last week I heard an interview with William Ury, co-author of Getting to Yes, and I was especially drawn to his metaphor of going to the balcony.  I suppose I was drawn to the metaphor because that’s what I do— go to the balcony—literally.  For decades now, I’ve preferred the seats in the balcony (or rear of the auditorium if there is no balcony) as opposed to the front row seats whether I’m attending a concert, a play, or a church service.  I discovered many years ago that for me, part of the experience was being able to truly see the big picture and that included the audience’s response and/or interaction with what was happening on stage.  It’s a different view that changes my perspective.

William Ury negotiates with global world leaders on issues of significant consequence.  Even with his 30+ years of experience he still has to remind himself to “go to the balcony.”  He shared a story about attempting to assist the President of Venezuela with a rather intense negotiation.  Part of that process included sitting very close to the President and listening to him rant and rave for nearly 30 minutes and William did not react.  But, he said he had to pinch his hand to remind himself to go to the balcony.  After the President finally ended his verbal assault he asked William, “So what do I do?”  William was then able to invite the President (metaphorically speaking) to join him in the balcony and they were able to move toward a calm place of perspective.

Another example comes to mind from several years ago when a friend came to me for some advice.  He described his current work situation where he was a part-time, contract employee with a software start-up and he really wanted to move to a full-time, paid employee position with the organization.  But he was very frustrated with his boss (the owner of the small start-up), he felt like she was taking credit for others’ work, didn’t listen to his suggestions, etc., etc. 

He too went through quite the verbal assault and then he asked me what he should say to her.  It was fairly clear that he was looking for a consultant-approved way to essentially tell her off that would somehow inspire her to “see the light” and change her behavior.  Instead, I responded with two words: compliment her.  He looked at me both stunned and perplexed.  I was essentially inviting him to the balcony.  I explained that if his ultimate goal was to get a full-time job, then he should look for her strengths and compliment her. 

Because his emotions were running high, he believed that if he could “react” that he would feel some resolve.  But he was sitting in the front row, missing the big picture.  He could only see his own emotions, insecurities and anger.  Had he moved boldly to the balcony, he may have found a place of perspective, calm and clarity.

If we all stop and think about it, we could identify moments every day when we could benefit from going to the balcony.  The metaphor applies to far more than negotiations, it can apply to any interaction we have with another individual.  And as leaders, if we go to the balcony, others are likely to follow.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Leaders are good sports.

What is sportsmanship?  It is the initial reaction and attitude behind the results in a competitive situation.  ~The Charmm’d Foundation

The 2012 Olympics have come to an end.  I’ll admit I’m not a huge Olympics fan; I didn’t sit glued to the TV watching every competition.  But I did pause for a few moments periodically to watch the young competitors who’ve gone to great lengths to train and sacrifice for what is sometimes a 12-second competition.  Maybe I’ve been less observant during previous Olympics, but this year it seemed like I heard a lot more about sportsmanship than in years past.  And most of what I heard (not all) was emphasizing the incredible acts of good sportsmanship that these athletes demonstrated.

One of my favorite Olympic photos is that of Japan's Aya Miyama comforting France's Camille Abilly.  Natalia Jimenez of NBC News describes the scenario.
It is not often you see players of opposing teams going out of their way to console one another after a game has ended. Their interaction is usually limited to a friendly handshake or pat on the back. 
This image of Japan's Aya Miyama comforting France's Camille Abilly, after Japan defeated France 2-1 in a close semi-final match, stood out from other post-game reaction photos. While we have no way of knowing what words were exchanged between the players (and we can only assume there was a bit of a language barrier between them), their body language speaks for itself. It is clear Miyama took time to try and comfort the distraught Abilly, and Abilly seems to eventually accept her kind gesture. 
In such intense competitions, where emotions run high with adrenaline, it is reassuring to know that these Olympians are not only extraordinary athletes, but show true sportsmanship as well.
I was intrigued by the numerous displays of sportsmanship I was seeing and reading in the news and then wondered how sportsmanship is really defined.  I came across the definition used by The Charmm’d Foundation and it seemed to apply to nearly every personal interaction, whether on the playing field or in the conference room.

I caught myself this past week having an “initial reaction and attitude” that was less than sportsman-like.  It wasn’t part of a formal competition, but it caused me to realize how frequently, and easily, we can turn a workplace interaction into something akin to a competitive sport.  A client was describing an employee interaction and instead of continuing to listen; I reacted and clearly demonstrated an attitude that was not positive.  I allowed myself to get caught-up in the “competition” that had ensued among a number of staff.

I think what impresses me most about many of these athletes is their age.  They are under immense pressure with expectations set before them that are truly of epic proportions.  From being in their young teens and expected to win Gold, to becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete in history!  Yet, being weighed down with all that heaviness, they excel and they have an initial reaction and attitude that demonstrates true sportsmanship.  

May we all learn from these young athletes and exemplary leaders.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Leaders become great when they hit bottom.

Leaders had something that made them feel that desperate sense of hitting bottom.  It's as if at that moment the iron entered their soul; that moment created the resilience that leaders need.  ~Warren Bennis

Is it possible that when you hit bottom it can actually propel you to the top?  Not exactly the path that any of us would prefer, but it might be the path to genuine and authentic leadership.  

The full quote from Warren Bennis reads: “The leaders I met, whatever walk of life they were from, whatever institutions they were presiding over, always referred back to the same failure, something that happened to them that was personally difficult, even traumatic, something that made them feel that desperate sense of hitting bottom—as something they thought was almost a necessity.  It's as if at that moment the iron entered their soul; that moment created the resilience that leaders need.”

I would like to add one more piece to this idea of hitting bottom.  Leaders not only hit bottom, but when they do, they let go.  It’s in the release of their grip that they are catapulted back to the top and the resilience is created.  It's not in the fight that we gain leadership strength, but in the act of surrender. 

One of my favorite quotes that I've likely mentioned before is from Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.  Tony is a young entrepreneur.  He made millions while still in his 20s on a; he then created a venture capital firm and was the primary investor in Zappos.  Tony, now 38, was recently featured in a Barbara Walters special that focused on four billionaires who are giving back.  During that interview Barbara asked Tony for his definition of success.  This young billionaire’s definition: “You could lose everything you have, and truly be okay with it.”  Talk about hitting bottom?!  And letting go?!

A synonym for the word release is to make public.  I've watched a number of individuals, who had great leadership potential, hit bottom, but then hold on.  They couldn't release their grip or "make public" what had happened.  They couldn’t bring themselves to be transparent about the difficulty they were experiencing.  It didn't create resilience as Warren Bennis described, instead it created rigidity and resistance –a sense that if they held tighter they could control the situation.  But the situation only got worse.

I've frequently described myself as having the gift of stubbornness.  Pointed down the right path this can be really helpful, especially if it manifests itself in the form of determination and commitment. However, channeled in the wrong direction, something more like control, self-centeredness or avoiding shame, it can become destructive very quickly, pull me right down to the bottom, and keep me there.  

You'd think that having hit bottom and let go to see the result of iron entering my soul as Bennis states, that would make me very quick to let go in the future.  Not so much.  Even in less desperate circumstances I still pause.  I pause for a shorter time than I did in the past, but quite honestly, I still pause before I let go.  It's hard.  No question. 

How many of us could live up to Tony Hsieh's definition of success?  

We could lose everything we have, and truly be okay with it?

Could we hit bottom and let go?  

When we hit bottom would we find resilience or resistance?