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?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Leadership, innovation and courageous patience.

Innovation— any new idea—by definition will not be accepted at first. It takes repeated attempts, endless demonstrations, monotonous rehearsals before innovation can be accepted and internalized by an organization. This requires courageous patience.  ~Warren Bennis

It’s fall in Chicago.  That means when I’m out walking I not only see the number of runners increasing, I notice that many of them are frequently checking their watches.  No, I don’t think they are running late.  I presume they are checking their time because the Chicago Marathon is just weeks away.  They’ve been training for months (i.e., endless demonstrations and monotonous rehearsals) with courageous patience.  I admire their audacious endurance!

I’ve sat through many meetings where leadership teams have identified the improvement, advance, innovation or whatever you want to call it that’s going to lead them into their future.  They end their meeting with a metaphorical collective cheer, return to their offices, and continue their work as usual.  Or, sometimes they give their innovative idea a try, it doesn’t immediately catch on or sell or transform society, so they give up – assuming it must have been a bad idea.

I like Bennis’ requirement for innovation: courageous patience.  I pulled out my Thesaurus and selected several synonyms for both courageous and patience and came up with these alternatives.
  • Audacious endurance
  • Bold persistence
  • Gutsy fortitude
  • Spirited staying power

Think of some of the great innovators: Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, the Wright Brothers, Alexander Bell and Steve Jobs.  Each and every one of these individuals embodied courageous patience.  They had bold persistence, audacious endurance, gutsy fortitude and spirited staying power. 

I can’t help but think of a quote I heard this week.  “We are the most indebt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in history.”  Doesn’t sound like a society abounding with courageous patience, does it?

In 2011, an article in TIME reported that the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation rankings have a category that measures how much a country has improved its innovation capacity from 1999 to 2009, factoring in measures like government funding for basic research, education and corporate-tax policies.  Of the 40 countries analyzed the U.S. came in dead last.  Sobering, isn’t it?

It begs the question, what are leaders (that's us!) doing to create an environment of innovation and courageous patience in our organizations in the midst of an instant-gratification self-centered culture?  Are we willing to be counter-cultural?  As a nation, we’ve recently recognized and admired the work of Steve Jobs; but we haven’t really followed his example or legacy of bold persistence and gutsy fortitude.  David Ogilvy said, “Leaders don’t resist innovation, they symbolize it.”  Do we?  Can we?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Leaders solve problems.

On a cohesive team, leaders are not there simply to represent the departments that they lead and manage but rather to solve problems that stand in the way of achieving success for the whole organization.  ~Patrick Lencioni

When I read this statement in Patrick Lencioni’s most recent book, The Advantage, I wanted to shout “Amen.”  I’ve bumped up against this phenomenon a number of times and I’m not sure I could think of another challenge that gets a leadership team stuck like this can.  I’ve seen it not only in organizations but also on volunteer committees and boards.  I discovered, personally, that even in a volunteer role this can stymie a group’s ability to move forward. 

Patrick’s continued explanation describes one of my personal experiences.
Like the representatives of Congress or the United Nations, too many leaders come to meetings with the unspoken assumption that they are there to lobby for and defend their constituents.  When they see that the agenda for a staff meeting has little if anything pertaining to their world, they do their best to avoid conversation in the hope that the meeting will end quickly.  Or they try to sneak in some busywork to attend to or perhaps even shift the focus of the meeting to something that involves them and their department.
My personal experience, even years later, still remains fresh in my mind.  The challenge was just one person who truly felt that their role was to defend their constituents.  That meant they were going to continue to disagree on an important issue which then made others feel guilty about trying to move forward without their agreement or support.  So there we were, stuck.  Achieving success for the whole organization seemed illusive and on more than one occasion I was tempted to literally bang my head against the table because that was exactly how I felt.  We kept repeating the same meeting, getting stuck at the same point as the one person continued to defend their constituents.  In the end, it wasn’t helpful to anyone and clearly didn’t benefit the organization.

I’ve run into this same struggle on a number of occasions when trying to help an organization develop a strategic plan and identify priorities for a specific period of time.  This process typically starts out with some positive momentum toward planning their future.  As we start to identify the top priorities, someone in the group will point out the fact that their department isn’t really highlighted or given “equal billing” in the strategic plan.  Then we begin down a path where again, people begin to feel guilty and want to support their colleague and we start to equalize instead of prioritize.  All of our effort to clarify priorities gets morphed into treating every department uniformly and the plan for the future becomes a report of what’s happening in the present.  That’s not solving problems; that’s making sure everything is equal and equal doesn’t mean fair and it certainly doesn’t mean strategic.

Patrick points out the key in the first few words of his quote: “on a cohesive team.”  If the team of leaders is truly cohesive, they are not only able, but wired to focus on the whole organization and solve problems.  They don’t get hung up on equal billing for every department or constituent; they are truly able to see the organization as a whole, regardless of their title or position.