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?