Monday, February 24, 2014

An empty mind is fertile ground for possibilities.

Erroneous assumptions can be disastrous.  ~Peter Drucker

I recently became aware of a book just published in January entitled, Everything Connects: How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation, and Sustainability.  The basic premise of the book is that we've shifted from a priority of optimization which implies rigidity, to a time of creativity, innovation, and sustainability in order to be continually adaptive.  One of the first concepts presented is the idea of a beginner's mind.  Here are a couple of paragraphs from the book to set-up this notion.
As a society of professionals, we've received educations previously reserved for royalty, made travels once only known to explorers, and developed skills in ourselves that are indistinguishable from magic.  However, all these concepts we've accumulated are more map than territory: if we fixate our conception of the world on the systems that we build to represent it, we can lose sight of the world.  Instead of seeing the world, we see only our ideas about the world.  Since we've established that we have all the insight, we don't allow more to come in. 
This is why we need to maintain a beginner's mind: a certain playful absence of assumptions.  As Shunyru Suzuki writes, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."  And since innovation is the result of successive ventures into possibility, we're motivated to immerse ourselves in possibility, to, as Emily Dickinson wrote, "dwell in the possibility," for it is a "fairer house than prose." 
Beginner's mind, then, is the practice of approaching our experiences empty of assumptions.
Have you ever been in a meeting, afraid to make a suggestion or ask a question contrary to what's been proposed because you know, from experience, that you'll receive a litany of reasons why your suggestion isn't possible?  In other words, it's been established that we have all the insight and we aren't going to allow any more to come in.

A beginner's mind has a certain playful absence of assumptions.  Imagine for a moment if our nation's government went about their work with a playful absence of assumptions.  First wipe that smile, snicker, or smirk, off your face.  We lack an ability to move toward any innovative solutions, to find a third way, to allow for possibilities that just might be lurking outside of our own personal certainty.  What if both Congress and the Senate decided to immerse themselves in possibility?  Instead, each "side" has established that they have all the insight and won't allow more to come in.  We can all see very clearly how well that's working.

What if we showed up at our next meeting and approached it empty of assumptions?  We sat down at the conference table and we took everything we've assumed in the past (all the reasons why a project can’t possibly breakeven, all of our stereotypes about specific staff members, etc.) and came with a beginner's mind.  Might we uncover an innovative possibility that wasn't even considered in the past?  Maybe we'd hear about creative new ways to solve a problem?  Instead of starting the meeting with all of our assumptions (which is what we frequently do whether formally or unconsciously), we started that meeting free of any certainties, positive or negative.  

Or, we could bring the weight of all those assumptions, some of which are sure to be erroneous, and Drucker tells us the result of that kind of thinking – disaster.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What's the condition of your heart?

Leadership is much more an art, a belief, a condition of the heart, than a set of things to do.  The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed, ultimately, in its practice.  ~Max De Pree

In addition to having a number of Max De Pree's books on my shelf, I have a few loose connections to him.  So whenever I see something written by him, or about him, I'm intrigued to see what more I can learn, because I always learn a little more about leadership from Max.

This week it was an article I happened to stumble upon written by a university president back in 2000.  He wrote this about Max.
Several years ago Max De Pree came to speak to our university trustees.  Max, as most of you know, is a successful businessman and a prominent and wise voice on leadership.  The day after Max and Esther left, we received a call from the hotel manager where they had stayed.  This manager was amazed.  He said that Mr. De Pree had made a huge impact on his staff.  Everyone was talking about his kindness, about the generosity of his spirit.  This manager thanked me for sending this guest.  His staff would never be the same, he said. 
I want to learn better how to carry myself with the posture of Max De Pree.  Can we do this for each other, so that we experience the joy of love among us, but most of all can we do it to model grace and love for the world that desperately seeks a way out of its mean-spiritedness, its alienation, its viciousness?
This is probably not a comfortable question for any of us to answer, but when was the last time we stayed in a hotel and made such an impression that the manager had to call and thank someone for sending us to their hotel?  Well for me, never.

Not long ago I was at the doctor for a physical and was worried about the condition of my heart.  I was concerned for several reasons, one of which was an overly persuasive commercial that had convinced me I had atrial fibrillation or A-fib.  As I probed the doctor with more questions she could sense it was going to take more than a simple "you're fine" to win me over.  Finally, she replied, "If you had A-fib you would not have been able to come here today on your own effort."  Okay, got it! She had to show me that the visible signs were an expression of the condition of my heart, which really was just fine.

How we live our lives, day in and day out, is a visible expression of the condition of our heart.  Max simply stayed at a hotel.  He wasn't hired to provide leadership coaching or consulting, he wasn't sought out to give an inspiring speech to the hotel staff.  He just went about his ordinary routine, one that happened to be expressed through uncommon kindness, grace, and generosity of spirit. 

I may not have A-fib, but instead strive to have a condition of the heart that manifests in visible signs of another kind.  If the condition of my heart is truly filled with kindness and generosity, then I will see that expressed around me. The same way I would see my physical heart condition expressed in my physical capabilities.  Both are visible.  Both are very telling of the real condition of my heart.  

What’s the condition of your heart?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Necessary Endings

Endings: if you see them as normal, expected, and even a good thing, you will embrace them and take action to executive them.  You will see them as a painful gift.  ~Henry Cloud

In 2010, Dr. Henry Cloud wrote the book, Necessary Endings.  Henry is the author of more than 20 books and Necessary Endings is my favorite; The New York Times called it the most important book you'll read all year.  I'm not trying to promote Henry, but I do, very much, believe in the concept and practice of necessary endings. 

One of the chapter titles in this book is: "Normalizing Necessary Endings: Welcome the Seasons of Life into Your Worldview."  Henry says, "Even the most gifted people and leaders are subject to feeling conflicted about ending things, so they resist that moment of truth.  And not only do they resist, they sometimes cannot even see.  Thus they find themselves crosswise with the very nature of life itself."  He says that we need to "Make the endings a normal occurrence and a normal part of business and life, instead of seeing it as a problem."

I'm not sure I can explain why, but for me, I tend to view endings more as a failure instead of a natural occurrence.  And I don't think I’m alone.  Henry says that we have to accept life cycles and seasons, and accept that life produces too much life!  We need to accept that life produces:
  • More relationships than we can nurture
  • More activities than we can keep up with at any significant level
  • More clients than we can service all in the same way
  • More mentors who once "fit" but whose time has past
  • More partners whose time has past
  • More product lines than we can focus on
  • More strategies than we can execute
  • More stuff than we have room for and can store

We have to be in the letting-go phase all through life.  "One of the most important types of decision making is deciding what you are not going to do, what you need to eliminate in order to make room for strategic investments." (McKinsey Quarterly, March 2010).

Necessary endings are, well, necessary.  Whether it's purging unused stuff from your closet, laying off employees that you simply can no longer support, or cutting a product or program that is well beyond its prime.  Leaders could take a lesson from master gardeners.  It's only through careful and ongoing pruning that many plants are able to really thrive.  It's not only necessary; it's a normal and natural occurrence.  

Monday, February 3, 2014

What Chicago (the band) can teach us about leadership.

Leadership is not about titles, positions, or flowcharts.  It is about one life influencing another.  ~John Maxwell

In Chicago, the crosstown classic is a significant summer event: Cubs vs. the White Sox.  I've even seen stores and businesses close for this highly anticipated rivalry.   Last week I attended what I believe should become the musical version of the crosstown classic: Chicago (the band) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at Symphony Center.

So what does this crosstown classic idea have to do with John Maxwell's quote?  Believe it or not, as I watched Chicago interact with the CSO this quote actually came to mind.  First, the band, Chicago, is truly a band.  They don't have a single, designated lead singer.  At least four different band members sang the lead at some point during the concert.  And a number of them played various instruments.  In other words, it really wasn't about their "title" or "position."  They were all band members allowing their varied talents to influence one another.

Then there was the interaction with the CSO.  I've attended a number of CSO concerts and they really are one of the best symphonies in the world.  Now, imagine, Jason Scheff, bassist for Chicago wandering back into the symphony to play alongside the CSO string bassists.  At one point I caught a CSO violinist bobbing her head to the driving pop sound of Chicago.  While Chicago performed a song without the CSO, the CSO conductor was slapping his thighs and clapping to the beat.  Later in the concert, the Chicago drummer and percussionist performed an intense rock-and-roll duel.  The CSO members responded with applause and bows tapping on music stands. 

This musical interaction was not about titles, positions, or even musical style or genera; it was about one life (or group) influencing another.  The interaction between Chicago and the CSO was truly a sight to behold.  Two Chicago musical icons of seemingly different styles coming together to influence one another for the evening.

Imagine a workplace where the culture isn't characterized by titles or positions, but by how one life can influence another.  Here is just one example.

Morning Star is a tomato processing company based in California, with revenues of $700 million and over 400 employees.  What makes the company remarkable is that it has no bosses, titles or promotions.  Staffing decisions are made entirely by colleagues working together.  There are no promotions: people take on greater responsibilities after persuading their colleagues they can deliver.

A key element in Morning Star's model is what is called the Colleague Letter of Understanding (CLOU).  Every employee negotiates his CLOU with all those affected by his work.  This letter sets out what each employee is to accomplish in a given year.  Similarly, the company's 23 business units negotiate CLOUs with each other.

I would suggest that Morning Star has shifted from trying to manage through titles, positions and flowcharts to leading by recognizing how one life can influence another.  It doesn't matter if it's Chicago, the CSO, or a tomato processing company; the bottom line of leadership is just as John Maxwell stated, one life influencing another.