Monday, June 30, 2014

NBA Commissioner does it again!

The greatest test of our integrity and character is the way we treat other people. ~Peter Drucker

Several weeks ago I wrote a blog about NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, regarding both his decision and communication about banning Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers, from the NBA for life.  That was a clear act of leadership, and I wondered, will we hear from Adam Silver again or was this more of a leadership one-hit wonder.  Thanks to a friend who shared a post on Facebook, since I don’t follow the NBA, I learned that Adam Silver, once again, demonstrated real leadership during the NBA draft.  Borrowing from ESPN here's a snippet of the story.
Four days before the 2014 NBA draft, Isaiah Austin—a 7-foot-1 center out of Baylor projected to be a late first- or early second-round selection—learned he'd never play professional basketball.  On Thursday night, he learned that wouldn't stop him from being part of the NBA. 
Midway through the first round of Thursday's draft, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver pressed pause on the proceedings and made the best pick of the night. 
"Before we continue tonight, I want to take a moment to recognize Baylor center Isaiah Austin," Silver said, eliciting applause from the crowed at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.  "You may have heard about Isaiah.  He is one of the nation's best collegiate players, and was expected to be picked tonight before the discovery just a few days ago that he had a genetic disorder called Marfan syndrome and is no longer able to play competitive basketball.  Like the other young men here tonight, Isaiah committed himself through endless hard work and dedication to a potential career as a professional basketball player, and we wanted to make sure he fulfilled at least this part of his dream."  "So it gives me great pleasure to say," Silver continued, "that with the next pick in the 2014 NBA draft, the NBA selects Isaiah Austin from Baylor University."
Of course the crowd erupted with a standing ovation as Isaiah walked across the stage.  What Silver did demonstrated real character.  There was no need for Silver to recognize Isaiah, but I dare say it not only changed Isaiah's life but also impacted the thousands in the Barclays Center and the many more, like me, who've learned of his gesture through layers of social media.  Using Drucker's test of integrity and character, I think the way that Silver treated Isaiah showed tremendous character and integrity.

Now and then I come across organizations where the leadership is disappointed with how their employees are treating one another.  And sometimes I'm even asked how we can change the way that they behave.  When leaders ask this question I've found it's typically an indicator that the leaders are modeling a less than desirable type of behavior and employees are modeling what they see.  If leaders want to see their employees treat one another differently, then maybe they need to first look in the mirror.  How are members of the leadership team treating one another?  Are they modeling the character and integrity of Adam Silver?

Maybe this week, we should all take the Drucker test and look really hard at how we are treating others.  Based on how we treat others, would we be considered leaders with character and integrity?  

Monday, June 23, 2014

You can't handle the truth!

The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.  ~Herbert Agar, A Time for Greatness (1942)

The infamous line by Jack Nicholson—"you can’t handle the truth"—in the movie A Few Good Men went through my mind this week.  I was facilitating a corporate training session on professional communication for a large global organization.  The 17 or so participants in the class were quite diverse.  Not only did their responsibilities range from IT, to design engineering, to marketing, to administrative support, their ethnic backgrounds included Czech, German, Indian, Polish, Middle Eastern, and of course American.  So, put this combination together in a room learning professional communication and it becomes an interesting experience. 

It didn't take long before I discovered that many times these individuals were in meetings and didn't understand what was being said or presented.  The lack of understanding was stemming from the overuse of acronyms, differing languages, and too much technical talk.  Then what really struck me was their collective apprehension to ask questions in meetings.  They feared appearing ignorant or incompetent. 

I stacked this reality of everyday misunderstanding on top of the fact that many leaders aren't good at accepting personal feedback (or even refuse), and that's when I thought, it's because "they can’t handle the truth."

I came across a white paper by James O'Toole, one of the leading academic authorities on organizational culture.  He shared this story.
I was invited by a large media corporation to meet with their top executives to discuss their corporate culture.  I started the process by asking the group for a few short, descriptive phrases that would best describe the culture of the company.  Silence.  I asked again.  More silence.  Finally, I was passed an unsigned note that read "Dummy, can't you see that we can't speak our minds?  Ask for our input anonymously, in writing."  I did so, and for the next two hours I would ask them a question about their culture, they would write down their answers; then I would collect them and read the responses back to the group.
You can probably guess how that story ends, not well.  I've actually found myself in similar situations, although not quite as extreme, but I have been asked to allow everyone to respond in writing, anonymously, in order to actually garner participation.  There was a fear of expressing their perspective, out loud.

It's kind of amazing, when you think about, the amount of organizational dysfunction and inefficiency due to leaders who simply can't handle the truth.  Employees don't feel comfortable asking questions in meetings, when chances are, they aren't the only one in the room who doesn't understand.  Even something so basic as being able to comprehend what's being presented in a meeting, isn't encouraged.

As leaders, if we want to improve our organizational effectiveness, we all might consider learning how to handle hearing the truth, no matter how trivial or significant.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Are you an anxious leader?

The function of a leader within any institution: to provide that regulation through his or her non-anxious, self-defined presence.  ~Edwin H. Friedman

A number of years ago, I was asked to be the driver for an author who was speaking in Chicago.  I knew who he was, but I didn't really know him, and I was semi-familiar with some of his books.  I discovered that this man, who I had just met, possessed something I wanted to somehow label and better understand. 

I am an introvert and I typically do not get to know people quickly, or at least as quickly as an extrovert might.  But while driving this author to various obligations I discovered that I was sharing more of myself with him with far more ease and comfort than what I would consider to be characteristic behavior.  Why was I doing this?

As the author began to speak at the event, it suddenly became quite clear to me.  He began talking about leading people through a tumultuous transition by being a non-anxious presence.  That was it; that was the exact label I was looking for—a non-anxious presence. 

I've since discovered a presentation given by Dr. Jay W. Pope that concisely outlines the definition and traits of a non-anxious leadership presence. Pope defined a non-anxious presence with these characteristics:
  • Temporarily putting our wants and needs on hold for the sake of listening to, relating to, and understanding someone else
  • Being fully engaged and present in a situation
  • Not threatened by intimacy
  • Can suffer with others without becoming lost in the suffering
  • Surrendering our tendency to emotionally react to others based on how we think their words affect us
  • Choosing to not be threatened by the feelings of others, even if what they say hurts us

Dr. Pope also identified these traits of someone with a non-anxious presence:
  • Self-aware
  • Secure
  • Centered
  • Excellent listener
  • Deeply committed to understanding others on their terms
  • Grace-giving
  • Suspends judgment
  • Forgiving

You don't have to look far in organizations to find anxiety.  Anxious leadership, according to Friedman, is manifested through someone who is reactive, displaces blame, seeks a quick-fix, etc.  Anxious leadership only exacerbates the already anxiety-ridden culture. But a leader with a non-anxious presence who is self-aware, secure, centered, an excellent listener, grace-giving, forgiving, and suspends judgment can move an organization through challenges and uncertainty with ease and confidence.

This week, let's each try to be a better listener, seek to understand others on their terms, be a bit more grace-giving and forgiving, and not so quick to judge others.  Then observe the response to our reassuring non-anxious presence.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Stop yelling and start jelling!

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.  ~Henry Ford

I've been preparing for some corporate training that I'll be facilitating next week and part of the client's training program focuses on the team development concept of forming, storming, norming, and performing.  This may sound familiar to many of you; Tuckman first suggested this idea in 1965 and it continues to be used in many training programs around team effectiveness and teamwork.

As I worked through the material what struck me was that this concept has been around for nearly 50 years, yet there are key aspects that very few organizations actually implement or follow.  For example, many teams struggle most with the transition from storming to norming.  The titles are fairly self-explanatory.  When a team is in the storming phase anxiety develops, people start setting boundaries, members are pushing for power and position, cliques drive the team, there may be personal attacks, etc.  In the norming phase the team will begin to create "norms."  The purpose is well-defined, feedback is high and well-received, hidden agendas are now open, etc.

One of the action steps to get to "norming" is creating clear roles, agreements, and rules for behavior.  I'll be the first to admit, when I'm on a team I typically want to jump right into the challenge or task that we've been assigned.  I want to "get at" the work.  By doing that, I'm greatly increasing the odds that we're going to experience conflict and subsequent "storms."  For others, they may want to skip over this step because they believe that the roles or rules of behavior are obvious, so it would be a waste of time to talk about it.  Some may think that roles and rules of behavior sound elementary or simplistic and isn't necessary.  Whatever our reason, chances are we're all wrong.

Team conflict is not a bad thing or something to be avoided when creating the roles and rules for behavior.  In fact, many authors argue that in order to be effective, teams need to have conflict; but it needs to be healthy conflict.  No, that's not an oxymoron. 

A team can arrive at healthy conflict much more quickly and with far less angst, if they have established roles and rules of behavior from the get-go.

From my own observations, it seems to me that these rules of behavior can be fairly simple and straightforward.  Examples might be: don’t be defensive, only one person can get angry at a time, stay focused and on topic, end the meetings with action items and clear agreements so there will be no meeting after the meeting, etc. 

The key, I believe, is to take the time to write down your roles and rules of behavior, agree upon them, and then include them on a separate sheet or at the top of your agenda for every meeting.  This now gives every member of the team mutual accountability.  So when you go off track, every member of the team not only has permission, but is expected, to call it out.  As a team, you are now confronting the issue before it escalates into unhealthy conflict. 

Even as I write this I'm thinking, this sounds so obvious and simplistic.  Maybe that's why we so often skip over it and then pay the price later.  The obvious and simplistic could be the saving grace of your team. Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Maya Angelou: courage, character, and leadership

A leader sees greatness in other people.  He nor she can be much of a leader if all she sees is herself.  ~Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou left us this week, but her words will continue to guide us and inspire us for decades to come.  She was a woman of great courage and spoke of courage often.  Her life was a colorful tapestry of divergent experiences.  Borrowing from Wikipedia, I learned this about Angelou's background.

At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, a man named Freeman.  She told her brother, who told the rest of their family.  Freeman was found guilty but was jailed for only one day.  Four days after his release, he was murdered, probably by Angelou's uncles.  Angelou became mute for almost five years, believing as she stated, "I thought my voice killed him; I killed that man because I told his name.  And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone…"  According to Marcia Ann Gillespie and her colleagues, who wrote a biography about Angelou, it was during this period of silence when Angelou developed her extraordinary memory, her love for books and literature, and her ability to listen and observe the world around her. 
She became a poet and writer after a series of occupations as a young adult, including fry cook, prostitute, nightclub dancer and performer, cast member of the opera Porgy and Bess, coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the days of decolonization.  She was an actor, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs.

And this week the Washington Post featured a number of memorable quotes from Angelou.  These are two of my favorites—one on courage and another on how she worked.

One isn't born with courage.  One develops it.  And you develop it by doing small, courageous things, in the same way that one wouldn't set out to pick up 100 pound bag of rice.  If that was one's aim, the person would be advised to pick up a five pound bag, and then a ten pound, and then a 20 pound, and so forth, until one builds up enough muscle to actually pick up 100 pounds.  And that's the same way with courage.  You develop courage by doing courageous things, small things, but things that cost you some exertion – mental and, I suppose, spiritual exertion. 
I have kept a hotel room in every town I've ever lived in.  I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty…I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there.  I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning.  Sometimes in hotels I'll go into the room and there'll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets.  We think they are moldy.  But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets.  I insist that all things are taken off the walls.  I don't want anything in there.  I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended.  Nothing holds me to anything.

When faced with life's challenges, may all leaders have the courage and discipline of Maya Angelou.