Friday, July 31, 2015

stoic leadership


Stoicism is a Greek school of philosophy which teaches that virtue comes from reason and living in harmony with the natural course of all things.  One of the texts that best outlines this philosophy is Marcus Aurelius' Meditations written in the 2nd century while he served as the emperor of Rome.  This text, which is a series of thoughts and ideas of how to live the good life, is really a text about leadership as Aurelius lays out maxims by which he plans to personally lead.  As I read through this text while in Maine, I was reminded of several things:
  1. leadership is about people - how one thinks about them, how one treats them, and how one interacts with them
  2. leadership is about understanding one's self, and being able to control the thoughts and emotions that arise from different situations
  3. patience is a virtue, and being able to wait, reflect, and then react will set great leaders apart from others
  4. leaders must, above all, be concerned for the common good of the society or organization for which they have been given charge over
Here then are a few of Marcus Aurelius' thoughts*:
  • The qualities I admired in my father included...every question that came before him in council was painstakingly and patiently examined; he was never content to dismiss it on a cursory first impression.
  • If it is not the right thing to do, never do it; if it is not the truth, never say it.  Keep your impulses in hand.
  • Are you distracted by outward care? Then allow yourself a space of quiet wherein you can add to your knowledge of the good and learn to curb your restlessness.
  • Though people may hinder you from following the paths of reason, they can never succeed in deflecting you from sound action; but make sure that they are equally unsuccessful in destroying your charitable feelings towards them.  You must defend both positions alike: your firmness in decision and action, and at the same time your gentleness toward those who try to obstruct or otherwise molest you.
  • Unbend, but be temperate.
  • At every action, no matter by whom performed, make it a practice to ask yourself, 'What is his object in doing this?' But begin with yourself; put this question to yourself first of all.
  • When a thing's credentials look most plausible, observe its triviality and strip it of the cloak of verbiage that dignifies it.  Pretentiousness is the arch deceiver, and never more delusive that when you imagine your work most meritorious.
  • Enter into the ruling principle of your neighbor's mind, and suffer him or her to enter into yours.
  • When another's fault offends you, turn to yourself and consider what similar shortcomings are found in you.  Think of this and your anger will soon be forgotten in the reflection that he is only acting under pressure; what else could he do?  Alternatively, if you are able, contrive his release from that pressure.
These writings make me look in the mirror and examine myself as a leader...and as a person who lives among others.  Though written 1900 years ago they continue to resonate today.  *taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Meditations and translated by Maxwell Staniforth, copyright 1964

Friday, July 24, 2015

what do you read?

In a recent talk I gave to Lutheran School administrators, I encouraged them to read six different books, most of them being in a variety of genres.  During our team's retreat yesterday, one of the questions asked was in what genre we most often read.  My previous post (based on my month of reading in Maine) dealt with why leaders read...today's post will take a closer look at the different genres in which leaders should read.  While I realize we all have our favorites types of books, let me encourage you (as I did my audience earlier this week) to read in genres others than those you find familiar.

HISTORY: History is a re-telling of past events and how people dealt with issues that faced them at that time.  Leaders face all types of circumstances, many of which are not new or unique.  Reading about how others have dealt with issues provides alternatives for leaders as well as a perspective that there is nothing really new under the sun.  Consider also the sub-cateogry of MILITARY HISTORY as it will be a study of how leaders made decisions in difficult circumstances.
BIOGRAPHY: I used to think that only biographies of great leaders were worth my time, but I have discovered that biographies of all types of people provide insight into others aspects of leadership.  A recent biography of the composer Stephen Schwartz provided insight into one's creativity...biographies of sports heroes, media personalities, historical figures, and others will help you understand people and their circumstances in new and different ways.
PHILOSOPHY: I cannot stress enough how important it is for people in leadership positions to read the great works of philosophy.  My life has been so enriched by reading the works of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Mill, and so many others that I cannot recommend these types of books enough.  These are books that changed the world and have lasted hundreds/thousaonds of years.  Do not underestimate their power in shaping your thinking and actions.
DRAMA: I could go on and on about Shakespeare (and might in a future post) and his ability to create characters that not only make you think and take a close look at yourself but also give great insights into how to lead (ot how NOT to lead).  One great way to read these is to find an audio version of the plays and read along while listening.  Don't forget the great plays of the early Greeks (especially Socrates' Oedipus cycle) and of contemporary writers such as Tenessee Williams and Arthur Miller who so brilliantly depict the tragedy of human life.
POETRY: This has become a new favorite of mine as it helps me see the world through a whole new lens.  The great poets of the world give me an insight in a way I do not normally think, providing a beautiful picture of life, even  when the subject matter is difficult.   What better way to understand leadership than by reading John Donne, Walt Whitman, or T.S. Elliot.
CLASSIC TEXTS: The Iliad...The Odessy...The Aeneid...The History of the Peloponnesian War...The Twelve Ceasars..Lutarch's Lives...Meditations....Beowulf...Gilgamesh...and the list goes on and on.  Pick the one that most interests you and dig in (and find a translation that works for you).  You will be surprised what you can learn about leadership when you read these texts through that lens.
ECONOMICS: All leaders must understand the principles of economics if they are to make decisions that affect multiple people and places.  Start with a basic text, then dig deep into some of the classic writings of Smith, Marx, Friedman, Hayek, and Keynes.  My guess is that you will start using what you learn almost imnmediately.

I am sure there are more genres to mention and more texts to recommend (feel free to do so in the comment section).  Of course, please be sure to read great fiction and the best (but only the best) in leadership theory and practice.  Thanks for reading this list...now go and read something from one of these genres.

Friday, July 10, 2015

why leaders read

This past week I returned from a month-long stay in Blue Hill, Maine where the majority of my time is spent reading.  Many people know that one of the joys Deb and I have during our stay in Maine is being able to sit and read...sometimes for up to 8 hours a day.  People have asked whether I read for pleasure or for work...and my typical response is that I read for both.  It is difficult for me to decide whether reading Robert Caro's 4-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is for pleasure or for work, since I learn so many leadership lessons throught the books AND it is a story that captivates my attention.  It is also difficult for me to distinguish between the two when I read the short stories of Raymond Carver as I am learning about other people and the day-to-day struggles they face in life.

Someone once stated to me that "all leaders are readers" (and that the converse is not necessarily true).  I truly believe that maxim, so today's blog is my personal take on why leaders should read - and how it can enhance their leadership.  Over the next few weeks I will apply leadership to specific books I read last month as well as why certain categories of books are important for leaders. For a deeper insight into this topic, I would recommend Mark Edmundson's book Why Read?

  1. To learn how NOT to lead: there are many characters in books (fiction and non-fiction) that depict the worst of leadership...they will make you cringe and swear never to act in a similar manner
  2. To learn about those you lead: reading (especially great fiction) introduces the reader to all types of people and all types of lifestyles...these are the people who work with and for you, so getting to know about them through good literature helps you better understand their personal needs, hopes, and dreams
  3. To better understand why you lead the way you do: as readers encounter different figures throughout books, they will resonate with some and not others...ask WHY you resonate with certain individuals you read about and what it is about them that made them tick (the same probably applies to you)
  4. To solidify your leadership patterns: similar to above, but with a more definite purpose as to HOW you will lead...as you observe (through reading) the actions of others, you can further develop your personal leadership skills
  5. To realize that there is nothing new under the sun: all of the different aspects of people and organizations that leaders face have happened to others before...you (and your organization) are not unique or special and others have faced what you will face today and in the future
  6. To learn NEW ways of leading: great literature and writing will always have the reader say to themselves "I never thought of it that way before"...take these new ideas and try them out in your role as a leader
  7. To become a better person: great books have a way of affecting the heart and soul of those who are willing to engage with them on a deep level...don't be afraid of looking in the mirror as you read and consider what you might need to change about yourself
  8. To relax and enjoy the comfort of a good book: leadership is hard work and being able to escape into the act of reading is both therapeutic and relaxing (though not always easy)...renewing your energy is important for you, for those you lead, and for your organization
So and find a good book, pour yourself a cup of coffee (or other beverage of your choice), situate yourself in an environment where you will not be distracted or disturbed for several hours, and READ!

Friday, May 8, 2015

giving back

Today Concordia University Texas will be hosting one of the 600 sites for  Leadercast, a worldwide leadership conference that is simulcast to more than 40 different countries. This leadership event will feature eight different speakers, including Seth Godin, Ed Catmull, Roarke Denver, and Andy Stanley.  Last year over 250 people came to the CTX campus for this event, only a small part of the 100,000 who attended worldwide.  But the purpose of this blog is not to tell you about Leadercast - it is to tell you about the person who brought Leadercast to Concordia, John Griffin.

John is a gradaute of The Concordia MBA, having completed his course work in 2012 (one of the first two cohorts to gradaute).  When he joined the program, he and his wife were running a small business that published a guide for senior living, partnering with multiple companies across the central Texas region to help make life a little better for senior adults - and for those who served as care givers to them.  When I first met John, I quickly become impressed with his need to serve others and give back in whatever capacity that might be, including working with senior adults.

After completing his MBA, he realized that his passion for leadership was something that he wanted to share with others and help others become better leaders themselves.  He found himself drawn to The John Maxwell Team where he received training in presenting about leadership and coaching others in their personal leadership.  When I asked him why he was doing this, he voiced the idea that others had invested in his leadership development (much of it through The Concordia MBA) and now he wanted to give back to others the same type of personal involvement he had received.  

During that year, he approached Concordia as a place to host Leadercast, a win-win for everyone as it brought aspiring leaders into John's sphere of influence as well as into contact with Concordia and its MBA program.  Why wouldn't we partner together for something like this that helped each of us and raised the level of leadership in central Texas?  And so, last May 9, Concordia University Texas hosted its first simulcast of  Leadercast.

What I did not realize at the time was that John had planned on donating all of his profits from the event to Concordia because he wanted to give back to the institution that had done so much for him through The Concordia MBA.  For me, this was yet another example of how John Griffin always looked for ways to give back - whether it be to his church, his community, his family, or his alma mater.

Today John continues to give back to Concordia by teaching in our undergraduate business program.  His ability to work with younger students and help them develop their leadership capacity is another way that John is giving back, by investing in the future of central Texas through Concordia's mission of developing Christian leaders.

I would be remiss if I did not give you, the reader, a chance to learn more about John and what he does, something you can find out by clicking here.  I consider John a friend and colleague, and believe that he brings value to any individual or organization with which he is engaged.  I am thankful for his partnership with Concordia University Texas, and I pray that we will  be able to give back to John just a touch of what he has given back to us.

Friday, May 1, 2015

working with boards

Later this morning I will be in my quarterly Board of Regents meeting where we look at the state of the University and engage in discussion that supports the future of the University.  These people are my boss, and they are in place to safeguard the institiution for its stakeholders.  As the Chief Executive Officer, it is my duty to run the institution in such a way that they are ensured that the mission is upheld and that the place is still here in the future.  Having been through three meetings thus far in this first year, I can say that the Board of Concordia University Texas is supportive and works hard to live out its fiduciary duties.  Here are a few things I have learned about working with boards over this first year:
  1. Keep them informed - they do not need to know all of the details, but they do need to know the major issues that are facing the CEO and the institution at large.
  2. Don't hold back information - similar to above, but with an emphasis on providing information whether it is positive or negative; in other words, always tell the truth.
  3. Ask their advice - these are very smart people who come from a variety of backgrounds.  Use their expertise in a variety of areas and in day-to-day decisions.
  4. Treat them well - Board members give of their time and energy and should be honored for their service.  Don't be cheap when it comes to taking care of board members.
  5. Listen deeply - as discussion goes on around the table (or in one-on-one settings) listen and put into practice what they tell you.  Again, these are very smart people.
  6. Don't tell them too much - as a corollary to #'s 1 and 2, telling them too much gets them into the weeds.  Ask them what they need to know and make sure you deliver that information in a timely manner.
  7. Let them protect you - one of the Board's roles is to protect the institution...and if need be they can protect the CEO as well (which is the same as protecting the institution at times).
  8. Let them talk - similar to #'s 3 and 5, board meetings should be more about them talking and less about the CEO talking.  Ask good questions, then let them go at it.
  9. Re responsive - when the Boar chair calls with a question, respond quickly; and when the Board asks a question, respond with relevant information.  
  10. Love them - like all groups, boards are made up of human beings who come with all of thier personalities.  Loving the members of the Board is not only a good thing to do, it is the right thing to do.
I look forward to year two of board meetings and seeing what else I can learn as well as getting better at the above ten items.  And one final thought...if you do not have an official board you report to, then consider these ten items as a guide toward working with your team, or your group of friends, or even your family.  Relationships are important, no matter the setting.

Friday, April 24, 2015

why I didn't blog last Friday

It has been gnawing at me all week that I did not blog last Friday morning.  I had written a blog for six weeks in a row, and was feeling great about my streak.  People were reading the blog, people were commenting on the blog, and I felt like I had something worthwhile to say...and then I didn't blog last Friday morning.  As I thought about it, I realized it was a good thing that I didn't blog last Friday morning - and here's why: there were more important things to do in my life.  I know that blogging on Friday mornings is not the most important thing I do...I know that blogging on Friday mornings is not my full-time (or even part-time) job...I know that blogging on Friday mornings is a luxury for me...so because there were more important things to get done, I chose not to blog.

So what, you may ask, could be more important that blogging on a Friday morning?  Here are just a few of the items that I chose to focus on last Friday rather than blog:

  1. Preparation - I had a talk to give at 8:00 that morning, so I spent the first hour of the day finalizing the slides and going over my talk several times.  This was a very important talk to our faculty and staff, so taking the time to PREPARE was more important than blogging on a Friday morning.
  2. Planning - I have several trips coming up and had to get flights and hotel rooms booked ahead of time.  It seemed important to me to feel that I had the details in place for future events rather than blog, so I chose to PLAN rather than write.
  3. People - there were several colleagues with whom I had to catch up.  The visits to different offices were needed to gather information from and share information with others.  It seemed important that I connect with PEOPLE, so I chose not to write the Friday morning blog.
  4. Relaxing - I thought I might get to write later in the day, but I had an afternoon appointment with a friend with whom I spent time on the patio and enjoyed good conversation.  We have a standing appointment once every six months, and I really needed the time to kick back and enjoy the time.  It seemed more important to me to RELAX rather than write my Friday morning blog.
As I thought about all the reasons why I did not write my Friday morning blog, it soon became apparent that I had the freedom to CHOOSE whether to write my blog or not - and for that particular Friday I chose not to write but to focus on other matters in my life.  Were they all more important than writing the Friday morning blog?  Perhaps not...but my choosing them over the writing sent a signal to others (and to myself) that for the moment, these items and people were more important - and that made a significant impact on them (and on me).  Understanding the freedom one has to choose what they do (even at times when it might not feel that way) allows us to relax just a little bit more and puts us in charge of our lives..and that can make all the difference in the world.

Friday, April 10, 2015

defining success

How do you define success?  Several years ago in my Introduction to Business class, this conversation led to a lot of thought among my students and caused dialogue that lasted throughout the semester.  Is success doing one's best?  Is there a standard one shold reach?  Does one define success for themselves?  Is success about being the best?  Or is success meeting and surpassing standards, whether they be set by oneself or others?

This conversation was had again yesterday in a meeting I attended in which we, as a Board of Directors, tried to define success for the organization.  My colleague on the Board, Michael Costello, named three ways of thinking about success - program success (is the program/product what we want it to be?), financial success (are we able to do what we do in 5-10 years?) and process success (is what we do done really well?).  Let's consider these three separately and together:

Program/Product Success - I think this is built around the organization's core purpose, mission, vision, values,and goals; in other words, is what we had hoped would happen as a result of what we do  actually happening?  I think in order to measure this type of success, certain standards should be determined ahead of time that allows the organization to know they have been successful in their programming, i.e. impact, numbers, satisfaction, position in market, etc. Sometimes these ideals are difficult to measure, and yet measurement is needed.  Having targets are critical for any organization...and please remember that some targets are quantifiable while others may be less so.

Financial Success - those of us who have spent our lives in non-profits or faith-based organizations seem to shy away from this measure of success, and often want to relegate it to a neccesary evil of doing business.  Leaders of organizations (whether that be CEOs, presidents, or boards of directors) have an obligation not only to the current clients or customers; they carry an obligation that this organization will be around in the future to continue living out the mission.  A popular saying among non-profits is "no margin, no mission."  While the mission and vision may not inlcude a measure of financial success, the organization MUST focus on what it means to be successful in this area, and then work relentlessly toward achieving those measures.

Process Success - while it may not be true for all organizations, I have a belief that if one does thier core business practices well, there will be a certain amount of success, both externally with its customers and internally with those who work for the organization.  Understanding what it is the organization does, finding or figuring out best practices, then relentlessly pursuing the delivery of those practices carries with it a certain amount of success.  This is where measurement can come in on a regular basis, whether it be satisfaction surveys, meeting certain internal targets, or receiving recogntion among one's peers for the work they have done (i.e. the Malcolm Baldridge Award).

Now for the final piece - a successful organization has to be successful in all three categories: program/product success with poor finances or poor processes will cease to exist; financial success with poor program/product or poor processes will lose customers and employees; and process success with poor program/product or poor finances might lead to the organzation feeling really good about itself, but the doors will eventually close.  The challenge to the organization and its leadership is to keep all three in balance and not fall into the trap of focusing on one at the expense of the other.  In the school business I often hear, "It's all about the students."  If that was true, they would receive a free education and all of their requests would be granted, no matter the result...other types of businesses and organizations can easily focus on one or the other depending on the nature of what they do and the people they typically hire.

So what about your organization - where does the majority of the focus lie?  should there be a better balance?  what needs to be done to bring more attention to a balance? should one area be emphasized more during this time in the organization's history?  is the right leadership team in place so that all three areas can be balanced? has the board or executives determined what success looks like in the three areas so that the management team can deliver on them?

Before I finish, I want to give kudos to two organizations that inspired today's blog:

  1. Lutheran Music Program:  I serve on the board of this incredible organzation that brings together musical excellence, faith, and intentional community that produces life-changing experiences in young musicians through Lutheran Summer Music.  This program is worthy of anyone's support and bringing it to the attention of high school aged musicians who are serious about music and faith.
  2. The Pacific Institute: This organization partnered with Concordia University Texas in our strategic planning process over the past several months, and did a great job in helping us move to a place where we can more fully define success for oursleves. Spcial thanks to Rosie Baker for her marvelous leadership of the process.