Friday, April 28, 2017

are you a truth teller?

Numerous people have often told me that I can count on them to tell me the truth.  Most of the time when I hear that phrase, it comes as a result of someone telling me what they believe is the truth and, of course, they are most often telling me what I or someone else have done wrong.  I believe that when someone reminds me that I can count on them to tell me the truth, they are wearing their truth-telling as a badge of honor and believe that I will consistently seek them out to tell me the truth about myself or others.  When I hear the phrase “you can rely on me to tell you the truth,” other phrases that run through my head include “I’m only telling you this for your own good” and “it hurts me to tell you this, but…”

Telling the truth is a good thing – it is a value society holds up as something that is worthy of good people and good citizens.  Communities run smoothly when people tell the truth…relationships are deepened when people tell the truth…fraud is exposed when people tell the truth…all organizations need someone to say “the emperor has no clothes.”   So what can be wrong with being a truth teller?

I assume most people would say that telling the truth is a virtue one should practice…and yet Aristotle never names truth-telling as one of the virtues in his Ethics.  Aristotle talks about many things, most of which have to do with living in a middle ground and understanding the consequences when one practices a virtue on its edges (i.e. courage is somewhere in between cowardice and foolhardiness).  In my experience, most truth tellers do not live in a middle ground…they are right and the other person is wrong.  The idea or concept that the truth teller might be wrong never seems to enter that person’s mind - and that is where the truth teller errs.

To be a truth teller – and to be heard as a truth teller – people must enter into that time and place with a humble confidence (I might be wrong AND it is important for me to say this).  Telling the truth is never wrong in and of itself…it can be wrong when it is approached in a manner that exhibits either bravado or foolhardiness.  Truth is best told when it is asked for and, when one does not ask, the truth teller can begin by asking permission of the other person if they may speak truth to them.  It may also be that truth tellers should practice the art of discernment – is this the right time to tell the truth or would waiting until another time be better?  That, as St. Paul reminds the people of Ephesus, is “telling the truth in love.”


Friday, April 21, 2017

when a leader has nothing to say

 I have gone five weeks without posting a blog, something that has not happened in a long time.  I could blame it on being too busy, but that would seem to suggest that I was not busy when I was consistently writing this blog; I could blame it on being lazy, but that would seem to suggest that my character and demeanor has changed over time; I could blame it on too much travel, but I traveled as much (if not more) during the month of January and consistently produced a Friday Morning Blog during that stretch; or I could blame it on having nothing of importance to say...and that is what I would like to think about this morning.

There are times (I believe) where leaders have nothing to say...and perhaps during those times leaders should say nothing at all.  The need to constantly say something (even when nothing should be said) is a disease (dis-ease?) from which many (if not most) leaders suffer.  It is a curse of the job, and one that is often put on leaders by those who follow.  Those who teach or speak in public know the feeling...everyone is sitting there waiting for you to say something; and not just to say something, but something that will inspire and energize.  Leaders are expected to have all the right words to say, even when nothing needs to be (or should be) said.

Don't get me wrong...there have been plenty of things I have been thinking about over the past month that have to do with leadership, many of which have been said to friends, colleagues, and others I happen to meet from time to time.  It just has not felt like the right time to put those thoughts into a weekly blog, so I have chosen not to do so for the past five weeks.  Does that make me less of a leader?  Does that mean that my ideas are drying up?  Does that mean that I have less time to devote to sharing those ideas?  I do not know...the only thing I do know is that it felt appropriate to be quiet for five weeks...and sometimes that is what those in leadership roles need to do.

Here's a challenge...next time you have a meeting of a group of people (and you are supposed to be in charge) just stand in the front of the room and not say anything.  Let someone else begin the conversation (without you inviting them to do so).  Those first few minutes will seem like an eternity (both for you and for those in the audience).  My guess is that someone will finally ask a question and, instead of you telling them what you are thinking about, you will get to answer the questions they are thinking about.   Sometimes it is okay to just have nothing to say.

Friday, March 17, 2017

where are you standing?

I just returned from three days of watching baseball in Arizona, enjoying spring training and the company of fellow brothers.  One of our discussions was centered on where fielders stand on a given play or for a given batter (or for that matter, where batters stand facing a given pitcher or situation).  This conversation (as well as many others) led me to consider what it might have to do with leadership, thus the title of today's blog.

So what might it mean for leaders to consider where they are standing...and what is the impact that standing might have?  Here are a few thoughts for this Friday morning:

  • physically, leaders need to consider where to stand when they address their constituencies - are you directly in the middle, do you stand to one side or the other, or do you consistently move around?
  • values-wise, leaders need to be able to know and articulate where they stand.  What is most important to them and does everyone know and understand the implications of what the leader holds as important? And what happens when individuals violate the leader's most dearly held values? (and perhaps even more important, what happens when the leader violates his or her own most dearly held values?)
  • strategically, leaders must stand firm when competing ideas or needs want to deter the organization from moving in the agreed upon direction.  Even the very best ideas pushed for by the very best people need to checked against the current strategic direction (and, if a change in direction is warranted, the leader needs to be able to explain why they are choosing not to stand firm at that time)
  • personnel-wise, the leader should have the ability to stand in the another person's shoes and work hard to understand their viewpoint, especially when there is conflict or unmet expectations.  Hearing and understanding what the other person is saying or doing can lead to a better outcome for everyone involved
  • budgetarily, leaders have to stand firm and not let their organization make decisions which can harm them in the long run. Investing in the organization's core capabilities and choosing not to invest in activities that are not required (and insisting on holding the line in terms of agreed upon margin) are all part of the leader's stance in terms of financial health
Thinking about where you stand can serve to strengthen one's leadership capacity. Where the leader stands will help to define what the leader is standing for...and in turn help others know how to stand as they move the organization forward in its mission and vision.

Friday, March 10, 2017

from responder to listener

The reality is that those who react, respond, and make things happen often get promoted to positions of leadership.  The ability to see a problem and fix it is exactly what people see as valuable in most organizations.  Those of us who are currently in a leadership position most likely got there because we were able to react, respond, and make things happen.  The problem comes that when one moves into that leadership role, it suddenly becomes more important to listen and think rather than act and do.  The other day I asked someone what they had been learning about themselves, and their response was "I am learning to listen to listen, rather than listen to respond."  That is the essence of what it means to lean into one's role as a leader.

Now here's the rub...because the ability to react, respond, and make things happen is most likely built into the DNA of those in leadership roles, the natural reaction will be to respond rather than listen - and that can easily get someone into trouble because of that natural reaction.  So what can be done?  How do those in leadership roles stay in the listening mode and not rush to the responding mode?  Here are a few ideas:
  • stop before you offer a solution...rather than offer your own solution, ask the person if they have an idea about a solution
  • have a series of 3-4 questions that you always ask...these are your go-to questions that everyone knows you are going to pull out of your back pocket
  • pause before entering into dialogue...before the meeting begins, take a deep breath and remind yourself of why you are there and what you should be bringing to the table
  • finish each meeting with a ratio inventory...determine what your ratio was of questions asked to statements made, and ask yourself if you are happy with that ratio
  • ask for feedback...check with those around you if they believe you are more interested in responding or listening
  • stop and ask for forgiveness...if you find yourself in the middle of solving for a problem, stop your rambling and ask the other person for forgiveness - and then let them start solving the problem
  • remind yourself that you are not the smartest person in the room...which is often hard to do when everyone else is telling you (directly or indirectly) that you are the smartest person in the room
  • enter into all conversations with humility...you don't know what you don't know, and because of that you will never have all of the answers
Unfortunately, this is not something that goes away over time.  Remember that those in leadership positions got there because they are wired to respond, and that immediate need to respond never really goes away.  The paradox is that once one understands that this initial reaction will always be there, the easier it becomes to manage it.  And that's what leaders do - they manage themselves so they can lead in a more effective manner. And remember that it is in the listening that leaders best respond to others - and that is really what most people are asking for from leaders.

Friday, March 3, 2017

when a leader loses their voice

Last week I had no voice...literally.  I had been sick, I overused my voice, and my vocal cords gave out on me.  Just having to squeak out a few words was painful and all I wanted to do was be quiet.  Yet the job demanded that I appear at certain functions to speak, hold meetings with individuals or groups, and walk the campus greeting people.  It finally got to the point where I was unable to speak to a groups and had to ask others to step in for me.  I had no voice.

My belief is that leaders can lose their voice even when they are healthy and their vocal cords are functioning just fine.  I can speak, but if no one really listens I have no voice; I can lead meetings, but if I have no influence I have no voice; I can meet and greet people all day long, but if no one really cares I have no voice.  What can those in leadership roles do to keep from losing their metaphorical voice?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • give the voice rest...just as I had to stop talking to get back my physical voice, leaders at times need to stop talking and spend more time both listening and in quiet contemplation.
  • talk less, smile more (with apologies to the musical Hamilton)...sometimes presence is as important (or even more important) than one's physical voice being heard.  Letting others know that you are there and being a part of the event is just as important as speaking at the event.
  • choose words carefully...more talking does not always equal a stronger voice.  Stay on target, be careful with words, and be succinct.  Many times less really is more.
  • keep the voice at a lower level...when trying to make a point, those in leadership roles can often get excited and perhaps even agitated.  The louder and more aggressive the voice, the less people might actually listen.
  • stay away from large crowds...smaller meetings take more time, but the ability to craft one's message for an individual can go along way in making one's voice really heard.
  • let others speak...leaders often believe that they are the ones who deliver the message best; the truth is that there are many people in the organization who can say things better and more to the point.  Give them the chance to practice their own voice and others the chance to here a new voice.
My greatest fear was realized as I considered what might happen if my physical voice never fully came back.  I realized that my voice was the tool by which I do my work.  That is true for the leader's metaphorical voice as well.  Perhaps the fear of losing that voice should be greater than the fear of losing one's physical voice.

This past week I have talked much less, avoided large crowds, talked only in a softer voice, drank plenty of tea and honey, and regularly used salt and warm water to heal the throat.  I am not yet a 100% but am now able to hold a conversation without much pain.  I have learned my lesson to take better care of my voice...and I have learned to care for my metaphorical voice as well.  Let's hope that lesson serves me well for years to come.


Friday, January 27, 2017

the complexity of leadership

Upon finishing my "state of the university" address this past Monday afternoon, I felt exhausted.  It was not a difficult talk...it was not an overly long talk...it was not a combative question and answer session.  As I drove home I asked myself why I felt so tired and beat up - and then the answer came to me.  By the end of the talk, I realized how complex my organization is, how many different (and differing) constituencies we as an institution must consider, and how quickly the landscape of higher education is changing.  While I might want to claim that this is only true of Concordia (and higher education in general) I know that this is the reality of most organizations today.  Who is our customer? What is our product? How do we gain market share? What about diversity and inclusion? What is the economy going to do today? And how do I keep the people of the organization happy?

Leadership, like organizations themselves, is complex.  Having to consider the multiple questions that come one's way, those in leadership positions must deal with the complexity that is consistently all around them.  This is not about working harder...this is not about working more hours...this is not about hiring more people...and it is certainly not about attempting to make the organization less complex.  So what are leaders to do?  How might they better deal with the complexity of leadership?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • slow down...if one does not take the time to breathe and think, how can they even see or understand the complexity that exists?
  • read more...in the midst of complexity, those in leadership roles often feel as if they are the only ones dealing with these issues.  Reading helps one to see beyond their own situation and might provide an answer to one of the many questions in front of the leader.
  • simplify where you can...the truth is that complexity is throughout the organization.  Where might one simplify and make the decision making process just a little easier (or at least less complicated)?
  • listen to stories...in the midst of the complexity, a gentle reminder of why one does what they do can make the stress of complexity a little more bearable each day.
  • hire really smart (and emotionally intelligent) people...by their very nature, those in leadership roles tend to take on themselves the entire complexity of the organization.  Let others share in the burden of complexity - it makes life easier and better for everyone.
  • take a break...one of the golden rules of leadership is to take a full day off once a week, three straight days off once a month, and two straight weeks off once a year.  Getting away from the organization puts the complexity a little more in perspective and allows the leader to renew their strength to deal with the constant onslaught they face.
  • lean into it...at the end of the day, the complexity of leadership is here to stay.  Embrace it, enjoy it, and learn to manage it - because there is no way around it.
Life has always been complex...and people's resiliency has always learned to manage it.  Dealing with complexity begins with accepting that it exists and then moving forward.  Remember that if your organization was not complex, it might just be moving toward shutting down.  What is the better alternative?

Friday, January 20, 2017

what's really important?

Many people wear a badge of honor regarding how busy they are...they're busy with this and that, they are attending too many meetings, their email inboxes are overflowing, they can't find time to read, family time is at a minimum, etc. It almost comes off as if they feel the measure of their work (and especially their leadership) is measured by the amount of time they spend on various activities.  Being in a leadership position will automatically provide more demands in one week than one can accomplish in a 24-hour, 7-day time frame.  The only way to deal with this is to turn one's attention to those things that are most important...and that is easier said than done.  Who determines importance?  Is it what is important today or important in five years? What about the multiple emergencies that keep coming across one's desk?  Here are some thoughts on how one might determine what is really important:
  • think long term...what is it that you and/or the organization needs to accomplish in the long run and what, if it is not done today, will put that future in jeopardy?
  • ask others in the organization...this is not about having someone else set the agenda; it is about getting a sense what is important to those one leads.
  • review the position description...what is it you were asked to do when you started in the position  Does it still make sense and, if so, are you actually doing those things?
  • consider the mission...are the activities in which you are engaged helping to advance the mission; and by that I mean in significant ways, not only incrementally
  • consider the margin...do your activities have a return on investment for the organization that is tangible and creates a greater financial margin at the end of the year?
  • consider the people...while it has become almost trite to say that the greatest resource an organization has is its people, there is still truth in the concept.
Now comes the hard part - choosing the few things that need to be done, narrowing the list down to what only the leader can do (and delegating much of the rest), scheduling the activities on one's calendar, and then actually executing on those items that are really important.  While this can be a difficult exercise for many who have assumed leadership roles, it should also be freeing and rewarding...and it should give back one's time.  Let "doing really important things" be your new personal badge of honor!