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!

Friday, January 13, 2017

it's ALL about leadership

During a recent breakfast with a friend and colleague, we concluded our discussion with the simple phrase "it's all about leadership."  Then we both stopped, looked at each other, and repeated the phrase with a special emphasis on the world ALL...it's ALL about leadership.  Some people might respond with a no-duh...others might respond with a shrug and look of skepticism...still others might respond with an enthusiastic yes and a pump of the fist.  No matter what the response, for this writer it was, is, and always will be ALL about leadership.  So if this is such a no-brainer concept, why might I be thinking about it today?  Here are a few thoughts on why it is important for people to undersand that it's ALL about leadership:

  • leaders must lead...once one is placed into a leadership position, there is no going back.  The named leader does not get to wake up one morning and decide not to lead...those chosen to lead must lead.
  • leaders must learn how to lead...being placed into a leadership position does not guarantee leadership.  Leadership is a learned act (despite what others might believe or say) and one gets better at leading by practicing leadership skills, attitudes, and behaviors.
  • leaders must make hard decisions...while there are many other people within an organzation who do the work and make decisions, those in leaders positions are looked at to make the decisions that make or break an organization.  Leadership is not for the faint of heart or those who like to sit on the sidelines.
  • leaders must build and work with a team...no one person leads an organization by themselves (even if they believe they do).  Learning how to work with a team of highly professional people is critical to leading and to the success of any institution.
  • leaders must know their business...because of the difficult decisions that leaders make, they have to fully understand the business they are in, the product they produce, and the customer they serve.  While leadership skills are transferable (see last week's blog) leadership in a given context is not.
  • leaders must be all in...because it's ALL about leadership, those in leadership roles need to be completely transparent, completely vulnerable, and completely committed to their organization and their role as leader.  Half-hearted leadership not only hurts the institution, it is far from fulfilling for the individual.
A word for followers...when those who are being led realize it's all about leadership, it becomes their responsibility to ensure that leaders can and will lead.  If someone in a leadership role chooses not to lead, who will  hold them accountable to lead?  If someone in a leadership role is struggling to lead, who will encourage them to lead?  If others are hampering the ability of a leader to lead, who will confront their colleagues to allow the leader to lead?  When it's ALL about leadership, then it's everyone's responsibility to ensure that leadership happens at its highests level becuase it's ALL about leadership.

Friday, January 6, 2017

transferable leadership

I had the honor this week to be on a panel with two other college presidents - Rebecca Bergman of Gustavus Adolphus College and Paula Carlson of Luther College.  The three of us reflected for a group of up-and-coming leaders about our first 2 1/2 years in office (each of us began our roles as presidents in the fall of 2014).  Rebecca came directly out of industry into the office of the president following a very successful career at Medtronic in Minneapolis.  When asked what is was like not having taken the traditional route to the presidency, her reply was very simply "leadership is transferable"...and I could not agree more.

There are many who believe that only those who know a certain industry...only those who grew up around a certain industry...and only those who have spent their careers in a certain industry are able to lead those industries.  And yet, there are countless examples of individuals who moved from one industry to another and led in an exemplary fashion (just as there are countless examples of those who spent their entire lifetime in a certain industry and failed miserably in the executive role).  What makes leadership transferable?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • leadership is about understanding and being able to work with people
  • leadership is about being curious and willing to learn what one does not know
  • leadership is about surrounding oneself with really smart people
  • leadership is about knowing and understanding the environment in which one is placed
  • leadership is about listening to others
  • leadership is about understanding that the leader is hardly ever the smartest person in the room
  • leadership is about executing strategy and putting in place the tools to ensure execution
  • leadership is about having the ability to consider and act on BOTH margin and mission
  • leadership is about knowing where and how to spend one's time
  • leadership is about building a team and setting that team loose to do the necessary work
  • leadership is about articulating the mission and vision through story and data
  • leadership is about the ability to know and understand one's own emotions and attitudes
So no matter what you lead or where you lead (and remember that leadership is not always about having a defined position), now is the time to start practicing these leadership attributes to prepare for the next leadership gig...no matter what particular industry for which one is chosen to lead.

Many thanks to both Rebecca and Paula for sharing their stories with me (and others) and to our friend and mentor Loren Anderson (former president of Pacific Lutheran University) who pulled the panel together.  You are all excellent leaders who make a difference in the lives of people and institutions.  May God continue to grant each of you health and peace in this new year.

Friday, December 23, 2016

incarnational leadership

I first penned this blog in December of 2009.  On this day before Chritmas Eve, it still speaks to me about the WHY of the season and the HOW of leadership.  May your Chritmas be blessed with the knowlege that Christ came to save...JOY TO THE WORLD!

My favorite version of the Christmas story is simple, and yet complete..."The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). While I can still recite Luke 2:1-20 from memory, and the Matthew account of the wise men holds mystery for me, it seems that John 1:14 is so deep and theological, that I am able to contemplate it over and over and never grow weary. Perhaps that is because it is a verse that not only describes the essence of my Christian faith but also describes what I believe to be a grand leadership style. Let's explore...


  1. leaders are real people - we so often place people in leadership positions on pedestals, believing they can do no wrong and will, with the right words or the wave of the hand, lead us to the promised land. Leaders, like every other human being, are merely "flesh." They have no special powers...they are not omnipresent...they are not omniscient...and they have emotions just like everyone else. Once everyone understands this (including the leader them self), it becomes much easier to lead - and to follow.
  2. leaders need to hang out with people - I have heard from several people over the past few weeks how they have observed leaders being aloof and isolating themselves from others. How stupid is that? If people in leadership positions are to lead (read: influencing others toward a common goal), then they have to a)be listening to others; and b)be talking to others. There is no other way around it. Leaders have to "dwell" among those they lead, not merely stop in and say hello every now and then. That's the beauty of the verse - Jesus didn't come down from heaven, wave a magic wand, and make everything OK - he "hung out" with those whom he loved, namely people.
  3. leaders have to love people - to be full of grace assumes that one loves others, in a compassionate and non-judgmental way. This is hard work, because human nature always wants to assume the worst. It can be especially hard for people in leadership positions since they worked hard to get where they are - and then consequently assume that everyone should work just as hard as them. It's easy to be judgmental - it's hard to love unconditionally. Imagine an organization where grace abounds...here's a hint: it begins with the leader.
  4. leaders identify and name reality - truth is all around us...it can be seen, it can be heard, and it can be felt. And yet, people in leadership positions refuse to call it out, especially if it is bad news. For many people, being a person of grace means not holding others accountable...and yet, the two can, and should, go hand-in-hand. When I truly love someone for whom they are, I want what is best for them (AND, when I truly love my organization and its mission, I want what is best for it and its future). Why would I NOT hold both the individual and the organization accountable, naming the truth and helping them change and be better?
As I get ready to celebrate Christmas, I am awed that my God came down to this earth and hung out - as God and man - to give us a picture of what "grace and truth" looks like when it manifests itself among people. Jesus Christ came as a baby - a REAL baby - and grew to be a man who walked among REAL people - and then, in order to save me from my sin, died a REAL death - and culminated his victory over death with a REAL resurrection. For that I give thanks, knowing that through faith in him as my Lord and Savior, I have the HOPE of eternal life - and that makes all the difference in the world.

Friday, December 16, 2016

no such thing as bad leadership

I was contemplating the idea the other day that there is no such thing as bad leadership, and then I began to think of people I knew who were bad leaders, including those whom no one followed, accomplished little, and left a carnage of bodies behind them.  As these two thoughts swirled in my brain, I realized that I might be right...that there are people in leadership positions who, when performing poorly, are simply not leading.  I am not sure what one might call what they are doing, but I would not call it leadership.  Here is why:

  • my definition of leadership includes words such as stewardship, shared vision, and common good.  If these behaviors or outcomes do not exist, there is no leadership.
  • with apologies to John Maxwell, leadership IS more than influence.  There must be an element of leaving the world and its people in a better place over time when one is leading.
  • leadership, when lived out in all of its dimensions, is good.  The actions of leadership show care for others, help people toward a shard vision that impacts the common good, and stewards the power that is inherent in a leadership role.  Anything less is no longer leadership.
  • there are levels of leadership through which one will progress, i.e. they will get better at leading.  Making a mistake in a leadership role is not the same as not leading, and followers should be looking for signs that differentiate between someone learning to lead and those who can't, don't, or won't lead.
  • those who serve in leadership roles but are not practicing leadership will more often than not be unable to understand or notice this differentiation.  It will be the responsibility of others to note the lack of leadership and put into a place a plan to remove that person and put in place one who can practice leadership.  A word of warning here - where there is no leadership (and remember that those who lead badly are providing no leadership) someone or something will fill the void.  Beware the individual or group who seek to fill that void to meet their own needs.
One final thought...those who choose leaders for their groups, organizations, or institutions may be afraid to put the wrong person in place.  The paradox is that there should be great fear AND there is a need to take a chance on people.  Remember that people can learn leadership and fill that role very effectively.  The challenge is finding the person who is self aware enough to know that there is no such thing as bad leadership and that leadership, which is inherently a good thing, is a journey of learning and growth that takes place over time.

Friday, December 9, 2016

the process of making decisions

“The leader facilitates a decision making process by which those involved feel good about the decision making process”

This thought came to me as I was driving to Concordia's service of commencement this past Saturday (who knows from where these ideas originate).  It struck me that when a group of people are brought together for a decision to be made, there will be times (probably more often than not) when some of the group members disagree with the decision...perhaps even disagree violently.  The leader's role is not to get everyone to agree...the leader's role is to facilitate a decision making process by which those involved feel good about the decision making process.  That's not always easy, and it may take more art than skill.  Here are a few thoughts on how one might be able to make this happen on a more regular basis:

  • before the process begins, be sure that the right people are in the room...it is probably better to err on the side of too many people around the table rather than missing someone who needs to be there
  • articulate the problem very clearly so people know exactly what the issue is on which they are deciding...clarity around problem solving saves time and keeps the group focused
  • ask good questions...before entering the room, be sure that the right questions have been articulated and that the leader does not have pre-conceived answers they already want to hear
  • be sure everyone has a chance to speak...bring out everyone's ideas, especially those who tend to be more quiet
  • do not let a certain voice or opinion dominate...when people are passionate about something, they want to speak to it (and often believe that if they speak loud and long enough they will get their way)
  • ask clarifying questions...be sure that you and the others around the table understand what is being said and WHY certain ideas are being stated.
  • have a common understanding about who is making the decision and how that decision will be made...is it the leader's decision; the decision of another person in the group; is it through a vote or consensus?
  • do not leave the room until everyone understands what decision has been made (or when it will be made)...again, getting clarity around this helps to send the same message forward
  • follow up with major dissenters and influential voices...very few people need to get their way all the time AND most people want to know that they were heard.  Those who get a little more attention from the leader after the decision has been made are more apt to be supportive as the decision is rolled out
  • enter into the conversation with the attitude that you as a leader do not always have the right answer to the issue at hand...being humble throughout the decision making process will go a long way toward helping others feel good about the decision making process.
Leaders who understand and practice this concept can help to build a strong constructive culture where people are free to speak up, teams work collaboratively, and team members feel good about the decision making process - whether they agree with the decision or not.

Friday, December 2, 2016

creating your own rain delay

It was one month ago today that "divine intervention" sent a rain storm to Cleveland, Ohio right around midnight to give the Chicago Cubs 18 minutes to regroup, refocus, and regain their mojo as a team of destiny.  The 30 minutes prior to the rain delay saw yet another Cubs' Collapse, and those of us who had watched this all before had that sinking feeling.  The momentum had shifted to the Indians and we were doomed to say yet again, "Wait 'til next year."  But alas, the Gods intervened, sent rain which created an 18-minute delay and,thanks to the wisdom and leadership of Jason Heyward, the Cubs came back on the field ready to play and (drum roll please) won the game to become World Series Champions.

Most leaders do not get to experience such a divine intervention and need to create their own "rain delays" so that their teams, their organizations, their families, or even they are able to regroup, refocus and regain their mojo in the midst of a crisis.  So how might leaders do that?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • take time out to remember the positive things that have been happening in the midst of tough time...they are there, but are often not in the current focus of the group
  • send people home for the day - or at least out to a long lunch...trying to solve the problem in the midst of the daily swirl might not be the right answer at the time
  • call in a consultant who can look at things differently than everyone else is...having an outside set of eyes may make the problem or crisis seem not as bad as first thought
  • laugh...there is almost always some humor to be found.  And if it can be found, take the time to talk about it and laugh until you cry.
  • have a pep talk with the team...following the move of Jason Heyward, do not let people go off by themselves and sulk...call them together, remember the good things you have accomplished, reiterate the issue at hand, and then get back to work
  • time your decisions well...when everything else is falling down around you, the timing of the next decision or change is critical.  Just as in trying to hit a baseball, the paradox exists of timing is everything and swinging away. 
  • sleep on that idea...most tough situations do not need to be solved immediately.  Make sure you and others in the organization can have some flexibility built into the decision making process

Creating one's own rain delay can seem counter intuitive...leaders are taught and expected to act quickly (and are often rewarded for that type of action).  Consider what your internal voice is telling you about creating a rain delay and whether or not you will be able to make the decision when called upon.  If not, who else can you ask on your team to be the umpire who, despite what any one manager or player wants, makes the call on the next rain delay for your team or organization.