Friday, October 20, 2017

what leaders fear most

Yesterday I was interviewed by one of our freshmen as a part of an assignment for her Life & Leadership Class (taken by all new students).  She had a series of questions that were prescribed as a part of the assignment...and then, as we finished, she said she had one more question for me that was not a part of the assignment.  She looked at me and asked, "What are you most afraid of?"

I must admit that the question took me by surprise, so I gave myself some time by asking her why she was asking that question.  Apparently she asks this question of a lot of people and, as she told me, most people answer in the same way and she was wondering if I had a different answer than others.  I proceeded to share my thoughts, which led to a longer discussion of the paradox of leadership fears and, of course, the conversation went on from there.

So this morning has me thinking about the fears leaders face and how they use those fears to improve their organizations and their own personal leadership (as fate would have it, last night I ran across the November 2016 Harvard Business Review which is entitled "What Really Keeps CEOs Awake at Night").  This morning's blog is a list of possible things that leaders may fear most...and why those fears are important to a leader's development.

  • the fear of failure...while I do not believe this is the most important fear (nor the most relevant), it is a fear that keeps leaders focused on some very important metrics and ideas
  • the fear of success...if the organization is successful beyond its wildest dreams, will the leader be able to respond in a way that can truly build on that success
  • the fear of being found out...I cannot take credit for naming this fear, but many leaders are afraid that others will find out that the leader is not the smartest person in the room (which is the way it actually should be)
  • the fear of not being relevant...just when leaders believe that their organization is well known and important within the marketplace, it becomes crystal clear that not everyone knows the organization, much less believes in the organization and its promise. Building the brand should be on every leader's mind all the time
  • the fear of losing the best people...most people are replaceable - and others are not.  Taking care of the very best people in the organization has to be one of the leader's top priorities
  • the fear of a disaster...whether natural or not (fire or firestorm), it only takes one disaster to cripple an organization.  Being prepared for the worst is a good trait for leaders to have
  • the fear of someone doing something stupid (or illegal)...similar to above, these type of mistakes can have a devastating effect on the organization.  Policies, guidelines, and values can help mitigate some of the stupid (illegal) things that others might do
  • the fear of putting the organization at risk...any long term decision and/or expenditure has the chance to hurt one's organization over time.  Demanding multiple options and getting all the facts before making a decision can help navigate these issues
  • the fear of not being afraid...I saved this one for last, because this may be the most important fear of all.  For many leaders, when things are humming along and all seems well with the world, hubris can easily take over as the dominant character trait.  Leaders who begin to believe their own press...leaders who are no longer afraid of their own mistakes...leaders who act as if they are the golden child of the organization - these are the people who put the organization at the most risk.  My advice for leaders is "be very afraid!"
Take a few moments today to determine what it is that you fear most...and then embrace that fear as a way to move your leadership - and your organization - forward.

Friday, October 13, 2017

the agony of victory

Growing up, I would anxiously wait for Saturday afternoons when I would be able to watch ABC Television's Wide World of Sports.  As the opening credits began to run, I would wait anxiously to view the famous (and not so famous) clips of sports history and hear the iconic words spoken over those images "the thrill of victory...and the agony of defeat."  Those words echoed in my mind over the past 7 days as I watched my beloved Chicago Cubs win (after many ups and downs) their third straight National League Division Series.  Four days of waiting for the first game to being...five excruciating games.....two long days built in for travel...over twenty hours of actual baseball (not to mention the pre-game and post-game shows)...and the stress that went with each pitch along the way.  As I began to remember October 2016 (when the Cubs became World Series Champions), I realized that if the Cubs kept winning again this year I would once again be handing over my entire month to this passion...and I would once again be consumed by the stress of each game...and I would once again spend my days reading and talking about the playoffs...and I would once again stay up later than I should more nights than not (last night's game went until 12:45 EST - so happy to be living in CST).  Suddenly I realized that there was an AGONY TO VICTORY, something I would have to endure if I was a fan (and please remember that for about 54 of the 58 years of my life, my Octobers have been mostly normal).

All of this thinking about baseball got me thinking about leadership...and what, if any, parallels might exist for leaders in terms of feeling the agony of victory.  Here are a few thoughts on this Friday morning:

  • leaders want to be successful, but are they willing to pay the price for continued success?  It's never enough to win only once...success is about winning (translate that for your own life or organization) time over time.  Finding new ways to win...keeping everyone focused on winning...and being willing to stay the course after surprising setbacks can be very agonizing.
  • once the leader and their organization wins, everyone expects them to keep on winning.  The pressure from the outside (be that customers, employees, or boards of directors) has caused more leaders to leave their roles, even after they have had some good runs.  Not being able to satisfy one's constituents can be very agonizing.
  • winning comes at a cost of both revenue and people.  Finding the resources to win (and win big) is hard work, especially when raising cash from investors or donors and trying to create a margin that will sustain winning over time.  Getting the right people on the team to do the hard work of winning time after time means making hard decisions (including decisions about one's own leadership ability).  Making and executing on these decisions can be very agonizing.
  • leaders know that sometimes they (and their organizations) have to lose in order to win.  Most people end up in leadership roles because they have learned how to win, enjoy winning, and have been rewarded for winning.  Doing something that will lead to losing (even if it is short term for the good of the long haul) is antithetical to most leaders and can be very agonizing.
So why do we do it?  Why would anyone put themselves through this type of agony just to win?  I believe it is because the thrill of victory far outweighs the agony of defeat for both the leader and their organization.  When leaders and their organizations win (assuming that "winning" leads to the betterment of the common good), the world might just be a better place.  For me, when Concordia University Texas experiences the thrill of victory, more people have been developed as Christian leaders and are serving their organizations in a manner that makes the world a better place.  Why wouldn't I want to keep winning?  Why wouldn't I go through the agonizing times to experience the thrill of accomplishment?  Why wouldn't I spend hours of my time consumed about my organization in order that the university reaches its vision?  For leaders, this is their adrenaline - to experience the agony of victory to achieve that in which they completely believe.

A final personal note: in 2012, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein to be President of the organization and from 2012-2014, Cubs fans experienced the agony of defeat just as they had for the past 100+ years...and the past three years have been glorious.  As a life-long Cubs fan, I am thankful to Theo (who had been used to winning in Boston) for being willing to experience the agony of defeat during those years to build a winning franchise.  I am hopeful that he - and many others - will also be able to experience the agony of victory so that I can continue my own agony of victory for many years to come.

Friday, October 6, 2017

reading macbeth

This past weekend I read Shakespeare's Macbeth, a play many of us read (or were supposed to read) in high school or college.  While I thought I had read the play in the intervening 40 years since high school, I was surprised that I had not and remembered very little of the play.  It was fresh to me, intriguing, intense, full of high drama, and a study in leadership.  My regular readers know that when others ask me for recommendations of leadership texts, I will refer them to the great literature of the world - fiction, poetry, philosophy, and drama.  Shakespeare is one of my favorites to recommend including Hamlet, Henry V, Richard III, and now Macbeth.  Here are five leadership lessons I learned from reading Macbeth.

  1. Ambition can be a dangerous thing: Once Macbeth (and for that matter, Lady Macbeth) decided he should be king, there was nothing that would get in their way.  Their ambition to have control of the country drove their every motive and action, stopping at nothing to achieve their goal. To be ambitious is a good have it be the sole driver in one's life can lead to dire consequences.
  2. Supporting voices are not always in one's best interest: Lady Macbeth was her husband's biggest supporter - and also the instigator behind him committing his first murder.  Just as Macbeth was ready to back away from his evil ambition, she spurred him on to move forward, no matter the cost.  Having others support you is a good thing...having them be in control of your decisions can lead to dire consequences.
  3. Be careful of the voices in one's head: For Macbeth, it was the witches in which he believed; if they said he would be king, then of course he would be king.  There are many ways people hear voices direct them into action, be they spiritually based, supernaturally based, or internally based.  Believing in and listening to spiritual authorities can be helpful...not being skeptical of  and letting those voices go unchecked can lead to dire consequences.
  4. Always believe there is a time to turn back: There are several moments in the play in which Macbeth can make a decision not to act and turn around his course toward destruction...and then the reader realizes that Macbeth is doomed because he can no longer change course.  Consistently asking questions and having the courage to stop one's course of action is a key to leadership.  Moving forward despite tough circumstances is necessary for leaders...moving forward when one knows they should stop can lead to dire consequences.
  5. Know why you want to lead: Macbeth's reason for wanting to be king is that he was told by the witches he would be king.  He never stops to ask the existential question of why he really wants this role and why the country needs him in this role.  Perhaps one of the most important questions those aspiring for leadership positions can ask is "Why do I want this position?" Striving for a leadership role is a noble undertaking...striving for a leadership role with no solid reasons can lead to dire consequences.
So what will you read this weekend?  More than likely many of my readers will have a copy of Macbeth somewhere on their bookshelves at home; others may need to visit their local bookstore or library; others will no doubt order it on Amazon and receive it the next day (I love Amazon Prime!); and others will find a film version of the drama on Netflix.  I would encourage you to read it once through (perhaps with a modern translation on the opposite page); then read it again while listening to it (download from your streaming provider); and then read it a third time with only the original language.  In addition to the great story, Shakespeare's language is incredible, the poetry is fantastic (especially in the scenes with the witches), and the multiple phrases that have become part of our everyday language are fun to see in their original context.  My hope is that this blog (along with the others I have written) will not be "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Friday, September 22, 2017

leader as closer

Bottom of the ninth inning, the bases are loaded, the score is tied, there is only one out, and you are called to shut down the home team to give your team another chance in extra innings.  You have been successful in the past, but mostly to get three outs when your team is ahead...the home crowd is loud and hoping for your demise...the previous pitcher had done nothing to help you at this point...the manager changes things up by bringing one of the outfielders into the infield...nothing is what you had in mind when the game began AND you have been preparing for this moment your entire career.

Such is the life of the closer...and the leader.  As I watched the above scenario unfold last night at Miller Park in Milwaukee (and as I was thinking about what I would write this morning), I was witnessing leadership in action.  While much of the daily work of those in leadership positions is about planning, meeting, thinking, and executing, there come those moments where all eyes are on the one in charge, and the burden of "finishing the game" lays in one place.  Here are a few thoughts on how leaders can navigate their role as "closer:"

  • be prepared: there are very few scenarios a closer has not thought through.  Though each situation is unique, each situation also calls for the same result.  The closer knows ahead of time the players he will most likely face and knows what they can and cannot hit.
  • live into the paradox of the moment: while the closer can prepare and simulate any given situation in their mind, they still do not know all of the exact circumstances they will face.  The given reality of being fully prepared and being fully ready for anything new and different allows the leader to act upon the immediate situation they face.
  • shut down outside voices: in a conversation once with Huston Street (a major league closer currently with the Los Angeles Angel), he told me that as he stands on the mound, he never even hears the crowd.  The noise around leaders can be deafening at those big moments of decisions - learn to listen to the inner voice.
  • rely on others to do their jobs: just as manager Joe Maddon made a defensive move and just as catcher Alex Avila called for the right pitches, the closer (and leader) knows that there are other people behind them to do the role for which they are prepared.  Choosing (and training) the right people to have your back and then letting them do what they do best (especially in tough situations) is a key role of the leader.
  • do the job you are asked to do: in these type of situations, paralysis of decision making can set in and keep the leader from doing her job.  For the closer, there is no choice - throw the ball towards the plate and hope that the result you have been charged with actually happens.  Leaders must make the hard decisions at times...because that's the job they have been asked to do.
  • remember that tomorrow is another day: Most closers will have a blown save or two during the season, and will not lose their job because of those circumstances (too many blown saves and the role should quickly change).  Good managers know to put their closer back on the mound quickly after a blown save to restore their confidence.  Sometimes leaders get it wrong...and must be willing to get back into the game the next day, making difficult decisions again.
For those who were wondering...Wade Davis (closer for the Chicago Cubs) did get the final two outs of the inning, the Cubs scored two runs in the top of the tenth, and Davis went back to the mound and got three quick outs in the bottom of the tenth for what was an important win for my team.  Go Cubs Go!

Friday, September 15, 2017

leading from your own story

Let's begin with two premises:
  1. everyone has a story and that story often emanates from somewhere early in life, often having to do with one's childhood and upbringing and often shaping how one sees and understands the world
  2. leadership is hard work because it is personal work...and this personal work causes one to anguish (or not) over decisions that affect other people
As I sat in class this past week and listened to my students relate their stories, I was amazed at how much of their lives have been already shaped...they see the world through a certain lens (based on previous experiences) that will impact the way they interact with others and, ultimately, lead others.  I then came across a text the next day which presents as its premise that one's own story impacts their leadership in a definitive manner; in other words, we can't escape our past.  As I thought about these two encounters, it struck me how powerful one's story is in shaping how they think about leadership and ultimately how they lead.  The aspect of that idea made me think about how many people, who are thrust into leadership roles, never take the time to think about their story and how it has an impact (positive or negative) on their ability to lead well.

So what can leaders do to have their own story more positively impact their leadership or, on the other hand, mitigate any negative affects that story might have? Here are a few thoughts:
  1. rehearse one's own story: only thinking about one's story may or may not bring out the important details that have an impact.  Telling one's story over and over (and filling in the details along the way) creates clarity and has the chance to reveal more "aha's" over time
  2. embrace one's own story: some people may not want to consider their story...others may feel it unnecessary to tell their own story...still others are too busy to think about their own story.  Telling one's story takes time and courage
  3. encourage others to tell their stories: whether in one-on-one conversations or in group settings, hearing and listening to others' stories helps to make sense of one's own story.  Not only are you learning more about yourself, you are also giving others the gift of discovering their own leadership potential
  4. have others help fill in the details: if our stories have their beginnings in the past, talking with those who helped shape one's story can reveal new insights and highlight those parts of the story which may, for a time, seemed unimportant
  5. find someone to help tell the story:  having a coach has proved invaluable to myself and my team.  A coach, a therapist, a good friend...there are many people who can help unearth the story and bring about application to one's leadership
A final thought...I do believe that one's behavior and ability to lead is not completely dependent on the story we know and tell ourselves.  The past is past and it cannot be's story is their story.  What can change is our current and future story and how we are able to modify or control our behavior by knowing and rehearsing our story.  One of the great paradoxes of leadership (and life) is that our past defines us AND our past does not need to define us.  The best way to embrace that paradox is to know our past - to know our story - and to use that story (today and into the future) in doing the hard work of leadership.

Friday, September 8, 2017

ends and means

This blog was written last year on this same day...the morning of my first Board meeting of the academic year.  It is reprinted here as a good reminder of where leaders should put their focus.

As I get ready to hold my first board meeting of the academic year, I am reminded of the great adage for boards: don't confuse means and ends.  What that simply means is do not confuse activities with goals.  My Board of Regents focuses on the mega-outcome of men and women who transform communities by seeking out leadership opportunities and influencing people for Christ.  Of course, to get to that end (goal), we as an institution have to execute a lot of means (activities) which the Board monitors to ensure that we execute in an excellent and consistent manner. 

At a meeting this week, I had to remind myself and my team that the decision in front of us was a means decision (an activity) that had an impact on our end (goal).  While this sounds simple, it becomes very difficult in the rush and flurry of activity that an enterprise undertakes.  So what can those in leadership roles do to keep themselves and their teams focused on ends and not get hung up entirely on means?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Always ask the question "what are we trying to accomplish?"  Sometimes the answer might be as simple as making a means decision...and sometimes the question will lead to a very strategic discussion which can change the decision on the means
  • Clearly identify the ends - what are the goals toward which the organization and/or the team is aiming?  If this is known, it becomes much easier to sort through the many means available for a team to decide
  • Revisit the ends from time to time - do not assume that everyone will remember them or even think about them.  In the rush of daily activities, means often become the driver of people's time and thoughts
  • Ask the question of whether or not a discussion is an ends discussion or a means discussion - both are important...clarification will keep the team on track
  • Be as clear as possible about the ends the organization is trying to accomplish - "save the world" is great, but often unknown when one arrives there (if one arrives there at all).  Trying to identify an end goal that makes sense and can be accomplished makes it easier it is to talk about the means to get there.
As I get ready to walk into this board meeting, I know that much of my reporting is on means...are we doing what we said we would be doing and how well are we doing in those areas?  AND I know that the Board will want to be assured that we are still on track to accomplish the end/goal/outcome of men and women who transform communities by seeking out leadership positions and influencing people for Christ. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

by grace

Concordia University Texas chooses a theme each year that guides our worship, our thinking, and our life together.  This year's theme (both as a reflection of being an institution of Lutheran higher education and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation) is By Grace, Through Faith, taken from the second chapter of the apostle Paul's letter to the Ephesians.  Yesterday, as I walked the grounds of my alma mater Concordia University Chicago (known then as Concordia Teachers College), I was flooded with the memories of my time there as a student...and especially the many ways in which I was shown grace by so many people.  As a college student (like many college students I have known and loved) I did many things for  which I should have received anything but grace...and yet, there were always people there to give me another chance.  I believe that I am the person I am today - and the leader I am today - partially because of the grace I was shown as a college student.

As one learns leadership and develops as a leader, grace becomes an important part of the process. Here are a few reasons why I think that is so:

  • people learn how to lead by taking chances - and often failing.  After those failures (perhaps many failures) receiving grace from those who have authority not only restores the relationship - it allows for one to try again...and even fail again
  • receiving grace over and over teaches one how to give grace to others, a key aspect of leadership
  • receiving grace over and over teaches one how to accept grace and give grace to oneself.  Leaders are prone to make mistakes (or at the least second guess themselves) and, being able to give grace to to themselves, are then able to move forward
  • grace given (and received) can and should be separate from giving (and receiving) consequences.  While given grace multiple times, I also had to live through the consequences of my actions.  Strong leaders are able to differentiate between these two - and explain that difference to others
  • leaders who choose and work with other leaders need to be able to spot those who freely give grace...and those who would rather withhold grace.  Grace giving leaders should (and most often will) chose others who follow that lead
  • giving grace is not a single event or time - it is a lifestyle.  Living as a grace giving person exudes into all the aspects of leadership, and is noticed by those with whom one serves
The mission of Concordia University Texas is that we are developing Christian leaders; one of the fundamental pieces of Christianity is knowing about, believing in, and living out God's grace in one's life.  Perhaps this is one of those hallmarks of Christian leadership - living out the vocation of leadership in a way that is grace giving.  I know that I benefited from such people in my life many years ago...I pray that I am that same type of leader and that others will follow in that same manner.