Friday, July 20, 2018

the McClellan factor

As I was reading through the book Lincoln's Lieutenants by Stephen Sears over the past several weeks, I was struck by the complete inadequacy of George B. McClellan, the leader of the Army of the Potomac in the first years of the American Civil War.  McClellan is known for his inability to move against the enemy (Lincoln referred to him as having the "slows") and his fiery antagonism of Lincoln and his Cabinet (for more on McClellan's career, click here).  I kept thinking about who might be my McClellan and maybe more important, to whom might I be a McClellan?  Let me describe a few aspects of the McClellan factor:

  • one who has access to multiple resources, yet fails to produce
  • one who is respected by others, yet fails himself to respect those around him
  • one who, when given the opportunity, fails to act
  • one who believes (and maybe even writes) their own press
  • one who, being afraid to fail, imagines a greater threat than is real
  • one who always believes they know better than others
  • one who cannot be led or managed themselves
As I review the above factors, I am reminded of the danger of hubris that can be found in leaders across organizations and institutions.  This is not about incompetence...McClellan was, after all, a very competent individual.  He was smart, he was strategic, he was well-liked, and he could inspire others when needed.  What he lacked was the humility to listen, to doubt himself, and the courage to make a difficult decision in the face of unknown odds.  Truth be told, I would rather be led by someone with not enough competence than by someone with too much hubris.  Incompetence harms...hubris destroys.

As leaders look across their organizations, they should be identifying those who exhibit any or all of the McClellan factors.  The fact is that most of the time, leaders are often the last ones to know who these individuals might be.  Keeping one's eyes open, asking difficult questions, focusing on execution of goals, and regular reviews can help to discover those who are exhibiting the McClellan factors.

And one final thought...where and when might you, as a leader, be acting in a manner that reflects the McClellan factor?  And how will you know when and if this is occurring?  Taking a regular inventory of oneself, finding someone to serve as a personal coach, and instituting a regular personal review process from the Board or other reporting entity can help keep the leader in check so that, at the end of the day, the leader does not become their own McClellan.

Friday, June 29, 2018

the power of words

I am currently reading Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, a memoir of her life on a farm in Kenya during the first part of the 20th century.  Having been born in Denmark, Ms. Dinesen (also known as Karen Blixen), lived her life among the natives of the African plains, including Somalians, Kenyans, and those from the Masai tribes.  During my reading of the text, I have noticed that there is very little story, at least one that continues throughout with a plot and main characters.  There is no mystery to solve...there is no romance that is blossoming...there is no destination to be reached...and there is no hero facing life or death.  And yet, I find the book difficult to put down and stop reading for any amount of time.  As I thought about why that might be, I realized I am enthralled by the words that she uses and the phrases that evolve from those words.  Her writing is beautiful and causes me to smile as I picture the people, the animals, and the landscapes of Central Africa.  I am amazed how one can so easily capture the essence of their surroundings with just the right words.

So why does this have me thinking about leadership?  Here are a few thoughts for this Friday morning:
  • words convey meaning: whether one speaks or writes, the words they use can mean different things to different people.  Choosing just the right words helps the leader translate what she is thinking to her audience.
  • words create pictures: leaders live for vision, and helping others grasp that vision often occurs through words (again, spoken or written).  The more descriptive the words or phrases used, the better the leader can create a picture of the future.
  • stories are comprised of words: one of the most powerful tools a leader can use is stories - stories about people, stories about successes and failures, and stories about the future.  Holding people's attention while telling a story is often the result of the right words being used at just the right time.
  • words challenge people: organizations get better when its people grow, and that growth often happens as a result of challenges put before them.  Whether it is presenting a more challenging vocabulary, a new understanding of a familiar concept, or an increased use of more descriptive language, words can help others get better at how they think and what they do.
  • words help leaders dream: one of the roles that the leader plays is to be the visionary for the organization and to help others picture what they might not yet be able to see.  Engaging with beautiful and complex words and language provides new tools for leaders to dream and vision themselves.
So where might leaders find these types of words, phrases, paragraphs and texts that will challenge them and help provide new ways of thinking and seeing the world?  Here are a few suggestions:
  • poetry - if poetry is new to you, find an anthology that makes sense for you and read 1-2 poems a day.  Take your time and just enjoy the words being used.
  • drama - reading Shakespeare and the other great playwrights of the world might be difficult at first, but don't be afraid of the language - it can take one to places they never knew existed.
  • classical texts - reading The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Aeneid, and other classical texts from thousands of years ago will provide rich language and new insights into leadership.  Be sure to choose a good translation!
  • philosophy - there are a handful of standard works that all leaders should read at some time in their lives.  While difficult to understand, the adventure of new language and complex ideas is a journey worth taking.
  • modern and post-modern novels: while these may be the most difficult to understand, they provide a language and way of writing that will stretch the leader to think  in new and exciting ways.  Kafka, Joyce, Marquez, and Calvino are just a few of the writers who, if given their due, will open a whole new world to the reader.

Friday, June 22, 2018

a leader's most important decision

Over the past month my organization has been making decisions around next year's budget (we are on a July 1 - June 30 fiscal year).  What will we do? What won't we do? What positions will be added? What positions will not be filled? What will we predict sales (admissions) to be...and how conservative will we be with those predictions? With what margin are we comfortable? And what type of contingency or cushion should be built in "just in case?"

All of these decisions (many of which are made by others) are merely indicators of what is perhaps the leader's most important decision, a decision which determines not only the day-to-day operations but also the future of the organization: what do we want the culture to be over time? It is this decision that drives most of the other decisions...and it is this decision, if poorly made, can impact the institution and its mission over time.

So how might a leader go about this most important decision?  Here are a few thoughts:
  • come back to the strategic plan: while there are many reasons to make certain decisions, the organization's strategic plan has laid out the important pillars that were carefully thought through and decided on to move forward.  Taking a fresh look at those ideas and plans can help to inform this most important decision
  • listen to multiple people: many people in the organization are invested in the culture and think about it through their specific lens.  Asking them questions and carefully listening to their answers can help to inform this most important decision
  • take the time that is needed: because the culture of the organization is so critical to its health and future, time should be built into the process for contemplation and reflection.  Using this time can help clarify and solidify the ideas that can help to inform this most important decision
  • understand the risk factor: these decisions (because they are so important) always come with a certain amount of risk.  Considering all the risks involved and weighing those risks among other aspects of the company can help to inform this most important decision
  • quiet the inner (and outside) voices: in the constant weighing of ideas and scenarios, leaders sometimes need to step away and quiet their minds.  The admonition of "be still and know that I am God" is good for leaders to remember at times like this.  Being still (and really quieting the mind) might lead to the clarity and calmness that can help to inform this most important decision
  • make the decision: the "right answer" is often never clear and, in many instances, there are multiple "right answers" to be considered and decided on.  One of the leader's responsibilities (being both a burden and and a joy) is that the decision must be made...and most often made singly by him or her.  Understanding that the answers are mostly never dichotomous can help to inform this most important decision
One of the paradoxes of leadership that I keep seeing over and over is that the decisions made early in one's calling and vocation are seldom the types of decisions to be made later on as one assumes new and different roles.  Questions of culture and sustainability are important (and difficult) and are most often saved for those times in life after one has practiced "easier" decisions beforehand.  Preparing oneself for these most important decisions happens through practice and, as is often the case, failures.  A leader's most important decisions will not get easier; however, my hope is that the answers become more certain and have a greater clarity over time.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

stewarding power

Last evening, I ran into two friends who are quickly becoming known as a "power couple," an indication that the work they do together is making an impact across the region.  While they were a little embarrassed by the designation, we discussed the good that can be done when one's power is used for the common good.  Similar to the word "politics," the term "power" often carries negative connotations.  I believe that is true because many people experience power (and politics) as a tool to abuse others, to achieve one's own agenda, and to build one's personal kingdom.  A common definition of the term "power" is as follows:
 the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.  
As I read that, I am reminded that leadership is often defined as having influence...and it is difficult to have influence without power.  My personal definition of leadership is "stewarding the power given to help others achieve goals for the common good."

So what does it mean to steward power?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • understanding the paradox that one's power is given to them by others...and that power is given because that person has previously exhibited their own use of power
  • realizing that power is something that is given over time...and taken away very quickly
  • ensuring that one's power is being used for the good of others, and not letting it slip into one's personal agenda
  • recognizing the difference between positional power and referent power...and the paradox that because one has referent power (charisma to be liked enough to be given power) can lead to positional power, and that the two are very different
  • checking to ensure that power is never used in a coercive manner...the means does not always justify the end
  • reminding oneself that power is a gift given by God to be used in one's vocation...and that stewarding that gift in service to others is how we honor the Creator
I am delighted that my friends have been given the label of power couple, because  I know that they will steward that gift well...and I know that, because of their leadership, others will be served in a manner that enhances the common good.  May God bless their use of power for many years to come.


Friday, June 8, 2018

staying the course

Whenever I visit Chicago (my location this morning as I write this blog) my thoughts go to my life-long obsession with the Chicago Cubs and the agony and ecstasy they have provided me over the past 59 years.  As I watched the game yesterday with my mother (93 years young and still rooting for the home team) I was reminded of the age-old admonition to stay the course.  For years the Cubs kept changing managers, making long-shot trades, and introducing all kinds of gimmicks that, for the most part, resulted in late season (and often early season) collapses.  Over the past four years, starting in 2015, they have been winning consistently and ending the seasons with a winning record (and for those of you who might not yet know, won it all in 2016).  The difference is The Cubs Way, a formula the team devised for winning and have been following ever since.

Following The Cubs Way was incredibly difficult prior to 2015 while the club was developing their players and philosophy across the organization AND the major league team kept losing.  "Stay the course" was the mantra that the leadership of the organization kept in front of themselves, even when others (and especially their fans) wanted changes made.  "Stay the course" was what had previously worked for the leadership  in different organizations and different places across time.  "Stay the course" had to be reiterated over and over and over until leadership tired of saying it...and then kept saying to anyone who would listen.  And eventually, after five years of frustration (actually 117 years of frustration), my Cubs won it all...because they had chosen to stay the course.

What makes staying the course so hard for those in leadership roles?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • the pressure to win: whether it is stock prices, revenue share, increasing margins, community recognition, or winning a championship, when people feel the need to win now and to win at all costs, shortcuts will be taken.  Sometimes these risks pay off, and sometimes they lead to disaster.  Managing the pressure to win with the need to stay the course is something all leaders must balance over time.
  • the bright, shiny star: everyday I receive emails with new and improved ways to increase revenue for my organization.  While I cannot ignore such pitches, I have to keep in mind that not everything that is new will result in positive changes (even if it has worked for other organizations).  Managing the search for innovative techniques with the need to stay the course is something all leaders must balance over time.
  • the hero syndrome: winning (or however one translates that for their organization) feels good and puts the spotlight on the leader.  If doing something different allows the organization to be successful, then the leader will receive the recognition (which is often deserved).  Managing one's ego with the need to stay the course is something all leaders must balance over time.
  • distractions: when all else is failing, and the outcome is consistently less than desired, something new and different might just feel good while distracting the leader and the organization from doing the necessary work that had been previously determined.  Managing people's need for enjoyment and stress relief with the need to stay the course is something all leaders must balance over time.
Here's what I know...staying the course is hard work.  It demands a lot of those who work to stay the course day after day; it demands a lot of those who benefit from staying the course day after day; and it demands a lot of those who must make decisions to ensure that the organization stays on course day after day.  Remember this...once the Chicago Cubs determined to stay the course, it was a mere five years until they were crowned World Series champions.  How long are you willing to stay the course for your organization's mission and vision?

Friday, June 1, 2018

when the going gets tough

When the going gets tough, the tough get going...and when the going gets tough, the weak just go away.  At least that has been my experience as I watch people leave roles and positions because the going got tough, almost always believing that the grass will be greener on the other side.  When budgets are tight...when board relations are strained...when new ventures fail...when permission is not quickly given...when relationships are stretched thin...when supervisors won't budge...and when ideas are not accepted, the tough get going and the weak go away.  Leadership requires one to get through the tough times, to persevere through the tough times, to innovate through the tough times, to negotiate through the tough times, to look inward through the tough times, to stay in place through the tough times, to reach out to others through the tough times, and to fight for what is needed through the tough times.  While I understand that there are times for leaders to move on when the tough times require a change, I also believe that when the going gets tough, leaders should do all they can to work through the situation and come out on the other side better for the decision to stay.

So what causes someone to go away when the going gets tough? Here are a few possible reasons:

  • a belief they are on their own...those who feel that they are the only one who cares or that they are the only one who understands the situation will begin to feel helpless and see no solution.  These individuals are too often focused only on themselves and have not sought the advice and help of others
  • inexperience...when those in leadership roles face tough situations for the first time, they might find it difficult to believe that there can be a solution on the other side of the issue.  If the current situation cannot get better, then why stay and fight the impossible?
  • the lure (and myth) of something better...when times are tough, the grass is ALWAYS greener on the other side (to keep using an oft used metaphor).  The "if only" syndrome is common among those in leadership roles, especially if they are young and chasing after titles and recognition
  • anger...when situations seem out of control, it is easy to blame others and create a story of self-righteousness.  Eventually one becomes angry enough to leave, because the work to resolve the situation would force them to let go of their anger (which is currently fueling their energy)
  • fear...when one faces a dark time, they will probably seek out light wherever it can be found.  Being afraid of the dark can cause someone to act irrationally and make decisions which they might not do otherwise; and similar to the above issues, there is always dark - and there is always light.
Before leaving this blog, I do know and understand that there are times that leaving a tough situation is absolutely the best decision to be made.  In a place where people are abused and the culture allows that to happen, one should leave; in a place and time where staying would harm the institution, one should leave; and when the current situation is harming one's health or the well being of others, one should leave.  It is my prayer that those who lead will find the inner strength, when possible, to stay and work through the tough times, making the their own lives and the lives of those around them better.

Friday, May 25, 2018

doing the hard things

I would like to believe that the idea of this blog is a no-brainer and that leaders know that they have to do the hard things and are willing to execute on doing the hard things. I have come to the realization that my assumption is wrong and that many leaders may realize they are supposed to do the hard things but fail to execute on those things when the need arises.  A phrase we like to use at Concordia is that we are developing courageous leaders, with part of that courage knowing when hard things need to be done and acting on those decisions in a timely manner.  Why might someone, when placed into a leadership role, choose not to do the hard things?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • the need to be popular: many leaders come into their roles because they were popular with their colleagues and supervisors.  Leadership requires making decisions that might cause one to be unpopular with those around them
  • fear of the unknown: while it is a paradoxical concept, the enemy one knows is often easier to face than the one that is unknown.  The status quo, no matter how bad it might be, is sometimes easier to face than what might occur on the other side of a hard decision
  • lack of skills in difficult conversations: there is skill to having the conversation that leads to doing the hard things (and a large industry built around developing this skill).  Similar to other fears, not knowing how to have this type of conversation can freeze someone from acting in a proper manner
  • lack of support:  when doing the hard things, leaders benefit from having a team who will support them and help manage the issues surrounding the difficult decision.  Doing hard things all alone is much more daunting than facing them as a team
  • little or no self-awareness: sometimes leaders are unable to recognize the difficult situations around them and are unaware of the hard things that need to be done.  Being able to stop, look, and assess any given situation is not an automatic just because someone has been placed into a leadership role
Doing the hard things is a hard thing to do...and it is the right thing to do.  Leaders are called to lead, and leading means having to do the hard things when they arise.  Organizations and communities are better off when leaders consistently choose to do the hard things; people in organizations and communities are better off when leaders consistently choose to do the hard things; and leaders themselves are better off when they consistently choose to do the hard things (and by the way, the consistency of doing the hard things is a hard thing in and of itself).  What hard things are you facing right now that need to be done...and can be done only be you?