Friday, June 2, 2017

what are you reading?

As I get ready to head out to Maine for a much anticipated vacation, I am often asked the question of what I am going to read while I am there.  Many of my friends and colleagues know that my wife Deb and I ship a box of books to our place and spend the month reading, sometimes up to 10 hours a day.  I have been planning my reading list over the past year, and sometime later in July I will share that list on my blog.  For today though, I am thinking about what leaders should be reading...and why it is important to read certain types of literature.  Here are a few thoughts:

  • anything...while that sounds silly, the fact of the matter is that most people do not read anything of substance ever in their lives.  I recently read that 42% of college graduates never read another book after college...and that 80% of American homes have not purchased or read a book in the last year.  If you are part of one of these statistics, it doesn't matter what you read...just start reading
  • books on leadership...there are some very fundamental skills, behaviors, and attitudes that go with leading others and reading and thinking about them are the building blocks for one's leadership ability.  There are a list of classic texts that all leaders should read, including my top ten that you can find on my blog page.  No list is complete, but here is one that includes most of the important leadership texts
  • great fiction...reading War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, and a host of others not only introduces leaders to some of the most interesting characters in the world, it also provides an introduction to how words, when expertly woven together, can make magic happen.  An additional bonus is that leaders can learn more about people and empathy through great fiction than most any other means.  Here is one list I would recommend
  • poetry...again, it is the use of words that make poetry great and the images that poets can create just by using words.  Leaders spend much of their time helping others to capture a vision of what the organization can be, and they often do it through words.  If you are new to poetry, here is one place to begin
  • philosophy...it is absolutely true that there is nothing new in the world, and when leaders begin digging into the great philosophical texts, they begin to see that everything they have read about leadership up to that point is merely a rehashing of ancient thought.  Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Mill, and Kierkegaard are but a few of those who have influenced my thinking over time.  My top three include Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Ethics, and Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.  Here is a great place to start.
  • great drama...when I began to read the great drama of the world (dating back to the ancient Greeks) I began to realize that I had missed a whole genre that could open my eyes to the ethos and pathos that is human life.  Reading Antigone made me rethink how I treat others...reading Death of a Salesman made me rethink how I think about my work...reading An Enemy of the People made me rethink how I come across when fighting for what I believe is right.  Here is a list of the top dramas to start reading.  And by all means, read all the Shakespeare you can...you will not regret the time spent learning and knowing these works
That's my list...I have some of each on my reading list, including the first category of "anything" ...because I never know what I might find in my local bookstore in Maine.

Friday, May 26, 2017

who else needs to know

When finishing a meeting, the convener might ask a question about who else needs to be brought into the loop regarding any decisions made; when solving problems, the group leader might ask a question about who else needs to be brought into the discussion to see what information might be missing; as a team is discussing possible moves to be made, the leader might ask a question about who else should know so they do not hear about the move second hand.  All of these questions are the right ones to ask, helping to create a more inclusive and transparent culture within an organization.

I get it that there are times when classified decisions are being made, sensitive problems are being solved, and moves are being contemplated where it is better for fewer people to know.  In these situations, leaders need to help their teams determine what the level of classification and sensitivity is and wrestle with the question "who else needs to know?"  Without that question, a culture of secrecy and distrust might begin to develop,

So how do those in leadership roles sort through the question of who else needs to know when sensitive and classified information is begin contemplated and discussed?  Here are a few thoughts on this Friday morning:

  • what is the risk of others knowing?  If the risk is small, it might be best to err on the side of letting more know than less.
  • what is the risk of others not knowing?  When partners and team members are tightly connected and do their work interdependently, hearing second hand information (or information after the fact) can do great harm to the relationship that has been developed over time
  • how far along is the process?  Early in the decision making process, ideas can be shared that are not specific and allow for others to be in the know and/or offer information that might be helpful, without having the details be widely known
  • who are the people that can help with the decision making process?  Getting other viewpoints might be critical to the final decision, and letting others in on the process not only serves the decision making process, but it helps them feel a deeper loyalty to the organization
  • what kind of trust has been built in the past?  If the hard work has been done to build trust and loyalty with others, then it would seem natural to let them know early on what is being talked about.  Not letting them know could quickly break any trust built up over time
  • what message does the organization want moving forward?  Having a unified message after (or during) the decision making process really calls for more people to hear it directly from the point of origin.  
These are never easy decisions.  It would seem logical that, given a sensitive or classified decision, less people knowing and being involved is the right thing to do.  The paradoxical nature of leadership demands that those in leadership positions consistently ask the question of who else needs to know, and have the courage to expand the circle of knowledge as much as they are able.  That's part of the hard work of leadership.

Friday, May 19, 2017

doing the right thing...or not

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the Ethics in Business and Community Awards, sponsored by Recognize Good and benefiting the Samaritan Center here in Austin.  A lot of the background work takes place by Concordia University students and participants in Leadership Austin.  The event is always well attended and is a celebration of those individuals and organizations that not only say they do the right thing...they actually do the right thing.  It was good to be in a room full of people who believe that doing good is good business.

So this early Friday morning has me thinking about why it might be that those in leadership roles, who believe they are doing the right thing, might actually not be doing the right thing.  I'm not thinking about the Enrons or Lehman Brothers of the world..I am thinking about those organizations which are doing their day to day work, making day to day decisions, and doing things in a manner that most of us would consider ethical.  But is it always that easy?  I would posit that many of us in leadership roles believe we are doing the right thing and, that in fact, we may not be doing the right thing.  Why might that be?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • leaders are often isolated: it is easy to be isolated and make decisions in that isolation, whether it be others not telling leaders what they need to know or leaders not creating the culture where others can tell them what they need to know.
  • leaders put the organization first: yes, it is all about people...and at the end of the day the organization needs to (and most often should) survive into the future.  Deciding between the future of the organization and the future of some people in the organization is fraught with the possibility of not doing (or maybe doing) the right thing
  • leaders love the phrase "for the common good": of course those in leadership roles should act for the common good and, in most cases, that would be the ethical thing to do...and it could lead to behavior that harms and impacts others.
  • leaders work hard to protect the illusion of being the leader...most people expect the leader to know everything about everything (and many leaders believe the same about themselves).  Protecting this image can lead to decision making that might cause great harm to others.
  • leaders feel the need to be right: this is closely related to the above concept, where the reason people are moved into leadership roles is because they have been very good at decision making in the past and, for the most part, were always right in those decisions.  Having to always be right can lead to very bad decision making.
  • leaders have learned how to spin a good story: it is important for those in leadership roles to put the organization's best foot forward, hoping that everyone will see the possibilities that exist for future growth.  People believe that if they do the right thing, good things will happen more often than not...and if they don't, leaders might then turn around and not do the right thing to get the story they want (and might need).
Perhaps this is not as much an issue of right and wrong as it is an issue of leaders having the inner fortitude to wrestle with their decision making...and their angels and demons.  Leadership is about making decisions which have an impact on people, organizations, and on the common good.  Many of those decisions are not the easy ones (that's why they end up in the leader's office). And perhaps this is also an issue of facing the consequences of one's decisions...and doing so in a manner that upholds the dignity of those involved, as well as the dignity of the leader (and the dignity of the organization).  Not an easy topic to consider for leaders...especially on an early Friday morning.

Friday, May 12, 2017

live from new york

I am sitting in the aroma espresso bar at the corner of Church and Barclay, and from the window I can see the towering spire atop One World Trade Center...I am watching hundreds of people from across the globe walking in front of me...buses, bicycles, and cars are zooming up and down the street...and I am sipping on an americano waiting for a Concordia University Texas alumnus to join me in about an hour.  I LOVE NEW YORK CITY!

And as I sit here thinking about leadership, the idea of confident humility keeps crossing my mind.  As I walked up to the One World Trade Center building earlier this morning, I was reminded of how tall those two buildings were early in the morning of September 11, 2001...and how they were reduced to nothing just a few hours later.  I was reminded of how confident people were that morning, walking the very streets I was now on...and how their lives were turned upside down just a few hours later.  I was reminded of how life changed for all of us on that day, changing the way we thought about travel, safety, and war...and how, almost 16 years later, people continue to live their lives in a manner that moves them forward toward their goals.

So what about confident humility helps to define leadership?  Here are a few thoughts for this Friday morning from New York:

  • leaders will get to that place where everything seems to be aligned and life is grand...and it can be at that very moment that things change.  Never get too comfortable and be prepared for whatever might be coming next.
  • sometimes everything seems to be falling apart and the organization looks like it is moving one step forward and three steps backward...and tomorrow will be another day.  There is always a chance to regroup and start again, and sometimes the very struggle leaders face is the genesis of the greatness that might be coming next.
  • people will often enter into a conversation believing they are right and have the answers needed to solve the problem...and it is at this point one should step back, understand they do not know everything, and re-enter into the conversation with a sense of humility.  They may be right AND they could be wrong.  
  • leaders are often told (and often believe) that they should have all the answers.  It is at that moment when leaders need to look around and ask for help...and not only from others in leadership roles.  It might be the very person sitting next to you that can provide the solution you are looking for.
  • walking (and leading) alone can be very lonely...and it is easy to lose one's sense of direction without someone to help guide the way.  Submitting to the authority of another person (or at least their general thoughts and ideas) allows one to lead more confidently, knowing they are part of a team that makes life happen.
So many people...so many stories...so much energy. That's the essence of New York (and leadership). There's nothing better than to be there and enjoy the place!

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.