Friday, August 15, 2014

clear ambiguity

When trying to explain a concept to someone else that I might struggle to understand, I often get that look that is telling me, "Your explanation is as clear as mud!"  Sometimes I have to start over, and sometimes I have to accept the fact that no matter how hard I try, the explanation will continue to be "clear as mud" until either I have a better understanding of the concept or I find someone else who can do a better job of explaining the issue.

This past week I have come face-to-face with the reality that in an executive role, most decisions that come across one's desk are, to say the least, "clear as mud."  All of the leadership and management texts remind us that the tough decisions are those that are neither black or white, but a very dark (and murky) gray.  There are no easy answers to these type of decision, and leaders need to get comfortable with ambiguity and paradox.  The good news is you do not need to make a quick decision...the bad news is that you have to live with the ambiguity of the decision.  In other words, the ambiguity of the decisions making process will become very clear.

So how do leaders create a clear ambiguity in their decision making process?  Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Remind yourself - and others - that you do not have all the answers.
  2. Get really good at asking questions - and make sure they are questions to which you do not know the answer.
  3. Listen to a lot of people - ask the same questions over and over of different people and see how they respond.
  4. Listen deeply - ask probing questions of people's initial answers.
  5. Take your time - there is a reason these decisions are ambiguous and paradoxical - they are big and tough and deserve the time they need.
  6. Read - learn everything you can about the issue so that you can ask knowledgeable questions and interact with other professionals.
  7. Have a trusted team you can go to and probe the issue deeply, with no fear of being held to your ideas or words.
  8. Consider alternatives...keep asking the "what if" questions.
  9. Relax - the world does not revolve around you or your organization.  Someone else might be able to solve the issue.
  10. Be ruthless - take the issue on directly and make it personally yours (note the paradox here) because once you own the issue (see last week's blog) you can then deal with the ambiguity it brings.
  11. Trust that God is in control - and that you have been placed by Him into this role to engage in these type of decisions.  
So enjoy the ambiguity - and remember that is why you have been called to lead, because you love ideas and issues that are "clear as mud!"

Friday, August 8, 2014

creating ownership

Leadership and management experts will tell you that in order for individuals or groups to care about something, they have to feel ownership of it, whether that be an organization, a mission, or simply an idea.  Ownership of anything (be it an idea or a physical object) includes caring for that item, stewarding the item, ensuring the item works, and being proud of the item.  I have a good friend who is a car fanatic, and as I watch him “own” his cars, he does all of the above – with much fanfare and enthusiasm.

This week I had the opportunity to watch a group of people begin to own a part of Concordia’s structure which they had been asked to join, something known as Concordia’s University Council.  More than owning the group, they began to own the reason why the group will exist and its function within the University.  It was magic to watch how a group of 24 individuals came together for three hours and claimed ownership of the function of the group over a short period of time.  Through the process of talking, questioning, testing ideas, and an open space in which to think, this group began building its own charter by which they would function in, with, and for their organization.  And by building the charter themselves, there is a better chance they will own what they do and how they do it.  And if they own it, they will take responsibility for its function and outcomes.  I am excited to watch what happens over the next few months as we figure out exactly what this charter will look like and how the group begins to own WHAT it does and HOW it does its work.

Now let me take a little side trip here (or as a good friend of mine likes to say…SQUIRREL!).  I have come to realize that no one can force ownership upon any one person or a group of people.  You can give them ownership…you can ask them to take ownership…you can write ownership into their job description…but until they TAKE ownership on their own, they will be unable to care for and steward the item given them.  Leading cannot entail only giving ownership…leaders must create the environment in which others can take ownership and truly own what they believe is important.  How does this happen?  A few thoughts:

  • Allow others to create the reason for ownership
  • Create the space and the time for people to consider what it actually is they might be owning
  • Ask questions that allow for people to dialogue on what ownership means
  • Put people together with disparate ideas so that the best ideas can emerge
  • Let the group decide what they believe is most important
  • Words are important – be sure that the individual or the group know exactly what it is they are owning and are able to express it in a consistent and coherent manner
  • Don’t ever (I repeat, ever) take back the ownership once they have accepted it it…AND if they choose not to take ownership, then take it back and find someone else to give it to
  • Realize that they may want to take ownership but do not yet know how to care and steward for what they have accepted – this is where training and discipling comes into play
  • This isn’t about delegating ownership – you as the leader own whatever this is as well…it is about sharing ownership and working together for the good of the organization, idea, or goal

As you go about the rest of the day, consider what it is that you own, how you might include others in that ownership, and what expectations gaps exist where you believe you have given ownership but that ownership has not yet been taken…and then go have that conversation about why that gap exists.  Enjoy!

Friday, August 1, 2014

day one

Today is day one of my new role as Chief Executive Officer for Concordia University Texas...wait, did I just type that?  It is both an exhilarating and humbling feeling to have walked into the building this morning and see this sign posted on the office:
We all go through multiple day ones during our life time - the first day of school...the first day on a team...the first day of college...the first day of a new job...the first day of marriage...the first day as a mother or father...the first day on a new board...and the list continues for each and every one of us.

So what should a leader consider on their day one?  Here is a list of items I have been thinking about:
  • Get prepared - read everything you can about the new role, talk with others who have been previously in that role, and think deeply about what you want that role to look like for you
  • Take stock - look around and get a sense of what the new environment looks like...walk, look, listen, and get comfortable in what will be new surroundings for you (both  physical and mental settings)
  • Arrive early - don't be the last one to show up...and use the time to meet those around you and learn about the environment.  Nobody wants to apologize for being late on day one
  • Be humble - ask a lot of questions.  It's okay to feel as if you don't know everything, because you really DON'T know everything.  Rely on the people who have been there and are a lot smarter than you
  • Be confident - you are in this role for a reason (whether you wanted to be or not) so take the seat that has been given you (again, both physically and mentally).  Don't be afraid to take a chance, even on day one
  • Lean into the role - this is YOUR day one, so make it special.  Take the mantle (whether you have a title or not) and enjoy the role given to you at this time and place
  • Relax - everything will be different a year from now as you learn the ropes of the job and the organization.  Remember that this is day one, and NOT day 365
  • Pray - in the doctrine of vocation, we believe that God uses his people to serve others in this world.  You have been placed in this new role and place for a purpose, so trust that God is walking with you during this day one
People have asked me what I am going to do one day one...and my reply is that I will do much of the same as I have been doing all along, including writing this blog as I do most every Friday. I hope that you will be looking forward to any upcoming day ones, even if it is just today being day one of the rest of your life.

Friday, July 25, 2014

ethical presence

This past Tuesday morning I had the privilege of being asked to present to a group of emerging leaders at the Texas Health and Human Services Leadership Development Program.  This program, which has been developed by Chan McDermott, identifies a group of 25-30 individuals who have shown leadership qualities throughout this 56,000 person organization.  My topic was Ethical Leadership, and we had a great time thinking through the issues of how to determine right and wrong in multiple situations - and how to lead others through those same circumstances.  Toward the end of the presentation, I brought to the them idea of ETHICAL PRESENCE...a concept which came to my mind at the time and something which I am still thinking about.

What is ETHICAL PRESENCE?  For me, it is the ability to be in the moment, to be completely present, to be thoughtful, and to be still,,,all of which allows one to be prudent in their decision making and calms others who are in the situation so they can be in a better position for making decisions.  To better understand this, let's look at a couple of concepts:

  • ETHICAL BEHAVIOR is (according to Aristotle) doing the right thing in the right way at the right time.  One can know right and wrong...the important thing is being able to act in a way that shows the just the right amount of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude within any given situation.
  • LEADERSHIP is about providing guidance and influence with a group of people to help them obtain a shared vision for the common good.
  • ETHICAL LEADERSHIP is doing things and making decisions that influence others to behave in such a way so that the common good can be reached and people are well-served.
So then, what is ETHICAL PRESENCE?  For those in positions of leadership, there are many times when it feels as if decisions must be made quickly and the stress is on to make the "right" decision.  People are watching to see what decision will be made and how the leader will react to the stress that is present.  I believe that how one behaves in these times speaks to their ethical leadership and impacts the ethical decision of those around them - thus the idea of ETHICAL PRESENCE. So what might this look like?  Here are a few examples:
  • in a meeting when the team is pushing for a quick decision, have the ability to pause and ask them if more time may be taken to consider the idea or request
  • when a colleague is in your face and complaining about you or others, rather than react to their inappropriate behavior, take a deep breath, speak slowly and quietly, and ask them for examples of what they mean
  • for those of us who like to process out-loud (call us extroverts), we can change our behavior and process internally for a short time - you may need to ask people to wait while you process, and then just take the time to think before responding
  • the ability to say "I don't know" may be one of the best practices of ethical presence available to the leader.  This sends a signal that you are not God, and that you do not expect everyone to have the right answer (or an answer at all) all of the time
  • when someone in the group is pushing back at you, rather than arguing your own point, look at another member of the group and ask them what they think - by gathering more information and opinions, you have a better chance at acting more ethically and making a better decision
I have come to realize that in a leadership role (especially when that role becomes more public) people are watching you all the time - and the signals you send by your actions and behavior set the tone for the organization.  How you act in moments of stress and decision making will signal to people what right and wrong behavior will be for the organization - and how others will be treated in those times.  Your presence in those moments will determine the ETHIC (ethos) of your organization into the future...and that can make all the difference in the world.

Friday, July 11, 2014

leadership and governance

During my month of reading in Maine, I stumbled upon several of the important texts in the discipline of political philosophy - those texts that discuss why and how people govern themselves within a community - and why some forms of governance work and others do not.  It was a fascinating time for me to be reading these texts as I assume a new role at Concordia where I can lead the dialogue on this topic.  Reading Aristotle's Politics, Machiavelli's The Prince, and Rousseau's Social Contract (with many more still to be read) got me thinking of the importance of governance and how a leader functions within that role.  Whether you run a family, a church, a business, a nonprofit, or even a university, there needs to be a set of "rules" by which one governs and by which those involved in the family/community/organization know how to function.  When people know how they are expected to live together - and those expectations are actually lived out - life can be fairly peaceful for most of the people most of the time (even when you disagree with the expectations, at least you know what they are).  And the more I read, the more I realized that it is that person in the leadership role that is accountable to ensuring that those expectations are reasonable, understood, known, and carried out in a manner that is fair and just...thus the importance of governance.

So many times we as leaders think about getting better at leadership - those behaviors and skills that enhance our ability to make decisions, think strategically, build relationships, act collaboratively, etc.  What we may forget is that while we need to do all of those things, we also need to function within an organization that includes people and their needs to feel ownership within that organization.  How will your organization make decisions?  How will others be involved in that decision making?  What type of structure is in place for people to have their voices heard? Who owns what decisions - and who holds others accountable to the decisions that are made?  The founders of the United States worked hard to determine a form of governance that would work for a new collection of states, with a wide variety of peoples, who had a large frontier in front of them.  They argued, fought, wrote, debated, and finally decided on a structure that they believed would work for them at that time and well into the future.  Little did we know how amazing that structure would be, now over 200 years old.  If only the governance structures of our organizations and institutions could last that long...

At the end of the day, we as leaders want those who work with us to be happy - no matter what the institution is or does.  The role of political philosophy is to think about what type of governance structure will make the most people happy most of the time.  I do not believe there is one perfect structure that will work all of the time for all of the people...but I do believe that there are ideals that have been around since the beginning of time that need to be present in any form of governance that is going to work.  I believe that people need to have a voice in the decisions that are made for an organization...and I believe that once those decisions are made, those same people expect that the decisions will be upheld and put into practice - and that when others violate those decisions that they will be held accountable.  Sounds easy, doesn't it?  If it was only so...

Leaders - consider the governance structure in your organization and ask if it is supporting the mission, vision and values that are in place.  If so, celebrate that and let people know how cool it is that the governance is working to help accomplish the tasks at hand.  If not, start thinking about how you will be able to align the mission, vision and values of the institution with its governance - and get to work making it happen.  WARNING - this is hard and messy will take time and people will disagree...AND it will be worth all the time and effort put into the process.

Friday, June 20, 2014

leading and learning

Someone has stated that "all leaders are readers."  I would agree, with the added phrase that "all leaders are learners."  I have come to realize that not everyone learns by reading, something I take into account now when asked my ideas on a topic.  Rather than jumping in and recommending a book, I will first ask if they are a reader, and if so, then recommend a book.  If they are not a reader, recommending a book will not help them learn, so it is up to me to find other ways to help them do so (mentoring, TED talks, internet sites, others who have done something similar, etc.).  As I have begun my summer of reading (and learning), here are a few things I have come to learn in the past several weeks:

  1. From reading The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman, I have come to realize that different people understand politics and governance with different means and ends in mind (are they Aristotelian or Platonian?).  I am going to be doing a lot of research into political philosophy as I consider best structures for governance.
  2. From reading Means of Ascent by Robert Caro, I began to further understand how one uses influence to achieve a certain end...while I may not want to be a ruthless (some may use other words) as Lyndon Johnson was, he has taught me that it is important to act politically to achieve goals.
  3. From reading Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Elliot Gardner, I was again reminded of the power of the arts in helping shape the "ethos" of an organization.  Bach's ability to make the word come alive through the music is still an amazing feat he accomplished week after week in his Church Cantatas.
  4. From reading the Psalms, I am again reminded of God's constant love for me - and of the consistent pressure about me to do wrong.  The psalmist knew that he was up against the powers of the devil, the world, and his sinful self...and that he needed God's protection to move forward.
  5. From reading the Tao Te Ching I am reminded that what often seems the right thing to do may be just the opposite of what needs to be done - this text is so full of paradoxes that make so much sense, especially in the role of leading and managing others.
The summer continues - and so does the learning.  More books are on the list for the next several weeks and months (and more to come in the near and long term future as well).  What are you reading - and learning - about leadership?

Friday, May 30, 2014

learning to say no

Someone asked me the other day what my biggest challenge might be as I take on the role of CEO at Concordia University Texas on August 1, and my answer (after some thought) was learning to say NO to things so that I could say YES to others.  I have often referred to as yes-type of person, one who is willing to give people and ideas a chance, to see what might stick and be of value to the organization.  I love to give people permission to try new things and run with their latest ideas.  I am a firm believer that if you try 100 ideas and 2-3 are good, then you have been successful.  And that's not just true for others...I believe it is also true for me.

In this new role, I know that there will be more requests than I can say YES to...I know that I will have more ideas than I can say YES to...I believe there will be more people than I can say YES to - so what am I to do?  How will I learn got say NO?  Here are a few ideas for me - and for you - to consider as we learn to say NO:

  • WAIT - give yourself time to make the decision
  • LISTEN - have trusted advisers with whom to bounce your ideas around
  • PRIORITIZE - be sure you know what your 3-4 big things are, and test ideas and people against those
  • STRATEGIZE - have a strategic plan that helps to determine priorities for you and the organization
  • REMINDERS - somewhere on your desk have a sign that says NO, or WAIT, or NOT NOW
  • BUDGET - determine the budget and manage it well
  • NAYSAYER - have someone at the table who sees the world through a half-empty glass and let them have a say
  • REMEMBER - consider all the times someone said NO in the past and how it was beneficial to you and the organization
  • REFLECT - remind yourself that you are not in this seat to win friends and have others like you
  • PRAY - for wisdom of when to say NO and the courage to do so
And so begins the journey of saying NO...while most people will be remembered for the things they say YES to, one of the reasons they were able to say YES was a result of the many times they said NO before that.  God grant me - and you - the wisdom and courage to know the difference.