Friday, February 3, 2017

voices that demean leadership

In a recent conversation, the thought hit me that there are voices from one's past (and perhaps one's present) that keep people from being the type of leader they can or should be...or perhaps, keep them from ever seeking a leadership position at all.  These voices can come from many places and embed themselves deep into the psyche, impacting individuals for a short time or even for life.Considering the concept that leaders are taught, not made (remember that I do not believe that leaders are born that way), these type of voices have the power to keep people who have been placed into leadership positions to become the type of leader they need to be.  Worse yet, it keeps people with leadership-compatible gifts to ever step into a leadership role, depriving others of their gifts.

What are these voices?  Here are a few that I have been thinking about:

  • voices from parents: the parent who hates his or her boss will never speak well of management or those in leadership roles
  • voices from teachers: teachers often disparage those who serve in administrative or leadership roles
  • voices from parents and/or teachers: children often hear or feel they may never amount to anything based on feedback from those in authority over them
  • voices from the religious community: in many religious communities only males are allowed to hold the top leadership positions
  • voices from friends and colleagues: friends at work may disparage the boss, a role to which someone in the group might be aspiring
  • voices from the media: media focus their reporting on those leaders who are flawed or committed a heinous crime
These voices shape and mold people as they pursue their callings and vocations in life, often to the detriment of that individual.  Fortunately people have the ability, given the right inner drive and tools, to overcome those voices and pursue their path to leadership.  This begins with the willingness to find and hear those voices, examining them as right or not, and then working hard to overcome them.  This is not easy...this is not a quick fix...and this is not a one-time exercise.  Those in leadership roles (or seeking leadership roles) should regularly think about what voices from their past (or present) are keeping them from becoming the leader they wish to be, and replace those voices with voices that present a positive view of leadership and of themselves.  Not an easy job...and yet an important job if those in leadership roles are to lead well.

Friday, January 27, 2017

the complexity of leadership

Upon finishing my "state of the university" address this past Monday afternoon, I felt exhausted.  It was not a difficult talk...it was not an overly long talk...it was not a combative question and answer session.  As I drove home I asked myself why I felt so tired and beat up - and then the answer came to me.  By the end of the talk, I realized how complex my organization is, how many different (and differing) constituencies we as an institution must consider, and how quickly the landscape of higher education is changing.  While I might want to claim that this is only true of Concordia (and higher education in general) I know that this is the reality of most organizations today.  Who is our customer? What is our product? How do we gain market share? What about diversity and inclusion? What is the economy going to do today? And how do I keep the people of the organization happy?

Leadership, like organizations themselves, is complex.  Having to consider the multiple questions that come one's way, those in leadership positions must deal with the complexity that is consistently all around them.  This is not about working harder...this is not about working more hours...this is not about hiring more people...and it is certainly not about attempting to make the organization less complex.  So what are leaders to do?  How might they better deal with the complexity of leadership?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • slow down...if one does not take the time to breathe and think, how can they even see or understand the complexity that exists?
  • read more...in the midst of complexity, those in leadership roles often feel as if they are the only ones dealing with these issues.  Reading helps one to see beyond their own situation and might provide an answer to one of the many questions in front of the leader.
  • simplify where you can...the truth is that complexity is throughout the organization.  Where might one simplify and make the decision making process just a little easier (or at least less complicated)?
  • listen to stories...in the midst of the complexity, a gentle reminder of why one does what they do can make the stress of complexity a little more bearable each day.
  • hire really smart (and emotionally intelligent) people...by their very nature, those in leadership roles tend to take on themselves the entire complexity of the organization.  Let others share in the burden of complexity - it makes life easier and better for everyone.
  • take a break...one of the golden rules of leadership is to take a full day off once a week, three straight days off once a month, and two straight weeks off once a year.  Getting away from the organization puts the complexity a little more in perspective and allows the leader to renew their strength to deal with the constant onslaught they face.
  • lean into it...at the end of the day, the complexity of leadership is here to stay.  Embrace it, enjoy it, and learn to manage it - because there is no way around it.
Life has always been complex...and people's resiliency has always learned to manage it.  Dealing with complexity begins with accepting that it exists and then moving forward.  Remember that if your organization was not complex, it might just be moving toward shutting down.  What is the better alternative?

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.