Thursday, June 25, 2009

developing one's leadership

I am a fanatic for studying Abraham Lincoln’s leadership – I try to read most of what I can get my hands on, and attempt to keep up with the myriad of new works coming out, especially during this bicentennial year of his birth. A recent read was Ronald C. White’s A. Lincoln, which ended up being a study in Lincoln’s own leadership development. White writes from a perspective that examines how Lincoln developed his thought and his ability to make decisions. Each of the experiences throughout his lifetime formed a part of that which I call Lincoln’s leadership ability.

One of the most influential aspects of Lincoln’s leadership development was his ability to learn – whether it was from reading, from talking with others, or from experiences. Lincoln was a self-taught individual. He read everything he could (often multiple times) and engaged people in conversation who were always much smarter than him. How often do we as leaders do the same thing? Being in a position of leadership can seem so time intensive that it becomes difficult to read and re-read important texts. Another downfall of being in a leadership position is that one can become so self-absorbed that it is difficult to ask for help from someone else (especially someone we consider smarter than ourselves). Here are a few ideas to consider as we continue the process of developing ourselves as leaders:

1. Take the time to readBrain Tracey noted in a recent newsletter that people in leadership positions need to take the following time to do no work: 1 day each week; 3 days in a row each month; and at least 2 solid weeks each year. When I have those days, I read – sometimes in my field, but more often than not outside my field.
2. Never spend a lunch by yourself – One’s calendar should be full of lunch appointments with people smarter than themselves. If you cannot get out of the office, find someone within the office that does something very different from you, sit with them at lunch, and ask them to explain what they do. Be ready to ask a bunch of questions…and then try to apply what you learn to leadership issues.
3. READ, READ, READ (part 1) – read widely and outside your field of expertise. One of the best ways to do this is to browse the magazine section of your favorite bookstore and purchase one on a topic you know nothing about. Read it thoroughly and see if you can learn anything about leadership. Be sure to also scan the NY Times best sellers list in all categories at least once a month and see what others are reading.
4. READ, READ, READ (part 2) – someone once mentioned to me that if I read one book a week on a particular subject, that would mean that within one year, I would have read 52 books on that subject, making me an expert in that particular area. If I did that for 5 years in a row, I would have read 260 books on that subject, making me a world-renown expert on that subject. In which subject do you want to become an expert?
5. READ, READ, READ (part 3) – someone else once mentioned that we only have a certain number of hours to read during our lifetime, so we should spend time only on those texts that have stood the test of time (his cutoff point was 450 years, so it could include Shakespeare). Are you reading the great books – those that changed the world? For starters, check out Martin Seymour-Smith’s list of the 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written.
6. Become self-reflective – This is perhaps the most difficult part of learning for those who lead, because in order to be self-reflective, time and honesty are both needed. I have found that blogging has been my way to self-reflect on issues of leadership. Others journal; still others have coaches, mentors or accountability groups.

If in the midst of a Civil War Abraham Lincoln could take time to read and listen to people who were smarter than him (see Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals for an excellent study on this aspect of Lincoln’s leadership), why can’t we?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

who determines change?

Upon reading Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (written in 1920), I became intrigued by the question of who should determine and/or introduce change into an organization or community. This follows on the heels of reading Barbara Kellerman’s book entitled Followers which seems to indicate that the will of the followers is always more powerful than that of the leader.

A brief synopsis of the story of Main Street: Carol Kennicott, having grown up in Minneapolis, marries a doctor and moves to a rural town in Minnesota. Once there, she determines to bring it “up-to-date” and revitalize it into a “proper” city. At first, people are enthusiastic, and go along with her suggestions. However, they never fully buy into the changes and behave in an underhanded manner, hurting her and stopping any change that she would bring about. Carol keeps trying time after time, yet continually fails, finally accepting the fact that she alone cannot bring about the change she believes is good and right for the community. The novel is a wonderful treatise on the emancipation of women and the battle between the morals of small-town America and the changes sweeping the country in the early 20th century.

So…was it Carol’s “calling” to bring about this change she believed was good, right and proper for the citizens of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota? If a group of people do not want change – and their worlds are no worse for it – should one person (or a small group of people) determine change for them? Who is it that should finally decide to make changes to an existing structure, organization, or community? And just because one has been voted into a position, does that person have the moral right to enact change upon their constituency?

When one perceives the need for changes to occur, perhaps they need to ask themselves the following questions:

1. For whom do I want to bring about this change – myself, those who are presently a part of the organization, or for those who are to follow us in the future?
2. What is it that is driving my need for change – and from where does that need for change emanate?
3. How do I know whether or not the people of the organization themselves want change? In what ways might I measure their need for and receptivity to this change?
4. When is change absolutely necessary? Is it ever absolutely necessary? Who am I to determine the absolute necessity for change?
5. How many people are needed within a given group to provide the mandate to move forward with change? Is it a simple majority? Is it a consensus? Is it certain individuals who are trusted by the rest of the constituency?
6. As the chosen/elected leader of an organization, if I believe that change is necessary and those I lead do NOT believe change is necessary, what should I do? Is that a time for me consider moving on and going somewhere else (as Carol Kennicott does by moving to Washington DC toward the end of the novel)?...or should I be content with the status quo knowing that my followers are content with it?

These questions are important for leaders to consider, since leadership is about change…and about people…and about influence…and about followers. What do you think?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

leading with WOO

I just returned from a Strengths Quest conference, where we learned about implementing this assessment tool with our freshmen this coming fall. Strengths Quest is the college version of Strengths Finder, which was first made popular with Marcus Buckingham's First Discover Your Strengths. It is a fascinating development tool for people as they consider how to improve by focusing on what they naturally do well, rather than those lesser developed talents we often perceive as weaknesses.

One of my top five themes (groups of talents) is called WOO - which stands for Winning Others Over. The idea behind this talent/strength/theme is that people with WOO love to connect with others...they get an energy around meeting new people...they find joy in making new connections and friends...they like to connect their friends with others...they never meet a stranger, only a friend they have not yet met...they love to ask questions of people to get to know them better...they look for the pereson who is alone in a group and go up to them and introduce themselves...they have a large list of contacts...they love to work a room.

Yes, that is who I am. But more important, how can that strength help me in my leadership? A few thoughts:
  • I need to keep meeting more people - but keep better track of them over time
  • I need to put myself in places where I can meet more people - but be sure I am in the right places
  • I need to consider who I might NEED to meet - and find others to help me meet them
  • I need to refine my "elevator speech" about myself and Concordia University Texas - so as I meet these people they remember who I am and what I do
  • I need to have a list of needs from the College and University - so when people ask to get engaged, I can quickly connect them to a project or a person
  • I need to keep polishing my "cold-calling" skills - so I can meet even more people outside of those I meet in person
  • I need a follow-up system - so as not to loose connection with people important to me and the University

I love to meet people - I also know it is extremely difficult for others to do that. I believe it is a skill that can be learned, no matter how difficult it might be for one to "mingle." I also believe it is incredibly important for those in leadership positions to be able to do this...because the more people we meet, the more people get to know the mission of our institutions. Here's the best tip I ever learned: when walking into a crowded room, look for the person standing by themselves. Go up to them , introduce yourself, and begin asking them questions about themselves. Be genuinely interested, and you will be amazed at how quickly you will have a new friend. And you will no longer feel alone in a crowd.

Friday, June 5, 2009

directness and trust

Interesting conversation this week about directness and trust. I had someone tell me that they appreciated the fact that I could be direct with them and do so in a way that was respectful and kind. They indicated that they had observed this behavior not only one-on-one with me but also in meetings...and that it seemed to help meetings move along and also help to build a sense of team. Later on in our conversation, we began to talk about the importance of trust among individuals and teams. We discussed the book The Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey (the younger) and sunddenly A LIGHT BULB WENT OFF for me. It seemed there might be a connection between trust and directness. Let me explain a little more.

For me, trust is my line in the sand. I inherently trust people - I trust them to do the right things, I trust them to be honest with me, I trust them to do their work in an excellent manner, and I trust them to be ethical in their decisions and actions. I give them trust to begin with (as opposed to them having to earn my trust). I think that because of that starting point, I am also able to be direct with them. Because I trust them (and they know I trust them), I can tell them what I see and observe in their behavior, be it positive or negative. Because they trust me (trust is often reciprocal), they can handle that directness because they know I have their best interest at heart - and more important I have the best interest of the organization at heart. Trust provides the opportunity to be direct...and being direct can build a greater sense of trust.

So how can we make this more of a reality in our own lives and in the lives of our organizations?
  1. when being direct, shape your comments around the organization, not the individual
  2. when being direct, reflect how one's weaknesses are often a result of the overuse of their strengths
  3. when being direct, be sure to note that you may be wrong (and if so, allow the person to tell you so)
  4. when being direct, state the issue and let it go (do not beat the person up with negative comments)
  5. when being direct, be sure you have your facts straight
  6. when being direct, be sure to follow up to see if the behavior has changed
  7. when being direct, do so with an empathetic heart, mind and voice
  8. when being direct, trust that the comment will be taken in the spirit in which it is given

What do you think? Is there a connection here? What does an organization look like when trust and directness is present in all areas? And while this post seems to infer trust and directness from a superior to a subordinate, does the same hold true from the subordinate to the superior - and/or across similar levels? And ultimately, where trust and directness is a part of the culture, does an organization even need levels?