Saturday, June 25, 2011


I was at The Blue Hill Book Store the other day and picked up a curious little book entitled What? written by Mark Kurlansky (whose 1968 and Cod I just loved). In previous blogs, I have extolled the importance of asking good questions, and how the role of the leader is to be one who consistently asks good questions of both themself and others. If that is the case, then this book might just be the bible on leadership, for it is a short book that is written in nothing but questions (even the table of contents and the index are written as questions).

The art of asking questions is critical to the learning process...and leadership is about learning. Whether it is learning about one's self...learning about the organization...learning about other people...or learning about leadership - learning begins with questions. In one of the textbooks used in our Introduction to Business course at Concordia University Texas, the statement is made that the more one learns, the more questions they ask, and the more questions they ask, the more they learn. I often challenge my students and others with whom I work to figure out their question to comment ratio in any given day. This book takes it to the extreme: 100% questions to zero comments. Here are a few of the questions asked by the author:

  • In a world that seems devoid of absolute certainties, how can we make declarative statements?

  • If it is amportant to ask questions, is it equally important to answer them? Doesn't questioning have its own value?

  • What is at the heart of intellectual pursuit? Is it "what?" If so , shouldn't the previous sentence be read as a statement?

  • Is a question always a search for an answer?

  • Shouldn't we distrust an answer that comes without a question?

Of course, the book is much more than these few questions noted here, as the "chapters" flow from one idea (or series of question) into the other. Perhaps what struck me most about the book is it's ability to do nothing than ask questions, and still engage me in a learning process. Of course, that is how I am wired. Are you wired in a similar way? Have you considered your question to statement ratio lately? Why might questions be so important to thsi author? And should they be that important to you? How do others react when you do nothing other than ask questions? Will they be satisfied that they are not getting "answers" from you? Can one be considered a leader if they only ask questions? And what are the important questions that leaders should be asking?

Is this the end of this blog? Or will you continue it by raising even more questions about how leaders lead by asking questions?

Friday, June 17, 2011

who decides the common good?

This past week I read Rick Perlstein's 2008 book Nixonland, a look at how the 1960's shaped America's political landscape as we know it today. For some reason I have always been fascinated by the 1960's (I was born in 1959, so I missed the essence of the 60's in a personal way). Having read much about this era (and much about Richard Nixon), I found this book interesting and point-on in its thesis of how the years 1964-1972 created the political landscape we know and recognize today as liberal-conservative ideology.

The question I kept asking myself throughout the book was "who gets to determine what the common good should be?" In the 1960's there were the "radicals" who believed that the US should have pulled out of Vietnam and that civil rights, women's rights. and other "rights" needed to not only be law but needed to be accepted as "the American way of life." On the other side of the spectrum were the "conservatives" who wanted to keep things the way they were and believed that "rocking the boat" was not only anti-American but bordered on the cusp of sin. I remember (vaguely) my parents having discussion on these points and hearing about these debates in my school (though little did I know what was REALLY going on). So who was right - and who (if I had been of age) would I have been supporting during this time?

The "common good" has often been described as what is beneficial for the most people at a given time within a given community, with special regard given to those who have little or no voice in the matter. Each of the "sides" in the 1960's could easily have argued that their position was what was needed for the common good - and that any deviation from that position would hurt the common good. In my own little world, it becomes very easy for me to believe that what I believe is good, right, and salutary at any given time is what should be accepted as the common good. And yet, there are many people who will believe different from me. I then need to decide whether I am right in my thinking...or could someone else be "right" in this debate?

Leaders are those people who influence others towards a shared goal that benefits the common good (DC's personal definition of leadership). Understanding that the "common good" might mean different things to different people makes the leadership role difficult at times...mostly because it means that some people will disagree with the leader (and maybe not even like them). The conundrum for leaders is in wrestling with the paradox of defending what they believe to be the truth (their defintion of common good) and listening to, understanding, and considering the "rightness" of what the other side declares to be the common good. Perhaps it is in this paradoxical struggle that the understanding of the leader is sharpened and that a way toward a more communal understanding of "common good" can be achieved.

I have still to understand my fascination with the 1960's - perhaps it is because I 'just missed it" in my coming of age; perhaps it is because the times resonate with my personal world view; perhaps it is because I am still trying to reconcile some of my own beliefs at that time (coming from a conservative mid-western family and town) that I now know to have been wrong; or perhaps it is because I did come of age right after that time, and I want to know what it is that shaped my own coming of age. But this consideration is for another blog...stay tuned!

What period of history most fascinates you? And how does your understanding of it shape your personal leadership?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

leadership style - elinor or marianne?

It's vacation time, and I am spending most of my time reading - and, of course, thinking about leadership. These next few blogs will be shorter in nature, reflecting on what I am reading or doing at the time, and attempting to connect that which I read, see or do to leadership.

I decided that after 50+ years of reading, it was time to pick up a Jane Austen novel, so I read (on my Kindle) Austen's Sense and Sensibility this past week. For 19th century chick-lit, it was not too bad - the interplay between the two sisters Elinor and Marianne kept me engaged and made for some good humor throughout.

As I finished the book, it struck me that the two sisters made for a good comparison in leadership styles - the eldest (Elinor) seemed more cool-headed and rational in her decision making process; whereas the middle sister (Marianne) was often less rational and made decisions from what her heart was feeling at the moment. I found myself often siding with Elinor in her decision making process, but came to realize that Marianne often would make the decision that most reflected what REALLY needed to be done. As I consider my personal leadership style, I think it is a combination of the two, with a slight leaning toward a Marianne-style of leadership. I often "feel it" in my gut and speak my mind quickly (maybe more quickly than I should at times). The need to ACT in a manner that reflects what I am thinking and feeling at the time seems to take precedence over my thinking the matter through and waiting to act (or not).

There are positives and negatives to both styles - leaders at times need to act from their gut-feelings, moving quickly and making decisions that may or my not seem rational at the time. In other ocassions, leaders need to take some time to think through the situation at hand and wait for the right time to act. Seldom are there set rules on which manner or style of leadership to use at any one time...nor are the consequences tied to acting in one way or the other. Part of the decision making process comes through time and experience - part of the decision making process comes through the type of decisons being made - part of the decision making process happens as a result of the seriousness of the consequences from the decision - and part of the decision making process is a result of one's demeanor and personality. Learning to live with that - and finding ways to balance out one's initial reactions when needed - are all part of learning how to lead.

I'm wondering what Austen novel to read next (that would probably be next year) - any suggestions would help...especially if you can relate your suggestion to something I can learn about leadership.

Friday, June 3, 2011

the problem with optimism

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would entitle a blog post (or anything else for that matter) "the PROBLEM" with optimism. I have been described as "pollyanaish" more than once and am a self-proclaimed rose-colored lense type of guy. I thrive on optimism...and yet this past week I think I encountered its "dark side."

Now I may be wrong (and I will be the first to rejoice if I am wrong) but I think we as an organization made a decision this week based more on optimism than fact. The "we can do this" mantra I kept hearing made me a little nervous as I looked at what I knew to be true at this point and thought to myself "it can't be done." I wondered to myself what led to this type of optimisim (and alternately why I was not as optimistic as the others). Here are a few of the thoughts that came to my mind:

  • this is the first time they are going through this experience - it is easier to be optimistic when you have not encountered the ups and downs of a particular project

  • it's a brand new shiny toy...and they want to play with it - the thrill of something new brings about an optimism that may or may not be founded on fact

  • they feel their reputation/job is on the line - if they are not optimistic, they would be admitting failure and that does not seem like an option

  • they want it so badly - when the only thing left is optimism, you pour it on heavy. As I remarked to a colleague of mine, "How can you argue with so much positivity?"

  • it's always worked before - type A personalities who have seldom failed in their lives cannot see failure as an option and see everything they touch as golden, so of course it will work!

  • give me a little more time - optimistic people beleive that given enough time...enough people...enough resources...enough ???? they can make anything happen. Again, I applaud these efforts (heck, I invented these efforts) but what are the facts telling us?

So how does an organization and its leadership mitigate against blind optimism while encouraging an optimistic spirit in its people? Again, here are a few random thoughts off the cuff on this beautiful Friday morning in Dallas):

  • demand facts

  • put together timelines (and stick to them)

  • listen to the opposing voices (and make them state their facts as well)

  • ask lots of questions

  • ask how past experiences (of the individual and the organization) support the efforts - or not

  • celebrate and reward optimistic behavior (and from time to time celebrate and reward pessimistic behavior)

  • begin to know what blind optimism looks and sounds like (as opposed to having an optimistic attitude and outlook)

  • make sure that people know its okay to fail (both in the front end and back end of any project)

  • be aggresive with the facts

  • do a lot of "what if..." scenarios

  • listen to the gut...and listen to the head

Given the alternative (pessimism) I still vote for optimism within individuals and oprganizations. Having a postive outlook will create so many more opportunities than having the alternative outlook. I would much rather hang out and work with optimistic people than pessimistic people. My goal as a leader is to help optimistic people live out their goals and dreams - but to do so with some good grounding. I know that is what my coaches, bosses, and mentors have done for me over the years...I hope I can keep doing it for others.