Friday, August 30, 2013

allowing other to determine the questions

This past Wednesday was our first day of school, and as always I began my Introduction to Business class having students color.  As students walk into class, they have in front of them a coloring sheet (art masterpieces) and a box of crayons.  I enter the room a few minutes late, and there they sit, staring at the sheet of paper and the crayons.  I invite them to begin coloring, let them do so for about 10-12 minutes, then begin the discussion.

This year, when the coloring was finished, I simply put up one word on the screen - WHY?  The first class (7:30 AM...a hardy bunch of students) immediately asked "why what?"  I did not answer the question for them, but they decided that the question they were to answer (they had been directed to write down the answer on a piece of paper) was "why did Dean Christian have us color?"  They actually figured out the question that was in my mind, and after they wrote answers, shared answers in groups and we discussed the answers in class, there was a lot we learned about business - and life - from coloring in class (you can ask me about that later).

I went through the same procedure in the second class period (beginning promptly at 8:30 AM) and this time the class (40 students strong) did not ask "why what?" but immediately began writing down their answers on the piece of paper in front of them.  I smiled to myself, wondering what would become of this.  I asked them to get in groups of four, determine which was the question they were answering, and to determined their groups answer.  What a difference!  The questions ranged from "why color" to "why college" to "why business" to "why not."  The dialogue was phenomenal as the class explored the meta question of why each individual would approach the WHY question differently.

So here was my take many times do we as leaders (teachers, parents, bosses, etc) control the conversation just because we get to ask the question?  Do I ask a specific question because it is important to me?  Do I ask a specific question because I assume it is important to others?  Do I ask a specific question because I want a group to consider my agenda?  Do I ask a specific question because I haven't yet thought of another question to ask?  I teach my classes that the smartest person in the room is the one with the most questions...maybe I should teach that the most powerful person in the room is the one who gets to ask the questions.

Asking questions is important because it can move a group forward.  Sometimes the first question is merely a launching pad for what will follow.  People often ask questions because they genuinely do not know what to do next.  So imagine for a moment what it would be like, as a leader, to leave the questions up to the group, where they get to set the agenda for the meeting, the class, the day, or even the organization.  What I watched happen with the second group of students is that they began to own the discussion - and I think that happened because they owned the questions.

I believe that within any given situation there are a variety of questions to be asked, all of which are important to the dialogue that will follow (I almost typed the word "answer" rather than "dialogue" - that would have been a mistake since the dialogue is more important than the least in most situations).  Our role as leaders is to create the space that gives people the freedom to ask and explore different questions...meaningful questions...real questions...personal questions...deep questions.  And I believe that the more we do that, the better the questions will be as time goes on...and the better the dialogue will be that follows the questions...and that the answers arrived at will provide the organization a better platform with which to move ahead.

Friday, August 16, 2013

three little words

This past Monday evening in The Concordia MBA class I was teaching we talked about three little words:

I asked the students to think to themselves whether or not each of the words had a positive or negative connotation for them, and then had them move to one side of the room or another.  As you might be able to guess, the class was mostly split for each of the words, and it mostly had to do with the experiences they have had in their lives.  A negative concept of conflict can come from how one's family deals with it in their homes, or how one's supervisor at work handles it; a negative concept of politics emerges when one gets caught in a trap or feels manipulated by others who use political action for personal gain; and a negative concept of power comes about when one witnesses or is personally harmed by one who abuses power, whether that be someone at work, at church  or in the home.

I chose these three words to dialogue around as a result of having the class read both Ronald Heifitz's The Practice of Adaptive Leadership and Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Heifitz encourages his readers to act politically to get things accomplished and to actually orchestrate conflict so as to surface the important issues within a group setting.  MLK's letter (which several of them admitted to crying as they read it) brought to the surface how one can use these three ideas in a manner that can bring about positive change.  It was fun to watch the students wrestle with their own understanding of these words and help them remove value from them and see them as tools to use in their leadership.

So what do these three words have to do with one's own leadership?  Here is a quick run at my belief around these words (which will tell you as much about me as it does the words):
  • POWER - this can either be positional power (president, CEO, mother, pastor, etc) or referential power (you have it because others have given it to you)...if you have it, use it! careful not to abuse it...the more you give away, the more you get...use it sparingly...understand that it comes and goes quickly (even if you are in a position of power, you still may not have it)
  • POLITICS - this is more about "acting politically" which means creating friends, alliances, transactions, and relationships...there is a time for "you scratch my back and I'll scratch your back...use it for the greater in a mechanism for checks and balances...surround yourself with people who are smarter than you (and listen to them)...don't be afraid to ask people for help
  • CONFLICT - you may want to re-frame the word to make it easier to swallow(heated dialogue) can soften it by asking questions rather than making statements...bring it out in the open and be willing to listen to an opposing comfortable with the idea that not all conflict gets resolved...teach people in your organization how to engage in healthy conflict...always remember that you might be wrong...encourage everyone around the table to speak...get rid of Robert's Rules of Order...remember that conflict in the room is better than conflict in the parking lot
There you have it - three little words that can make or break one's leadership, depending on how they view the ideas and how they embrace them in their day to day living.  What are YOUR thoughts on these words?

Friday, August 9, 2013

caring enough to care

I had the privilege yesterday of visiting the Marbridge in Austin where adults who are developmentally challenged live and work.  This amazing place cares for people ages 18-90 who for whatever reason need assistance in their development toward independent living.  What I witnessed was a group of people who truly CARE for others and who give their all to make this pace a reality.  I was especially impressed with their President and CEO James Stacey who gave up a lucrative career in sales to run this place because he knew that this was his life's calling.  As I left Marbridge, I knew that I had witnessed a group of people who "cared enough to care."

So what does that have to do with leadership?  I would posit that it is the essence of leadership, and that when one "cares enough to care" they will do something spectacular and bring others along with them on the journey...and if they are serious about their leadership, they will then "care enough to care" about the people with whom they work.Each of us knows people like this - and each of us know what it looks like though we may be hard pressed to describe it.  So here goes my shot at trying to put into words what it means to "care enough to care" when you are in a leadership position:

  • Be on time...respect people enough to be early to meetings and have everything prepared
  • Be aware...look up and see if those around you are with you or not
  • Be inquisitive...ask others how they are feeling about certain subjects and then take the time to listen
  • Be sensitive...understand that not everyone feels or believes the same way you do
  • Be optimistic...even when you don't feel that way
  • Be encouraging...even if that person needs directions for the fourth or fifth time
  • Be demanding...don't settle for less than what is expected - from others AND from yourself
  • Be thoughtful...take the time to think deeply and engage in deep conversation with others
  • Be extravagant...instead of the regular $25 gift card from Starbucks, give them a $250 gift certificate to the local spa or resort
  • Be patient...not everyone gets it as quickly as you do
  • Be hopeful...people need to know that life will get better
  • Be strong,,,sometimes others need a champion to move their ideas forward
  • Believe...that those around you are as capable - or more capable - than you
What happens when you "care enough to care?"  I believe that the world changes for those around you...and for you personally.  Suddenly, not everything is so bad....suddenly, people seem to do their jobs better...suddenly, you are more productive...suddenly, you become the hero of the group...suddenly, the organization get better...suddenly, people care more about you.

It's really not that hard; AND it's very hard to make this a part of who you are.  The challenge for those in leadership roles is that the above actions are really and truly who you are, and not just a means toward an end.  When caring becomes manipulative, it ceases to be caring, and we are merely "caring enough to get the job done."  It's only when we "care enough to care" that lives - and organizations - are transformed to be all they can be and all that God intended them to be...and that can make all the difference in the world.