Friday, April 29, 2016

three ancient texts for leaders

When asked what to read to improve one's leadership, my first response is always to read great fiction - whether that be novels or dramas, reading the great writers of the world tell stories about the human condition not only helps one learn about "the other" - great fiction holds a mirror up to the reader and tells them about themself - if they will allow it.  My second response will be to read great philosophy - the canoncial texts from ancient Greece to modern day America.  These great thinkers help readers to understand the way the world works and why people think and act the way they do.  There is a reason Plato and Aristotlte still matter.  And thirdly, I will respond with several of the ancient texts that have stood the test of time - texts that have helped humans navigate the world over thousands of years.  It is three of these texts that I wish to share with you today:

  • The Book of Job - the Book of Job is a part of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and relates a story of man and God in conflict and dialogue with one another.  Job is successful beyond belief, until one day it is all taken away from him.  His anger is expressed outwardly to God, who answers him as only God can...with straight forward questions.  Through the process, Job must contend with his so-called friends and learn to live with the cards that have been dealt to him.  Living through the mess of life and remaining fiathful to one's calling is a lesson leaders need to know and be reminded of on a regular basis.  One of my favorite translations of this texts is Stephen Mitchell's, published by Harper-Perennial.
  • The Tao Te Ching - this text, written by Lao Tzu in the 6th century BC, is a series of 81 verses reflecting on life and how one should live.  The verses are full of paradoxical situations in which one comes to understand the ever-changing/never-changing context of life.  When I first read these verses, I was struck by how they provided insight to leaders on ways they should think and act, especially in dealing with others.  This text is both inspiring and disturbing, as it will challenge one's asusmptions about life and leadership.  I read this text every summer, and contiue to find new ideas presented based on what is happening in my own life.  There are many translations of this text...the one I keep returning to is by Jonathan Starr and is published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
  • Meditations - written in the second century by Marcus Aurelius, this book of sayings and proverbs reflects on how one should live their life as a person of honor.  Aurelius, who served as one of the emperors of Rome, wrote this from a viewpoint of stoic philosophy, where life is as life is (see The Book of Job).  Aurleius' insights into human relationships is nothing short of remarkable, providing a constant reminder of how we can better live our lives together: "A good man does not spy around for the black spots in others, but presses unswervingly on toward his mark."  Those in leadership positions would do well to read this text on a regular basis (I have a colleague who carries this text with him wherever he goes).  Again, there are many editions - the one on which I cut my teeth is the Penguin Books-Great Ideas series, edited by Maxwell Staniforth.
I hope you read these ancient texts...I hope you re-read these ancient texts...I hope you mark up your copy of these ancient texts...I hope you share with others these ancient texts...I hope you use these ancient texts as teaching tools...and I hope that you will be inspired to lead at a new level by taking these ancient texts to heart.

Monday, April 25, 2016

everyone a leader?

This past Tuesday in class (The Concordia MBA) my thinking was challenged (as happens in most classes I teach).  I used to believe and teach that everyone was a leader and needed to learn leadership skills, attitudes and behaviors so that they could lead well.  One of my students challenged that thought and wondered whether or not some people should not/would not/could not be leaders.  After some discussion around that topic, someone else chimed in with this phrase: “Everyone will be given leadership opportunities; not everyone will lead.”  The light bulb went off for me – this is what I really had believed all along and had not yet put into words.  Everyone WILL be given leadership opportunities (parent, friend, manager, team member, etc)…but not everyone will take the responsibility and burden of leadership upon themselves.  It’s not even a matter of leading badly – some people just will not lead, and that just might be a tragedy.

What happens when people who have the opportunity to lead choose not to do so?  Here are a few thoughts:
  • They miss the opportunity to influence others in a positive way
  •  They miss the opportunity to practice leadership, which will come their way again in the future
  •   Others might be harmed in numerous ways
  •  Others miss out on the opportunity to reach the group’s shared vision
  •  The community misses out on any gifts the person has to offer
  •  The community has one less person they will turn to in the future to help solve issues

One of my sayings in the past has been that I would rather have no leadership than bad leadership…and I still believe that.  In the absence of leadership, someone else will fill the gap.  When bad leadership exists, people and organizations are harmed and, as one of my students noted the other evening, it is often difficult to get rid of people who lead poorly (another topic for another blog). 

One of the roles that leaders should take on is preparing others to lead when the opportunity arises.  Concordia University Texas’ mission of developing Christian leaders exists for that reason, because leadership opportunities will present themselves to everyone…the question is whether one is ready to lead and then accepts that responsibility when it is given to them.  

Friday, April 15, 2016

filling your leadership cup

Clay is molded to form a cup 
yet only the space within 
allows the cup to hold water 
- Lao Tzu

One of the privilieges I have is to teach in The Concordia MBA, where I am getting ready to finish the first leadership class in the curriculum: Leadership of Self.  At the end of class this past week, we had a fascinating discussion on the proverb above (taken from the Chinese spiritual classic Tao Te Ching).  As we talked about its meaning, it became clear that leaders often lack the "space" needed to think and otherwords, the "space" to get filled up.  Just as the cup cannot function as a cup until it is filled with water, so one will have a hard time leading unless they can fill their personal leadership cup.

As I considered this idea further, it struck me that there are two items that keep leaders from filling up their cup:

  1. Lack of quiet time to think and dream (which really means they are too busy keeping busy)
  2. Hubris (which really means an unwillingness to allow one's own cup to be filled)
Leaders understand that there is always too much to do - the multiple demands from various constituencies can (and will) keep people in leadership positions busy day in and day out.  The bad news is there are only 24 hours in a day...the good news is that there are only 24 hours in a day (and that holds true for everyone). One of the tasks of leadership is to sort through everything that needs to get done, understand what can get done and what can't get done, and be able to go home at night knowing that there are items left for tomorrow that will (or won't) get done.  This is not an excuse for not executing and following up on responsibilities - it is a reality that leaders must face if they are to function well in their roles.
Because of this inherent busyness, putting time into one's schedule for quiet and solitude is important - just as important as getting that next email out to an important client.  While one's frenetic activity is that which often gets them into the chair of leadership, slowing down so that the cup can be filled is crucial in a leadership position.

As much as people want to talk about building time into one's schedule so that the cup can be filled, of even more concern should be the person whose cup cannot be filled because of their hubris.  This is not about time or scheduling or solitude - this is about an attitude that can easily be found among those who move into leadership roles.  The scary aspect of this is that it often goes unnoticed, both by leaders themselves and those around them.  Hubris plays itself out in so many different fashions that to name it is almost impossible.  If one's leadership cup is already full of themselves, then there is no room for new ideas or thoughts to enter.  

How might a leader detect this?  There are no easy answers here, no checklists I can provide.  Perhaps this is why many leaders hire a coach, or attend regular counseling sessions (the paradox of this is that those who hire a coach and attend regular counseling sessions have already moved beyond hubris).  Often times it takes a tragedy of sorts to bring a person to the self-realization that their hubris is getting in the way of their leadership.  It is my prayer that those who lead can find a way to empty themselves so that their leadership cup can be filled and they will lead in a way that provides meaning to themselves and others.

Friday, April 8, 2016

phil wilson's keys to success

Yesterday at Concordia University Texas, Phil Wilson (who currently is the manager and CEO of the LCRA - Lower Colorado River Authority) spoke to our community about his role and how he has been successful in his career.  While there were many anecdotes and stories related to his leadership and opportunities, he kept coming back to two things that have served him well as a leader:

  1. return phone calls quickly
  2. accept all meeting invitations (at least the first invitation)

Seems simple, doesn't it?  Who can't pick up the phone and get back to someone...and who would turn down an invitation for a free cup of coffee?  Apparently, there are many people who are unable to follow these two ideas, as Phil kept indicating that if one follows these simple guidelines, they will be revered by others and ascend quickly in their careers.

So if these keys to success seem so simple, what are the roadblocks that keep people from following them on a consistent basis?  Here are a few thoughts:
  • time...or a supposed lack of time: There are all kinds of things to keep leaders busy.  Putting flexibility into one's schedule and setting aside time for phone calls and meetings makes these a priority on the calendar
  • paperwork...or a need to do everything yourself: If leaders are spending too much time on desk work, they are probably failing to delegate matters that others can and should be doing.
  • interruptions...or a lack of control of one's own schedule: The inability to say NO  or NOT RIGHT NOW keeps people way too busy with too many items that often are of little importance.  Sometimes others do have to wait to have your time - asking people to schedule time is better for you AND for them
  • ego...or a belief that one's time is more important than another's: This can be paradoxical in that protecting one's time IS important - AND when leaders truly understand that other's needs and time are important as well, time is found to address those needs
  • weariness...or the lack of ability to have fun: I have found that the more stressed or weary I am, the less I want to engage with others, either on the phone or face-to-face.  Staying positive and having fun helps leaders find the time to engage with others in a productive manner
  • doubt...or the belief that the interaction does not matter: The simple act of returning a call matters deeply to the other person, and the simple act of accepting a meeting invitation matters deeply to the one who did the inviting.  Believing that the interaction actually makes a difference will drive one to find the time and energy to actually do so
Our real challenge as leaders is not simply committing to returning phone calls or accepting meeting invitations - the real challenge lies in doing these tasks in a manner that is meaningful and engaging.  Investing one's energy and emotion in the phone call and meeting is what REALLY makes the difference.  How committed are you to these simple two keys to success?  And if you engaged in these practices over the next week or two, how might your work (and your workplace) be better?  

Friday, April 1, 2016

the “expertise” of leadership

There is often debate on who should lead what type of organization…is it necessary to have an expertise in a specific field or discipline to lead an organization that is dedicated to that area of knowledge?  Must one be an engineer to lead an engineering firm…or a lawyer to lead a law firm…or an academic to lead a university…or a technology geek to lead a tech company?  These questions are inherent in higher education as we prepare students for work in certain fields based on what they study...and as we choose leaders for institutions of higher education.  The demands of the job (as well as in many other institutions) may or may not need areas of expertise…what they DO need is leadership expertise. So what makes someone an “expert” in leadership?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • The ability to think strategically – while having knowledge of the organization’s core competency might be important, bringing strategic thinking to the table and getting others on one’s team to think strategically) is even more important.
  • The ability to lead a team – let others have the expert knowledge that comprises what the organization does, and use them to make decisions for the future of the institution.  Expert leaders build a team that can make things happen.
  • The ability to make hard decisions – there are many things an organization CAN do…what they MUST do is often up for debate and expert leaders are able to make those decisions, even when they are difficult and complex.
  • The ability to listen (really listen) – this goes beyond nodding one’s head in agreement…expert leaders listen to all sides, ask a lot of questions, weigh the multiple alternatives, and include people in the process when they can.
  • The ability to learn – whether one is an expert in their field or discipline at the time they assume a leadership role matters little…can they keep learning and, if they are not an expert in the organization’s field or discipline, can they learn the organization’s’ core competencies quickly and thoroughly?
  • The ability to embrace paradox – when leading an organization, few decisions are black and white…grey is the color of leadership and those who lead should be able to embrace paradox and help others learn how to use the concept in decision making.
  • The ability to know what they don’t know – this is really hard for many people since their success (and their ascent to leadership positions) has often been based on what they do know.  Learning to use the phrases “I don’t know” and “I could be wrong” will serve an expert leader well.
  • The ability to build other leaders – expert leaders know that they actually do very little leading (at least of what the world thinks leaders do).  Raising up other leaders on their team is one of the most important roles leaders play (and often one of the hardest).
  • The ability to communicate – being able to speak and write well, AND do so in a manner that matters is a skill expert leaders use to accomplish much of the above.  Communication that is clear, compelling, and models a sense of caring is critical to making things happen.
  • The ability to understand one’s shadow side – people often move into leadership roles based on what they do well and what pleases them and others.  The dark side of one’s leadership (that which often really drives the individual) can destroy an organization – and can destroy others in the organization.  Thinking about this, understanding this, and doing everything to combat the dark side defines an expert leader.

What might be missing from this list?  Feel free to weigh in by leaving a comment…and please be sure to share this blog with a friend.