Friday, May 27, 2016

the uncomfortable paradox of leadership

Here are two things I know to be true about leadership:
  1. It's all about the leader
  2. It not at all about the leader
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in one's mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.  I suppose the same could be true for first-rate leadership...and yet it is this paradox that remains one of the more difficult aspects of leadership - and not having this ability can often lead to one's downfall.  Let me try to explain a bit more about this uncomfortable paradox.

All of our lives we are told to put the other person first, to love one's neighbor as ourself, that children should be seen and not heard, etc, etc, etc.  This is especially true for those who grew up in religious homes, where not only do others come first, but God is the most important figure in our lives.  I have some friends who use the acronym JOY - Jesus, Others, You.  Being able to say "It's all about me" runs anathema to many, many people...and yet, when put into a leadership position, it IS all about you.  When leaders deny this fact, they give up part of their ability to lead, often deferring decisions or not stepping up when called upon to do so.  The ability to take responsibility, to put oneself forward, to believe that their decision making process is good and right...unless one has the confidence and courage to truly believe that it is all about them, it becomes very hard to lead.

At the same time, leadership has very little (if anything at all) to do with the leader herself.  While she might believe that "it's good to be Queen," the truth is that very little gets done by the leader.  Most of the work...most of the decision making...most of the execution gets done by others.  We can sit in our offices and believe that without us the place might fall apart. The truth is that 1) without us the place just might thrive or 2) even with us, the place might fall apart.  For one who strives to be in a leadership position, or for one whose identity is wrapped up in their leadership position, this can be very disconcerting news.

So what are leaders to do?  How can they manage this uncomfortable paradox?  A few suggestions:

  • accept the fact that this paradox exists and work to manage it - just being aware of this uncomfortableness can help
  • enjoy the fact that sometimes it is all about you - throw a party for yourself, give yourself a trophy, and pat yourself on the back...just don't do it too often
  • enjoy the fact that sometimes is is not about you at all - let the other person worry about it, watch them squirm at a meeting, and give yourself time off...maybe you need to do this more often than you have in the past
  • remember that this is not a balancing act (sometimes this/sometimes that).  This IS the reality of leadership and will always be true - both of them!  at the same time!
  • be willing to ask for forgiveness when it becomes too much about you or too much about others...and be willing to forgive yourself at those times as well
Leadership is a complicated issue (as if I have to remind anyone about that).  Here's the good news about this paradox: you will fall off one end or the other from time to time.  If you didn't you might not really be leading.  So be uncomfortable, because the other paradox of leadership is that you should feel most comfortable about your leadership when you are the most uncomfortable.  Lead on!

Friday, May 20, 2016

the power of awareness

This past week I began my end-of-year reviews with my executive team, a routine that is a best practice in organizations and gives the opportunity for my team and I to be on the same page.  We used a form that focused on position responsibilities, leadership competencies, and goals for the year. My biggest "AHA" during the process was how much we were on the same page with each other. The comments they wrote ahead of time regarding their personal performance were almost always identical to the comments I had written about their personal performance.  This told me several things:

  1. Expectations had been very clear from the beginning as to what was expected
  2. There had been consistent dialogue going on throughout the year around these issues
  3. I had chosen people to work with whom I trusted and who saw the world through a similar lens as myself
As I thought about why AWARENESS was important, it struck me that both self-awareness and other-awareness were critical aspects of leadership.  Both of these types of awareness include knowing what to look for, to actually look for what one is looking for, and to monitor what one is seeing as they look for what they are looking for (and if you were able to follow that logic, you are an incredibly aware person).  What might this look like in day-to-day leadership?  Here are a few thoughts:
  • Know what you want, for self and others
  • Check that what you want is actually good for yourself, others, or the organization.  This demands that leaders read, talk with others, and take the time to ask good questions
  • Be as explicit as possible and as open-ended as possible.  The explicitness is actually a result of the open-endedness...and comes about as a result of multiple conversations (with self and others) around the attitudes and behaviors expected
  • Don't become too focused on specific actions (unless they are violating values and principles).  Be outcomes what was expected getting done or not?
  • Do a regular check-in as to how the outcomes are being met.  This includes asking others about what they might see and feel (again, about one's self and others)
  • Be willing to accept failure (again, both in one's self and others).  Being aware of self and others does not mean being means getting better
  • Do a detailed end-of-year review (often known among the world as New Year's Resolutions).  What was expected, how did we do, and what do we want to do differently in the next cycle?
  • Celebrate where expectations and goals have been met (again, for self and others).  Take the time to realize how amazing the past year was and what all was accomplished.
  • Don't wait too long to set new goals and begin the regular reviewing process.  Self-awareness and other awareness is an ongoing process.
Enjoy the review and development process...both for yourself and others.  It is a process that benefits the leader, those who work with her, and the organization as a whole.

Friday, May 13, 2016

lessons learned after 4 days and 17 meetings

After rolling out the Concordia University Texas strategic plan for 2016-2021 to the university on May 3, I decided to hold small group meetings this past week where each department had a chance to come and ask questions or make comments on the plan.  The days were long...the conversations were rich...and through the process I learned alot about myself and about leadership.  One phrase that kept coming up was "thanks for listening and being vulnerable enough to hear what we wanted to say."  So after many hours of listening to the wonderful employees of Concordia talk with me about our strategic plan, here is what I learned:

  • It is more important to listen that to talk...while leaders instinctively know this, it is not an easy practice to put into place.  For the many times I wanted to go into depth answering a question, it was more important to answer quickly, write down a thought, and then move the conversation forward with other people's questions and comments.
  • There is often more behind the question or comment than one might initially think...asking follow up questions or trying to get clarification on the comment was as important as answering what I thought I might be hearing.  Several followup conversations helped to clarify for me (and for the person asking the question) what was really meant and/or needed.
  • Criticism of the institution is not criticism of the leader as an is hard not to take critical comments personally, and yet I had to consistently remind myself that the comments and questions were about the institution, not myself.  Leaders who have a hard time separating these two things will either a) never open up the floor to critical comments; or b) drive themselves crazy taking everything personally.
  • Everybody has something to say AND needs the space and time to say was great to hear the comments and questions from people who might never speak up in a large meeting or forum.  The small, intimate setting where one is surrounded by close colleagues, allows people to be more vulnerable themselves in asking questions that they are thinking about.
  • Everybody has something valuable to contribute...many times people asked how they could get involved in the next steps because they had something they wanted to offer.  Listening to people in small groups allows for ideas (really great ideas) to be heard and taken to the next level.  Because of the input I received, we are now making adjustments to the plan and finding ways to incorporate even more people in the execution of the plan.
  • Practice makes (almost) perfect...after 17 different sessions, I now know the strategic plan backwards and forwards, being able to cite specific numbers for specific initiatives - and I am able to articulate the initiatives even more clearly than before.  Spending time going over the plan again and again and again has made me an (almost) expert in articulating the plan.
This type of work is hard for a leader, both physically and emotionally...AND it is work that must be done.  Spending the time to bring together people and then listening...REALLY listening...can pay big dividends as the organization moves forward.  It is my hope and prayer that these type of meetings can take place on a regular basis so that the institution remains strong and healthy.

Friday, May 6, 2016


Yesterday I had the privilege of having an off-site gathering with Concordia's executive team, those people who serve as chief officers and vice presidents of the University.  Our meeting was facilitated by our friend and coach Jim Blanchard of Strategic Positioning, a firm who specializes in team and leadership development.  Once again, I discovered the power of a team that is willing to invest the time and energy into learning how to be better together.  So today's blog is on four aspects of what I believe makes a great team.

Time together...great teams do not naturally happen - they must spend time together, outside of the day-to-day routine, talking about what it means to be a great team.  They must also spend time together when having to make strategic decisions, sometimes more than they might like to.  Teams need to be reminded from time to time that spending time together is their work.  Do not scrimp on time together...AND be sure to use the time effectively and efficiently.

Everything on the table...great teams cannot afford to have individual members hold back their thoughts, ideas, and opinions.  Putting everything on the table means that team members need to be vulnerable and have the courage to speak their minds...AND be willing to trust the other team members enough to hear hard things.  Stephen M. R. Covey notes in his book The Speed of Trust that TRUST is the one thing that changes everything...and I could not agree more.

Accountability...what this means for me is that members of great teams do what they say they will do, and when they agree as a team to do something, there is one united voice moving forward.  This can be difficult when the team is made up of strong opinioned and high functioning individuals...AND the power of one united voice can radically change an organization for the better.  This again takes courage and trust, especially when it might feel that accountability is beginning to erode.

Monitoring progress...great teams do not just happen, nor do they stay that way without consistent monitoring and checking in on how they are functioning.  At each of our quarterly off-site meetings, we spend time monitoring our progress as a team, using our Birkman profiles as a way of better understanding ourselves as individuals and as team members.  We consistently ask each other how we are doing in specific areas,,,and if we find ourselves slipping or moving backwards, we take the time to correct the course.

Being part of a great team is an honor and privilege, something I am not sure most people get to experience.  And yet, as Patrick Lencioni states in his book The Advantage, "teamwork is not a virtue.  It is a choice...AND it is a strategic advantage."  Building great teams is truly a reward for those who lead them...and for all members who are a part of the team.