Friday, November 17, 2017

avoiding difficult questions

Let me begin by defining difficult questions.  I am not talking about those questions that attack one's integrity or demand the sharing of personal or sensitive information; what I am talking about is those questions which wonder about the very existence of the status quo or to which there is no simple or quickly arrived at answer.  These are the existential questions which take time, energy, emotion, and giving-up-of-self to answer...these are the strategic questions which often means considering a new solution to an ongoing problem...these are the ethical questions which can make one rethink how they see the world and their own position in that world...and these are the personal questions which almost everyone wrestles with in the dark of the night.  Given that these type of questions will stretch and even hurt, there should be little wonder as to why they are often avoided by people, groups, and organizations.

So what can leaders do to keep from avoiding difficult questions?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • lack of time: when boards, committees, and other various types of groups only meet every month or every quarter (and often even less), there is barely time to get through the agenda at hand.  Leaders should be sure to not only find time to bring these groups together more often, they should meticulously control the agenda to ensure that difficult questions are addressed and discussed
  • lack of imagination: having lived in a system for a lifetime, there is little wonder that to imagine a different scenario is not only difficult, it may actually prove impossible.  Leaders can help groups develop this capacity by engaging with generative thinking questions on every agenda and by bringing in outside expertise to help others see and consider a different future
  • lack of will: taking on difficult questions and trying to solve them may mean that everything changes and the future will never be the same.  Leaders should consistently be doing the things that show their groups and organizations that execution of the perceived impossibility can be accomplished and, that in the long run, these new paradigms create a better reality
  • lack of right people: boards, committees, and teams are often populated with the people who have the most investment in the current system (mostly because they are the ones who care most deeply about the organization).  Leaders must be looking for new blood to bring to the table, focusing not only on specific skills and abilities, but also on new perspectives from an outsider's view
  • lack of leadership: whether this be the CEO of the organization or the chair of the board, this deficiency can be quickly identified if this person is not consistently challenging the status quo and bringing new ideas to the group regularly.  Leaders (positional or not), when spotting this, should do all they can to find new leadership as quickly as possible, putting in place those people who will embrace the difficult questions and bring to bear the time, imagination, will, and right people to answer those questions
Leaders are faced with difficult questions on a regular basis, whether they are being asked directly by others or are considering them in their own minds.  Avoiding these questions merely "kicks the can down the road" with the problem continuing to exist and still being talked about the next time the group meets (or worse yet, the problems will NOT be talked about because individuals and groups are afraid to face them).  Leaders can regularly take a quick inventory of how often they and their groups are taking on difficult questions and, if the number is shrinking, shift their thinking and action to once more embrace difficult questions as a part of their regular work.

Friday, November 10, 2017

leadership is a precious thing

In a Board meeting I was attending yesterday afternoon, the chair of our board noted that "leadership is a precious thing," said in reference to our newest Executive Director and the great work that he has done in a very short time.  The phrase struck me as very important for boards, for organizations, and for leaders themselves.  Having watched many groups struggle under weak leadership and others thrive under strong leadership, I had to agree with my board chair that, indeed, leadership is a precious thing.

So if leadership is a precious thing, how might both leaders and organizations think about it in that way?  Here are a few thoughts for  this morning:

  • If leadership is precious, it must be treated with care: precious items are often those that no one wants to have lost or broken, so special attention is placed upon them.  Leaders need to take care of themselves so that they are available to their organizations and organizations need to take care of their leaders so that they remain in place over time and lead well
  • If leadership is precious, it should have value: precious items carry a certain value, whether monetary or sentimental.  Leaders need to be adding value to their organization and organizations need to let their leaders know what value they actually do add to the organization
  • If leadership is precious and valuable, that value should increase over time: just as precious items often increase in value, one's leadership value should also be increasing through added knowledge and experience.  Organizations need to invest in their leader's growth and remunerate them properly for that growth
  • If leadership is precious, it should be regularly on display: precious items are often on display for others (friends or the public at large) to see and enjoy them.  Leaders should be out and about, interacting with those they lead and organization members should seek engagement with their leaders and derive value from those interactions
  • If leadership is precious, it should be evaluated from time to time: just as precious items are often taken to an appraiser for valuation, so leaders must also be evaluated by an outside observer through the use of a coach or consultant.  Organizations should insist that regular evaluation is done of the leadership and that those results are shared in a meaningful manner
  • If leadership is precious, it should be passed on to the next generation: precious items are accounted for over time through one's estate planning.  Leaders need to put in place a succession plan so that good leadership can continue over time and organizations should develop a culture of caring for their leadership so that new leaders can quickly assimilate and begin to function in their roles
As leaders treat themselves (and their responsibilities) with a sense of care and concern - and as organizations develop a culture where leadership is handled carefully and treated with honor - the idea that "leadership is a precious thing" will allow for individuals and organizations to grow, flourish, and become all for which they were created.

Friday, October 20, 2017

what leaders fear most

Yesterday I was interviewed by one of our freshmen as a part of an assignment for her Life & Leadership Class (taken by all new students).  She had a series of questions that were prescribed as a part of the assignment...and then, as we finished, she said she had one more question for me that was not a part of the assignment.  She looked at me and asked, "What are you most afraid of?"

I must admit that the question took me by surprise, so I gave myself some time by asking her why she was asking that question.  Apparently she asks this question of a lot of people and, as she told me, most people answer in the same way and she was wondering if I had a different answer than others.  I proceeded to share my thoughts, which led to a longer discussion of the paradox of leadership fears and, of course, the conversation went on from there.

So this morning has me thinking about the fears leaders face and how they use those fears to improve their organizations and their own personal leadership (as fate would have it, last night I ran across the November 2016 Harvard Business Review which is entitled "What Really Keeps CEOs Awake at Night").  This morning's blog is a list of possible things that leaders may fear most...and why those fears are important to a leader's development.

  • the fear of failure...while I do not believe this is the most important fear (nor the most relevant), it is a fear that keeps leaders focused on some very important metrics and ideas
  • the fear of success...if the organization is successful beyond its wildest dreams, will the leader be able to respond in a way that can truly build on that success
  • the fear of being found out...I cannot take credit for naming this fear, but many leaders are afraid that others will find out that the leader is not the smartest person in the room (which is the way it actually should be)
  • the fear of not being relevant...just when leaders believe that their organization is well known and important within the marketplace, it becomes crystal clear that not everyone knows the organization, much less believes in the organization and its promise. Building the brand should be on every leader's mind all the time
  • the fear of losing the best people...most people are replaceable - and others are not.  Taking care of the very best people in the organization has to be one of the leader's top priorities
  • the fear of a disaster...whether natural or not (fire or firestorm), it only takes one disaster to cripple an organization.  Being prepared for the worst is a good trait for leaders to have
  • the fear of someone doing something stupid (or illegal)...similar to above, these type of mistakes can have a devastating effect on the organization.  Policies, guidelines, and values can help mitigate some of the stupid (illegal) things that others might do
  • the fear of putting the organization at risk...any long term decision and/or expenditure has the chance to hurt one's organization over time.  Demanding multiple options and getting all the facts before making a decision can help navigate these issues
  • the fear of not being afraid...I saved this one for last, because this may be the most important fear of all.  For many leaders, when things are humming along and all seems well with the world, hubris can easily take over as the dominant character trait.  Leaders who begin to believe their own press...leaders who are no longer afraid of their own mistakes...leaders who act as if they are the golden child of the organization - these are the people who put the organization at the most risk.  My advice for leaders is "be very afraid!"
Take a few moments today to determine what it is that you fear most...and then embrace that fear as a way to move your leadership - and your organization - forward.

Friday, October 13, 2017

the agony of victory

Growing up, I would anxiously wait for Saturday afternoons when I would be able to watch ABC Television's Wide World of Sports.  As the opening credits began to run, I would wait anxiously to view the famous (and not so famous) clips of sports history and hear the iconic words spoken over those images "the thrill of victory...and the agony of defeat."  Those words echoed in my mind over the past 7 days as I watched my beloved Chicago Cubs win (after many ups and downs) their third straight National League Division Series.  Four days of waiting for the first game to being...five excruciating games.....two long days built in for travel...over twenty hours of actual baseball (not to mention the pre-game and post-game shows)...and the stress that went with each pitch along the way.  As I began to remember October 2016 (when the Cubs became World Series Champions), I realized that if the Cubs kept winning again this year I would once again be handing over my entire month to this passion...and I would once again be consumed by the stress of each game...and I would once again spend my days reading and talking about the playoffs...and I would once again stay up later than I should more nights than not (last night's game went until 12:45 EST - so happy to be living in CST).  Suddenly I realized that there was an AGONY TO VICTORY, something I would have to endure if I was a fan (and please remember that for about 54 of the 58 years of my life, my Octobers have been mostly normal).

All of this thinking about baseball got me thinking about leadership...and what, if any, parallels might exist for leaders in terms of feeling the agony of victory.  Here are a few thoughts on this Friday morning:

  • leaders want to be successful, but are they willing to pay the price for continued success?  It's never enough to win only once...success is about winning (translate that for your own life or organization) time over time.  Finding new ways to win...keeping everyone focused on winning...and being willing to stay the course after surprising setbacks can be very agonizing.
  • once the leader and their organization wins, everyone expects them to keep on winning.  The pressure from the outside (be that customers, employees, or boards of directors) has caused more leaders to leave their roles, even after they have had some good runs.  Not being able to satisfy one's constituents can be very agonizing.
  • winning comes at a cost of both revenue and people.  Finding the resources to win (and win big) is hard work, especially when raising cash from investors or donors and trying to create a margin that will sustain winning over time.  Getting the right people on the team to do the hard work of winning time after time means making hard decisions (including decisions about one's own leadership ability).  Making and executing on these decisions can be very agonizing.
  • leaders know that sometimes they (and their organizations) have to lose in order to win.  Most people end up in leadership roles because they have learned how to win, enjoy winning, and have been rewarded for winning.  Doing something that will lead to losing (even if it is short term for the good of the long haul) is antithetical to most leaders and can be very agonizing.
So why do we do it?  Why would anyone put themselves through this type of agony just to win?  I believe it is because the thrill of victory far outweighs the agony of defeat for both the leader and their organization.  When leaders and their organizations win (assuming that "winning" leads to the betterment of the common good), the world might just be a better place.  For me, when Concordia University Texas experiences the thrill of victory, more people have been developed as Christian leaders and are serving their organizations in a manner that makes the world a better place.  Why wouldn't I want to keep winning?  Why wouldn't I go through the agonizing times to experience the thrill of accomplishment?  Why wouldn't I spend hours of my time consumed about my organization in order that the university reaches its vision?  For leaders, this is their adrenaline - to experience the agony of victory to achieve that in which they completely believe.

A final personal note: in 2012, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein to be President of the organization and from 2012-2014, Cubs fans experienced the agony of defeat just as they had for the past 100+ years...and the past three years have been glorious.  As a life-long Cubs fan, I am thankful to Theo (who had been used to winning in Boston) for being willing to experience the agony of defeat during those years to build a winning franchise.  I am hopeful that he - and many others - will also be able to experience the agony of victory so that I can continue my own agony of victory for many years to come.

Friday, October 6, 2017

reading macbeth

This past weekend I read Shakespeare's Macbeth, a play many of us read (or were supposed to read) in high school or college.  While I thought I had read the play in the intervening 40 years since high school, I was surprised that I had not and remembered very little of the play.  It was fresh to me, intriguing, intense, full of high drama, and a study in leadership.  My regular readers know that when others ask me for recommendations of leadership texts, I will refer them to the great literature of the world - fiction, poetry, philosophy, and drama.  Shakespeare is one of my favorites to recommend including Hamlet, Henry V, Richard III, and now Macbeth.  Here are five leadership lessons I learned from reading Macbeth.

  1. Ambition can be a dangerous thing: Once Macbeth (and for that matter, Lady Macbeth) decided he should be king, there was nothing that would get in their way.  Their ambition to have control of the country drove their every motive and action, stopping at nothing to achieve their goal. To be ambitious is a good have it be the sole driver in one's life can lead to dire consequences.
  2. Supporting voices are not always in one's best interest: Lady Macbeth was her husband's biggest supporter - and also the instigator behind him committing his first murder.  Just as Macbeth was ready to back away from his evil ambition, she spurred him on to move forward, no matter the cost.  Having others support you is a good thing...having them be in control of your decisions can lead to dire consequences.
  3. Be careful of the voices in one's head: For Macbeth, it was the witches in which he believed; if they said he would be king, then of course he would be king.  There are many ways people hear voices direct them into action, be they spiritually based, supernaturally based, or internally based.  Believing in and listening to spiritual authorities can be helpful...not being skeptical of  and letting those voices go unchecked can lead to dire consequences.
  4. Always believe there is a time to turn back: There are several moments in the play in which Macbeth can make a decision not to act and turn around his course toward destruction...and then the reader realizes that Macbeth is doomed because he can no longer change course.  Consistently asking questions and having the courage to stop one's course of action is a key to leadership.  Moving forward despite tough circumstances is necessary for leaders...moving forward when one knows they should stop can lead to dire consequences.
  5. Know why you want to lead: Macbeth's reason for wanting to be king is that he was told by the witches he would be king.  He never stops to ask the existential question of why he really wants this role and why the country needs him in this role.  Perhaps one of the most important questions those aspiring for leadership positions can ask is "Why do I want this position?" Striving for a leadership role is a noble undertaking...striving for a leadership role with no solid reasons can lead to dire consequences.
So what will you read this weekend?  More than likely many of my readers will have a copy of Macbeth somewhere on their bookshelves at home; others may need to visit their local bookstore or library; others will no doubt order it on Amazon and receive it the next day (I love Amazon Prime!); and others will find a film version of the drama on Netflix.  I would encourage you to read it once through (perhaps with a modern translation on the opposite page); then read it again while listening to it (download from your streaming provider); and then read it a third time with only the original language.  In addition to the great story, Shakespeare's language is incredible, the poetry is fantastic (especially in the scenes with the witches), and the multiple phrases that have become part of our everyday language are fun to see in their original context.  My hope is that this blog (along with the others I have written) will not be "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Friday, September 22, 2017

leader as closer

Bottom of the ninth inning, the bases are loaded, the score is tied, there is only one out, and you are called to shut down the home team to give your team another chance in extra innings.  You have been successful in the past, but mostly to get three outs when your team is ahead...the home crowd is loud and hoping for your demise...the previous pitcher had done nothing to help you at this point...the manager changes things up by bringing one of the outfielders into the infield...nothing is what you had in mind when the game began AND you have been preparing for this moment your entire career.

Such is the life of the closer...and the leader.  As I watched the above scenario unfold last night at Miller Park in Milwaukee (and as I was thinking about what I would write this morning), I was witnessing leadership in action.  While much of the daily work of those in leadership positions is about planning, meeting, thinking, and executing, there come those moments where all eyes are on the one in charge, and the burden of "finishing the game" lays in one place.  Here are a few thoughts on how leaders can navigate their role as "closer:"

  • be prepared: there are very few scenarios a closer has not thought through.  Though each situation is unique, each situation also calls for the same result.  The closer knows ahead of time the players he will most likely face and knows what they can and cannot hit.
  • live into the paradox of the moment: while the closer can prepare and simulate any given situation in their mind, they still do not know all of the exact circumstances they will face.  The given reality of being fully prepared and being fully ready for anything new and different allows the leader to act upon the immediate situation they face.
  • shut down outside voices: in a conversation once with Huston Street (a major league closer currently with the Los Angeles Angel), he told me that as he stands on the mound, he never even hears the crowd.  The noise around leaders can be deafening at those big moments of decisions - learn to listen to the inner voice.
  • rely on others to do their jobs: just as manager Joe Maddon made a defensive move and just as catcher Alex Avila called for the right pitches, the closer (and leader) knows that there are other people behind them to do the role for which they are prepared.  Choosing (and training) the right people to have your back and then letting them do what they do best (especially in tough situations) is a key role of the leader.
  • do the job you are asked to do: in these type of situations, paralysis of decision making can set in and keep the leader from doing her job.  For the closer, there is no choice - throw the ball towards the plate and hope that the result you have been charged with actually happens.  Leaders must make the hard decisions at times...because that's the job they have been asked to do.
  • remember that tomorrow is another day: Most closers will have a blown save or two during the season, and will not lose their job because of those circumstances (too many blown saves and the role should quickly change).  Good managers know to put their closer back on the mound quickly after a blown save to restore their confidence.  Sometimes leaders get it wrong...and must be willing to get back into the game the next day, making difficult decisions again.
For those who were wondering...Wade Davis (closer for the Chicago Cubs) did get the final two outs of the inning, the Cubs scored two runs in the top of the tenth, and Davis went back to the mound and got three quick outs in the bottom of the tenth for what was an important win for my team.  Go Cubs Go!

Friday, September 15, 2017

leading from your own story

Let's begin with two premises:
  1. everyone has a story and that story often emanates from somewhere early in life, often having to do with one's childhood and upbringing and often shaping how one sees and understands the world
  2. leadership is hard work because it is personal work...and this personal work causes one to anguish (or not) over decisions that affect other people
As I sat in class this past week and listened to my students relate their stories, I was amazed at how much of their lives have been already shaped...they see the world through a certain lens (based on previous experiences) that will impact the way they interact with others and, ultimately, lead others.  I then came across a text the next day which presents as its premise that one's own story impacts their leadership in a definitive manner; in other words, we can't escape our past.  As I thought about these two encounters, it struck me how powerful one's story is in shaping how they think about leadership and ultimately how they lead.  The aspect of that idea made me think about how many people, who are thrust into leadership roles, never take the time to think about their story and how it has an impact (positive or negative) on their ability to lead well.

So what can leaders do to have their own story more positively impact their leadership or, on the other hand, mitigate any negative affects that story might have? Here are a few thoughts:
  1. rehearse one's own story: only thinking about one's story may or may not bring out the important details that have an impact.  Telling one's story over and over (and filling in the details along the way) creates clarity and has the chance to reveal more "aha's" over time
  2. embrace one's own story: some people may not want to consider their story...others may feel it unnecessary to tell their own story...still others are too busy to think about their own story.  Telling one's story takes time and courage
  3. encourage others to tell their stories: whether in one-on-one conversations or in group settings, hearing and listening to others' stories helps to make sense of one's own story.  Not only are you learning more about yourself, you are also giving others the gift of discovering their own leadership potential
  4. have others help fill in the details: if our stories have their beginnings in the past, talking with those who helped shape one's story can reveal new insights and highlight those parts of the story which may, for a time, seemed unimportant
  5. find someone to help tell the story:  having a coach has proved invaluable to myself and my team.  A coach, a therapist, a good friend...there are many people who can help unearth the story and bring about application to one's leadership
A final thought...I do believe that one's behavior and ability to lead is not completely dependent on the story we know and tell ourselves.  The past is past and it cannot be's story is their story.  What can change is our current and future story and how we are able to modify or control our behavior by knowing and rehearsing our story.  One of the great paradoxes of leadership (and life) is that our past defines us AND our past does not need to define us.  The best way to embrace that paradox is to know our past - to know our story - and to use that story (today and into the future) in doing the hard work of leadership.

Friday, September 8, 2017

ends and means

This blog was written last year on this same day...the morning of my first Board meeting of the academic year.  It is reprinted here as a good reminder of where leaders should put their focus.

As I get ready to hold my first board meeting of the academic year, I am reminded of the great adage for boards: don't confuse means and ends.  What that simply means is do not confuse activities with goals.  My Board of Regents focuses on the mega-outcome of men and women who transform communities by seeking out leadership opportunities and influencing people for Christ.  Of course, to get to that end (goal), we as an institution have to execute a lot of means (activities) which the Board monitors to ensure that we execute in an excellent and consistent manner. 

At a meeting this week, I had to remind myself and my team that the decision in front of us was a means decision (an activity) that had an impact on our end (goal).  While this sounds simple, it becomes very difficult in the rush and flurry of activity that an enterprise undertakes.  So what can those in leadership roles do to keep themselves and their teams focused on ends and not get hung up entirely on means?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Always ask the question "what are we trying to accomplish?"  Sometimes the answer might be as simple as making a means decision...and sometimes the question will lead to a very strategic discussion which can change the decision on the means
  • Clearly identify the ends - what are the goals toward which the organization and/or the team is aiming?  If this is known, it becomes much easier to sort through the many means available for a team to decide
  • Revisit the ends from time to time - do not assume that everyone will remember them or even think about them.  In the rush of daily activities, means often become the driver of people's time and thoughts
  • Ask the question of whether or not a discussion is an ends discussion or a means discussion - both are important...clarification will keep the team on track
  • Be as clear as possible about the ends the organization is trying to accomplish - "save the world" is great, but often unknown when one arrives there (if one arrives there at all).  Trying to identify an end goal that makes sense and can be accomplished makes it easier it is to talk about the means to get there.
As I get ready to walk into this board meeting, I know that much of my reporting is on means...are we doing what we said we would be doing and how well are we doing in those areas?  AND I know that the Board will want to be assured that we are still on track to accomplish the end/goal/outcome of men and women who transform communities by seeking out leadership positions and influencing people for Christ. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

by grace

Concordia University Texas chooses a theme each year that guides our worship, our thinking, and our life together.  This year's theme (both as a reflection of being an institution of Lutheran higher education and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation) is By Grace, Through Faith, taken from the second chapter of the apostle Paul's letter to the Ephesians.  Yesterday, as I walked the grounds of my alma mater Concordia University Chicago (known then as Concordia Teachers College), I was flooded with the memories of my time there as a student...and especially the many ways in which I was shown grace by so many people.  As a college student (like many college students I have known and loved) I did many things for  which I should have received anything but grace...and yet, there were always people there to give me another chance.  I believe that I am the person I am today - and the leader I am today - partially because of the grace I was shown as a college student.

As one learns leadership and develops as a leader, grace becomes an important part of the process. Here are a few reasons why I think that is so:

  • people learn how to lead by taking chances - and often failing.  After those failures (perhaps many failures) receiving grace from those who have authority not only restores the relationship - it allows for one to try again...and even fail again
  • receiving grace over and over teaches one how to give grace to others, a key aspect of leadership
  • receiving grace over and over teaches one how to accept grace and give grace to oneself.  Leaders are prone to make mistakes (or at the least second guess themselves) and, being able to give grace to to themselves, are then able to move forward
  • grace given (and received) can and should be separate from giving (and receiving) consequences.  While given grace multiple times, I also had to live through the consequences of my actions.  Strong leaders are able to differentiate between these two - and explain that difference to others
  • leaders who choose and work with other leaders need to be able to spot those who freely give grace...and those who would rather withhold grace.  Grace giving leaders should (and most often will) chose others who follow that lead
  • giving grace is not a single event or time - it is a lifestyle.  Living as a grace giving person exudes into all the aspects of leadership, and is noticed by those with whom one serves
The mission of Concordia University Texas is that we are developing Christian leaders; one of the fundamental pieces of Christianity is knowing about, believing in, and living out God's grace in one's life.  Perhaps this is one of those hallmarks of Christian leadership - living out the vocation of leadership in a way that is grace giving.  I know that I benefited from such people in my life many years ago...I pray that I am that same type of leader and that others will follow in that same manner.

Friday, August 25, 2017

hope for the best, prepare for the worst

As Hurricane Harvey makes its way to the Texas coast, I am watching how communities, organizations, and individuals respond to what has been brewing for several days.  As people leave their homes, as owners board up their businesses, and as governmental agencies prepare their people and equipment, everyone is getting ready in their own way to brace for what could be a devastating weather occurrence.  As always we hope and pray for the best outcome, knowing that the worst could occur at any time throughout the next 48-72 hours.

Leaders of organizations, who should always be purveyors of hope, must also be people who are constantly on the watch for what could harm or devastate their organizations.  Today it might be a flood...tomorrow it could be a wildfire...and later on it will be a public relations disaster.  Whatever the time and place, all organizations are susceptible to outside occurrences that, while always hoping for the best, could produce the worst results.  So what can leaders do to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • ensure financial security: I have always taught that cash is king, and that is no more true than when a disaster strikes.  Having cash on hand to address immediate issues provides a safety net for all organizations.  Financial security also includes having the right insurance policies and having a relationship with a bank that can help in times of need.
  • ensure that there is an emergency management plan (and that it is practiced): having a plan does not guarantee that anyone knows what to do for any specific emergency.  Having written a plan, read the plan, practiced the plan, and updated the plan is of utmost importance for organizations.
  • understand the leader's role: many leaders see themselves as the person who should be "in charge" at all times.  In the case of an emergency or unplanned disaster, there are people with more expertise and competence than the positional leader of the organization.  Letting others be in charge at the moment speaks highly of the leader and those who step in to make things happen.
  • understand the leader's role (part 2): this is the time to be the purveyor of hope...when all else seems to be in confusion and nobody (including the leader) has any idea what the immediate future holds, those who have been given the title "leader" should be the person who keeps the vision, values, and mission in front of everyone.  Each leader will do this differently, and each organization will expect and need different things from their leader.  
  • wake up the next morning: there is a darkness that occurs in the middle of a disaster, whether it be the darkness of the night or the darkness of the moment.  Hope comes in the morning, and the leader needs to be there, finding ways to help those in the organization understand that there is hope and to be able to see that hope in action.  It is these moments (hours, days, months) after a disaster that might be the hardest times for the leader.
My prayers are with those who, at this moment, do not know what the next 2-3 days will bring.  For those who have evacuated, there is no way to know to what they will return...for those who have closed their businesses, there is no way to know if that business will be open next week...and for those who are preparing to be first responders, there is no way to know what they may find as they arrive.  They are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst, a lesson all leaders should take to heart. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

calling what is, is

Martin Luther, in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, stated the following theses: A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it is.  This statement forms the basis of a theology of the cross, where the cross is central to how one understands their relationship with God and with others.  The cross is an instrument of torture...the cross causes pain and suffering...the cross brings death and destruction.  The cross, for Christians, is also a place of is a place of is a place that brings forth life.  For many, it is easier to focus on the second part of this paradox, where the cross is glorified and is only an afterthought to Easter and the resurrection.  For Luther (and for those who now claim him as a founder) it was the place of beginning, where Christ's work was done once and for all, a reflection of what St. Paul meant when he said "I preach Christ crucified." 

For me, this theological understanding is a critical component of good leadership, namely the ability to call what is, is.  Many writers on leadership have noted that leaders must name reality for others and for their organizations.  The ability to do this - to name reality - allows an organization to move forward by fixing issues and not ignoring what might be holding them back.  This is not an easy task for leaders, who are often promoted to their positions because they were good cheerleaders of others and their organizations.  Rather than calling what is is, leaders will often cover up the problem by fixing it themselves, not having to worry others with the situation.  Yet it is precisely the ability to name reality - to act in the same manner as a theologian of the cross - that will serve leaders and organizations well.

This past weekend saw evil manifest itself  through the protests in Charlottesville, where a group of people decided that their race, their nationality, and their status was more important and better than others.  The philosophy behind this group, the remarks that were made, and the actions that were taken are nothing short of wrong...nothing short of evil...nothing short of sin.  For them, their lives are more important than the lives of others, and they saw nothing wrong in making that known and bullying others for that right.  And that, for me, is sin.

It is easy to dismiss these actions as a group of fringe is easy to blame both sides for the bad is easy not to be concerned with what happened because it does not affect one's own life or beliefs.  But for me, the beliefs, words, and actions of this group of people made me angry and left me in a state of flux, wondering what I can do to make a difference.  Thus this Friday Morning Blog.

There should be no fear in calling out evil and sin...there should be no fear in naming reality...there should be no fear in calling what is, is.  Leaders, it is time to stand up and call out bad behavior, both in our organizations and in the world.  Those who claim to be white nationalists or believe in their manifesto are nothing short of evil and sinful.  I know those are harsh words...I know those are words that bring division...I also know those are words that name what is, is...and I also know those are words that leaders should speak.

Friday, August 11, 2017

power given and withheld

A part of my morning devotional time includes the prayer book A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie (many thanks to my friend Rev. Walt Waiser for giving me this book over 4 years ago). One of the prayers I used earlier this week included “It is thou who hast put power in my hand to do one work and hast withheld the skill to do another.” This line struck me as the ultimate leadership prayer with an acknowledgement of what one can accomplish...and another acknowledgement that one cannot accomplish everything.  This acknowledgment is actually a reliance on a higher power and a deep understanding of oneself, a dual role that leaders should think about and engage with on a regular basis.  Knowing what one CAN accomplish (because of what they know and what they can do) and what one CANNOT accomplish (because of what they do not know and cannot do) brings great freedom to the one who leads, whether in a formal or informal role.  This freedom serves both the leader and the organization she leads, as it can clarify roles and give responsibility to others whom God has put power in their hands to do one work (power that might be withheld from the leader) and skills to do others (skills that have been withheld from the leader)...all of which develops and builds other leaders throughout the organization.

So why might this be an issue for leaders and, when not properly understood or practiced, can hurt them and their organizations?  Here are a few thoughts:
  • followers often expect their leaders to possess all power and all skills to accomplish all things.  Leaders who buy into this false assumption begin to believe that a) either they must and will accomplish all things; or b) once they realize they cannot live up to this belief, they question their own leadership abilities and abdicate all use of power
  • when one knows what they can and cannot do, time on task can be spent on what can actually get accomplished.  Attempting to do the impossible gets no one anywhere (unless you are Superman, and when mere mortal leaders attempt to leap tall buildings in a single bound, someone is going to get hurt)
  • leaders HAVE been given power to do something and gets things by all means, they should get those things done.  This is a gift given by God, so the proper stewardship of that power is to use it for the good of the organization and those who are being served
  • knowing that a certain skill has been withheld does not release the leader from ensuring that that particular item is accomplished.  As the steward of an organization, the leader learns what he can about that skill, finds someone who has been gifted with that skill, and then provides the resources to ensure that skill gets done well.  Note that the prayer does not say God has withheld the responsibility, only the skill
  • as leaders do accomplish goals and move their organizations forward, it can become easy to believe that they actually do possess all power and skill, and quickly forget the essence of this prayer, that power given and/or skills are put there (or not) by God.  An ongoing reliance on a higher power and an understanding of ones own finite self serves the leader well, both in times of abundance and in times of leanness.
One final thought: KNOWING what power has been put in ones hand and what skill has been withheld is, in and of itself, an act of leadership.  It may take others to help one know and understand the particular powers and skills that have been given or withheld.  The sooner a leader knows and put this into practice, the more quickly they are able to lead authentically and from a place of freedom.

Friday, August 4, 2017

on leaving well...for leaders

Last week's post on leaving well kept me wondering what people who might be leaving would say about their supervisors, and everything they or the organization may have done (or not done) to help facilitate a "bad leaving" process.  As employees leave (for whatever reason) and try to do the right thing in making the transition smooth, there are times the organization and its leadership can get in the way and hurt the process for the one who is leaving.  As with the person who is doing the leaving, actions by others that make for a "bad leaving" are often unintentional, and yet have consequences for everyone involved.

So today has me thinking about how leaders and their organizations can help their people leave well.  Here are a few thoughts:

  • help the person leave quickly: asking someone to stay longer because you need them is seldom in anyone's best interest.  Helping to facilitate a quick departure can be just what someone needs to move on with their lives
  • be very clear with expectations: whether these be  specific dates of clearing out the office, last paychecks, and any final paperwork that is due, get clarity - in writing - so that everyone is aware of what is expected and how to deliver on those expectations
  • determine the best way to announce one's departure: this should be a conversation between the supervisor and the person leaving.  Depending on the circumstance (and the culture and norms of the organization), this might be handled differently for different people.  Don't assume that everyone wants to (or should be) handled in the same manner.  This would be true for any final recognition or celebration as with the person to determine the best way to handle these items
  • work closely with your Human Resources department: this should go without saying, but issues such as benefits, outstanding debts, legal paperwork, and other items are best left to the professionals.  Do not promise anything that the organization might not be able to deliver - let the details be handled by those who are learned and practiced in this area
  • do an exit interview: again, while these are most often handled by the HR department, supervisors might also want to do something less formal as a way of saying a final goodbye and wrapping things up.  The ability to learn something from one who is leaving (especially if they are leaving well) can reap rewards later on
  • follow up at a later time: nothing speaks more highly of an individual and an organization than following up on employees who have left.  Not only does this keep a relationship moving forward (who knows when you might want someone to come back), leaders can learn from former employees who are now at other organizations
Just as it is difficult at times for people who leave their organizations to move on, it can be just as difficult for supervisors to move on as well.  Consistently mourning the loss of a great employee can have a negative effect on those who remain; beating one's self up over and over because you weren't able to keep someone can drag you and the entire organization down; and continual talk about what the former employee did keeps others from putting their best ideas forward.  Leaving well is something that is the responsibility of the person leaving AND the one who is supervising their leaving...together they can create a process by which leaving well can positively impact the organization and everyone involved.

Friday, July 28, 2017

on leaving well

 Next week is August 1, and what that signals for those of us in education is the beginning of a new school year.  As I begin my 36th year associated with educational institutions, the year will begin with a small handful of people no longer there who, at the end of the previous school year, were a part of our community.  As a leader, I tend to take these departures personally, wondering what I or the institution might have done differently to keep from losing them.  I also know that there are many reasons people move on in their callings and vocations, some of which have little to do with their current institution.  Over the course of my career I have left five different institutions, so I understand the lure of the promotion, the pay raise, of something new and different, and the myriad of reasons people move on to new jobs.

This morning has me thinking about how people leave, and some ways in which leaving can be done well, serving both the individual and the institution which they are leaving.  Leaving can be awkward, emotional, or difficult, and can often be paired with grief and/or guilt.  So how might one (no matter the position) leave well?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • plan your leaving with the least disruption to your current institution: leaving just prior to the beginning of a school year, leaving in the middle of a big project, or leaving right before the launch of a new product or program leaves everyone scrambling and can hurt the mission and short-term needs of the institution.  Negotiating to stay until a replacement is found or a plan for a smooth and timely exit speaks well to both the current and future employers
  • when it is time to leave, leave quickly: after the decision is made and announced, the sooner one leaves the better for everyone involved.  It may be hard to leave friends and colleagues behind; it may be difficult not having a place to go to during the interim; you may believe that your presence will make the transition easier.  The truth is, you have chosen to move move on
  • be clear about your decision to leave: where there is a vacuum of information, people will fill it in for themselves.  Obscure reasons such as "it felt like the right time" and "I prayed about it and felt God was leading me in this direction" may play into the decision but do not provide any help for one's colleagues or the institution.  Was it pay?  then say so...was it a promotion? then say so...was it that you and your supervisor were always at odds?  then say so...was it that you wanted work that was not so demanding?  then say so.  Clarity helps you and those with whom you have worked
  • be sure that everything is in place: often times people's work is in their heads, or they have a unique filing system that only they can understand.  Take the time to prepare for the next person who will be in your role.  Making lists, cleaning up files, explaining everything to your supervisor goes a long way in making a smooth transition for the next person
  • keep your commitments: when one joins an organization, their plan is often to be around for a good length of time and, in so doing, make promises to others that require time and effort. Going to another institution might change those situations and the person leaving has to make a decision on whether they will keep those promises.  It may take time, but keeping promises is a sign of integrity and will serve anyone well over the course of their lives
  • leave graciously: this should go without saying, but this is a time when many people burn bridges and make decisions that could hurt them long term.  Because of the many emotions attached to leaving, things may be said and done that would never happen in a normal situation.  Be careful with what is said and done over the course of preparing to leave and immediately after leaving...and by all means, stay away from social media during this time.  No need to embarrass yourself and/or your previous organization
Here's what I know...people move on from their current institutions for multiple reasons and, while I may initially be hurt or angry, I understand that rhythm and flow of one's work is up to them.  Finding meaning in work has many facets and, when one of those facet is "the next step," then I truly wish people well in their journey.  I also wish them well in their leaving...and pray that they leave well.

Friday, July 21, 2017

outcomes, outcomes, outcomes

Good leaders learn how to manage by least that is what I have been told and what I believe.  And if it was only that easy, we would all be wonderful leaders with whom all kinds of people (especially top performing people) would love to work.  Unfortunately, managing by outcomes is one of the most difficult items on the leader's list of ways to lead.

First, a quick description.  Managing by outcomes is exactly what it sounds like, where one is able to clearly (and let me emphasize clearly) state the desired result, with a clear (and let me emphasize clear) understanding of from what to what by when (see last week's blog for more on this idea). It does not include the how (except for the understood values of the organization...and if they are not understood, then those values need to be a part of the stated outcome).

Second, the problem.  I believe that the problem lies in several areas, including the difficulty of being able to clearly (and let me again emphasize clearly) state the from what to what by when.  Many of those in leadership roles never needed someone to state the obvious for them; they knew instinctively what needed to be done and they got it done in a timely manner.  And because they were successful in getting things done in the past, they often believe that if someone else would do the work the way they did the work, then someone else will get the current work accomplished.  And therein lies the problem - rather than managing by outcomes, leaders will manage by inputs, often detailing the HOW rather than the WHAT.

So how might leaders do a better job of managing by outcomes?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • understand how to state a good outcome, and then practice saying those words out loud over and over.  This may be harder than one imagines, as being extremely clear (and again, let me emphasize clear) is not something with which leaders always do a great job
  • resist the need to describe the HOW, no matter how much you want to tell someone else how to do their job.  It is easy to fall in love with the HOW, especially if one has been successful in their work and rewarded for it.  This does not take away training and mentoring...each of those are incredibly important helping others do their work well (and of course, knowing when and how to train and coach is another whole aspect of good leadership)
  • include a follow up plan that meets your need as a leader to know that the work is actually being done. Building accountability into a plan never hurt anyone, and it might just help to keep the leader out of the weeds
  • rewarding the accomplishment of the outcome is an important piece for everyone, whether it be in the form of a monetary reward or recognition of a job well done.  This not only signals a gratefulness for one's work; it also determines that the job has been completed and it is time to move on to the next item
  • get real time feedback by asking whether everyone understands the outcome and if there are any questions.  This will be the time that people start asking the HOW questions...again, resist the temptation to describe the how and simply restate the outcome, assuring them that you are there to help as needed throughout the process
As I type these words, they sound so easy to me, another one of my "no-duh" ideas of leadership.  And yet I, and so many others, struggle with this on a regular basis.  Saying one is going to manage by outcomes does not guarantee that one will manage by outcomes.  This is a skill that needs to be practiced and assessed over and over again, and one that will reap multiple rewards for the leader and her organization.  More will get done...more people will find their work meaningful...and the best performers in the organization will thrive in multiple ways.

Friday, July 14, 2017

making and keeping promises

I recently read the text The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt, written in 1958.  This wonderful philosophical text reflects on vocation and the calling each person exemplifies in specific types of work.  For me, it has become one of the more significant texts I have read over time as it allows me to better understand why people behave and perform the way they do...and how the type of work in which they are involved shapes that behavior (or perhaps, that type of behavior shapes how they do their work).  As the author comes towards the end of the text, she notes that one of the hallmarks of "good work" among those whose calling has them in relationship with others is the ability to make and keep promises and, that without this standard among people, the work of the community will fall apart.

That may sound very mundane...or perhaps is one those "no-duh" ideas that I tend to write about from time to time.  Leaders are asked to make and keep promises all the time, and are watched very closely by the followers to see whether or not the leader will deliver on that promise (this is true for people in both official and unofficial leadership roles).  However, the same is true across the organization...EVERYONE has to be able to make and keep promises for the organization to function well and, when those promises are not kept, multiple consequences can follow.  This morning has me thinking about how leaders might react when promises are not kept and how one can create a culture where the norm becomes keeping promises.  Here are a few thoughts:
  • face-to-face interaction: when promises are not kept, leaders should go to that person and ask why they failed to deliver on the promise.  Understanding the reason behind the broken promise might reveal issues about the person and/or the organization
  • restate the promise made: reminding someone about the promise they made can be powerful for them and for their supervisor.  A re-setting of the understanding might lead to better results
  • clear expectations: in Chris McChesney's The Four Disciplines of Execution, the author teaches the mantra "from X to Y by when."  Setting very clear directives not only determines whether or not the goal is accomplished; it also sets up boundaries to help people keep their promises
  • take partial responsibility: if the expectations were not clear, or the requested promise sounded more like a suggestion rather than a hard deadline, then perhaps the broken promise is more of a result of the leader's actions
  • express disappointment: it is okay to be upset and express frustration when those with whom one works disappoints them.  Because relationships are important to people (and are the mechanisms by which work get accomplished), expressed disappointment may move one to keep their promises on a more regular and timely manner
  • determine consequences: when promises are consistently broken, the leader must determine a consequence for the person whose behavior is hurting the organization.  This is often difficult, especially when compensation is not directly tied to performance.  Consequences should be meaningful and be administered in a way that upholds the dignity of all involved
  • make the hard decision: a regular pattern of someone unable to keep their promises exposes a problem that is not only hurting the organization; there is something wrong with the individual and/or the role they are attempting to fill.  Making the hard decision to terminate someone is difficult for many leaders and/or their organizations....and it may be the best decision they make for both the organization and the individual
Ms. Arendt notes that for communities and organizations to make and keep promises among each other, the leader of that community or organization must be able to make and keep promises to herself or himself.  Take a quick inventory today to see how you are doing at that aspect of your life...and consider how that might be impacting the work of those around you.

Friday, June 2, 2017

what are you reading?

As I get ready to head out to Maine for a much anticipated vacation, I am often asked the question of what I am going to read while I am there.  Many of my friends and colleagues know that my wife Deb and I ship a box of books to our place and spend the month reading, sometimes up to 10 hours a day.  I have been planning my reading list over the past year, and sometime later in July I will share that list on my blog.  For today though, I am thinking about what leaders should be reading...and why it is important to read certain types of literature.  Here are a few thoughts:

  • anything...while that sounds silly, the fact of the matter is that most people do not read anything of substance ever in their lives.  I recently read that 42% of college graduates never read another book after college...and that 80% of American homes have not purchased or read a book in the last year.  If you are part of one of these statistics, it doesn't matter what you read...just start reading
  • books on leadership...there are some very fundamental skills, behaviors, and attitudes that go with leading others and reading and thinking about them are the building blocks for one's leadership ability.  There are a list of classic texts that all leaders should read, including my top ten that you can find on my blog page.  No list is complete, but here is one that includes most of the important leadership texts
  • great fiction...reading War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, and a host of others not only introduces leaders to some of the most interesting characters in the world, it also provides an introduction to how words, when expertly woven together, can make magic happen.  An additional bonus is that leaders can learn more about people and empathy through great fiction than most any other means.  Here is one list I would recommend
  • poetry...again, it is the use of words that make poetry great and the images that poets can create just by using words.  Leaders spend much of their time helping others to capture a vision of what the organization can be, and they often do it through words.  If you are new to poetry, here is one place to begin
  • is absolutely true that there is nothing new in the world, and when leaders begin digging into the great philosophical texts, they begin to see that everything they have read about leadership up to that point is merely a rehashing of ancient thought.  Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Mill, and Kierkegaard are but a few of those who have influenced my thinking over time.  My top three include Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Ethics, and Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.  Here is a great place to start.
  • great drama...when I began to read the great drama of the world (dating back to the ancient Greeks) I began to realize that I had missed a whole genre that could open my eyes to the ethos and pathos that is human life.  Reading Antigone made me rethink how I treat others...reading Death of a Salesman made me rethink how I think about my work...reading An Enemy of the People made me rethink how I come across when fighting for what I believe is right.  Here is a list of the top dramas to start reading.  And by all means, read all the Shakespeare you will not regret the time spent learning and knowing these works
That's my list...I have some of each on my reading list, including the first category of "anything" ...because I never know what I might find in my local bookstore in Maine.

Friday, May 26, 2017

who else needs to know

When finishing a meeting, the convener might ask a question about who else needs to be brought into the loop regarding any decisions made; when solving problems, the group leader might ask a question about who else needs to be brought into the discussion to see what information might be missing; as a team is discussing possible moves to be made, the leader might ask a question about who else should know so they do not hear about the move second hand.  All of these questions are the right ones to ask, helping to create a more inclusive and transparent culture within an organization.

I get it that there are times when classified decisions are being made, sensitive problems are being solved, and moves are being contemplated where it is better for fewer people to know.  In these situations, leaders need to help their teams determine what the level of classification and sensitivity is and wrestle with the question "who else needs to know?"  Without that question, a culture of secrecy and distrust might begin to develop,

So how do those in leadership roles sort through the question of who else needs to know when sensitive and classified information is begin contemplated and discussed?  Here are a few thoughts on this Friday morning:

  • what is the risk of others knowing?  If the risk is small, it might be best to err on the side of letting more know than less.
  • what is the risk of others not knowing?  When partners and team members are tightly connected and do their work interdependently, hearing second hand information (or information after the fact) can do great harm to the relationship that has been developed over time
  • how far along is the process?  Early in the decision making process, ideas can be shared that are not specific and allow for others to be in the know and/or offer information that might be helpful, without having the details be widely known
  • who are the people that can help with the decision making process?  Getting other viewpoints might be critical to the final decision, and letting others in on the process not only serves the decision making process, but it helps them feel a deeper loyalty to the organization
  • what kind of trust has been built in the past?  If the hard work has been done to build trust and loyalty with others, then it would seem natural to let them know early on what is being talked about.  Not letting them know could quickly break any trust built up over time
  • what message does the organization want moving forward?  Having a unified message after (or during) the decision making process really calls for more people to hear it directly from the point of origin.  
These are never easy decisions.  It would seem logical that, given a sensitive or classified decision, less people knowing and being involved is the right thing to do.  The paradoxical nature of leadership demands that those in leadership positions consistently ask the question of who else needs to know, and have the courage to expand the circle of knowledge as much as they are able.  That's part of the hard work of leadership.

Friday, May 19, 2017

doing the right thing...or not

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the Ethics in Business and Community Awards, sponsored by Recognize Good and benefiting the Samaritan Center here in Austin.  A lot of the background work takes place by Concordia University students and participants in Leadership Austin.  The event is always well attended and is a celebration of those individuals and organizations that not only say they do the right thing...they actually do the right thing.  It was good to be in a room full of people who believe that doing good is good business.

So this early Friday morning has me thinking about why it might be that those in leadership roles, who believe they are doing the right thing, might actually not be doing the right thing.  I'm not thinking about the Enrons or Lehman Brothers of the world..I am thinking about those organizations which are doing their day to day work, making day to day decisions, and doing things in a manner that most of us would consider ethical.  But is it always that easy?  I would posit that many of us in leadership roles believe we are doing the right thing and, that in fact, we may not be doing the right thing.  Why might that be?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • leaders are often isolated: it is easy to be isolated and make decisions in that isolation, whether it be others not telling leaders what they need to know or leaders not creating the culture where others can tell them what they need to know.
  • leaders put the organization first: yes, it is all about people...and at the end of the day the organization needs to (and most often should) survive into the future.  Deciding between the future of the organization and the future of some people in the organization is fraught with the possibility of not doing (or maybe doing) the right thing
  • leaders love the phrase "for the common good": of course those in leadership roles should act for the common good and, in most cases, that would be the ethical thing to do...and it could lead to behavior that harms and impacts others.
  • leaders work hard to protect the illusion of being the leader...most people expect the leader to know everything about everything (and many leaders believe the same about themselves).  Protecting this image can lead to decision making that might cause great harm to others.
  • leaders feel the need to be right: this is closely related to the above concept, where the reason people are moved into leadership roles is because they have been very good at decision making in the past and, for the most part, were always right in those decisions.  Having to always be right can lead to very bad decision making.
  • leaders have learned how to spin a good story: it is important for those in leadership roles to put the organization's best foot forward, hoping that everyone will see the possibilities that exist for future growth.  People believe that if they do the right thing, good things will happen more often than not...and if they don't, leaders might then turn around and not do the right thing to get the story they want (and might need).
Perhaps this is not as much an issue of right and wrong as it is an issue of leaders having the inner fortitude to wrestle with their decision making...and their angels and demons.  Leadership is about making decisions which have an impact on people, organizations, and on the common good.  Many of those decisions are not the easy ones (that's why they end up in the leader's office). And perhaps this is also an issue of facing the consequences of one's decisions...and doing so in a manner that upholds the dignity of those involved, as well as the dignity of the leader (and the dignity of the organization).  Not an easy topic to consider for leaders...especially on an early Friday morning.

Friday, May 12, 2017

live from new york

I am sitting in the aroma espresso bar at the corner of Church and Barclay, and from the window I can see the towering spire atop One World Trade Center...I am watching hundreds of people from across the globe walking in front of me...buses, bicycles, and cars are zooming up and down the street...and I am sipping on an americano waiting for a Concordia University Texas alumnus to join me in about an hour.  I LOVE NEW YORK CITY!

And as I sit here thinking about leadership, the idea of confident humility keeps crossing my mind.  As I walked up to the One World Trade Center building earlier this morning, I was reminded of how tall those two buildings were early in the morning of September 11, 2001...and how they were reduced to nothing just a few hours later.  I was reminded of how confident people were that morning, walking the very streets I was now on...and how their lives were turned upside down just a few hours later.  I was reminded of how life changed for all of us on that day, changing the way we thought about travel, safety, and war...and how, almost 16 years later, people continue to live their lives in a manner that moves them forward toward their goals.

So what about confident humility helps to define leadership?  Here are a few thoughts for this Friday morning from New York:

  • leaders will get to that place where everything seems to be aligned and life is grand...and it can be at that very moment that things change.  Never get too comfortable and be prepared for whatever might be coming next.
  • sometimes everything seems to be falling apart and the organization looks like it is moving one step forward and three steps backward...and tomorrow will be another day.  There is always a chance to regroup and start again, and sometimes the very struggle leaders face is the genesis of the greatness that might be coming next.
  • people will often enter into a conversation believing they are right and have the answers needed to solve the problem...and it is at this point one should step back, understand they do not know everything, and re-enter into the conversation with a sense of humility.  They may be right AND they could be wrong.  
  • leaders are often told (and often believe) that they should have all the answers.  It is at that moment when leaders need to look around and ask for help...and not only from others in leadership roles.  It might be the very person sitting next to you that can provide the solution you are looking for.
  • walking (and leading) alone can be very lonely...and it is easy to lose one's sense of direction without someone to help guide the way.  Submitting to the authority of another person (or at least their general thoughts and ideas) allows one to lead more confidently, knowing they are part of a team that makes life happen.
So many many much energy. That's the essence of New York (and leadership). There's nothing better than to be there and enjoy the place!

Friday, April 28, 2017

are you a truth teller?

Numerous people have often told me that I can count on them to tell me the truth.  Most of the time when I hear that phrase, it comes as a result of someone telling me what they believe is the truth and, of course, they are most often telling me what I or someone else have done wrong.  I believe that when someone reminds me that I can count on them to tell me the truth, they are wearing their truth-telling as a badge of honor and believe that I will consistently seek them out to tell me the truth about myself or others.  When I hear the phrase “you can rely on me to tell you the truth,” other phrases that run through my head include “I’m only telling you this for your own good” and “it hurts me to tell you this, but…”

Telling the truth is a good thing – it is a value society holds up as something that is worthy of good people and good citizens.  Communities run smoothly when people tell the truth…relationships are deepened when people tell the truth…fraud is exposed when people tell the truth…all organizations need someone to say “the emperor has no clothes.”   So what can be wrong with being a truth teller?

I assume most people would say that telling the truth is a virtue one should practice…and yet Aristotle never names truth-telling as one of the virtues in his Ethics.  Aristotle talks about many things, most of which have to do with living in a middle ground and understanding the consequences when one practices a virtue on its edges (i.e. courage is somewhere in between cowardice and foolhardiness).  In my experience, most truth tellers do not live in a middle ground…they are right and the other person is wrong.  The idea or concept that the truth teller might be wrong never seems to enter that person’s mind - and that is where the truth teller errs.

To be a truth teller – and to be heard as a truth teller – people must enter into that time and place with a humble confidence (I might be wrong AND it is important for me to say this).  Telling the truth is never wrong in and of itself…it can be wrong when it is approached in a manner that exhibits either bravado or foolhardiness.  Truth is best told when it is asked for and, when one does not ask, the truth teller can begin by asking permission of the other person if they may speak truth to them.  It may also be that truth tellers should practice the art of discernment – is this the right time to tell the truth or would waiting until another time be better?  That, as St. Paul reminds the people of Ephesus, is “telling the truth in love.”

Friday, April 21, 2017

when a leader has nothing to say

 I have gone five weeks without posting a blog, something that has not happened in a long time.  I could blame it on being too busy, but that would seem to suggest that I was not busy when I was consistently writing this blog; I could blame it on being lazy, but that would seem to suggest that my character and demeanor has changed over time; I could blame it on too much travel, but I traveled as much (if not more) during the month of January and consistently produced a Friday Morning Blog during that stretch; or I could blame it on having nothing of importance to say...and that is what I would like to think about this morning.

There are times (I believe) where leaders have nothing to say...and perhaps during those times leaders should say nothing at all.  The need to constantly say something (even when nothing should be said) is a disease (dis-ease?) from which many (if not most) leaders suffer.  It is a curse of the job, and one that is often put on leaders by those who follow.  Those who teach or speak in public know the feeling...everyone is sitting there waiting for you to say something; and not just to say something, but something that will inspire and energize.  Leaders are expected to have all the right words to say, even when nothing needs to be (or should be) said.

Don't get me wrong...there have been plenty of things I have been thinking about over the past month that have to do with leadership, many of which have been said to friends, colleagues, and others I happen to meet from time to time.  It just has not felt like the right time to put those thoughts into a weekly blog, so I have chosen not to do so for the past five weeks.  Does that make me less of a leader?  Does that mean that my ideas are drying up?  Does that mean that I have less time to devote to sharing those ideas?  I do not know...the only thing I do know is that it felt appropriate to be quiet for five weeks...and sometimes that is what those in leadership roles need to do.

Here's a time you have a meeting of a group of people (and you are supposed to be in charge) just stand in the front of the room and not say anything.  Let someone else begin the conversation (without you inviting them to do so).  Those first few minutes will seem like an eternity (both for you and for those in the audience).  My guess is that someone will finally ask a question and, instead of you telling them what you are thinking about, you will get to answer the questions they are thinking about.   Sometimes it is okay to just have nothing to say.

Friday, March 17, 2017

where are you standing?

I just returned from three days of watching baseball in Arizona, enjoying spring training and the company of fellow brothers.  One of our discussions was centered on where fielders stand on a given play or for a given batter (or for that matter, where batters stand facing a given pitcher or situation).  This conversation (as well as many others) led me to consider what it might have to do with leadership, thus the title of today's blog.

So what might it mean for leaders to consider where they are standing...and what is the impact that standing might have?  Here are a few thoughts for this Friday morning:

  • physically, leaders need to consider where to stand when they address their constituencies - are you directly in the middle, do you stand to one side or the other, or do you consistently move around?
  • values-wise, leaders need to be able to know and articulate where they stand.  What is most important to them and does everyone know and understand the implications of what the leader holds as important? And what happens when individuals violate the leader's most dearly held values? (and perhaps even more important, what happens when the leader violates his or her own most dearly held values?)
  • strategically, leaders must stand firm when competing ideas or needs want to deter the organization from moving in the agreed upon direction.  Even the very best ideas pushed for by the very best people need to checked against the current strategic direction (and, if a change in direction is warranted, the leader needs to be able to explain why they are choosing not to stand firm at that time)
  • personnel-wise, the leader should have the ability to stand in the another person's shoes and work hard to understand their viewpoint, especially when there is conflict or unmet expectations.  Hearing and understanding what the other person is saying or doing can lead to a better outcome for everyone involved
  • budgetarily, leaders have to stand firm and not let their organization make decisions which can harm them in the long run. Investing in the organization's core capabilities and choosing not to invest in activities that are not required (and insisting on holding the line in terms of agreed upon margin) are all part of the leader's stance in terms of financial health
Thinking about where you stand can serve to strengthen one's leadership capacity. Where the leader stands will help to define what the leader is standing for...and in turn help others know how to stand as they move the organization forward in its mission and vision.

Friday, March 10, 2017

from responder to listener

The reality is that those who react, respond, and make things happen often get promoted to positions of leadership.  The ability to see a problem and fix it is exactly what people see as valuable in most organizations.  Those of us who are currently in a leadership position most likely got there because we were able to react, respond, and make things happen.  The problem comes that when one moves into that leadership role, it suddenly becomes more important to listen and think rather than act and do.  The other day I asked someone what they had been learning about themselves, and their response was "I am learning to listen to listen, rather than listen to respond."  That is the essence of what it means to lean into one's role as a leader.

Now here's the rub...because the ability to react, respond, and make things happen is most likely built into the DNA of those in leadership roles, the natural reaction will be to respond rather than listen - and that can easily get someone into trouble because of that natural reaction.  So what can be done?  How do those in leadership roles stay in the listening mode and not rush to the responding mode?  Here are a few ideas:
  • stop before you offer a solution...rather than offer your own solution, ask the person if they have an idea about a solution
  • have a series of 3-4 questions that you always ask...these are your go-to questions that everyone knows you are going to pull out of your back pocket
  • pause before entering into dialogue...before the meeting begins, take a deep breath and remind yourself of why you are there and what you should be bringing to the table
  • finish each meeting with a ratio inventory...determine what your ratio was of questions asked to statements made, and ask yourself if you are happy with that ratio
  • ask for feedback...check with those around you if they believe you are more interested in responding or listening
  • stop and ask for forgiveness...if you find yourself in the middle of solving for a problem, stop your rambling and ask the other person for forgiveness - and then let them start solving the problem
  • remind yourself that you are not the smartest person in the room...which is often hard to do when everyone else is telling you (directly or indirectly) that you are the smartest person in the room
  • enter into all conversations with don't know what you don't know, and because of that you will never have all of the answers
Unfortunately, this is not something that goes away over time.  Remember that those in leadership positions got there because they are wired to respond, and that immediate need to respond never really goes away.  The paradox is that once one understands that this initial reaction will always be there, the easier it becomes to manage it.  And that's what leaders do - they manage themselves so they can lead in a more effective manner. And remember that it is in the listening that leaders best respond to others - and that is really what most people are asking for from leaders.

Friday, March 3, 2017

when a leader loses their voice

Last week I had no voice...literally.  I had been sick, I overused my voice, and my vocal cords gave out on me.  Just having to squeak out a few words was painful and all I wanted to do was be quiet.  Yet the job demanded that I appear at certain functions to speak, hold meetings with individuals or groups, and walk the campus greeting people.  It finally got to the point where I was unable to speak to a groups and had to ask others to step in for me.  I had no voice.

My belief is that leaders can lose their voice even when they are healthy and their vocal cords are functioning just fine.  I can speak, but if no one really listens I have no voice; I can lead meetings, but if I have no influence I have no voice; I can meet and greet people all day long, but if no one really cares I have no voice.  What can those in leadership roles do to keep from losing their metaphorical voice?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • give the voice rest...just as I had to stop talking to get back my physical voice, leaders at times need to stop talking and spend more time both listening and in quiet contemplation.
  • talk less, smile more (with apologies to the musical Hamilton)...sometimes presence is as important (or even more important) than one's physical voice being heard.  Letting others know that you are there and being a part of the event is just as important as speaking at the event.
  • choose words carefully...more talking does not always equal a stronger voice.  Stay on target, be careful with words, and be succinct.  Many times less really is more.
  • keep the voice at a lower level...when trying to make a point, those in leadership roles can often get excited and perhaps even agitated.  The louder and more aggressive the voice, the less people might actually listen.
  • stay away from large crowds...smaller meetings take more time, but the ability to craft one's message for an individual can go along way in making one's voice really heard.
  • let others speak...leaders often believe that they are the ones who deliver the message best; the truth is that there are many people in the organization who can say things better and more to the point.  Give them the chance to practice their own voice and others the chance to here a new voice.
My greatest fear was realized as I considered what might happen if my physical voice never fully came back.  I realized that my voice was the tool by which I do my work.  That is true for the leader's metaphorical voice as well.  Perhaps the fear of losing that voice should be greater than the fear of losing one's physical voice.

This past week I have talked much less, avoided large crowds, talked only in a softer voice, drank plenty of tea and honey, and regularly used salt and warm water to heal the throat.  I am not yet a 100% but am now able to hold a conversation without much pain.  I have learned my lesson to take better care of my voice...and I have learned to care for my metaphorical voice as well.  Let's hope that lesson serves me well for years to come.

Friday, January 27, 2017

the complexity of leadership

Upon finishing my "state of the university" address this past Monday afternoon, I felt exhausted.  It was not a difficult was not an overly long was not a combative question and answer session.  As I drove home I asked myself why I felt so tired and beat up - and then the answer came to me.  By the end of the talk, I realized how complex my organization is, how many different (and differing) constituencies we as an institution must consider, and how quickly the landscape of higher education is changing.  While I might want to claim that this is only true of Concordia (and higher education in general) I know that this is the reality of most organizations today.  Who is our customer? What is our product? How do we gain market share? What about diversity and inclusion? What is the economy going to do today? And how do I keep the people of the organization happy?

Leadership, like organizations themselves, is complex.  Having to consider the multiple questions that come one's way, those in leadership positions must deal with the complexity that is consistently all around them.  This is not about working harder...this is not about working more hours...this is not about hiring more people...and it is certainly not about attempting to make the organization less complex.  So what are leaders to do?  How might they better deal with the complexity of leadership?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • slow down...if one does not take the time to breathe and think, how can they even see or understand the complexity that exists?
  • read the midst of complexity, those in leadership roles often feel as if they are the only ones dealing with these issues.  Reading helps one to see beyond their own situation and might provide an answer to one of the many questions in front of the leader.
  • simplify where you can...the truth is that complexity is throughout the organization.  Where might one simplify and make the decision making process just a little easier (or at least less complicated)?
  • listen to the midst of the complexity, a gentle reminder of why one does what they do can make the stress of complexity a little more bearable each day.
  • hire really smart (and emotionally intelligent) their very nature, those in leadership roles tend to take on themselves the entire complexity of the organization.  Let others share in the burden of complexity - it makes life easier and better for everyone.
  • take a of the golden rules of leadership is to take a full day off once a week, three straight days off once a month, and two straight weeks off once a year.  Getting away from the organization puts the complexity a little more in perspective and allows the leader to renew their strength to deal with the constant onslaught they face.
  • lean into the end of the day, the complexity of leadership is here to stay.  Embrace it, enjoy it, and learn to manage it - because there is no way around it.
Life has always been complex...and people's resiliency has always learned to manage it.  Dealing with complexity begins with accepting that it exists and then moving forward.  Remember that if your organization was not complex, it might just be moving toward shutting down.  What is the better alternative?