Saturday, October 31, 2009

If It Is True

If It Is True
If it is true,
(and I believe that it is)
that we can all be leaders,
then our organizations are healthiest
when we all choose to lead.
If it is true,
(and I believe that it is)
that leaders are learners,
then our leadership is strongest
when we are willing to be taught.
If it is true,
(and I believe that it is)
that we are all creative,
then our organizations are most original
when we embrace new ideas.
If it is true
(and I believe that it is)
that we lead from who we are,
then our leadership is truest
when we are true to ourselves.
If it is true
(and I believe that it is)
that we want strong leaders and dynamic organizations,
then we must choose to lead,
we must be willing to learn,
we must embrace new ideas, and
we must be true to ourselves.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual..."

"The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community." William James

This past week, a group of staff came together to put on a talent show for UTSA. Some people might see such an event as frivolous, not worth people’s time and yet this gathering was important for the organization in two ways.

In thinking about what happened, I have come to understand it as an act of leadership on the part of the participants. I doubt any of them decided to be part of the talent show to be leaders or even thought of it as leadership. But I see leadership occurring on two levels. One element of leadership is the ability to take a risk. We would usually define risk taking as trying a new program or idea, or making a significant change, or any number of highly difficult and major actions.

So how does participating in a talent show constitute a risk? To my way of thinking, and I was a participant last year, one of the toughest audiences to perform for is a group of peers and colleagues from one’s work organization. No matter how confident you are in your talent, there’s always the possibility of looking foolish and looking foolish in front of supervisors and perhaps the people we supervise is an unpleasant idea for anyone. I think this fits the definition of taking a risk.

The other reason I see this as leadership is due to one of the results of their actions. By their willingness to take this risk and perform in the talent show, they created a shared experience for members of the organization. I believe that shared experience leads to community and a sense of community makes it more possible for individuals to come together around shared ideas, values and purposes. All of these ways of working together help us solve the problems we face, help us bring our different perspectives into the mix and help us bring the best of everyone into our work.

And so Friday afternoon, several hundred people took the time from work to go to a talent show. Seems a frivolous event. Many people chose not to go, perhaps thinking it was not worth leaving the work of the organization. However, people were in fact exercising leadership. By engaging in the leadership and by coming together in community, they made a difference.

Leadership and community. Two important elements for an organization. Two critical aspects for making a difference in an organization. Two fundamental ways to help individuals celebrate the human spirit in our organizations. Two ways to help all of us have a better experience in our work life. All that from a talent show. That’s not frivolous at all.

And yes, some of the participants were also dancing,


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Putting your best foot forward

Most first lessons in ballroom dance begin the same way - the leader, traditionally a man, learns to start on the left foot and the follower, traditionally a woman, learns to start on the right foot. This very basic concept is of critical importance to the health and safety of the dancers’ toes and essential in the development of a smoothly functioning partnership. Those first lessons set up what seems to be a very rigid, hierarchical, and traditional leadership dynamic – one leader who always leads and one follower who always follows with ‘back leading’ by the follower a serious faux pas. The leader is assigned full responsibility for success.

But as is true with many things, initial impressions are misleading. The reality is that this pairing is a true partnership. Each partner has a specific role, but both are essential to the success of the whole. The strongest most talented leader in the world can only go so far with a follower who doesn’t want to dance. And the better a follower can follow, the better the leader can lead and the smoother the dance will become. And, of course, the opposite is also true – a talented follower won’t look good with a leader who only knows two or three basic steps and never gives followers a chance to reach their full potential as a dancer.

As the dancers learn more, it becomes even more complex. Sometimes the leader leads, but sometimes the leader’s role is to get out of the follower’s way. In that situation, followers have to know what to do on their own within the structure provided. Sometimes the leader provides the momentum for moving around the dance floor. However, there are situations for which the follower must provide that energy and if that transition of responsibility isn’t smooth, progress stutters. Dancing is truly a partnership; it is not just a leader leading and a follower following.

And the ideas hold true away from the dance floor. Think about your organizations and their leaders and followers. Identify a department or committee, whatever makes sense in that organization and analyze the ‘footwork’ of the members. Are the leaders and followers in step or are they both trying to start on the left foot? Does the leader give clear directions, help the followers know what they need to do, and guide them in learning new moves? What about the followers? Do they take responsibility for their roles and provide energy and momentum to support the partnership or are they waiting to be pushed around the floor?

Great followers make a good leader better just as great leaders lift followers to new heights. The responsibility for success in our organizations belongs to each of us no matter our title or our role. The responsibility for momentum and forward progress belongs to all of us. Our dancing and our organizations work best when we use the best talents of everyone no matter what role they have. Remember “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels.”* Now that's putting the best foot forward.

Keep dancing,


*I've found this quote attributed to Faith Whittlesey, Ann Richards and Annonymous.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Curiosity is the key to creativity." Akio Morita

Last week I wrote about curiosity. Over the past few years, I’ve come to understand that curiosity’s companion, creativity, is also an essential part of effective leadership.

I know how some of you are reacting as you read that because I’ve seen and heard so many reactions in workshops when I bring up this topic. And, to be honest, those scoffing noises would have been coming from me not so long ago. Some time ago I said to Peter, my husband, that I was not creative and he looked at me in surprise, saying ‘when someone brings you a problem you come up with 15 different solutions; you’re one of the most creative people I know.’ My response was that’s not creativity, that’s just problem-solving. Of course, what is obvious in this story to everyone but me is that we have to be creative to solve problems! I share this story now, and when I teach my workshop on Creative Leadership, because it is just one example of the many ways we define creativity so that it doesn’t apply to us.

Thanks to Peter’s insights and the many books of Julia Cameron, I’ve come to understand creativity in a much broader way and to agree with Cameron that all of us are creative. Some of us squelch aspects of it, some of us nurture it, but all of us have creativity, are creative. In her book Walking in the World: The Practical Art of Creativity, (notice the word in the subtitle, Practical, that’s putting creativity to work), Cameron says this, “Creativity is inspiration coupled with initiative…”* Sounds like another good definition for good leadership.

Like curiosity, we need creativity in our organizations. We need people to wonder, we need people who are willing to imagine new ways to do tasks, new ways to be together, new ways to serve. Part of the job of a leader is to imagine the way things could be – we usually call that having vision – but it sounds like creativity to me. Part of the job of a leader is creating (there’s that word again) an environment that encourages curiosity and imagining and wondering. Instead of finding that scary, a true leader is willing to put some energy behind new possibilities. A true leader might even get out of the way and let others initiate change.

Have you felt an urge to be creative lately? Did you squelch it or nurture it? If you find yourself squelching your creativity, Julia Cameron suggests we try one little change that we’ve been wanting to make. It could be a new picture in your home, a new color in your wardrobe or a new way of organizing your desk. It’s all creativity. Remember what movie director Frank Capra said, “A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something.” So next time, listen carefully to what your creativity is trying to tell you. I truly believe that bringing our creative selves to our organizational life will, over time, improve life for everyone.

Keep dancing (and creating),


*Walking in the World: The Practical Art of Creativity, Julia Cameron, 2002

Monday, October 5, 2009

Curiosity as an essential leadership trait.

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. …Never lose a holy curiosity." Albert Einstein

In writing for the UTSA Student Affairs Newsletter last week about my experiences with Facebook, I began to think about the importance of curiosity in effective leadership. I realized that I had not been curious about social networking because I had made assumptions about its usefulness, or lack thereof in my life, both personal and professional. Those assumptions made it easy for me to ignore any social networking. Once I was pushed into joining Facebook, I found that I enjoyed it on a number of levels and realized that I was wrong in my assumptions.

It may not have been social networks, but I suspect most of us have something that we have ignored, failed to investigate, or even sneered at because we didn't understand it and we didn't investigate because those assumptions led to a lack of curiosity. And that has implications for our leadership work. A failure to be curious means that we aren't engaged in the world around us. It can lead us to write off someone's new idea, or decide that a new theory has no relevance to our particular area, or be bored with someone's newest enthusiasm. As a result we don't support others in trying new things or putting old things to new uses and that is a failure of leadership.

A 2007 article on a website called Lifehack,* written by Donald Latumahina lists four reasons why curiosity is important: 1. Curiosity makes your mind active instead of passive, 2. Curiosity makes your mind observant of new ideas 3. Curiosity opens up new worlds and possibilities, and 4. Curiosity brings excitement into your life.

When I read those four reasons, I begin to see curiosity as an essential element of leadership. Try it. Substitute the word leadership for curiosity in those four sentences. It transforms curiosity into an essential component of effective leadership and one that I rarely, if ever, see listed as important. So, as I said in the Student Affairs newsletter, if you ever hear yourself dismissing a new idea or technology or a new application of an old one, I hope you'll stop and be curious.

Better yet, what are you curious about? What might happen if you investigated it? It doesn't have to be obviously related to your work. Curiosity, like so many things, is a habit. And while the adage says that curiosity killed the cat, it seems to me that it's more likely that a lack of curiosity can kill your leadership.


UTSA Student Affairs Staff News