Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lists, lists, lists.

So, what’s on your list? I know you have one. We all do. Some of us are list-makers; we like everything written down so we don’t forget something. Even more we like the feeling of accomplishment when we check something off or draw a line through it. (There are even a few of us who upon completing a task that wasn’t on the list will add it after the fact just for the pleasure of marking it done!)

Ok, you’re not that crazy. In fact, you don’t like to write down a list, too stressful to see it all in one place or maybe too confining. But admit it, even if you aren’t a list-maker, you have a list. It may be things you’d like to do sometime in this lifetime. It might be your New Year’s resolutions. It might be a ‘should’ list of things you ought to do someday like clean out the garage. It doesn’t matter what form it takes, we all have lists of some sort or another even if we call it our kid’s social calendar. From mid-November through the start of the year, those lists can be particularly full and crazy-making.

My original ideas was to write something about planning as a leadership skill, as a way to make things a little less hectic. It’s true that planning can help, but the reality is that no matter how well we plan, some days it doesn’t help. Whether it’s someone else’s poor planning, a traffic snarl, or the slow cashier, there are things outside our control, beyond the reach of our wonderful plans and it can all go awry.

Therefore, instead of talking about planning, here’s a reminder from Leadership Yoga – it’s not so much what we do as how we do it. I had a list for today and I’m off schedule. I could choose to rush through things feeling frazzled – that’s the way to a cut finger while slicing vegetables. Or I could choose to chop vegetables with my full attention, carefully, easily, enjoying the smells and colors and textures. Full disclosure here, after chopping two onions had me in tears, I asked my husband for help – also an important lesson in getting things done. After the onions, he kept on with the celery while I peeled carrots and it turned in to the fun of cooking together. If I’d been feeling harried and sorry for myself I would have missed out on that moment.

So, the next time your list is overwhelming, or you’re feeling frazzled, quit worrying about getting it all done and start paying attention to how you’re doing the one task in front of you. Take a deep yoga breath and let it out fully and see what there is to enjoy in the task, even if it’s just that when you’re done you can cross it off the list.



Sunday, November 22, 2009


Recently, instead of asking a large group to help develop a theme for our division’s first annual report publication, we asked participants to tell a story. Actually, we asked for a fable, complete with moral. What we got was amazing – creativity, heart-felt stories, even a few fears and worries showed up. What didn’t show up were technical definitions or laundry lists of tasks, duties and activities. Staff members used a variety of ways to tell the story; there were different levels of detail, but it was very easy to understand what people cared about.

Reading the blog of the Center for Courage and Renewal, my attention was caught by Parker Palmer’s response to a commenter. Palmer wrote that people who start on the opposite sides of difficult issues like abortion can find common ground. They do so not by explaining all the rational reasons for their position, no technical reasons, nor laundry lists of higher authority. They find common ground by telling the story of the experiences that led them to their position.

But how do we create places for people to be able to tell their stories and for people to be able to hear others’ stories? In my comment to the Courage and Renewal blog, I wrote that I thought one problem with our public discourse these days is that the town hall meeting model is based on a traditional form of leadership and power – a few leaders, everyone else follows. Perhaps early on the town hall meeting was a form of community leadership, but now that are communities are so much larger and diverse, it seems very different. Now, a group of ‘officials’ are seated up front, usually on a raised platform and their role is either to talk to or listen to everyone else. In recent years this model has become more talking or even yelling at rather than talking to each other. The idea of talking with each other doesn’t seem to be in the equation at all.

There are many models of inclusive conversation to be found these days and most, if not all, involve being seated in a circle. The way you know you have managed to create a circle is that every person there can see the face of every other person. Immediately you have a different relationship among participants than when everyone is seated in the lecture format. (Even the name of the chair set up sets the tone, doesn’t it?)

I wonder what would happen in a town hall meeting if the leaders came down off the platform and sat in a circle with participants. It’s not easy for the person who has the role and responsibility of leadership to step out from behind the desk or to come down off the dais, but it’s important. It’s not easy to listen to the story of someone’s pain as they tell you what went wrong in their interaction with your office or organization or with you, but it’s an essential part of being an effective leader. I wonder what kind of conversations we would have if we asked people to tell their stories instead of just asserting or defending their positions. I wonder what might happen in a staff meeting about a difficult subject if we asked people to tell their stories. I know we would have different conversations and sometimes that in and of itself can be enough.

Where in your world might it help to tell or listen to a story?

All the best,


Circle Resources
Center for Courage and Renewal
Peer Spirit
The World Cafe

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Coloring Between the LInes

When I lead a workshop on Creative Leadership, one of my favorite exercises is one that often perplexes people at first. I spread out a selection of mandalas, ask them to choose one that interests them and take it home to color. [“Mandalas (the name comes from the Sanskrit word for circle) are symmetrical geometric designs, usually enclosed within a circle, a square or a rectangle, that serve as…focal points for meditation.” Mandala Designs by Martha Bartfeld.] Workshop participants take their choice home and color it. It’s fascinating to see the varied reactions to this assignment. Some are gleeful – the idea of coloring takes them right back to happy memories. Some are skeptical – why in the world should they find time to color. But the exercise does have a purpose and many potential benefits.
If people are asked about being creative in their work environment, my experience is that they give many reasons why it’s not possible, but the most common is some variant on 'it won’t work': bureaucracy, rules, time, money, an entire list of constraints that make creativity impossible. Of course all those constraints do exist. No matter the size of the organization, mammoth bureaucracy or mom-and-pop shop, there are constraints. Outside of work, there are just as many barriers: time, family, chores. The list can feel endless and it’s real; the sky is rarely the limit. There truly are always constraints. And that’s the point of the mandala exercise – to practice creativity within the barriers, to color within the lines.

Piers Ibbotson in The Illusion of Leadership: Directing Creativity in Business and the Arts says it this way, “Necessity is the mother of invention; if we are not working up against some resistance, if we are not up against some sort of boundary, then we are not creative.” In fact, according to Ibbotson, defining those boundaries is a critical leadership task. “Creative leaders need to be able to identify, articulate and express constraints that provoke the team to creative responses….Describing the nature of the boundaries in the right way allows us to control the direction of the effort while allowing sufficient space for the unexpected or the superb to emerge.”

The mandala exercise has several purposes. On one level it is to encourage workshop participants to remember how it feels to be childlike in the sense of being open to new ideas and willing to try something without worrying about the result. There’s no 8right or wrong and no grade or evaluation. On another level, when participants are willing to spend a little time on this, it is a door to some quiet time in their busy lives. Most of all though, this exercise is an illustration of Ibbotson’s point and as participants see the amazing results of their work and that of their colleagues, it becomes clear that great creativity, in some cases great beauty, can appear in spite of and because of the constraints defined by the lines on the page.

So, the next time you hear yourself complaining about the limits you face, stop for a moment and reframe those limits as opportunities for creativity. If you can’t do ‘this’, what might you do instead to reach your goal? When the rules won’t let you do ‘that’, what might you do within the rules to help you attain your purpose? If you are in a leadership role and have to enforce the rules, your task becomes finding a way to help people see the opportunities for creativity. Coloring between the lines doesn’t have to be limiting, it can be the basis for great beauty, for “the unexpected or the superb to emerge.”

Keep coloring,

The mandalas at the top are some I colored several summers ago. They are from the book Mandalas for Meditation edited by Zoe Frances.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Valued Leadership

“Let’s not just talk about our company values, let’s put them into action. Let’s not just memorize them, let’s live them.” Ron Kendrick as quoted in Everyone Leads: It Takes Each One of Us to Make a Difference compiled by Dan Zadra

Recently in a workshop, a participant wondered why her department’s leadership team was comprised only of people with the top titles. Her point was that there were administrative assistants in the department who had good ideas so why not include them.

Her question points out the important difference between leadership and role or position. In most organizations, there is a group which may be called the leadership team or the executive council, or the cabinet. But no matter the name, the group is composed of the people with the top titles who are charged with the responsibility of running the organization. If the organization is a strong one, that group is also composed mostly of leaders. And, in the best situations the leadership group understands there are other leaders in the organizations and fosters and supports leadership in all its facets.

The hard reality is that it is just not possible for people from all levels to serve on the formal leadership team, whatever it is called. The people who serve on the formal leadership team have specific responsibilities to the organization that can not be shared. Sometimes this is a matter of law, sometimes of internal regulations and sometimes it is simply a matter of practicality. Conversely, there are leadership issues that would benefit from the widest possible input and are appropriate for the inclusion of people from all levels of the organization. When that is that case, there is an opportunity for different kinds of leadership teams.

But what if your organization doesn’t create these kinds of leadership teams? I still think there is a way for everyone in an organization to start exercising leadership today. Look at your organization’s stated values. There are values for both the larger organization and for your specific department. Take some time to really study those values and think about how they apply to your work and the ways you interact with everyone. Now, start living them – all day, every day, in everything you do. Do your best to make every task, every conversation, each interaction, every question you ask in line with those values. Be intentional about it and, when appropriate, talk about it. If these are the true values of your organization, you will be exercising leadership and over time it will make a difference and be recognized.

If, as can happen, the lived values are different than the espoused values, that will become clear. Or you may begin to see that your personal values don’t match the organizational values. In those cases you may face some hard choices if you want to be a leader in your work organization. You may have to find another organization in which to lead.

However, in my experience, even though we don’t all hit the value standard perfectly every time, trying to live up to the values of a successful organization is an effective way to become a leader. So, don’t wait to be acting on your values and those of the organization and leadership will happen.

Best wishes,


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Leadership - Not a Spectator Sport

Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgement (sic) will be surer;…. Go some distance away because the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance, and a lack of harmony or proportion is more readily seen.” Leonardo Da Vinci as quoted in Wisdom of the Ages: 60 Days to Enlightenment by Wayne Dyer

Leadership is a participative exercise, not a spectator sport. There's really only one way to learn and grow as a leader and that is to get out of your chair and do it. And then pay attention to what happened and try again. It's the only way to learn what really works and the only way to develop your own style of leadership.

One component of leadership is balance though there are many different balancing acts that leaders must learn through experience. Below are three stories that have helped me work on one specific balancing act.

*Early in my career on two different occasions I found myself cleaning residence halls. My title at the time was Associate Dean of Students and it had not occurred to me that ‘other duties as assigned’ included scrubbing the bathrooms in one hall one year and sweeping all the rooms and hallways in a different hall another year. However, the issue was simple in both cases; if I wanted the residence halls to be ready for Move-In, my participation was required.

*On another occasion, my title was Director of Alumni Services and I was part of the Development Division. I was working with several women, all of whom had a secretarial title, to complete a large mailing for the Annual Fund. A colleague who also had a ‘big’ title came through, observed for a moment and then said, “Well, Gage, it’s good to see you can do menial labor too.” I was appalled. The others were not surprised. None of us made a comment.

*I listened to a conversation between two colleagues. Colleague 1 was my peer, an Associate Dean responsible for a large, complex department. She was the most egalitarian person I’ve ever met. She, quite literally, wouldn’t ask someone to do something she wouldn’t do. Colleague 2 was our boss and she was frustrated with the amount of time Colleague 1 was spending at the copy machine. Her comment was “I’m not paying you the amount you earn to make copies. Other people should be doing that.”

Together these form the outlines of a lesson on balance. Sometimes leaders need to pitch in and do the dirty work. We should never be above moving the tables, stuffing the envelopes, or when necessary cleaning up after, or before, the event. And yet in a leadership role, we are in fact paid to do, or assigned to, or have taken on, a different set of duties We have to find a way to be part of the work that is being done and yet not forget that we have a responsibility for the bigger picture.

I’m pretty sure there’s only one way to learn this lesson and that’s to get in there and try to figure it out. And then to step away and see if we got it right. And then to try it again. Definitely not a game for spectators.