Sunday, November 14, 2010

Control Issues

"The best job goes to the person who can get it done without passing the buck or coming back with excuses." Napoleon Hill

Here’s what I’ve learned from competitive ballroom dancing – winning is not in my control. I can practice my feet off, dance my best dance ever and still not earn a first place. Maybe there was somebody on the floor who is a better dancer than I am. Maybe there was a dancer there at my level who danced her best dance ever! Maybe the judges were watching when I made my only mistake of the entire heat. Whatever the reason, a hard reality of competition is that the result is not in my control.

However, there are many things in my control and they all start with my attitude. I can choose to do my very best at every practice session or I can coast through because I’m kinda tired that day. I can choose to work on the tiniest little details that most people never see because I know that every detail adds to the final package or I can be lazy about those ‘picky’ bits. I can walk out onto the dance floor with confidence – even if I know my knees are shaking. When I compete with some of the best dancers in the state, I can let that fact intimidate me or push me to show I deserve to be there as well. Those things are completely up to me.

My experience tells me that if I pick the hard work choice, the attention to detail choice, the positive attitude choice, the result is better every time. Not that I’ll win every time, but I know that whatever the final result, I’m happier with the experience. I’ve had more fun because I danced as well as I could. I also know that over time, I’ve won more heats with that attitude than with the negative one. So if I bring the right attitude with me, over time the win/loss record takes care of itself.

The same is true in leadership. I can’t always control the resources nor can I control the results every time. But I can always choose how I approach a situation. I can pay attention to the details no one else notices and appreciate those who are managing those details well or I can ignore them. I can choose to do my best work and design situations so staff members have a chance to do their best work. I can support creativity or squelch it and then wonder why no one tries anything new.

As in competitive dancing, or any sort of work really, the end result is not entirely in my control. There are many situations and people who can get in the way (literally on the dance floor) of a ‘win’. But my attitude and my effort, my attention and my appreciation for work well done, these and more are in my control. Experience tells me in my leadership work as in my dancing, that when I choose the positive side of the equation, I’m happier with the experience whatever the details of the result.
All the best,


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ideas and Actions

“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” Joel Barker

In the latest edition of the UTSA Student Affairs staff newsletter, I wrote about a woman who made a very large gift to the university to fund scholarships. Years earlier, she had heard students discussing the difficulties of paying for college. What makes her different from so many of us is that instead of ignoring what she heard, instead of feeling sorry for the students, instead of wishing the world was otherwise, she did something to make a difference. She started a scholarship fund with a small donation and she kept adding to it throughout her life, finally ending with a multi-million dollar bequest. She saw a need and took action.

She saw a need and took action. I don’t think this characteristic by itself defines a leader, but I’m beginning to wonder if it is possible for leadership to exist without it. Last week I wondered if the term ‘creative leader’ was redundant, since leaders have to be able to see new possibilities, new ways of doing, new ways of being and that seems to be the very definition of creativity. Here is the definition from “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination”. I still think creative leader is redundant, but it’s not enough. Having a new idea is fantastic, seeing a new way to meet a need is wonderful, but without the next step of ‘taking action’, there’s not much leadership in evidence. While lead is not always a verb, in this context, lead is an action word. A person has to be moving us forward in one sense or another for us to consider it leadership. It may be from one state of being to another, but I think change is required.

And, as I’ve said before, there have to be other people involved. If I walk out of the room saying ‘Follow me’ and everyone stays in their chairs, there is not a whole lot of leading going on!

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending TEDx San Antonio* and I listened to more than a dozen people who exemplified leadership. Their initiatives ranged from addressing hunger to ending the death penalty, from fostering creativity in children to helping people who are paralyzed walk – they covered a very wide range of issues and ideas. All of them have their own style, their own focus, their own way of thinking about issues, but all of them have these characteristics:

^They pay attention to the world around them.
^They see a need and believe they can make a difference.
^They find others who know about and care about this need they have identified.
^They are willing and eager to learn.
^They are able to step out on their own if need be, but able and willing to connect with others.
^They envision a world that is different from and better than the one that currently exists.
^They take action.

If the quote above is right, these folks are going to change the world by changing their part of it – sounds like leadership to me.

Best wishes,



Sunday, September 26, 2010

Leading from the Middle -Part 2 - The Butterfly Effect

I’m often intrigued by the idea of weather, imagining what it must have been like before radar and satellites. Now, we watch hurricanes form off the coast of Africa and we can follow their route across the Atlantic to our front door off the Gulf of Mexico. As we see the storms move into the Midwest, we have at least a marginal understanding of where our weather comes from. But 100 years ago, probably even less, the storms had no such history. Probably a weather-knowledgeable person understood that the changes in humidity or the clouds heralded a storm in the near future, but I doubt many people thought of the storm starting in Africa.

We now have some understanding of the way in which something as far away as Africa can have an impact on us. We act as if we understand it when we toss around the phrase ‘the butterfly effect’ as a shorthand way to express the idea that a small change on the other side of the world can impact our lives. But I wonder how often we bring that concept into our day-to-day lives of our organizations. I’m not sure we think about it very often and, I suspect, we consciously act on it even more rarely. Within our organizations, little behaviors and actions can have as much impact as the major policies and those little behaviors and actions come from each one of us.

In her book, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, author Margaret Wheatley writes about this idea saying that organizations have self-similar behaviors that are exhibited by all of the people in an organization no matter what their position or work might be.

“These recurring patterns of behavior are what many call the culture of the organization…. By observing the behavior of a production floor employee or a senior executive you can tell what the organizations values and how it chooses to do its work. You hear the values referred to even in causal conversation…. [This similarity] is achieved not through compliance to an exhausting set of standards and rules, but from a few simple principles that everyone is accountable for, operating in a condition of individual freedom.”

If it is this repetition of behaviors that creates the culture of the organization, then the way to change the culture is to start changing behaviors. At various times in different organizations, I’ve worked with staff members to find ways to improve the way we work together. After working at it awhile and seeing some change, people begin to like it and wish the entire organization was working on the same challenges. My response to them is always the same, we can only work on our own behavior and interactions, but I believe that the changes we make, if they are good ones, will begin to exert influence beyond our part of the organization. And I’ve found that to be true. So if you think your organizational culture is negative, first look at what you’re doing to support that negativity and stop doing it. Second, identify more positive behaviors you can begin to exhibit, start doing those and watch what happens. It may take a while, but don’t get discouraged. If that little butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong can start a tropical storm in Africa that then dumps rain on Texas, surely we can have an impact on the organizations we lead.

Good luck,


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Leading From the Middle

In the past couple of years I have developed a few workshops that I have now taught multiple times. While each basic workshop always addresses the same premises they are always slightly different because the members of each group bring their own experiences, insights and questions to the discussion. I set up a structure and purpose, but the interactions between me and the participants and, even more importantly, between the participants themselves create the real dynamic and benefit of the workshop. As a general rule, my workshops and conference presentations are highly interactive and usually that makes for a very fun and creative learning session. However, the quality of each session depends much more on the willingness of the participants to step out of their comfort zones and interact with each other than it does on what I have designed. The workshop called the Leadership Dance which is designed to help participants experience the dynamics of leading and following is a great example of this reality. If no one was willing to get up and dance with me, the workshop would be a complete flop.

In the same way, if the members of an organization are unwilling to work to their highest potential, if they are unwilling to take responsibility for the success of the venture, if they are unwilling to be creative, there is no way for a leader to be successful. During the workshop, I often hear myself saying, ‘If you hear yourself complaining about your organization’s leadership, perhaps you need to stop and see how you are contributing to the success or failure of the leadership dynamic’.

Which brings us back to the title. Now, I know that in big organizations many of us don’t have a chance to create the structure or to change the rules in the Big Book of Rules that all large organizations have. Nor can we all serve as President. However, as a speaker I heard this past week said– all systems are perfectly designed to create the results we observe – therefore, if we don’t like the results we have to figure out someway to change the system. And the very simplest way, and one that is completely under our control, is the one suggested by Mahatma Ghandi - “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” So if you hear yourself complaining about the leadership of your organization, stop for a moment and examine your own leadership. If we don’t like the results we are seeing in the work of our organization, it’s worth taking a look to see how we are contributing to those results. And then we need to take some time to consider what we might change in our own behavior or department that will improve things.

Change in any organization comes slowly. The change I make won’t create change in the organization tomorrow and it may be a while before the response becomes obvious, but when one part of a system changes, the rest will change in response in some way or another. The reality is that the only change over which I have any control is the change in my actions or my area of responsibility. When we make positive changes in ourselves or our departments and thereby create the possibility of change in the larger organizations, that’s leading from the middle and it is a powerful form of leadership available to all of us.

Good luck,

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Observe due measure, for right timing is in all things the most important factor."

Now that the academic year is in full swing, it’s time for me to start writing this blog again. For me this past month or so was first a time of quiet and then a busy time at work, so I let myself take a break. Part of dancing is paying attention to rhythm and timing. If you’ve ever tried dancing with a partner who doesn’t understand or doesn’t pay attention to rhythm and timing, you know how important it is. There’s a reason exercise classes use music – it does help keep the energy level up, but it also helps even the most rhythm challenged of us keep out of everyone else’s way.

It’s important to understand our own rhythms. Sometimes we need to get up and really move and get things done and sometimes we need to sit still and be quiet. The more we understand our rhythms and find ways to live in sync with those rhythms, the smoother our life dance becomes. It’s true in our home life as well. If my rhythm is the tortoise’s slow and steady wins the race and I share my living space with someone who prefers to emulate the hare, then at times we’re likely to have conflict. These differences can also work to our benefit if we let them. The partner who likes to get up and go can energize the ‘tortoise’. The partner who needs time to recharge and reflect can help the ‘hare’ learn the benefit of a little quiet time.

This understanding of timing and rhythm is also an important skill for leaders. There are times to push and people who need pushing; there are times to stop and reflect and help others do the same. There are people who need encouraged to step out of their comfort zones; there are people who need to be encouraged to stay within the rules and boundaries. And just to confuse the issue, some people need both.

Organizations have rhythms too. The rhythms may be based on the deadlines of the work or the style of the leader. Timing may be different throughout the year. External factors have an impact. The permutations and possibilities are nearly endless and leaders need to pay attention to each variable and to the interplay of them all.

When we stop to think about it, it can be a bit overwhelming. However, the simplest and most important way to develop this leadership skill of understanding organizational and staff rhythms and timing is to pay attention to ourselves. As we begin to understand about our own rhythms and timing, we become more in sync with the rhythms and timing of the people around us and the organizations we are part of.

So do you need a break or do you need to get up and go? What about the people around you? Just a little something to pay attention to this next week as you dance along your way.

Take care,


* The quote is by Hesiod dating 800 BC.

Okay this next part is just silly, but in looking for a quote about rhythm or timing I found this limerick and it made me laugh so I'm sharing it with you. It's attributed to Anonymous

There was a young woman named Jenny,
Whose limericks weren't worth a penny.
Her rhythm and rhyme
Were perfectly fine
But whenever she tried to write any,
She always had one line too many.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

"We did it ourselves."

The last time I taught a formal class on Leadership, one of the students withdrew because he wanted to read and discuss famous leaders and that was not how the class was structured. Certainly, there are lessons to be learned by studying individual leaders, but when I teach about leadership I actually have the opposite goal – to broaden our perspective of leadership and be able to see it as a dynamic relationship between the ‘leader’, the ‘follower’ and the situation.

Have you ever stood up in front of an audience or a class and tried to engage them in the presentation or in a class activity only to have the entire room sit and stare at you? If you have then you know that you are only as good a presenter or teacher as the interaction with the audience or class allows you to be. The same is true of leadership. It’s possible to have great leadership skills and then find yourself in a situation in which the followers stand in front of you with their arms folded (sometimes literally) and dare you to make a difference. The hard truth is that the leader can have great ideas, but if no one else thinks they’re great and no one goes to the trouble to try and implement these fine ideas, nothing will happen.

It’s intriguing to observe how this works. At the large staff meeting, The Leader, i.e., the person with the biggest title, introduces a new initiative to the leadership team; even better the leadership team develops this new initiative as a group. Every one is excited and ready to go. In my experience that’s when the real leaders of the organization make their presence felt. They are the ones who, in the midst of all the day-to-day tasks that have to be done, bring the new idea into reality. Meanwhile other department heads make half-hearted attempts or none at all. Now, in most organizations, The Leader has ways to encourage and compel implementation, but true success or failure is dependent on the number of people who choose (an important word) to find ways to move the new initiative forward. True success also depends on the number of people who are creative in fitting implementation into their areas of responsibility. Finally, true success depends on follower/leaders who let The Leader know when the ideas are not working in the real world and make helpful suggestions to adapt the concepts to make them work.

Leadership is a partnership. It takes leaders and followers working together in the situation in which they find themselves for good leadership to exist. That’s why for me, while it is interesting to study great leaders, if in that study you don’t pay attention to the situation and the other members of the organization, you will never have a true picture of leadership. As Lao-Tzu says in his famous 17th verse of the Tao Te Ching,

“The great leader speaks little.
He never speaks carelessly.
He works without self-interest and leaves no trace.
When all is finished, the people say, 'We did it ourselves.'”

And they are correct.

Take care,


This translation of the Tao Te Ching comes from Wayne Dyer's Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao

Sunday, July 25, 2010

"Vacation used to be a luxury....

... however, in today's world, it has become a necessity." Unknown

Today, I’m wrapping up my vacation and tomorrow I head back to work. I’ll pay for being gone. When I left the office, I managed to get my e-mail inbox down to zero – it won’t be zero now and it will be a while before I’m caught up. There are some tasks that I let sit for two weeks and I’ll need to get started on them again. I know I have a workshop to lead on Tuesday and a committee meeting on Monday in addition to regular meetings so there will be no easing back into the action when I return.

That’s not meant to be a list of complaints; it’s just the reality of taking time away from a busy job. As a result, many people choose not to take vacation or they only take little bits of time away. Then even when they are away from the job, they spend time answering e-mail and working on projects - not much of a break. People in leadership positions are particularly prone to this behavior. After all if they are gone, someone else must pick up the work and keep things going. This can create one of two worries – either we worry that the work won’t get done right without us or we learn that we aren’t indispensible. It’s hard to know which worry is scarier, so some people worry about both!

Yet the reality is that we all need time away and perhaps effective leaders need the time away more than most. Have you ever been frustrated working on a jigsaw puzzle? Then you get up and walk away for a while and when you come back not only do you find the piece immediately, you can work a large section quickly. It also works with crossword puzzles and anytime you are stuck in a project. Time away, no matter what you do with it, refreshes your vision, your ideas, and your perspective in many ways.

Think for a moment about the word ‘recreation.’ One dictionary defines it as ‘refreshment of one's mind or body after work, through activity that amuses or stimulates’; another defines it as ‘refreshment of health or spirits by relaxation and enjoyment’. But there’s a third way to think about it. When you split the word it becomes re-creation meaning re-newal. And that’s the most important reason to take vacation. It may be hard to get away, it may be hard work when you come back, but to continuing being effective creative leaders, we need to take a break – a real one – and come back renewed and refreshed and ready to do our best work. Vacation as a leadership skill - who knew?

Take care,


Sunday, July 11, 2010

I don't know what to write today!

Sometimes as leaders we are faced with an assignment that befuddles us in some way. It may be that we don't really know how to do the task. It could be that we have a lot on our plate and we can't fathom how we fit in one more item. Sometimes the problem is that there is a deadline and that can be paralyzing; other times the problem is there is no deadline and the task falls to the bottom of the pile of things we have to get done. Sometimes I don't have a single idea about how to get started, at others we have too many ideas and can't pick out one of them to focus on.

That last one is where I am today. I have a number of half-baked ideas and can't seem to get any of them to gel in a way that seems useful or even barely sensible. So I have a choice, as I do every Sunday and what I'm choosing to do about it tells something about my leadership style. I'm choosing to admit that I don't know what to do today. I'm choosing to admit that ideas don't flow from my pen to the page every time I sit down to write. In other words I'm choosing to admit that I'm human.

It seems to me that a fundamental problem with leadership is that leaders are afraid to admit that they are human. And there are good reasons for that fear. It's not irrational. There are people who will use the fact that leaders don't have all the answers against them - even the very people who appointed, elected, hired the leader will do this sometimes. And yet I believe that the fact that leaders feel the need to hide their flaws. their questions, or the fact that they don't have all the answers is one of the major reasons that leaders fail. The need to hide who we really are and that we really aren't perfect can result in leaders' unwillingness to ask questions and their inability to seek advice and counsel from people who have differing ideas. This leads to the failures we have seen in the news. On a smaller scale, it can result in workplaces that stifle rather than support creativity, in offices where it is hard to tell the hard truth and, in organizations that are miserable.

If we want to create healthy, honest, creative organizations of any kind, it is important for leaders to be forthright about their strengths and weaknesses. It is important for leaders to make it possible for people to speak the truth. Sometimes, in admitting that we are lost and confused we find a way to lead effectively, we manage to make a difference in our organizations and, as you can read here today, we find a way to complete the task before us.

Take care,


Sunday, June 27, 2010

"You can not lead where you do not go." Don Ward

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a professional conference and presented a program there. I hadn’t submitted a proposal in some time, but decided that I needed to start again. I’ve realized that if I’m tired of sitting through ‘sit and listen’ presentations on the same old topics, I need to step out there and do something different. So I submitted a proposal to present ‘The Leadership Dance’ even though there was a possibility that no one would show up or like it if they did.

I’ve mentioned this workshop before (Stepped On Anyone’s Toes Lately) and in its full form it takes at least an hour and a half. I only had 60 minutes which meant I would not be able to do the full workshop. Instead I started by explaining the history of the workshop and its purpose of creating an opportunity for participants to experience the partnership aspect of leadership. I explained kinesthetic learning (briefly, it is learning by doing rather than by listening or reading). Kinesthetic learning is an appropriate style for this workshop since there is really only one way to learn to be an effective leader and that's by actually practicing leadership. Then I told them that they were the brave group who would choose to attend a session with the words lively, interactive, and dance in the description and asked them to move the chairs back against the walls.

There was a fair amount of nervous laughter at this point and one person actually left the room, but the rest stayed and were good enough sports to give it a try - though one person told me later he had been pretty resistant to the idea at first. For the next 30 minutes we had a dance lesson and each person had a chance to serve as a leader and as a follower and then we talked about their experiences. Based on their comments and evaluations, participants both enjoyed the session and learned something, so it was a successful endeavor.

I share this story for two reasons. First, when you do something that is unusual, you take the chance that some people will be resistant to the idea. However, while some people will walk away from the opportunity presented, others will hang in there. Of course, those who hang in there may not like it. But that's no reason to refrain from taking the chance. If we can just get past our fear that we'll look foolish or that people won't understand what we're trying to do, our possibilities to be creative, to teach, to lead will expaFont sizend immensely.

This is, of course, the second reason to share this story. Some participants said they gained a new understanding of leading and following. Others commented that they would now try to find creative ways to do their work. Still others asked for further information about the exercises in the larger workshop. In other words, they were engaged in learning. I've presented the Leadership Dance many times to a wide variety of groups, some of which were very surprised by what they were expected to do. But as one person told me, they may joke about having had to dance, but they remember it and that's more than usually happens after a speech. Learning something new often requires the learner to be a bit uncomfortable; seems only fair that the teacher ought to be a bit uncomfortable sometimes too.

So what are you not doing because it's a bit risky? Is there a time or a place when you might just risk testing out that new way of doing things? After all, a significant part of leading is asking a group to go someplace or do something new; shouldn't leaders be willing to try something new as well?

Take care,


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Silence is Golden

I've spent the last couple of days participating in a retreat based on Parker Palmer's book A Hidden Wholeness. The main purpose of the work is to take the time to stop, be in community, and listen to one's inner teacher. And there is really only one way to hear that teacher and that is to be in silence.

The retreat was held at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation. As a result, many though not all of the participants were Quakers and one of the opportunities for participants was the chance to join the people who live and work here in Meeting for Worship. I had never attended a Quaker meeting before, but I quickly learned that it is all about silence. Most of the half hour was quiet, sometimes a person will stand up and speak, but maybe not. There is time for announcements at the end and that is all. Each individual finds their own way in the stillness.

Most groups have trouble with extended silence. We feel compelled to fill the silence even if we don't have something new to add. But there is really only one way to truly listen, only one way to really hear what the other person is trying to say and that is to sit quietly, silently. The next time someone comes to you with an issue, try holding the silence. After they have told you what they came to say, what would happen if you just sat quietly for a moment or two? Yes, it might be awkward for you and for them, but they might find they have something else to say and that last bit might be the most important part of all. Larry Spears, former director of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership says listening is a servant leader's most important skill. Listening deeply requires the ability to hold the silence, internally and externally, to give people time and space to find what they need to say.

So this week, try giving the gift of silence to others and to yourself. You might be surprised what you hear.

Take care,


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Giving Up Control

I've been traveling this weekend and I'm reminded again that air travel is a great way to practice the experience of being out of control - literally. When I travel by air, I can't make the plane take off, I can't make it land when or even where I want to, and I certainly can't make my luggage show up at the right airport. It's a lesson in patience many passengers would do well to practice.

So what's that got to do with leadership? After all, leaders are supposed to be in control of what happens in their organizations, aren't they? In fact, one style of leadership is even called command and control. However, no matter how hard a leader might try to control all aspects of an organization, it's not really possible. Margaret Wheatley says part of our challenge in leaders is that we confuse order and control. She goes on to say, "What if we could reframe the search? What if we stopped looking for control and begin in earnest the search for order.... (The) basic shift needs to be from control to order, from a reliance on formal authority and procedures to a reliance on the self-organizing principles of people..."

This means a very different sort of leadership is needed, a kind of leadership that allows others to do their job well without the leader's needing to control every instance of the work. It requires different kinds of training and hiring, most of all it requires communication and great trust.

Trust like the kind we put in airlines. And we know, for all the terrible headlines on one end of the spectrum and petty annoyances on the other end, the airlines actually do quite well. After all, I don't want them to take off when the plane needs maintenance or the weather is really bad no matter how important I think my timeline. And one way or another I've always ended up back home and I had very little to do with it. Patience, trust, letting go of our needs for control, more leadership skills to think about.

Take care,


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Time Well Spent

This past week I have been reminded, yet again, of the importance of communication. I know I’m not alone in knowing this leadership reality and still struggling to be effective in my communications. There are many reasons effective communication is challenging. For one, we each have preferred methods both for receiving communications and sending them. Mismatches in these styles can hamper our ability to communicate. We also have differences in our preferences regarding the level of communication. Some of us like lots of detail and want to hear from our colleagues continuously; others of us prefer the big picture and only want to know when it’s something big – of course we need to understand their definition of big. Sometimes we only want to hear the good news. Unfortunately, as Kim Campbell* puts it, “If you don’t like bad news, you should get out of the leadership business. Your job is to hear as much bad news as there is out there and to figure out ways of dealing with it.”

While all of these are real issues in communication, I sometimes think the biggest problem is time. Effective communication takes time. We have to pay attention to what information we are receiving and evaluate it. We have to decide what needs to be shared and with whom. We have to consider who needs to hear this information and how rapidly and in what format. Does it need to be face-to-face? Will a phone call do? What about e-mail? And then we have to ignore all the other demands on our attention and actually communicate.

Then there’s the public aspect of communication. When we have formal leadership roles, our public communication may be even more critical and time-consuming. As leaders we have to choose our messages carefully and we have to repeat those select messages multiple times. It’s not that people aren’t listening to us; it’s that they too have multiple demands on their time and attention and we need to recognize and honor that.

And last, but definitely not least, is the other side of communication. As Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall said, “Listening well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well.” In order to be effective in our communications we must listen well and, in this day of e-mail, read well. In other words, we must be open to hearing what others have to tell us. And again, this takes time. It also takes a willingness to set aside our need to be heard and that may be the toughest part of communication there is.

So, this week, I challenge each of us to find time for effective communication. It saves time in the long run, but more importantly it helps all of us be better leaders and work together more effectively and that’s always time well spent.

Take care,


*The book Everyone Leads attributes this quote to Kim Campbell with no further identification and I can’t find it elsewhere. However, Kim Campbell the former, and to date, only female, Canadian Prime Minister speaks and writes on leadership including at this blog so I believe she is the likely author.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Ideas with Flair

As I’ve written before, for years I was one of those folks who would answer ‘no’ to the question ‘are you creative?’ That is until my husband pointed out that I was a good problem-solver and that problem-solving requires creativity. Ok, sounds pretty obvious, but I had a narrow definition of creativity and not until this discussion did I understand that.

We value problem-solving in the organizational world meaning we value creativity, though like me, many people don’t frame it in that way. Conversely, we often say we value creativity in brainstorming and yet traditional group brainstorming exercises often aren’t very creative. In fact several articles I found on the internet say that individual brainstorming often results in more ideas and more creative ideas than the group process. There are several reasons for this result, group think, worrying about others’ opinions, losing track of your own ideas, spending time evaluating other’s ideas, etc. In my experience the biggest impediment to true creativity is the need to have some level of realism in the process. No matter how much we tell the group and ourselves that any possibility should be thrown out, we can’t quite do it.

In one of her books, choreographer Twyla Tharp talks about a creativity exercise she uses that illustrates an important element I think is often left out of brainstorming exercises. She says, “If you find yourself caught in a bigger rut, what you really need is a new idea, and the way to get it is by giving yourself an aggressive quota for ideas.” She finds something backstage like a stool and gives her audience or class the challenge – two minutes to come up with sixty uses for the stool. Here’s what she writes about this exercise:

“A lot of interesting things happened when you set an aggressive quota even with ideas. People’s competitive juices are stirred. Instead of panicking, they focus, and with that comes increased fluency and agility of mind.

“People are also forced to suspend critical thinking. To meet the quota, they put their internal critic on hold and let everything out. They’re no longer choking off good impulses.”
Tharp goes on to say she has found a consistent order to the quality of ideas produced this way –
“the first third of ideas are the obvious; the second third are more interesting; and the final third show flair, insight, curiosity, even complexity as later thinking builds on earlier thinking….(I’m not knocking first ideas. They’re often the best. But they’re rarely the most radical stretch and that’s the purpose of this exercise.)”

I’ve written before about the idea that boundaries actually help us be more creative (Coloring Between the Lines and Rules and Creative Leadership) and it applies in brainstorming as well. It all depends on the boundaries we set. Sometimes boundaries can cut off creativity, but well designed they can have the opposite effect. So the next time you need some creative thinking, from yourself or your group, try this exercise and see where it leads you. The fun part of it is that you never know where you’ll end up. I used this activity during a workshop and someone suggested that we could ‘eat’ the stool, but also on the list were some ideas that were both radical and possible, even useful as well as some ideas that showed “flair, insight, curiosity, even complexity” and that’s what we need in all of our organizations, isn’t it?

Take care,


The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp with Mark Reiter (2003) New York: Simon and Schuster

Sunday, May 23, 2010

“Respect, Ordinary Respect”

The phrase that is the title of today’s blog comes from the book Invictus by John Carlin. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I am enjoying the book. The book is a very straight-forward telling of one part of the history of South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s place in its history. It is a fascinating story. But what has caught my attention at this point, about two-thirds of the way through, is the concept captured in that phrase.

In spite of all that he experienced during the era of apartheid, Nelson Mandela was able to understand the people around him and to transcend his experiences and interact with everyone from a place of respect. He was able to understand the national experience and the experience of individuals. He was able to treat everyone, including his jailers and people who most would consider his enemies, as human beings worthy of his respect. And in giving respect he was able to earn it.

Here is a quote from the book that illustrates the point. The Sisulu referenced here is Walter Sisulu a “veteran ANC (African National Congress) organizer” who is six years older than Mandela and for many years shared a prison cell with Mandela.

“It was Sisulu, for example, who best understood how to thaw the white jailers’ hearts. The key to it all, as he would explain much later, was ‘respect, ordinary respect.’ He did not want to crush his enemies. He did not want to humiliate them. He did not want to repay them in kind. He just wanted them to treat him with no-frills, run-of-the-mill respect.

“That was precisely what the rough, undereducated white men who ruled over his prison wanted too, and that was what Mandela endeavored to give them right from the start, however hellish they made life for him.”

Time and again, the author relates the many ways Mandela showed others respect. Mandela, quite literally, spoke their language, learning Afrikaans while in prison. He appreciated character and talent and, as president, appointed staff based on those characteristics rather than racial identity. With person after person, he disarmed them by treating them with respect.

Invictus is a great story of leadership on the international scale and yet the difference made in little details - by Mandela’s ability to treat others with respect. For us, in organizational leadership, it is those little details that are important. When we take the time to understand what is important to another, we convey respect. When we really listen to what someone has to say, we convey respect. When we acknowledge another’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it, we convey respect. And when people respect each other as human beings and act on that respect, it is possible to find common ground. And common ground is a place where leadership can take root.

If “simple, ordinary respect” can help a nation stop from tearing itself apart, what might it do for our organizations?

Take care,


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Listenting as a Leadership Skill

"One of the easiest human acts is also the most healing. Listening to someone. Simply listening. Not advising or coaching, but silently and fully listening." Margaret J. Wheatley

If you ask people about listening, about what is happening during a conversation, most people are ruefully honest. They admit they are often thinking about what they want to say in response. Or they acknowledge that they are really just waiting for their turn to talk. And that's in a one-on-one conversation. We all know it's even worse in a meeting or presentation especially if we have a device with us that allows us to check our e-mail or read a text or see who just called and left a message.

Listening well means we have to let go of our own agenda and just hear what the other person needs to say. Listening well takes time; it takes being willing to let the other person find their way to what they need to say. Both of these acts are difficult, but it seems to me that the most difficult part of listening for most of us is the need to be comfortable with silence. When someone needs to tell us a story that is difficult or important, it can take courage to say what needs to be said. It can be difficult to find the words. And so the listener must wait, patiently, quietly, openly and that may be the hardest task of all.

Listening well is a crucial skill for leaders. Leaders have to be able to hear what is being said and, perhaps most importantly, what is not being said. Leaders have to be willing to hear hard truths so they need to encourage others to share what is important to them individually and to the organization. For that to happen, leaders have to be able to listen openly and to refrain from becoming defensive when they don't like what they hear. When leaders can't do this, then organizational members become unwilling to take the risk of sharing their perspectives.

How are you at listening? Really listening as Wheatley describes it - listening without advising, coaching, judging, or preparing to jump in. Can you listen to someone's story without trying to fix things? Can you hear a hard truth with an open mind and heart? This week, why don't you pay attention to your listening and see what you learn? If someone comes to you with a concern this week, can you take a couple of deep breaths before you answer and see what happens? They may find they have more to say or you may find a better response. Even more basic, can you refrain from looking at your e-mail during the next meeting you attend no matter how boring the meeting may be? Even a dull meeting is a good place to practice real listening; you may find what you learn surprising.

Good luck with your listening this week - I hope some readers will be willing to share what they discovered.

Take care,


Sunday, May 9, 2010

"The only person who really likes change...

.. is a baby with a wet diaper." Unknown

This is one of my favorite quotes about change, because while it is true that there are a few rare individuals who embrace change, the reality is that most of us find it challenging at one level or another. My experience is that even those who say they like change have something that they prefer you not mess with and most of us prefer change we instigate rather than change that is imposed upon us. After all, it is one thing to change something I want to change. It’s another thing entirely for you to tell me what I have to do differently!

But every organization will face imposed change at some time and at some level so there are important leadership tasks involved with both leading and responding to change. Those tasks vary. There are times when leaders understand the need to change before the rest of the organization’s members. There are times when the leader is asked to implement a change whether or not she agrees. There are times when a leaders needs to listen to constituents who are resisting change, not because they are recalcitrant, but rather because they are raising important issues that need to be considered. Which means the most important leadership task is to determine the best response to the particular situation, and that of course, is always the leader’s job and is often the most difficult task of all.

Times of change call for sensitive and creative leaders, leaders who work to set aside their own concerns and focus instead on the good of the organization and its members, leaders who listen well and are not afraid to make decisions and choose a path. Times of change need leaders who are willing to make the toughest change of all – a change in themselves and their habits. This leads me to another favorite quote, this one from Gandhi, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” As with so many thing, change begins with each one of us.

Good luck and take care,


Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sometimes a 'B' Is Okay

When I was in graduate school I talked to one of my professors about dropping his class because I was unprepared to take the final exam. He talked me out of it, encouraging me to take an incomplete, write a good final paper, and give it my best shot on the test. Somewhere in there he asked if I would be okay with a ‘B’.

Most students would prefer to earn an ‘A’ in class. Most of us who aspire to leadership would prefer to earn an ‘A’ in our leadership work. We want to do our very best for our organization and our followers. We want to do our best to achieve the purpose of the organization. We want to be ethical in our actions and lead effectively in every situation.

And yet, sometimes circumstances conspire against us. The semester I requested to drop my class had been a very challenging one at work and I got married during that term. In the midst of everything else toward the end of the semester, studying for my exam fell by the wayside. In the same way in our leadership life, no matter how effective our followers, how good our plans or how hard we try, sometimes it doesn’t come out the way we would prefer.

What’s a leader to do? First, like my professor reminded me, sometimes it needs to be okay to make a ‘B’. Sometimes, we have to be okay with the best we can do even if it’s not really the result we want. The question then becomes what do we do with that reality. What can we do? There is no single answer to those questions since unique circumstances will determine the options, but there are a couple of things that I think apply in most circumstances. First, there is always something to be learned. What is the best lesson in your situation? Second, a ‘B’ is not the end of the world. What is the best way to turn this into an opportunity for improvements? Third, and probably most important, we can’t all get it right every time so, don’t beat yourself up over it.

As I wrote in the essay for April 4th,"Stepped on Anyone's Toes Lately?" sometimes the list of expectations we have for leaders can be a bit much. The expectations leaders have for themselves may be even more overwhelming. As it turned out, I did make a ‘B’ on the exam, but I also wrote a good final paper and made an ‘A’ in the course, so I’m very glad I didn’t drop the class. I'm very glad I didn’t quit. Not a bad lesson to learn in graduate school or anywhere else.

Take care,


Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Value of the Calendar

We all have different ways of organizing our time based on our styles, our positions and our values. When we hear ourselves complaining that we don’t have time for the important things, there is a tool already available to help us sort things out – our calendar.

Whether we like to admit it or not, that visible representation of time known as our calendar is in fact a reflection of many parts of our lives such as, position, leadership style, and values. We don’t usually think of a calendar as a tool for discernment, but it shows us how we spend that very ‘valuable’ and ‘value-ful’ commodity – time which in turn is a reflection of what is important to us.

Take my calendar for example. It will show that I value knowing what is happening in my division and that I value developing relationships with staff members. Both of those take time so I meet weekly with the staff who report to me, both individually and as a group. I meet monthly with an extended staff group and I try to find creative ways to meet regularly with groups of staff in every level of position in the organization. In my role finding opportunities to interact with students is important so I say yes to nearly every request from students. I try to say yes to any invitation to lead a workshop or to give a presentation since these are ways to interact with staff and students and to transmit values to the organization.

There are other values that show up on my calendar – a hold on my lunch time so I can take a break in the middle of the day and “time for projects” on Friday afternoon. These blocks reflect an understanding of the need for changes of pace and for time to engage in reflection and planning. But at certain times of the year, this time gets squeezed out by those other values. So, I spent time over the weekend on e-mails and paperwork which is something I try to avoid – another value. But that small amount of time helped me be ready for the coming week which will be as busy as the past few have been.

We know our values are important to our leadership actions. If we listen to them and act accordingly our values help us make decisions large and small. They help us evaluate when choices have to be made. And when we begin to feel that things are out of whack, the calendar is one tool to understanding the decisions we have made and make changes as necessary.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Different Perspective

An important part of the leadership dance is the ability to change your point of view and to know when to take a break from the routine. Both help us gain a new perspective and be refreshed as we take on the challenges of our leadership role. So here is a little break from the routine - a few pictures from around our house. Enjoy, Gage

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Stepped On Anyone's Toes Lately?

This past week I taught a leadership workshop called The Leadership Dance. I start this workshop by dividing the participants into small groups and asking them to write down their responses to the words leader and follower. They have only one minute for each word. I’ve done this exercise many times and of course there are differences among the groups, but there are more similarities. For example, the ‘leader’ lists have mostly positive words and the ‘follower’ lists have more negative words. Similarly, the ‘leader’ lists are almost always longer than the ‘follower’ lists. I ask participants to discuss the ideas and issues that caught their attention as they listened to the various lists. There are many conclusions to be drawn and nuances to be discussed and most groups do an excellent job of identifying them.

However, there are two concepts that usually fall to me to point out. The first is the fact that there are rarely any negative words on the leader list, but there are negative kinds of leadership. In a class on leadership the paradigm seems to be ‘leader equals good’ even though we all can list examples of leaders who led their followers over a cliff or leaders/bosses who are toxic and make it miserable to be part of the organization. There is a negative side to leadership and even the most good-hearted leader has to face the reality of the harm they can cause if they aren’t careful.

The second concept is the ‘leader’ list itself. There are variations of course, but those are just details. The aggregate list is a list of positive attributes that are just a little bit short of a job description that reads “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, …” The reality is that most leaders are human beings who can’t quite live up to the level that we tend to expect of leaders, at least not every day!would be different now.

And that’s one of the points the workshop is designed to teach - our expectations of leaders can be unreasonable. The reality is that leaders can’t dance alone. To be a great leader one needs great followers. And of course, the converse is true - it’s hard to be a great follower when you don’t have a strong leader. By the end of the workshop, that idea of leadership as a partnership has become very clear to participants. In fact one of my favorite comments from an earlier workshop was by a participant who said the list of words he would use to describe followers

On the dance floor, the leader starts with the left foot and the follower starts with the right foot. This minimizes the problem of stepping on each other's toes. In our leadership world, our words reflect our ideas and can determine our steps. If you find yourself unhappy with the leaders or the followers in your organization, maybe you should take a take a look at your ‘lists’. Do your words reflect unreasonable expectations of a leader? Are you seeing followers as subordinate? Dancing and Leading - both work best as partnerships and both take patience and attention. Stepped on any toes lately?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Forgiveness in the Leadership Dance

One of the skills we talk about with new supervisors or committee chairs is the skill of delegation. It can be one of the toughest things we have to do as leaders – to acknowledge that we alone are not responsible for the success of our organizational endeavors. We truly can’t do it all. We have to depend on others. In our leadership dance, we have to let go of our partner’s hand and trust that they know the steps.

When we delegate, we are not only handing off a task, we are sharing the responsibility and we have to trust in another’s ability and their willingness to do what is needed to complete that task. When we delegate, we have to be willing to allow for different ideas about the best way to accomplish the task, we have to be willing to give the other person space to be creative, and we have to be willing to understand that mistakes may happen.

Understanding that mistakes will happen is important for leaders, but it is also necessary for every member of a group. Michael McCullough, professor of psychology at the University of Miami puts it this way, “…one of the ingredients you have to have to get individuals to cooperate with each other is a tolerance for mistakes.” I had never really thought of it this way before, but it makes sense, doesn’t it?

McCullough goes on to say, “Sometimes I’m going to let you down….And if you take each of those mistakes as the last word about my cooperative disposition, you might just give up and so no cooperation gets done. So, really our ability to cooperate with each other and make things happen that we can’t do on our own is undergirded by an ability to forgive each other for occasional defects and mistakes.”*

Therefore, as leaders not only do we need to learn to delegate, we need to pay attention to the way we respond to mistakes, and we need to foster a willingness among all members of the group to tolerate mistakes - the mistakes of others, their own mistakes and those of the leader. On the other hand, we also need to set high standards for performance and hold people accountable for poor performance. Yet another paradox in our leadership dance: We have to find ways to lead our partners to excellence while understanding that they may make missteps along the way. Accountability and forgiveness - two challenging, contradictory, and essential skills we all need for the leadership dance.

Take care,


*quote from Einstein's God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit, by Krista Tippett. I heard it this morning on Tippett’s NPR show ‘Speaking of Faith.’

Sunday, March 21, 2010

“If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.” Tom Hanks in A League of Our Own.*

I’ve always liked the movie . It’s a wonderful story about many things – leadership, reaching for a dream, making a difference, the list goes on – and the quote above is one of my favorites (along with "There’s no crying in baseball.”) Both quotes attest to the challenges the women faced while participating in the All-American Girl’s Professional Baseball League during World War II. I was reminded of this quote today as I thought about the various writers who when talking about the life of a writer say they much prefer having written to the actual work of writing. But the concept applies to many aspects of our lives, doesn’t it?

I think most people know leadership can be hard work. Does that mean we shouldn’t be leaders? I think some people are surprised to find out that creative work can be difficult – it’s not just talent that makes a great writer, painter, artist or creative leader. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to be creative in our life – at work and elsewhere? Of course it doesn’t. I think that we often deny ourselves opportunities because we don’t think we can do it, we don’t think we have the time or we don’t want to put forth the extra effort. The psychiatrist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has studied the concept of optimal experience, more familiarly known as flow. He has found that if the skills required by an activity are too simple for our abilities we become bored. There is much more to the idea, but for today’s essay this one part of his work is enough – it is the challenge that makes the act worth doing. It is why the answer to the question ‘why climb Mt. Everest?’ really is not ‘because it was there.’ The answer really is ‘because it was a challenge.’

So the next time someone asks you to try something that is a challenge, or the next time you find yourself saying, ‘but that will take too long,’ or ‘I don’t know how to do it', or any other version of ‘it’s going to be difficult,’ stop yourself and remember that "there is no crying in baseball" and give it a try. And when you succeed, then you can help remind the rest of us that "it’s the hard that makes it great."

Take care,


*I do know that movie titles are italicized, but I can't make the title italicize....

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Rhythms of Life and Leadership

Some weeks are more difficult than others. That’s just a fact of life. It’s a fact of our leadership life as well. Sometimes problems and issues seem to pile up without an end in sight. Luckily, there are also weeks during which it feels as if everything is going our way and will keep doing so through the future.

The true fact of life, however, is captured in this story of a king asking his chief philosopher to find him a sentence that is true in every circumstance. After much research and thought, the philosopher brought the king this one sentence – “This, too, shall pass.”

Those endless weeks of problems will eventually pass. So too will the good times. The important question for leaders and for all of us in our lives thus becomes, “what will you do in the mean time?” In other words, ‘how do you handle right now?”

This week has been an example of topsy-turvey reality. The beginning of the week was a great trip to an interesting city to attend a professional conference that was fun both personally and professionally. Then I came home to the hard reality that it was time for our 13-year-old Golden Retriever, Millie, to leave us.

In my leadership life there are still tasks to be done and commitments to be kept. And yet, in my daily life, I also need to take time to grieve and to miss Millie. It’s a time to practice leadership tasks that often get overlooked – asking for help and taking care of oneself. Some things can wait and friends and colleagues can handle others if only I’m willing to ask. The time for grieving will pass and later, I’ll be in a position to understand and to help someone else.

Leadership and life both require an understanding of the rhythms of work and fun, of the cycles of good times and difficult ones, and the reality that each day will bring something new. Learning to be in sync with these realities, these rhythms is both the dance of leadership and the dance of life.

Take care,


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Leaders’ Two To-Do Lists

I believe, and I talk about it when I present or write about leadership, that all of us have the potential to be leaders. I also believe that healthy organizations need leaders at every level and in every job. But it is also true that some positions have ‘leader’ attached to them – positions like ‘president’, ‘vice-president’, and ‘director’ just to name a few. Positions with these titles and more like them require leadership.

Every job has ‘tasks’, those things on the ‘to do’ list. Some jobs have very clearly defined tasks, some tasks are not as clear-cut, but all jobs have tasks specific to the job. However, when you take on a position that has ‘leader’ attached to the title, it is important to understand the different expectations that then come along with the position. It’s similar to the situation that can occur when someone who is a great technician is promoted to supervisor and finds out that a supervisory job requires different skills. There are tasks to be done and there is supervision.

In a leadership position it is important to be excellent at the tasks of the job, but that is not enough. And while it’s a much different list than a task list, there is a list of sorts for leaders. Here are just a few items from that list:

Understand the strategic mission of the larger organization, know how your department fits into that mission and help the members of your department understand.

Engage in work that is beyond the scope of your specific department – it helps you learn more about your organization and it is a way to develop relationships with others that will support your work and that of the larger organization.

Support the work of staff to help them engage in the larger work of the organization and to have the opportunity to develop leadership skills.

Those are just a few of the tasks on the list of those who take on positions that have leader attached to them. There are many more and it’s important to understand that so you have some idea of what you are taking on when you say yes to the opportunity. It’s also important to know that this list applies whether the leadership position is your job or a volunteer position.

Two to-do lists for leaders. What’s on your to-do lists? Are you paying as much attention to the leader’s list as you are to the task list? Shouldn’t you be?

Take care,


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Feeling Our Way to Thoughtful Decisions

Think-Decide-Feel. Or is Feel-Decide-Think better? Maybe Decide-Think-Feel is the best?

Actually, anyone of the six combinations formed by reordering these three words will work just fine. Think-Decide-Feel is the name of a workshop I attended many years ago which focused on the way people process information. My pattern is Think-Feel-Decide which means I like to think about the decision, then feel – try it out for size so to speak, and then only after having done that do I want to decide. The advantage is that my decisions are pretty solid; the disadvantage to this style is that decisions can take a while and then it can be hard to change my mind. My friend Glenn made decisions differently. He liked to pick a solution, then collect the data and if he needed to he’d pick another option and test it out. Don’t make the mistake of thinking Glenn was wishy-washy – far from it. His decision making style was just different from mine.

One day Glenn and I met together to try to sort out a difficult university disciplinary situation. The conversation was going nowhere and we were both frustrated. Finally, Glenn looked at me and said, ‘I know why this isn’t working. I haven’t made a decision yet. Okay, let’s suspend them.’ Luckily for both of us, I understood what he meant and knew that he wasn’t trying to derail our discussion. We talked about all of the issues surrounding a decision of suspension, agreed that wasn’t the best answer, and moved on to something else that we both agreed was a better solution. Our supervisor, who had a different style from both Glenn and I, let us work our way through it. She didn’t try to short cut the discussion we had to have and she trusted that we would work our way through our differences. Her leadership supported and valued the different perspectives we brought to our jobs to the benefit of everyone.

To lead creatively and to lead for creativity, we need to understand and value the many ways that we differ and to create an atmosphere that not only makes room for such differences, but truly values them. Each of us brings our own perspective, talent and skill into the mix. We also bring our decision-making style and our thought processes along with us. And as challenging as that can be, it’s essential to good work and creativity.

So whether you Feel-Think-Decide or Think-Decide-Feel, it’s important to understand your own thought process and style and respect those of others no matter what your role in the organization. And as a leader, it’s important to go even further to value those differences and make room for them in the organization.

So how do you feel this? Or what do you think about it? Or can you decide?

Take care,


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Going for the Gold!

On Saturday night I watched the men’s basketball team beat an unbeaten, conference leading team in a hard fought Homecoming game. I don’t know about the players but those of us in the stands were exhausted – it’s hard work screaming and yelling! Of course the players were tired, but they played full out until the very end. As I watched them I thought about a different game a few years ago. At that time, many players were injured and there was little or no time for the players to catch their breath. They played hard that night as well, but they lost anyway during a very tough season. Watching them that night, I realized again one of the hard realities of life – it doesn’t matter how hard you work, how well you prepare, or how determined you are, sometimes you don’t win the game.

We see it over and over in the Olympics. The American ice dance team skated the performance of a lifetime. They would probably have won the gold medal any night but Monday because the Canadian team skated to perfection. I’ve been following Canadian ski-cross racer Chris Del Bosco because I know his sister, a former student from SMU. Sunday, he wasn’t satisfied with bronze and took a risk, didn’t make the jump well and with a hard crash ended up in fourth place – no medal for Chris.

It’s true for all of us, not just athletes. Sometimes our proposal doesn’t get funded, no matter how well prepared. Sometimes we don’t get the promotion, no matter how well our interview went. The reality is that no matter how hard we prepare, how stellar our performance, we can’t control the outcome. We may have done all the best practice in the world, be having a great season, and then compete against a team that has its best night ever, or skate against a pair that turns in their top performance. We submit a great proposal for new funding on the day budget cuts are announced or we have the best interview we’ve ever had and the other candidate has a great interview too – and ten more years of experience. The outcome is not in our control.

Like I told that group of students struggling through a difficult basketball season, there’s only one thing we can control in this equation – ourselves. I can choose to turn in my best work every time or to cut corners. Sometimes I’ll be the only one who knows the difference, but I will know. I can choose to try to reach for the top or I can settle for something less, it’s completely up to me. But there is only one way to have a shot at the gold medal or the conference championship or the promotion and that’s to do your best work, every day, every week, all year long.

The result may not be up to you, but you can choose whether or not you bring a championship attitude to every thing you do. So, are you going to go for the gold?

Take care,


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day

It seems like Valentine’s Day is a good day to write about Kouzes and Posner’s concept of Encouraging the Heart. In their books The Leadership Challenge and Encouraging the Heart, these two authors and researchers on the topic of leadership write about the importance of recognition as a leadership skill. This is not a touchy-feely sort of recognition – the first essential component is ‘Set Clear Standards’ – rather it is an acknowledgement of that fact that leadership is first and foremost a people skill.

When I talk about leadership I often say that leadership starts with a simple mathematical reality; if I walk out the door and no one follows me, I’m not much of a leader. There has to be at least two of us for leadership to exist. This makes the follower a critical component of leadership. Once you have two people involved then leadership is no longer about technical skills, but it's all about interpersonal relationships and people skills. At the end I’ve included a citation for the website I found that is a pdf of Kouzes and Posner’s chapter on “150 Ways to Encourage the Heart." Here are some of my favorite examples from their list:

"...20. Practice smiling. This is not a joke. Smiling and laughing release naturally occurring chemicals in our bodies that fight off depression and uplift our moods. Try it. ...

22. The next time you talk to one of your constituents about a difficulty she's having with a project, make sure that sometime during the conversation you say, "I know you can do it," or words to that effect. And you better mean it. ...

28. Walk around your facility and examine the images that are on the walls. Are they images that communicate positive messages or negative ones? Analyze your company's annual report, your own and your executive's speeches, the company newsletter, and other forms of corporate communication. Are the messages positive or negative? Do whatever you can to change the images to positive ones.... When images are positive, cultures and organizations are in ascendance. ...

36. Leave your desk for fifteen minutes every day, solely for the purpose of learning more about each of your key constituents. Who are they? What are their needs and aspirations? What do they need to find greater joy in their work? How do they like to be rewarded? ...

37. When you're out there caring by wandering around (CBWA), take along a pocket notebook to record the things people are doing right and the right things people are doing. Make sure to record not only the names but also the details about setting, people involved, how the act is special, and how it fits with the standards you're trying to reinforce. Use this later when telling your recognition stories. ...

40. Don't wait for a ceremony as a reason to recognize someone. If you notice something that deserves immediate recognition, go up and say something like, "I was just noticing how you handled that customer complaint. The way you listened actively and responded was a real model of what we're looking for. What you've done is an example to everyone. Thank you." If you happen to be carrying around a few extra coupons for a free drink at the local coffee or juice shop, here's an opportunity to give one out. ...

43. Wander around your workplace for the express purpose of finding someone in the act of doing something that exemplifies your organization's standards. Give that person recognition on the spot...."

As I picked these few out, I realize I’m not practicing what I’m preaching. My calendar has gotten very full lately and I’m sitting in my office or a conference room for meeting after meeting. It’s hard to do even a few of these let alone all 150. So pick one or two and make an effort to live them for a while. Then add another and when it is ingrained, add one more. The reality is that when you act this way, you will enjoy your leadership life more and so will the people in your organization.

Paying attention to the heart every day – it’s not just for Valentine’s Day anymore.

Happy Valentine’s Day,


Kouzes and Posner website:

Barbara Glanz’s books are also great sources for ideas. I’ve used ideas from CARE Packages for the Workplace – here’s her website

What are your favorite ways to encourage the heart or do you have a great story about the way someone recognized you?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

To react or not to react…

This week I had a conversation with two colleagues on the question of leaders as actors or rather as reactors. The question was ‘how, as a leader, do you know when to step in and when to stay out?’ It’s an important question and one to which, of course, there is no simple answer or prescription.

A huge part of effective leadership is self-awareness and I think that self-awareness is critical to being able to answer this question. If you are attending an event being run by staff in your department and you have not been part of the planning, but you see that some details are clearly awry, what is your first response? To step in? If so, at what level? Do you want to tell people how to fix it, do you fix it yourself, or do you ask for the person in charge? Maybe you hang back and wait to see how it is handled? Any of these responses or many others could be appropriate depending on the circumstances. I’m not suggesting that you need to evaluate and pick the ‘right’ one, but rather that you ask yourself about your inclination – to act or to hold back. It’s important to understand for ourselves what our natural tendencies are. Then we can pay attention to the situation at hand and do a bit of analysis asking whether our natural reaction tends to be more or less helpful to the situation.

Unfortunately, there is really only one way to develop the skill of matching my reaction to the situation and that’s trial and error with analysis. The next time you find yourself in a situation where you have a responsibility and a choice about reacting, pay attention to your first response and then do some analysis. Unless we’re talking about a true emergency, say a fire, there is usually time for a deep breath and a moment of thought. How big a deal is the problem – really? Is it really critical or just your pet peeve? Then comes the important question – which response will be most effective in helping staff members learn and develop in their jobs and as leaders? So often the answer to that question is ‘no reaction’ or the ‘least possible reaction.’ Additionally, the opportunities for learning must be balanced against the harm to the program or people being served. And, of course, sometimes we pick the right response and sometimes we don’t, so analysis after the fact is important as well.

To react or not to react: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of imperfect programs and services
Or to jump in and solve the sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them – or cause many more? …
To try; to err; perchance to succeed, ay, there’s the rub;
For in that attempt we learn and grow
or rob others of their chance, and so,
Must give us pause, to analyze, to think, and to try again.

With apologies to William Shakespeare and Hamlet,


Sunday, January 31, 2010

The definition of a saint.

Today, I've struggled with getting to the desk to write. It’s a cold, gloomy day and I’d rather pull a novel down from the shelf, curl up under a blanket, and read the day away. But, I tell myself, you’ve made a commitment. You started this blog knowing that you’d need to write regularly. And so the internal discussion begins, the kind that makes you feel like there are multiple people in your head.
- You’ve made a commitment. (Connie Conscience)
- Commitment to whom? I didn’t promise anyone I’d write every Sunday. (Lazy Lucy)
- There’s an implied commitment with the people who read this. (Lawyer Lorna)
- They’ll never notice. No one reads it anyway. (Whiney Winifred)
- Not true, but even if it were, you made a commitment! (Reasonable Rhonda)
And so I sat down to write thinking about this idea of an implied commitment.

Recently, I saw part of a show on PBS of a Harvard professor lecturing to a full classroom on ethics and justice. Part of the discussion included students defending the position that a car company did not need to fix the defect in one of its models until it reached a certain threshold even though people were dying because of the defect. What is a company’s implied commitment to its consumers and when does the obligation to honor it kick in? Is it when the publicity is too bad? Or is there some ratio regarding death and profit? What about responsibility to the shareholders? Or should management respond as soon as they know of the problem?

I suspect most of us believe the latter – if you know of a problem you have a responsibility to do something. Does that responsibility change depending on whether or not there is danger to life and limb? Many of us, many of our organizations don’t do work that rises to that level, so does the answer change? If there is no danger and I feel lazy I can ignore my commitments – great, I don’t have to do my blog today!

But then I remembered a definition of integrity – doing what is right when no one is watching. Seems to me a corollary is doing what you say you will do even when no one will know the difference. It takes each one of us honoring our commitments, both explicit and implied, to make sure our organizations honor their commitments.

Author and motivational speaker Barbara Glanz says the definition of a saint is someone who always does what she says she will do. Think about that for a moment and you’ll realize what a very high standard that really is. How are you doing with your commitments?
I’m no saint. But today I have honored my commitment and here is my blog. Have a great day,


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Rules and Creative Leadership

I don’t believe that ‘rules are made to be broken.’ However I do agree with Emerson that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” (Notice the important word foolish; it often is left out.) Organizations, large and small, need rules to operate effectively. However, we all know of situations in which someone’s insistence on following a rule rigidly stops us from doing something that needs to be done and that benefits the organization, the staff, and the purpose of the organization. Also situations change and almost always faster than rules do. So what’s a leader to do to help staff members follow the rules and yet not practice that ‘foolish’ consistency?

It seems to me there are two elements necessary for anyone to find that balance – clarity and creativity. It’s important to understand the underlying principle for the existence of the rules in the first place. That clarity will help us make better decisions as we try to apply the rule. For example, some outside organizations want to use university facilities for events. However, state universities have a number of rules for different circumstances that all have the same underlying principle - state property can’t be used for personal gain. When you understand the principle, all of the arcane rules about external groups using campus facilities make a little more sense and can be applied more reasonably. It’s also important to be clear about the purpose of the situation to which we are applying the rule. We might have one idea about the purpose and the person we’re working with might have another idea which can lead to confusion as we try to apply the rules.

Once we have clarity of principle for the rules and purpose for the situation, then creativity comes into play. The rules might prohibit us from having this event on campus as it is currently designed, but perhaps if we found a way to redesign the event, it would fit within the rules. The clarity of principle and purpose allows us ways to find solutions to these kinds of problems.

The leader’s tasks then become making sure organization members understand the underlying principles and creating an environment which supports creativity in applying the rules to varied situations. The environment also needs to be comfortable for individuals to make suggestions about redefining rules to meet those changing circumstances.

Working creatively within the rules really is possible for all of us when we are clear about the principles behind the rules and the purposes for the activities we want to do. Helping organizational members find this clarity and be creative is a critical leadership task. So, where have you creatively (and legitimately) found a way to do something when the rules were working against you?

All the best,


Sunday, January 17, 2010

"One hundred percent of the shots you don't take, don't go in." Wayne Gretzky

As I write this, I’m listening to a CD by Susan Boyle. In case you don’t remember, she is the woman who became a YouTube sensation after she blew everyone away on Britain’s Got Talent. It’s a fitting CD to listen to now since I had the idea today to write on the subject of risk-taking.

What is risky varies for each of us – I can speak in front of a large audience with no qualms. I can perform a ballroom dance in front of friends or strangers without hesitation. Sing a solo anywhere outside of the car, no way! As I listen to this soaring voice through the speakers, I think of Ms. Boyle standing in front of an audience prepared to laugh at her because of her looks. I don’t know if she saw it as a risk or not when she stepped out on that stage, and some might say she had little to lose, but at the very least she was risking her dream. When you think about it that is not a little risk at all!

Where are you in your ability to take risks, large or small? Both creativity and leadership are risky ventures. Both require us to imagine a different reality for ourselves, our department, or our organization and then to step out onto one kind of stage or another and try to make change happen. Once we try to make a change, we have risked failure. We have also risked success which sometimes is even scarier! To be a creative leader – one who can envision another way and help move the change forward – we have to take risks.

To undertake this leadership task, it helps to have a clear understanding of our willingness to risk, our tolerance for the messiness and conflict of any change effort, and our ability to help others. We also need to have an appreciation for those factors as experienced by others who will be impacted. Perhaps most important, we need to have an ability to stick it out through the entire process until we truly know whether or not we have succeeded. Change takes time and we need to be committed to a longer time frame than we might be used to. Just think about your New Year’s resolutions if you aren’t sure what I mean! (FYI, I Googled “change efforts” and the first listing was entitled “Leading Change: Why transformation efforts fail”.

Susan Boyle risked her dream and now has a number one CD to her credit and it has sold over three million copies. What dream or idea do you have? What change can you envision for yourself or your organization? What’s stopping you from giving it a try? Is your assessment of the risk accurate? Find a trusted friend or colleague and talk with them about it. For most of us the risk is not as big as we might imagine. I had the idea to do a blog for quite a while, but I wouldn’t start. I told myself it would take too much time, but it was really more about the risk of looking foolish. What if no one reads it? Well, I finally figured out no one could read it if I didn’t write it and so I started. Some people are reading, a few are kind enough to tell me they enjoy it and get something useful. And now I have a few followers who are people I don’t even know! (Welcome to each of you!) And all I had to do was step out onto this stage and see what happened. Turns out to be quite fun and not scary at all.

So - what risks are you avoiding? Maybe there’s a small one you can try and see what good things might happen. And then why not use the comment section to share your story, so we can all share your good news.

Good luck,