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,