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.