Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Being demoralized and offended...never propelled anyone further along the path of creativity."

This quote by Jean Flaherty in a blog from The Chronicle of Higher Education, caught my eye earlier this week. The rhetoric about education here in Texas when added to the economic realities most campuses are facing could easily lead people to feel demoralized, offended or both. This quote reminded me that my response to difficult times or comments is my choice. I can let myself be demoralized or I can choose to be creative in my reactions. I can hide my head in the sand and wish things were like they used to be or I can find ways to support the good work being done all around. Whether we realize it or not, we always have a choice in our response, at least in our attitude, even, or maybe especially in difficult times.

Our leadership task is to remember this fact and to help others find their way through the difficult times to creativity. Not one of the easier leadership tasks, but one of great importance. Good luck!

Best wishes,


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Space for Quiet

Each of us wants and needs to have space for quiet,
to get inspired.
Go outside, find space for those serene, lonely moments amidst the simple beauty of nature.
Connect with your inner self.
Be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature, and God.
Learn how to listen. You have to wait for clarity.
Just go with the flow and the answer will come.
Rest your gaze. Open your eyes,
for then one begins to see with the eyes of the heart.
Reflect on the beauty of a simple life.
Wise choice leads to feelings of liberation, even exhilaration.
Better follow your heart,
to trust it.

In the book Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art, author Quinn McDonald suggests a process for creating 'found poetry'. The above poem came from words I cut from a variety of articles printed in Yoga Journal and Oprah's magazine. I decided to share it today because I have had a couple of conversations lately regarding the need for leaders to find time for quiet and reflection. It's not easy to do, but it is one of the most important leadership tasks we have. I hope this poem will inspire you to make space in your busy life for quiet and that you are able to follow your heart to your best leadership.

Best wishes,


Monday, August 1, 2011

Leadership Courage

I found a great quote today. "With courage you will dare to take risks, have the strength to be compassionate and the wisdom to be humble. Courage is the foundation of integrity." Keshavan Nair. I have to say I love this quote because it is the opposite of the way we usually think and talk about courage.

Courage is a big, blustery thing. Courage helps us stand up to the bullies of life. Heros have courage, not ordinary people. Courage is what is needed to do really Big Things like rescue a person in distress or save the corporation from bankruptcy. Courage is about leaping tall buildings and running faster than speeding bullets. Courage is what Leaders have - definitely with a capital L.

In my opinion those ideas about leadership are linked to the idea of Leadership as something that only special people can achieve, Leadership as ordained or only belonging to a special group of people, to the ones with the special titles.

But Nair’s quote points us in another direction. Look at all the words in this quote. Dare to risk, that sounds like the big blustery idea of courage and our traditional ideas of leadership. Strength and wisdom are words we use to describe leaders, but compassion and humility? Not the traditional words. Add them all together and the concept of courage becomes a little less blustery, but a great deal richer. Courage doesn’t take us over the tall buildings, but into conversation with others in a way that teaches us empathy and compassion. Courage may help us risk being humble enough to ask a question or let another lead rather than trusting only ourselves to complete the task.

Compassion and humility, in my opinion these are critical to effective leadership and Keshavan Nair reminds us that they are not easily lived, that it takes courage.

What other non-traditional traits or behaviors do you believe are essential for leaders? Where do you need courage to be the most effective leader possible? I hope you’ll share your answers with me.

Best wishes,


*Keshavan Nair was born in Patalia, India, and as a young man began his study of Gandhi. Educated in the British and American systems, Nair had a background in Eastern philosophy and religion, engineering, and decision and risk analysis. He was a corporate executive and served on the faculties of Ohio State University and the Indian Institute of Technology in Kampur, India. Nair passed away in 2002

Monday, July 18, 2011

E-mail as a Leadership Task

When teaching about leadership, I remind participants that whether they realize it or not, their colleagues are watching them and paying attention to their behaviors. My usual examples are about whether leaders’ behaviors and actions are in sync. If you say people are important, do you actions show that people are important? There are numerous examples, but today I want to suggest that leaders need to pay attention to their e-mails. Think for a minute - what messages do you receive from the e-mails sent by the people in leadership in your organization; what messages do you send through your e-mails? I don’t mean in the text, I mean from the messages themselves, the number and the time they are sent.

Yes, it is important for a leader to inform others. In fact, one of the attributes of an effective leader is a willingness to share information rather than hoard it. Yet, if leaders don’t pay attention to the way they send e-mails, the information sharing may be more stressful than helpful. Leaders who send e-mails constantly, all weekend, at all hours of the day and night may think they are keeping staff informed, but in reality they are sending messages about expectations concerning the way to work in their organization. Often this ‘e-mail message’ is in direct contraction to stated messages about healthy work/life balance. Of course staff are quick to pick up on that message. A message of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ is never going to be believed by staff members.

As a leader in a large organization, I work the hours needed to get the job done, but I also practice creating a balanced life and I encourage that mix for the people I work with. As a result, once I get home, I glance at e-mail occasionally, but unless there is an emergency, I don’t respond until the next day. I rarely send an e-mail on the weekend or after traditional work hours unless there is a specific need.

E-mail management is a challenge for all of us in many ways. I just recently learned the term ‘e-mail bankruptcy’ though it has been around for a while. In case you don’t know it, people declare e-mail bankruptcy when they have gotten so far behind in their e-mails that they can never catch up – so they delete them all! (Does the very idea give you hives or a sense of relief? Both responses make sense to me.) What would happen if we changed our thoughts about e-mails from a management question to a leadership question? Thinking about the messages we send beyond the text by paying attention to the timing of our e-mails and the number of the e-mails is a leadership task. Take a moment to look at your Sent Mail and pay attention to details. Remember staff members pay attention to what their leaders do. How well are your words and actions matching? Are your e-mails sending the message you intend? Something to think about….

Best wishes,


Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mission and Creativity

This past week I interacted with two very different organizations, an airline and a college, but they had something in common – a strong sense of mission. The airline was Southwest Airlines, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. The Southwest mission says the airline is dedicated to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride and Company Spirit. Nowhere in that statement does it list the things needed to run an airline or even fly an airplane, but it sets a very clear tone. It also sets the mark for customer service and employee behavior. That mark leads to phenomenal stories of staff going above and beyond to help customers. That mark leaves Southwest with one of the best safety records in the industry even though safety is never mentioned in the mission statement. Neither are turnaround time, timely-departures, etc., all of which are ways in which Southwest excels.

I traveled on Southwest to work with the staff at a college in the south. I interviewed 16 people and read the survey results from about 40. In this economic environment, this small college is facing financial challenges severe enough that the division I was working with has cut 10 positions in the last year or so, resulting in several people working the equivalent of 2 or more jobs. And yet, while people ,of course, identified staffing as an area of concern, no one was complaining about it. One might expect the morale to be low, and people certainly are feeling anxiety, but pride was evident as they talked about their work and their college. I believe this was due to everyone having a clear sense of the mission. When I asked what should never be changed, no one repeated the mission word for word, but all of them talked about the same values and ideals – they have clarity and congruence in mission.

What I found interesting about these two organizations is the impact of this mission clarity on individual and organizational behavior. A well thought-out mission statement defines the boundaries for decision-making and program-development: in other words, a well-understood mission opens the possibility for creativity by the members of the organization. The amazing customer service stories from Southwest are possible because the employees understand the mission and know they not only have organizational space to be creative, they are encouraged to find the best way to make things right. In this college I visited, people know that times are tight, but they know what is important in this organization and within those boundaries they are being wonderfully creative in finding ways to create programs and solve problems that support the college’s purpose.

If you find yourself wondering why your organization isn’t more creative, perhaps it’s worth taking a step back to look at the mission. Do people understand it? Do organizational policy and decision making follow the mission? People who know they are in sync with the organizational mission will feel more comfortable trying new ideas in part because there is less risk that they will move outside the organizational tolerances. Supervisors will be more comfortable with staff initiative because they are confident people understand the necessary boundaries. What will members of your organization say if they were asked about their mission? I suspect those answers will tell you something important about organizational creativity.

Best wishes,


Sunday, June 26, 2011

the leadership dance: 'The Only One Who Really Likes Change...

the leadership dance: 'The Only One Who Really Likes Change...: " a wet baby.' Unk. Recently, I had occasion to talk about change as our organization prepares to experience a major change in many ..."

'The Only One Who Really Likes Change... a wet baby.' Unk.

Recently, I had occasion to talk about change as our organization prepares to experience a major change in many important processes. The reality is that even people who handle change well have something they don’t want anyone to mess with! It’s true in our organizations, but it’s just as true in our daily lives. And it is a rare person who goes through life able to stay flexible enough to keep trying new things as they go.

In a few days I turn 55 and the list of things I’ll never do does grow. I’ll never play a professional sport – not that such a goal was ever in my future, but it’s certainly not now. I’ll never get to ride on a supersonic jet that crosses the Atlantic Ocean and lands before it left. I don’t expect to reach the top of Mt. Everest. On the other hand, I have another list – the practice of yoga, teaching yoga, competing in national ballroom dance competitions, writing for people to read (this blog and my office’s bi-weekly newsletter to name two examples) – all things I’ve begun since I turned 40. None of these are really surprising as most flow from activities or kinds of activities I’ve done before and there wasn’t much resistance to overcome.

On the other hand, I’ve been sure for most of my life (54 years or so) that I’m not any more able to draw than, at 5”4’, I’m able to slam dunk a basketball. It didn’t matter that my husband, who can draw wonderfully has told me many times that if I would just take a class I could learn to draw. I knew better. Of course, you know the moral of the story. The picture at the top of this is something I’ve drawn. Now, I haven’t turned out to be an amazing prodigy, but who cares, I’m able to draw and I’m enjoying drawing.

There are so many ways our ideas about what we can and can’t do limit our ability to do those activities and many other things besides. One of the ways we can learn to handle change is to practice changing. One of the ways we can practice changing is to try new activities, stretch our ideas about what we can and can’t do, and in doing so, find out we can survive changes.

So what’s on your list of things you can’t do? Some may be realistic – no Olympic bobsledding for me. But some activities on the list may be there because you’re afraid of trying something new, or are unwilling to do something badly, or any other of the many reasons we’re sure that We. Can’t. Do It!

I suggest you actually write down your list of things you’ll never do and look at the list thoughtfully. You may have to admit that serving on the space shuttle may not be in your future. But you may also have to admit that there are items on the list that you just never tried. Try it – maybe you won’t be any good at it and you can say you were right. But maybe, just maybe, the worst will happen and you’ll have to admit your ideas were the only thing stopping you and you’ll actually learn a new skill!

Have fun,


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Flow - The Motivating Leader

Rereading Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi's work on flow made me wonder about the leader's role in creating flow experiences for the members of our organizations. This is much simplified but for the purposes of this quick note this definition will suffice: "Flow tends to occur when a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable." If the challenges are too great for the person's skill, the person becomes anxious. If the challenges are too low, boredom can set it. This short definition has given me a great tool for analysis. If I'm feeling bored, then what do I need to do to challenge myself. If I'm feeling anxious in my work, what do I skills do I need to work onto be more able to handle the task at hand?

In the day-to-day reality of leadership, part of our task is to match skill sets with jobs that need to be done. I stayed at one university for eleven years, in part because my supervisor was able to find new things for me to do and to learn - in other words, she gave me challenges that were in reach but required me to be fully engaged in the work to do them well. Are you challenging the people you work with appropriately? If you are not, have you set up a culture that allows people to address it individually or ask for new opportunities or training as appropriate to the situation?

It's true that we can't really motivate others, but we can certainly demotivate them? We can also challenge and support them. What kind of leadership are you exercising? Is it more likely to produce anxiety, boredom or flow? What do you need to do to find the right level of challenge and skill for yourself and others? Again questions that only you can answer!

Good luck,


Quote from Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (1997).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Questions and More Questions

'What do I do when I work for a difficult boss, an autocrat, someone who squelches my creative endeavors?' - or any other variation that says, 'sure this workshop you're presenting sounds great, but it won't work in my world.' It's the most difficult question I receive when I present a workshop like The Creative Leader, because the hard reality is that there are no easy solutions to this difficult situation.

There are solutions, but one-size does not fit all circumstances. Each case is individual to the organization, the boss and the person asking the question. Thinking about it brings me back to the portion of the Leadership Dance workshop where I remind people that taking a job or joining and organization does not mean you give up all of your rights and responsibilities. In the Leadership Dance, I remind people that on the dance floor, if a leader isn't paying attention and tries to lead the follower into a move that is too difficult or potentially harmful to anyone on the dance floor, the follower is under no obligation to follow. The same is true in an organization.

Yes, every job I've ever known of has parts that we'd rather not do and rules we have to follow that seemed specifically designed to stop our creative impulses. In every job I've ever had, there have been moments when I was asked to do something I thought was headed in the wrong direction. But I've also understood that when people 'sit' in a different part of the organizational chart than I do, they often have a different picture of what the best solution might be, they are often more aware of important issues than I am, and much as I've hated to admit it at times, they have often made better decisions than I would have. And yet, there are lines that have to be drawn. We don't give up our own responsibility for our health, safety, values and ethics when we go to work for someone. Sometimes that refusal may mean we have to leave the organization. The more we have invested in an organization or the bigger our personal obligations, the harder it is refuse to follow the lead, but that doesn't relieve us of our responsibilities for ethical action.

Thus the answer to that difficult question is that each of us has to make a personal determination about the benefits and challenges of our individual work situation. What can we change? What conversations can we have with our supervisor? What do we love about the job that outweighs the challenges? When it is so bad that it is time to look for another position, as difficult as that may be? Questions in answer to a question - frustrating I know. While a friend or mentor or colleague may be able to help us analyze the situation, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, there is only one person who can give the ultimate answer to the question - the person who asked it has the answer all along.

Best wishes,


Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Creative Leader Workshop

Last week, I mentioned being intrigued by comments from participants in the workshop entitled the Creative Leader. Before I can share the comment, I need to explain about one part of the workshop.

Over time I have learned that there are many ways to teach leadership concepts and I have used two of my favorite activities as extended metaphors to engage people in an exploration of different aspects of leadership. Leadership Dance and Leadership Yoga are two of the more popular results of this creative effort. Based on comments over the years, this way of using activities or hobbies that I enjoy strikes people as very unusual, as something they are not able to do. So The Creative Leader is one workshop designed to help people demystify this creative process.

The primary activity is simple. I ask everyone in the room to put their favorite hobby on a scrap of paper and hand it over to me. I shuffle them while they get organized into smaller groups of 5-7 people. Then each group draws one hobby from those in my hands. Once we're clear on what the hobby is, some are a bit obscure, I announce that their task is to design a leadership workshop based on that hobby and they have ten minutes to do so.

To the amazement of most participants, they are able to complete the assignment. Some hobbies work better for the topic of leadership than others. Some groups get more involved in their workshop than other groups. Some are very funny and clever whether or not they will actually work. A couple of ideas have been sheer genius! But everyone comes up with enough that with very little work they could develop a full-fledged workshop.

The comment I want to share is a variation on this theme. - 'I never would have thought we could come up with so many workable (clever, creative, useable) ideas so quickly.' It reminds me yet again, that so often it is our ideas about what we can and can't do that limit us. Much more so than money, or time, or The Rules. Our preconceived notions about how much time brainstorming takes keeps us from using small bits of time well. Our conception about our creative ability or the creative ability of others can mean we don't even try something different.

Next time you're stuck and need an idea for a workshop or a presentation or an article, pull out your favorite hobby, something you know well and apply it to the topic at hand. Maybe it will work perfectly, maybe it won't. But I can guarantee you, it will help you find a fresh way of looking at the topic. And that's an important leadership skill for all of us.

Best wishes,


Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Creative Leader

Last fall at a professional conference I led a workshop called The Creative Leader. I've repeated the same workshop with other groups since then and I've been intrigued by some of the insights and comments that have come my way in each of them.

The first insight happened when I heard myself saying to the first group that I had just realized that the title "Creative Leader" was redundant. It's not possible to be an effective leader if you don't exercise creativity of some sort. I suspect most of the people in that session either considered themselves leaders or someone else did and yet less than half of them raised their hands when I asked if they thought they were creative. Again and again, I realize how limited and limiting our ideas about creativity are. We rarely hear leadership talked about as a creative act, let alone a creative art and yet we consider vision a key leadership skill. Isn't vision the ability to imagine something different, a new product, a new process, a new something? Leaders are supposed to help us solve our problems and to do that, they have to be able to think of different ways of being, interacting, of working on the issue at hand. Yet, again, we rarely credit that as creativity.

Leadership and creativity go hand-in-hand. We shortchange ourselves and the people with whom we interact when we don't acknowledge acts of creativity. Denying our own creativity, we don't recognize it, let alone encourage it, in others. As a result we miss opportunities to make positive change, to develop healthy work places, to make our work more enjoyable, the list goes on and on.

Where have you seen creative leadership? What supports or hinders your ability to be creative in your work (paid or otherwise.)? Any chance it's just your definition that's getting in your way? I'm curious to hear your insights and comments. Next time I'll share some more of mine.

Best wishes,


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Moment of Reflection

Unfortunately, too often it’s the people’s failures that get them to reflect on their experiences. When you’re going along and everything is working well, you don’t sit down and reflect. Which is exactly the moment when you should do it.” ~ Warren Bennis quoting Barbara Corday

Here's a simple quick way to add some times of reflection into your day.

First, grab a sheet of paper and a pen and place them both next to your keyboard.

Next, pick one meeting or conversation that you had today. It could be a meeting that went well or one that was difficult. Your choice, and there is no right or wrong. Just grab the first one that came to mind when you read the first sentence of this paragraph.

As you read this sentence, take a deep breath and then let it out slowly. I’m willing to bet that, whether you intended it or not, just reading that sentence helped your breathing change. Try it one more time – deep breath in and deep breath out.

Now, pick up your pen and on your sheet of paper answer these two questions about the meeting or conversation you selected. (And yes, I really mean write it down. The act of writing helps focus our thoughts and helps us articulate those thoughts more fully. Then our ideas are captured and we remember them more accurately.)

1) What’s one thing I learned from this meeting/conversation?

2) What’s one question I still have?

Simple, isn't it? Reflection is an important leadership task that we make harder than it actually is. Try this every day for the week and at the end of the week spend just a bit longer and see what you have learned. I promise - it's worth the effort.

Best of luck,